Why multiplayer online role-playing games are misunderstood – and the myths

- July 5, 2024 7 MIN READ
Final Fantasy XIV
Tuliyollal, the major city in Final Fantasy XIV’s South American inspired expansion: Dawntrail. Source: Square Enix
Massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like Destiny, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV get a bad rap. Let’s clear up some burning questions.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attempted to explain the metaverse during the 2021 rebrand of Facebook to Meta, there was one group of gamers that fully understood what he was talking about.

They were the players of multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), one of the most prolific yet misunderstood genres of gaming. These games are micro digital universes, bundled with their own economies, cultural movements, languages, rules, and policing mechanisms.

Some of the more popular global games in this genre include World of Warcraft, Destiny 2, Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online, and Fallout 76.

They are a mysterious group of very social games. I’ve seen MMORPGs create more tension in relationships than just about any other genre. Inversely, they’ve also galvanised friendships and generated memorable experiences you really can’t find elsewhere in gaming.

The latest time vacuum, Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail, is out this week.

Given it’s the first expansion to launch on Final Fantasy XIV’s new Oceania servers (located in Australia, more on why that’s important later), we’re set to hear a lot more about it over the coming months as producer Square Enix looks to grow the game’s footprint in this region.

For something a bit different this week, I polled my friends for their questions regarding MMORPGs and will attempt to answer them based on my 1000+ hours spent on Final Fantasy XIV — mainly during the COVID-19 pandemic and Melbourne’s record-setting lockdown.

Let’s dig in.

Why do people spend so much time on these games?

First off, you need to understand that these games are designed to be time sinks, but not in the way you might expect. With a subscription-based business model, the mechanics of the game are geared at incentivizing regular play (hours in one day, every day in a week) over really long sessions. You actually get diminishing returns in terms of hours spent and character progression the longer you play. Bonuses that help you advance your character tend to reset either each day or once a week. This is to encourage you to subscribe for longer, as that’s how these games earn revenue.

That’s how they are designed; as for how they are played… that’s an entirely different story. The social nature of these games makes them sticky. You can essentially exist in the world of the game and find your own fun. For instance, in Final Fantasy XIV, I’ve been to virtual restaurants and clubs where people role-play as hosts. This wasn’t coded by the developers; it’s just how some choose to interact with the game, and the economy and construction mechanics of the game allow for it.

Help! My partner plays an MMORPG and I don’t know how to navigate how much time they spend on it?

I’ve had this chat a few times with friends.

First off, you need to understand what their main goal for playing is. If it’s just casual play, then yes, they can totally gear back the amount of time they are spending on the game with little consequence.

Typically, the most intense, time-sensitive players are part of a raiding group. The easiest way to think of this is like they are part of a digital sports team. They likely meet up 2-3 times a week to play for 2-3 hour sessions, tackling a difficult boss (or series of bosses) that’s designed to only be completed with practice and air-tight team execution of mechanics. Outside of that, they need to practice and ensure their character is the strongest they can be and to not fall behind the rest of their team.

Raiding commitments are hard to navigate. Even the most casual of groups online will expect a minimum of six hours a week — usually at night. But the good news is that they are predictable. Like any weekly commitment, you can plan around it, and that’s the discussion you need to have.

Hold up, I need to pay a subscription and pay for expansions? How does that work?

Yeah, that’s how it works for most of the games in this genre. For what it’s worth, the expansions are generally good value, and you only need to pay for the add-on once every two or so years. You do get value for this money in terms of the amount of content being added. These aren’t your typical add-ons or downloadable content. An expansion could be considered as a sequel in terms of scale and depth.

As for the need for a subscription, MMORPGs are living games. They are constantly being tweaked, fixed, and added to by the developers, so there is a cost associated with maintaining them — more so than other titles.

The subscription can add up though. You shouldn’t treat it like Netflix or Disney+ and leave it running on the chance that you may end up using it. My rule of thumb for keeping an eye on it: If I haven’t logged on at least 3 times in a month, I’ll end my subscription and re-subscribe when I want to play again.

For Final Fantasy XIV in Australia, we actually end up paying the subscription in Euro. To avoid bank fees with remittance, consider using a bank account geared for overseas payments.

Can I just play these games by myself? I don’t want to interact with other players.

Yes and no. MMORPGs have been improving the single-player experience to try and encourage more players to give them a go. The social nature of these games, however, means that you won’t entirely be able to avoid other players.

Even Final Fantasy XIV, which over the past three years has made a concerted effort to engineer all of its content for solo play, still has instances that require support from other players. But I can’t stress enough: The most fun to be had with these games is with other players, and especially with your friends.

Who actually plays these games?

Anyone and everyone. Erase the stereotypes from your mind. But depending on the game, fewer teenagers than you may think — they’re likely all on Fortnite.

My most memorable experience: I joined a Final Fantasy XIV raiding party (boss fight) with a group of US West Coast parents who play between school runs. I was on their voice chat, just listening to them spill the tea on school gossip amidst the discussion on boss mechanics. It was wild and totally changed my conceptions as to who this game is actually for.

Why is the server location so important?

Ping. Most of these games require a solid internet connection to be played effectively. Ping is the speed at which your gaming device can connect with the server hosting the game. The closer it is, the better your ping is. You can also improve your ping by using a wired connection over a wireless one.

A high ping speed will lead to lag. On your screen, your character will look like it’s out of the way of an attack or animation, but you’ll still take damage because while you have moved, the game server hasn’t registered it. It’s frustrating.

With Final Fantasy XIV, Australians were once forced to play on either the Japan or the US servers (the ping was about the same). As of last year, we now have a local server with a fraction of the character population of other regions. This means not only do we finally have excellent ping, but very little in the way of login issues which can occur on high population servers.

Online gaming communities can be toxic. Have you had any bad experiences playing these games?

Yes. It’s not all sunshine and roses.

As I mentioned, the pressure for performing in these games in a team setting can create drama. The sports team analogy is really apt here: It’s like letting down your local footy team with your level of skill. If you’re consistently letting them down or missing matches, it creates friction.

Not all MMORPG gamers have the social skills required to navigate these situations. This can lead to some weird occurrences and social situations that can be downright cruel if they occurred in real life but are somehow acceptable here because it’s all managed behind keyboards.

Beyond that, MMORPG players — who in my experience are predominantly men — tend to think everyone on the other side of the screen is a carbon copy of them and tend to talk and interact as if that’s the case. This can frustrate and even inadvertently alienate some.

Bullying can occur too, but it’s very rare. These games are often policed by community managers who have the ability to ‘jail’ players for anti-social behavior. This essentially locks their character out of the game.

Tips for starting out 

  1. Take it slow. Don’t buy level or progression skips. You need to spend the time learning the game so that you don’t end up lagging behind other players’ skills in later content.
  2. If you are a console player — like me — invest in a cheap headset and keyboard. Communication is vital in a lot of these games. Being able to bash out a quick message will not only make these games easier but diffuse a lot of tense situations too. Even something as simple as saying: “I’m a new player” or “this is my first time here” will change the tone in which people engage with you for the better.
  3. YouTube is often a great resource for all MMORPGs. Content creators have answered just about every question imaginable and have fantastic tutorials on all the popular games. If you are stuck, go there.
  4. Finally, start with a friend or work through these games with a friend. You can play alone, no problem. You’ll likely eventually make friends anyway, and I’d recommend joining groups and guilds that allow you to do so. These games are so much more fun and memorable with others.

If I’ve missed anything, feel free to flick me a question in the comments!

What I’m playing: Luigi’s Mansion 2 HD

I’m on the road this week for work, which means I’m playing my Switch. Good thing Nintendo has released yet another remake of an earlier game to keep me occupied.

Luigi’s Mansion 2 is best described as a puzzle game. Playing as (you guessed it) Luigi, you patrol a series of haunted manors solving puzzles and capturing ghosts with a vacuum cleaner. It plays a bit like a ghost-busting, digital escape room.

Unlike the last game, Luigi’s Mansion 2 is actually set over five different manors, each with their own theme. Each manor is also broken up into levels. Once you progress a certain objective, you are brought back to the professor’s bunker for a check-in. This is mainly due to the original being made for the Nintendo 3DS, so it’s designed to be played in bite-sized chunks. That’s great while you are on the move, but having your flow stymied by the start-stop nature of the game isn’t ideal for longer sessions.

My only gripe: These HD re-releases (a trend this year for Nintendo titles) should really add new content to the mix. Even if it’s an additional level or mechanic, something for returning players. I’d argue they’re the most likely to pick up the game. There’s something to be said about upholding the integrity of the original through a like-for-like remake. But in this case, I feel giving a little would go a long way for the broader success of the title, and for getting new fans into the franchise for future releases.

Worth trying if you like: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

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