What Makes an MMORPG Great?

Every MMORPG development team wrestles with a seemingly simple question from the outset: How can we make this game great? What sets a game apart from all the others in the field? How can our game thrive when so many have shut down or never even properly launched? As longtime fans of the genre — many of us growing up in the age of MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs — we’ve got a few tips that don’t require spending the most money or having one of the best gaming websites.

The Setting

A great setting is a foot in the door. MMO developers may choose to create their own, like “Eve Online,” “Everquest” or “Guild Wars.” They may go another route and license a familiar world or expand on their own intellectual properties, ala “Lord of the Rings Online” and “DC Universe Online” or “World of Warcraft” and “Final Fantasy XIV.”

The setting must do more than provide a place for players to gather. It must be its own character in the gameworld. Players must find a home in nullsec, Middle Earth or Lordaeron every bit as enticing as the real world. Sometimes, it may seem even more than a second home. The setting should inspire the characters, reinforce the themes of the game and provide a framework for everything to come.

Setting is no guarantee of success, however. Just look at “Star Wars: Galaxies”…

The System

If you build it, they will at least stick around for the demo. If the setting fails to inspire or the system doesn’t click with players, however, you’ve got a “Tabula Rasa” on your hands instead of the next big thing. The core mechanics of your game should be like a game of Chess or Go: a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.

That doesn’t mean game systems have to be either overly simple or unnecessarily complex, but the game should ease players into them and always have a challenge waiting for those who quickly grasp the fundamentals. Players should be able to jump in, possibly complete a very brief tutorial (look to “DC Universe Online” for an excellent example), and then begin their mastery of the mechanics learned. A new challenge every few levels never hurts.

Yet, why does “Eve Online” flourish despite many of its core systems being described even by fans as “spreadsheets in space” …

Dedicated Developers

A set of dedicated developers goes a long way. Games that last require that the job of MMO game designers is only just beginning as the game ships. Dedication to development includes regular patches, content additions and an understanding of the needs of the playerbase. It’s not enough to simply make an MMORPG and then share it. Developers should support it every step of the way.

From the outset, game designers need to map a vision of the future. Since the earliest days of “Ultima Online” and “Everquest,” a roadmap to expansion has been a key for many successful games. Those that fail to have such a firm grasp of where they are going end up “flagshipped,” to borrow a term from the ill-fated “Hellgate: London” (for which I less-than-proudly still hold a lifetime subscription).

While the developers work on the back end, there has to be more than a PR guy at the front…

Attentive Admins

The game masters and other customer service reps must be “on fleek,” as the kids are saying. Look to “The Matrix Online” for inspiration. GMs regularly took on the roles of major players in the Matrix universe to bring the setting alive for players. They did more than close tickets and ban players, they brought the game to life.

Attention to detail and the needs of the playerbase is crucial for ongoing success. Players of “FFXIV” quickly abandoned the Diadem, a new questing area, when the rewards simply didn’t pan out. Admins and beta testers brought this back to the team, and later developments transformed the space, even if it’s still a work in progress.

Attentive admins are at the core of almost every successful MMORPG. Even if they’re just scanning for bots and watching the market, they’re keeping the experience enjoyable for the most crucial element in any MMO.

The Players

A game can have all these elements and still fail. The final measurement of success is the loyalty of the playerbase, and these tools only serve to bolster it. The rollout of in-game esports, additional classes or jobs and other features sounds great on paper, but if it fails to attract and retain players, it’s a waste. Ultimately, the players determine the success of the game. They spread the word, keep their friends around and keep others logging in every day.

Game devs do well to remember that they aren’t building for shareholders, development leads or even parent companies. The games that succeed are built for the players. Those that fail have lost those players. There’s an exception to every rule but this one, since player is right in the MMO name. It could well be what makes an MMORPG great.

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