There and Back: Industrialization of MMOs

Not quite as old as the others I’ve re-published, but it’s topic makes it a good time to raise the discussion once again. This is the original version, no edits.

MMOs have a depressingly familiar flavor to them these days no matter which one you play. It’s the kind of impression that leaves some of us feeling like it’s all the same grind, similar to some things in the real world — things we were hoping to escape from. Part of this impression we’re experiencing is the industrialization of MMO content.

Robot Assembly Line Image

This is basically the process for generating content in MMOs. Except it’s still done by people.

The over-production of quests, items, and dungeons are some of the results of this industrialization. The feeling that you’re consuming the same gameplay simply regurgitated by competing companies is ever-present. Their mass production reminds players that there’s nothing special about virtual worlds. The worlds represent a symbol of something and is nothing in and of themselves.

The earliest MMOs relied almost strictly on players as content. Quests were scarce, instances non-existent and resources for game development were usually poured into creating a richer world experience. One day, this model split into two primary models: theme park MMOs and open world MMOs (e.g. sandbox). For example, theme-park MMOs made their debut in 2004, with World of Warcraft. That game was a true cross between old school content delivery and the emerging ideology of theme park design. At the time, it was an amazing improvement on the traditional formula; the game became much more accessible to those who had never played an MMO while veterans got an exceptionally polished, improved game. These days WoW is like the McDonald’s of MMOs …and no one thinks McDonald’s is particularly good, exciting or awesome. It’s just familiar, consistent comfort food that makes us feel safe about eating there (the irony of this shouldn’t be lost on anyone). McDonald’s serves industrialized food.

Theme park MMOs function exactly like theme parks elsewhere, like Disneyland. It’s a vast, mass market, fantasy rendering of an idealized world. Nothing is real, yet it feels exactly how you want it to feel and it idealizes reality in a way that alters our expectations of the real world. Talking mice, fairies, castles, and magic wands …all of these are features in the theme park alongside the side shows and thrill rides. They are there to entertain. As a collection they are designed to allow visitors to wander around all day in any manner they like: in groups, by themselves, and it even invites them to blend in and become invisible (costuming). Most importantly, theme parks aren’t designed for meeting new people or even for enjoying the attractions with them. That is incidental. Friends and family are only welcome insofar as they also pay an entry fee and the park would like their money. Interaction is not encouraged and not discouraged, but is an ever available option since you are constantly surrounded by people. Does this sound like any MMO you have ever played or heard of? It should.

Maps Image

Their similarity is both expected and surprising. It’s one way that we can understand that the design of each place is extremely similar.

A game like Ultima Online can’t really be termed a sandbox as we know them today. It was more like a virtual space, a 3D chat room even, where players could role-play and share in the same fantasy. It acted as an environment for player imagination to thrive. Sandbox in modern terms conjures up images of games like Minecraft or EVE Online, where game developers literally give players the tools to create their own content within the virtual realm. In this way, players themselves are the content and also the content generators. This is a fairly recent development in MMOs though this concept made it’s first appearance in A Tale in the Desert (to be fair, all of these games dropped practically within a year of one another so “first” is a matter of publishing date, not idea conception).


When we industrialize something, we streamline it’s production in order to mass produce a product rapidly and more efficiently for consumption. Quality matters less than quantity and the former usually slides ever closer to mediocrity with every “improvement” of the production line. However, the quality becomes decreasingly important the more people are using the product. It’s ubiquity makes it a natural occurrence in society and it becomes standard fare to the extent that everyone is expected to know about it and have experience with the product. Like McDonald’s.

In MMOs, mass production of quests, dungeons, and gear peaks annually. The ubiquity of these three features within the genre speaks to this. Their use has less to do with gameplay enhancement than with manufacturing them pack the game with “features” and boast about them in the hopes that it’s “enough” content to keep players constantly paying. The consequence is that these features lose all of their initial meaning and sink into near irrelevance; the features don’t represent anything; gameplay achievements signify nothing but themselves.

World of Warcraft is a game which suffers irreparably from over-industrialization, but it’s hardly alone. Guild Wars, Star Wars, The Secret World all suffer the same. Development is clearly dictated by how many more people the company can get into the game. This is seen by players in efforts to “dumb down” or otherwise remove any uniqueness among players. Probably what’s more important is that game development technology, the best available, is almost tailored to crafting the games that are already successful, thus it’s not hard for new games to look and play exactly like their predecessors.

From a development philosophy standpoint, it’s the corruption of the meaning of equality: developers believe that time-spent is the single most important variable when determining what’s fair gameplay. To that end, removing gameplay elements which allow players to accrue power or achievement over time is mandatory to keep the game “fair.” They even the playing field by making all feats attainable no matter how little effort is put into it.  They patronize the player-base, appealing to their vanity instead of their ambition. The game becomes mediocre in the same way that McDonald’s is.

Unfortunately, we still live in an industrialized world and the governing values are those of industrialization. Games aren’t so unique of an industry that they would remain untouched by it. Yet the shifts in technology are changing the way we think about games everyday …hopefully these shifts will occur soon in the MMO genre. It desperately needs to arrive into the 21st century.

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