Overview:

Once the province of hardcore players plunging dozens of hours a week into their hobby, the world of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) is now courting the casuals

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When Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) first came out, they were not for otherwise busy people. A serious time commitment was required from players. As those players aged, MMORPGs changed along with them. Nowadays, these games studiously court the casual player, one who might only have a few minutes a day or a couple of days a week to spend ingame.

The MMORPG guild wasn’t just his second home—it was his second job

When World of Warcraft (WoW) launched in 2004, it was an instant hit. It’s still the granddaddy of all MMORPGs and one of the most popular (if not the most).

A few years after the WoW launch, a call center colleague of mine named John said he couldn’t work overtime one evening because he had to “raid with my WoW guild.”

Now, I knew what every one of those words meant individually. But I wasn’t sure what that combination meant in a sentence.

“Every Wednesday,” he told me, “my guild runs events. We all have to be there or we get kicked out.”

“Wait, like what if you have an emergency? Or get caught late on a call? Or one of your kids gets sick?”

He shook his head. “Have to be there,” he repeated. “It’s raid night.”

As it happened, John’s guild ran raids several times a week, and guild members had to be there or risk their membership in the guild.

This sounded excessive to me. “What does your wife think of this?”

He offered a rueful smile. That told me everything.

“Well, enjoy raid night then,” I said.

This wasn’t even the only MMORPG with huge playtime requirements

WoW wasn’t the first MMORPG by a long shot. Ultima Online (UO) came out in 1997. A couple of years later, in 1999, EverQuest (EQ) followed it.

In those early days of the MMORPG world, I was never tempted to play these games myself. They sounded way too much like basic text-only MUDs—but now with blocky graphics! And they seemed to suffer from all the problems of the earliest MUDs, problems that MUD coders in my neck of the woods (DIKU/Circle codebases) had worked hard to eliminate. One of these involved “camping,” or staying in one spot in the game for a long time to grab the gear that dropped from fights there. Not exactly adventuresome.

(“Camping” can also mean hiding in one spot to easily pick off, or “gank,” any players passing by. That’s why one of the antagonists tells the movie villain in Ready Player One that he’s about to pull “a camper move.” Everyone except campers, it seems, despises camping.)

I’d also lost my taste for games that were, in gaming lingo, “hack and slash.” That meant they were way heavier on fighting, leveling, and gear acquisition/upgrades, as well as way lighter on actual roleplay interactions with other players.

Another serious impediment, to me, was the sheer amount of time that MMORPGs seemed to require of players. I knew a bunch of people who’d gotten addicted to these games, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.

The EverQuest Widows make their stand against MMORPG addiction

Sometimes, the amount of time people spent playing their MMORPG of choice looked more than excessive to their loved ones. It began looking, well, like an addiction.

Around 2000, I learned about a group called EverQuest Widows. As you might guess from the name, it was people whose spouses and romantic partners seemed completely addicted to this MMORPG. In 2001, Wired described their complaint:

WITH THE HOLIDAYS just around the corner, many people are relishing the thought of relaxing at home, munching all manner of fatty sweets and spending extra time with their … computer games.

Instead of slurping hot cocoa with loved ones, the gamers will be off by themselves in darkened rooms, slaying monsters, conquering new worlds and otherwise stroking their heroic alter egos.

The Quest to End Game Addiction,” Wired, December 2001

As that article goes on to tell us, many people even called it “EverCrack.” And yes, I heard that name bandied about as well in my gaming community. I didn’t hear about guilds in it, though, only that its mechanics really encouraged players to spend many hours a day immersed in the game. I personally knew someone who was on the verge of divorcing her husband for his EQ addiction. And another who actually had done exactly that.

Other MMORPGs, like EVE Online, might have required far more time even than John’s guild in WoW. I’ve heard of one of their Alliances and Corporations assigning work hours to low-level members like shifts at a minimum-wage job, though I can’t 100% verify that claim. But it does look like playtime investment was still important in 2013.

How an MMORPG keeps players in the game: The grind

Really, any regular MMORPG game is going to require an outlay of time and resources. Often, this outlay takes the form of grinding.

In gaming lingo, grinding means doing a whole lot of boring, repetitive tasks that you don’t care about so that you can get something that you really do care about. Maybe that thing requires a whole boatload of materials. Or perhaps the tasks hone skills you’ll need to get or make the thing. Or maybe the tasks themselves have a chance to produce the thing randomly, but with (very very very) low probability.

Sometimes, you’ll hear this process called farming. Either term adequately conveys the boredom of the project.

Players do not like the grind.

And yet, all MMORPGs push grinding—especially the ones featuring PvP play. These games tend to rely very heavily on sets of gear that give players serious benefits in fights against other players. But the game developers (or “devs,” or “filthy sadists”) make the best gear very difficult to get. Often, that gear requires heavy grinding.

The player who spends that time and gets that gear is going to outperform all of the players who don’t. It’s that simple. In order to be competitive, players must invest time—or be willing to let a whole lot of their money do their farming for them.

Out of the mists of time: The grind procession in Ultima Online

My husband played Ultima Online while it was still in beta—and for quite some time afterward. Beta play is the last bit of testing and bug-fixing before release. And when I asked him about the grind in UO, he began to swear before the words gushed out of him like a burst dam.

In UO, gear was both all-important and completely worthless, he told me. It dropped randomly from monsters, but it could also be looted from the bodies of other players’ characters (PCs).

Once acquired and used, it degraded quickly. Thus, it had to be fixed regularly. Fixing it cost money and materials, but also required skills. If the player didn’t have the skills needed, they had to give it to someone who did—and trust that person to give it back! If the gear wasn’t fixed before it completely broke down, it vanished. Also, all gear had a maximum number of times it could be fixed at all. Once it was gone, players had to farm it all over again.

If PCs died with that gear on, it stayed on the ground inside the PC’s body. Meanwhile, the player’s “spirit” lived on. A kindly fellow player could resurrect, or “rez” the dead body, or else the spirit could go to the nearest shrine to be resurrected. But the gear would remain wherever the death had occurred. All of that gear was free for the taking by other players, who usually did exactly that.

In fact, other players often ganged up together in “gank squads” to hunt down and kill other PCs for this express purpose. Once they’d killed their target, they’d loot its gear, skin its corpse, behead it and use the head for a trophy somewhere, and then, finally, make new armor from its bones.

(“SERIOUSLY?” I asked, my eyes huge. “Yes, all the time,” he said. “Bone armor was cheap and really easy to make.”)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the MMORPG meetup

Somewhere along the years, people started having a lot less time for the grind. Or for the guild raid nights. Or the shifts they’d agreed to work. At the same time, MMORPGs all started to blur together.

As far back as 2007, Richard Garriott (“Lord British,” the creator of Ultima Online) had tried to reinvent the genre to attract more casual players. Unfortunately, Tabula Rasa failed to take off for other reasons. That may have spooked other developers out of making similar games. Plus, by then WoW was very much the 1000-pound gorilla in the room; no other MMORPG could escape its influence. If WoW required tons of time, then so did the other MMORPGs.

Scientists even studied the time required. A 2007 paper compared playtimes from three earlier studies done between 2005 and 2006. They also ran a survey of German WoW players. Over 66% of their respondents were between 18-29 years of age, while 17% were between 30-40—and almost none were over 40. Those younger players had the unimaginable luxury of free time to spend.

But that would change. Gamers, as a group, were already starting to skew older.

Many of those younger gamers had started as kids years earlier with Atari and Nintendo consoles, or else taking turns at an ancient putty-colored PC wheezing as it ran Master of Orion. Younger gamers always entered the hobby every year, of course, but those older ones weren’t necessarily leaving it. Those 18-29 players in 2007 became 28-39 in 2017, and 33-44 in 2022. They had money to spend on MMORPGs, but not necessarily tons of time to spend playing them on a regimented, regular basis.

In 2013, players themselves were noticing this shrinkage of available time.

By the mid-2010s, the industry seemed poised on the cusp of a sea change.

Turning a corner

Addressing this nearly-invisible shift in MMORPG culture, Richard Bartle offered some friendly advice to MMORPG devs.

And his opinion mattered enormously. He created the very first MUD in 1978. In 1996, he went on to write one of the most definitive papers about the players of MUDs, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.” (It expanded on an earlier 1990 essay of his along similar lines.) He’s got a PhD in artificial intelligence and teaches game design at the University of Essex. In short, his experience and education make him an extremely astute observer of MMO-like culture.

Maybe that’s why his 2013 paper about the downfall of MMORPGs caught so much attention. That paper was nothing less than an absolute evisceration of how MMORPGs did business and kept players ingame. It begins by stating that these games were starting to lose “new casual players,” while “their core audience has deserted them.” His solutions don’t sound unreasonable at all, mostly amounting to demanding games with greater creativity and immersion. At the end, he warned MMORPG devs:

If MMOs continue as they are, then a few years from now people will wonder why they were ever considered to be anything special.

The Decline of MMOs,” Richard Bartle, 2013

Part of me wonders if MMORPG devs saw that paper and took it to heart, because right around then, I began to see a surge of creativity in these games.

But I saw something else, too.

More importantly, I began to see a distinct new type of player emerging:

The casual MMORPG player.

Courting the casual MMORPG player

It seems so strange to me now to see so many resources online devoted to recommending casual MMORPGs. Way back when, MMORPGs were the very last game players would consider if they didn’t have tons of time to spend.

It looks like WoW was one of the first major games to specifically try to appeal to MMORPG casuals. Early on in this shift, in 2013, a former WoW dev, Mark Kern, wrote that he thought retooling WoW to appeal to casual gamers had “killed a genre.”

Have you noticed the creeping casualness that permeates all MMOs these days? When is the last time you died in a starter zone? What happened to 40 person raids that have dwindled to 5? Do you feel any sense of achievement in the race to end game, or is the end game the only achievement?

Have MMOs Become Too Easy?” Mark Kern, 2013

Of the retooling, Kern wrote:

And it worked. Players came in droves, millions of them. But at what cost? Sometimes I look at WoW and think “what have we done?” I think I know. I think we killed a genre.

Have MMOs Become Too Easy?” Mark Kern, 2013

He thought WoW had gone way too far in making its game accessible to people who didn’t have the time or patience to spend learning tons of complex systems and combat routines. By contrast, he thought that his own game, 2014’s Firefall, avoided WoW’s mistakes. It shut down in 2017, but already I can see lilting strains of MMORPG trends in how it operated—like utilizing dynamic difficulty scaling rather than making everything level-based.

In fits and starts, and often over the objections of the more hardcore players, MMORPGs began to be way more accessible to people without lots of time to spend. By 2015, “Best of” lists began to feature games like Lord of the Rings Online, noting their casual-friendly elements. Nowadays, it’s easy to find similar lists aimed specifically at casual play.

How to play an MMORPG on a casual basis: Avoiding PvP

If you want to play an MMORPG but don’t have a lot of time to sink into the hobby, avoid any game with forced PvP. If you don’t have time to spend farming the good gear (and don’t want to spend money to make up for that lack), you’ll be a sitting duck for everyone who does. These games count on the presence of lots of sitting ducks for their dedicated PvPers. Nobody will spare your PC’s life just because you don’t have time to play, nor respect any urgent responsibilities that pull you away from your keyboard sometimes.

One good alternative to forced PvP involves self-flagging systems. In these systems, you announce your willingness to enter PvP by setting a virtual “flag” on yourself. This flag allows you to engage in PvP with others. If you don’t have the flag set, nobody can attack you. New World and WoW use flagging systems.

Other games, like Elder Scrolls Online, put all their PvP content into special zones that players must deliberately enter. If you’re not in one of those zones, then you can’t be attacked by other players.

If an MMORPG seems to have serious limits on PvP, make sure those limits don’t apply just to new players. My first MMORPG was Black Desert Online. At first, I loved it. But slowly, I realized that it does indeed force people into PvP. It just doesn’t force open the throttle until the PC reaches level 50. Once that happens, it boots you from its non-PvP server into its big bad world of big-kid servers, and you’re in PvP-land from then on. (You don’t lose your stuff upon death, but it’s still inconvenient to die.) Once I understood what was coming my way, I left that game well before level 50.

Other considerations: Grinding and group content

In addition, grinding is an inevitable part of MMORPG gaming. But you’ll want to avoid games that lock absolutely essential content behind the grind. YMMV regarding what’s essential and what’s not. If you decide that the rewards are nice-but-not-essential, that’s one thing. Plenty of people in MMORPGs refuse to grind. But if those rewards are completely essential to your enjoyment of the game, though, find greener pastures.

Group content is, likewise, an inevitable part of MMORPG gaming. These games are designed with upper-level content intended for groups to tackle. Solo players can’t even hope to complete those challenges. Again, if the rewards feel essential, then gauge how difficult it is to pull groups together to get them.

In some games, pulling groups together is extremely easy. You just send up a signal at the point of need, and people will come to your aid. You’re not even formally grouped. Once the (usually-brief) challenge is completed, everyone drifts away to their own projects. In others, though, it’s like pulling teeth—needing many days’ notice and RSVPs.

My friend John joined a guild in WoW specifically to gain access to its group content. He couldn’t find groups to tackle those challenges otherwise. He loved and enjoyed facing those challenges. But they were so incredibly tough that they required huge numbers of players to defeat them. And that meant that a lot of coordination and planning needed to go into arranging playdates. Other MMORPGs might require only 2-4 players at most.

And, too, sometimes the rewards for completing group content won’t feel essential at all. I’ve got lots of friends who play MMORPGs purely on a solo basis. They love the mechanics, graphics, and stories, but they aren’t interested in joining groups on anything but an ad hoc basis—if that.

In the end, games are about enjoyment

We’ve all got finite lifetimes to spend. This is it. This is the one life that we will ever get. There are no take-backsies or do-overs, no cosmic mulligans to amend any mistakes we might make in allocating those all-too-brief hours. I don’t think many people lay on their deathbeds regretting that they hadn’t played [insert MMORPG name] more often.

But maybe some lay there and wish they’d played more often at something. And still others may lay there and wish they hadn’t plunged quite so many hours into their game of choice.

Whatever games you play, if you play them at all, enjoy them. Keep them in perspective. If a game starts to feel like a job that you must work, maybe it’s time to reassess playing. If playing games is starting to negatively impact the rest of your life, maybe take a cue from that old Wired article and look into lowering or abandoning that activity for something else that won’t consume you quite so much.

May you enjoy the games you play, and play only games you enjoy.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...