How Manipulative Design is Ruining Modern MMORPGs

By | May 8, 2016

To many, including myself, playing MMORPGs has began to feel like a chore. Despite this feeling, many of us still end up playing them every day. What is it exactly that keeps us voluntarily committing our time to gameplay we’ve grown to dislike? Aren’t games supposed to be played for fun? As someone who has experienced MMORPG addiction, I’ve became familiar with many of the tactics used by publishers to discourage players from quitting, and generate revenue based on manipulative game design.


Modern MMORPGs tend to follow the following design concepts in order to retain players, and generate revenue:

  • Utilize grind or time gating(ie weekly raid lockouts) to prolong the time it takes for players to experience all content.
  • Provide ways to pay to reduce the amount of boring grind needed to actually enjoy the game(“pay for convenience”)
  • Utilize daily quests and commitment based rewards(login events) to guilt players into logging in, thus retaining players
  • Utilize RNG Boxes to trick players into spending more than they intended, via the Sunken Cost Fallacy and preying on gambling addiction

Stretching 100 Hours of Gameplay Into 1000

An MMORPG cannot provide 100% unique content faster than players can consume it. If a player runs out of things to do, they will unsubscribe, and play a different game. To deal with this problem, MMORPGs utilize grind- repetitive, time sink content that generally lacks entertainment value. Some examples of grind are:

  • Levels taking a long time to gain, without sufficient content to keep it entertaining
  • Leveling consisting of the exact same kill/fetch quests, rather than unique gameplay & player interaction
  • Dungeons/Raids having low drop rates of gear, which must be repeated dozens of times to get what you need.
  • RNG-based gear enchantment that requires repeating the same gold-grinding activities for countless hours or paying to acquire good gear.
  • Gear requirements for dungeons/raids, or gear-based PVP that enforces grind to experience the game to its fullest
  • Weekly raid lockouts combined with low drop rates, to stop players from progressing too quickly.

By utilizing a variety of these concepts, developers can take as little as 50 hours of actual unique gameplay, and create content that players repeat for over 1000 hours. Players see endgame as the light at the end of the tunnel, and are willing to spend countless hours grinding or pay large sums of money simply because it enables them to enjoy content later on.

Player Retainment

The MMORPG  market is more competitive than ever, with a myriad of “Free to Play” games making it very easy for players to switch to a new game. With f2p, No initial investment has to be made by a player to join a new game. The only investment that must be made is signing up and downloading the game. In many cases, free to play games have developed streaming clients(game clients that patch themselves while playing), in order to reduce the barrier of entry.

This means publishers must utilize manipulative game design to retain players. This is where gameplay elements such as daily quests, time-gated progression, and login rewards come into play.

Coping with loss is a very difficult for most people. Missed opportunities are a form of loss. By making the first hour of gameplay the most valuable in terms of rewards, daily quests, login rewards, and other time-gated content encourages players to log in daily to get the best value. It establishes clear goals for players; if a player is to miss a daily reward, they lost a valuable opportunity.

Here are some examples of tactics used to retain players:

  • In Black Desert, players generally login daily to use their energy that regenerates over time, as having capped energy is wasteful.
  • In Tera, you get a buff based on how many consecutive days you log in; therefore, you’re effectively punished for missing a day.
  • In World of Warcraft, players login daily to complete dailies, work on their garrison, etc
  • In Blade & Soul, there is the ‘daily dash’ login rewards, as well as daily quests.
  • In Elder Scrolls Online, rested exp means that you gain champion exp most efficiently if you play ~1 hour a day.

By keeping players logging in daily and completing tasks, it accomplishes the following:

  • They have less time to try out competing games
  • They will keep the game installed, instead of uninstalling and forgetting about it
  • They will be around when new cash shop items come out

To summarize, daily login rewards, daily quests, and other time-gated progression makes it difficult for players to quit, as they feel obligated to finish their daily tasks, so that they don’t miss opportunities. This harms the experience by making MMORPGs feel like a second job. Players log in to perform the same rituals they do every day, just to avoid missing a valuable opportunity, not because they enjoy it.

RNG Boxes

RNG boxes prey on a common belief known as the “sunken cost fallacy”. A sunken cost is an expense that cannot be recovered. The sunken cost fallacy is essentially the emotional desire to justify an unrecoverable expense. The more time or money someone invests into something, the more they will emotionally grow attached to that investment, and therefore want to justify it.

With RNG Boxes, players are very likely to continue to purchase them until they receive the item they want. These boxes are generally sold in the cash shop, and have a small chance of providing a rare item that is highly desired by players. Most of the time, players simply receive a “consolation prize” that isn’t what they desire. The server often sends out messages to all players whenever a player loots a rare item from these boxes, as a form of advertisement disguised as a congratulatory message.

For example, let’s say there’s a rng box that costs $4 has a 2% chance of rewarding a rare mount that is only available through the box(drop rates are generally not disclosed). A player might spend $20, hoping to get the mount. After failing, and only receiving useless junk, they feel a need to justify the $20 they spent. They spend $40 more, and still don’t get it. At $60 in, they may feel that they invested too much to back out. They may end up spending $200 just to receive the virtual mount they wanted, simply because they felt the need to justify their initial purchase. Few players would be willing to up front spend $200 on a virtual mount; however, by guilting them into justifying their investment, rng boxes can manipulate some players to spend more than intended.



MMORPGS can and will provide exciting, spectacular social experiences. Clearing a raid for the first time, winning a huge PVP battle, capturing a territory with your guild, and other dynamic experiences are all incredible experiences that make the genre great. Experiencing content for the first time is always the most exciting time. That’s why many of us grow to love new MMORPGs, only to burn out 1 month later.  Once MMORPGs begin to rely upon repeating the same content(or incredibly similar content) over and over again, that’s when they lose their magic.

In the age of subscription based MMOs, grind and dailies existed to maintain subscriptions. With F2p MMOs, grind generally exists a method of encouraging microtransaction sales via “pay for convenience” to avoid it all, which is generally accepted as long as it isn’t pay2win. MMORPGs would be more fun without forced grind; unfortunately, it’s a necessary tool for ensuring their profitability and longevity.

Ultimately, we choose to waste our time grinding, repeating boring dailies, and putting up with microtransactions just for the occasional phenomenal experience we encounter between the grind.