Old school runescape login screen.

Runescape login screen

My first encounter with a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG or MMOs for short) was in 2004 with the game called Runescape. I can recall very vividly the adventures that I had, the quests that I could not complete without assistance from my friends, the feelings of accomplishment and joy when I was finally able to wear a Rune platebody and the sense of fear whenever I saw a white dot on the minimap while exploring the wilderness.

I was a free-to-play (f2p) player back then because I could not convince my parents to buy me a monthly subscription of membership. Despite not being a member, I never felt like I was at a disadvantage when compared to my friends who were members. For starters, I was having a heck of a time exploring the f2p world, all the while chatting with strangers as we grinded out some levels for our skills. Moreover, you could not use members-only items in the f2p world so from a f2p perspectve, they were effectively cosmetics.

Old MMOs vs new MMOs

Nowadays, the boundary that separates a f2p player with pay-to-play (p2p) player is, for better or for worse, blurred. Modern MMOs are very different from what we had in the past where we were required to actively interact with the community to get things done. This camaraderie and sense of community has been replaced by convenience / quality of life (QoL) features like group finder, fast travel etc.

Maplestory free market.

Trying to sell an item in Maplestory’s free market

This design choice is understandable because unlike the past, there are many more products and platforms e.g. instagram, youtube that are competing for our attention. Game companies are simply adapting to the current status quo. Some of these QoL features are so convenient that once you get used to them, you cannot game without it. Take fast travel for example. Fast travel is loosely defined as the ability to quickly travel between towns and cities. In the past, you might take upwards of 10 minutes to make your way from A to B and if you only had an hour to play, you can see why some players can’t live without fast travel.

The gamer developer’s dilemma

The biggest problem with catering your MMO to gamers with lesser time is that you’re shifting the focus from the journey to the destination — the endgame, which is supposedly where the fun starts, so to speak. The game becomes a race to see who can get to the endgame content as quickly as possible instead of taking the time to appreciate the process. Yet game developers are still tasked to make coherent progression for players to progress through even though it serves nothing more than a means to an end.

As it takes a long time to create MMO content, developers are forced to rush out content without putting much thought into how this new expansion fits into the grand scheme of things. World of Warcraft (WoW) expansions are a good case in point as each new patch makes previous patches irrelevant. This vicious cycle of low quality content -> fewer subscribers -> lesser revenue -> fewer game devs -> even lower quality content is extremely hard to break free from and is currently plaguing many MMORPGs.

If you choose not to target this group of players, you might find yourself in a situation where there are just not enough players to sustain the development and maintenance costs of running an MMORPG. Wildstar was a game that I had high hopes for but it had a plethora of issues, one of which being that their target audience was a very small group of players, the hardcore raiders (gamers who play the most difficult content an MMORPG has to offer).

Game studios are effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place; do they design their games around players that have lesser time and be potentially trap themselves in a self fulfilling prophecy that they can never escape from or do they target some other group of players and maybe run out of money? This is where monetization comes in. By monetizing certain aspects of their game, a game studio might be able to find a sweet spot that works for them (brings in enough money) and their community (majority are okay with).

Monetization in modern MMORPGs

One of the things that game developers need to consider when drafting their game design document is how they plan to monetize their game i.e. how is their game going to make money. There are many different ways to monetize a game. Some of the more popular approaches include:

  • the game (base game, expansion packs)
  • access to the game (monthly subscriptions, subscriber-only regions)
  • cosmetics (skins for armours, weapons, pets)
  • convenience features (extra storage, auto pick-up drops)
  • quicker progression (exp boosts, mounts for faster traveling)
  • in-game currency (WoW tokens, runescape bonds)
  • in-game gear / material (drops from killing monsters)
  • in-game land (guilds, towns)
  • gacha (loot boxes)

The biggest problem with monetization is that it is very hard to get monetization correct because it is a very subjective topic. What one player might consider as a good candidate to monetize might be crossing the line for another player. Furthermore, once you start selling anything, it’ll feel like everything is fair game to sell. This is where monetization might creep into game design as game developers inadvertently design game levels with monetization in mind.

Can't be demonetized if you don't monetize meme

Monetization meme

Getting monetization right is extremely important because it can make or break your game. This is even more applicable for MMORPGs like WoW as MMOs cannot exist without its community. Unfortunately for WoW, it is currently succumbing to a mass exodus of players as a result of bad monetization and even its most loyal players are leaving the game but I digress.

The north star for monetization

I believe it is very important to be able distill all monetization related decisions to a single philosophy. My favourite principle is from Bitcraft.

We should avoid selling anything in game that is understood to be earned and we should always sell things that are understood to be bought.

This might sound like circular reasoning so I highly recommend you read the linked article to understand more about this idea. A key distinction to make here is that it’s not about what we (the game developers) understand but what the community understands it to be.

The future of monetization in MMORPGs

Before I conclude, I would like to share a short teaser on one of my upcoming articles on the future of monetization in MMORPGs. With the rise of the metaverse, game developers have even more options when it comes to monetization, which is fundamentally all about making money.

Traditionally, gamers would pay to get early access to your game. This has burnt many early supporters, myself included, and the overall community sentiment towards crowdfunding games is not very positive. With well designed token incentives, you can flip that methodology on its head and instead reward players with in-game currencies in return for helping you to test your game.

Another example could be to implement a fee on marketplace / auction house transactions which are paid for by token currencies. A lot of MMORPGs already have this feature which is more commonly known as a gold sink but instead of burning the accumulated fees, you can vest these rewards over some period of time to help supplement a game studio’s revenue.

By combining the real money aspect of token economies with appropriate mechanism designs, I believe it is possible to actualise a sustainable in-game economy that is highly coupled to the real world price of these token assets which will benefit both the developers and the community from active participation in the game.

The future of gaming is very exciting and I hope that you can join me on this journey as we learn how to apply the innovations in the metaverse to improving the game industry :)