Professor Richard A. Bartle is one of the pioneers of gaming and an academic intellectual who has dedicated his career to the analysis of games and, more specifically, MMOs.

His paper The Decline of MMOs, published in 2013 by University of Essex, is wonderfully clear and revealing. While reading I felt more and more inclined to summarise it, because I think that intelligent, unbiased, and monetarily disinterested criticism of games is exactly what the industry so hopelessly lacks.

Please note that none of the content of this essay is produced by me. All credit goes to prof. Richard A. Bartle and his collaborators at the University of Essex.

MMOs, according to Bartle, once considered the future of gaming, have grown repetitive and stale. They can’t remain monetarily profitable for much longer.

In time, these games have been transformed in order to bolster their mass appeal, rather than focusing on a smaller crowd of enthusiasts, eventually turning away hard-core players. The casual audiences have either moved to other projects or focused on particular mechanics that don’t have long-term appeal and can be duplicated in separate games (PvP arenas, for instance). This has created a multitude of players hopping from game to game, without lasting commitment.

Nowadays most gamers see MMOs as exploitative (e.g. pay to win) and unsophisticated but the genre can still recover by investigating what makes it interesting.

Bartle proceeds explaining the causes of the current situation.

MMOs cost too much. Marketing techniques and graphical fidelity result in enormous amounts of money spent on the surface not leaving much for the deeper gameplay, thus players are initially attracted but can’t find a reason to stay. Furthermore, the large investment sets gamers’ expectations too high, at least in terms of superficial allure, forcing subsequent producers to invest in the same tragic manner. Also, developers are forced to ask for large sums of money and need grandiose game designs to justify such requests, because investments usually come in large, predetermined chunks.

There are simply too many clones. Closely related to the previous problem, repetitive game designs seem to plague the genre. After all, if a company spends millions in developing an engine and a set of assets, reusing them just makes sense. In fact, the same tools are often used (e.g. quest making). Besides, the large investments make for such high stakes that gaming companies just prefer going for a proven model. Players eventually realize that, while aesthetically different, these games are just like the ones they’ve previously left.

Different revenue models and game mechanics appeal to different types of players. Players more inclined to achieving great goals are turned away by in-game services and cash shops, often featuring pay-to-win items, boosters, etc. which obviously diminish the value of in-game objectives and the corresponding rewards. On the other hand, players looking for social activities and community-driven content are left down by the obsessive focus on end-game content (which Bartle calls elder game”). This creates player type imbalance.

Players have unreasonable expectations. Many people are reluctant to play if they see things they dislike or don’t see the ones they expect, but the fact that most MMOs are clones means that players have been playing games with similar mechanics, thus training them to expect said mechanics in all titles of the genre. In addition, players prefer features with short-term advantages, even when they have long-term disadvantages, feeling frustration when the latter arrive. Also, expecting casual gameplay entails expecting for a game to be a limited-period activity, just to be abandoned soon after.

Lack of immersion. “Immersion is the sense that you, the player, are in the virtual world, that your character is you“. This is one of the most powerful tools of MMOs but seems to be currently lacking, while ironically present in the unrealistic textual worlds of the 1990s. Animating effects is expensive, while implementing game mechanics can be punishing or plainly boring, thus jumping in the river just to find that your backpack items are wet and unusable cannot be easily implemented in a game. In addition, almost all objects behave unrealistically so players can’t “break” the gaming world, hence doors can’t be shut, objects disappear when dropped on the ground, etc. Not to mention the in-game shops asking players for real money. All of this just breaks immersion.

Lack of understanding of design. MMO designers don’t have a good grasp of the core logic of MMO design and its history, while also not getting the deserved recognition. Game design is an art form, and designers should be seen as authors, rather than content creators, thus allowed to express themselves and their creativity. In addition, when they are praised it’s usually because of the game’s success, which might not be due to good design but to good marketing, while good designers don’t get any recognition of a games doesn’t do well. Game design isn’t sufficiently studied, because games are regarded as unimportant low culture. Because game design isn’t properly studied the same mistakes are made over and over again. MMOs “routinely try out new ideas that are actually old ideas know not to work”.

Bartle states that these problems are not the only ones but are the most important and tend to feed off each other, then proceeds to propose some fixes, aimed at restoring MMOs to their position “at the forefront of game design and experience”.

Development needs drastic changes. A more modular approach to MMO system-architecture would allow for game elements to be easily swapped, in turn reducing the cloning phenomenon by reducing the costs, and therefore risks, of experimentation. If existing assets can be swapped in and out, this would allow for a great overall technical improvement, while still decreasing the investment, in turn enabling a higher level of immersion.

Size doesn’t matter. Todays MMOs might be big, but players spend time in small instances and areas, without really being in contact with the totality of the player base. Smaller worlds and servers wouldn’t reduce the players’ interactions (most people don’t really know more than a handful of players), but would drastically improve player impact (you’re somebody within a community). Furthermore, servers can be set up with different “rules”, such as PvP, PvE, Permadeath, Immortality, etc. Last but not least, improvements in artificial intelligence can make NPCs more interesting and the world busier.

Remove the Elder Game. Gaming companies think that if a player finishes a game they won’t play anymore. On the contrary, letting them “win” would relieve the pressure and they will keep playing, much like what has happened in MUDs. Star Wars: The Old Republic should’ve kept adding storylines, rather than switching to an end-game focused model. Eve Online, on the other hand, has a shifting web of alliances from which new content continuously emerges, but it doesn’t have a permanent end-game Realm vs Realm focus. The fact that one faction can win and permanently alter the world provides meaning. Removing the elder game would result in better retention and would, consequently, increase the value of the company’s products. Not to mention the gains in terms of immersion.

Educate players. Teaching the players what MMOs can offer and then providing such features would result in more successful games and happier gamers. In addition, designers should be celebrated and their names widely known, much like today’s actors, or movie directors. They should also have the freedom to take risks and create freely.

Bartle concludes by explaining that there are large audiences expecting good MMOs and that, while some studios do recognize the problem, most are not acting upon it. In a few years, people wouldn’t remember what made MMOs special, and the first company which reminds them would seize great success.

Those who read my posts might intercept quite a few disagreements I have with prof. Bartle. Nonetheless, I find his examinations of MMOs and their current state to be fascinating and valuable.