That MMO “Feeling” – What’s Missing? A Purpose? What’s My Motivation?

Destiny's Edge + 1

Ever had a thought that just refuses to lay down and die?

It rattles around in your brain, tossing and turning, gnawing and worrying while you spend days trying to pin it down and articulate it to some degree.

It began with Syl’s post about a lack of purpose in our MMOs of today.

There was something to it, especially in regards to Landmark needing to link some kind of functionality and give reasons to do their various activities (for certain subsets of players anyway, who don’t seem to find the existing framework motivating enough), but it sounded… off. Not quite right. Especially when extrapolated in a general sense.

Further questioning in the comments revealed that Syl meant something like a “shared purpose.” A united vision, a commonality of purpose across players, to work hand-in-hand towards… something.

Be it taking down a raid boss together, or perhaps contributing towards building a project in Glitch (RIP Glitch 😦 ) or a monument in a Tale in the Desert, or maybe even Tarnished Coast and Jade Quarry’s dastardly goal of making sure Blackgate doesn’t just easy mode cruise into a WvW Season 2 win. 😛

Then it continued on across various Reddit and forum posts trying to express why some players really want to like GW2 but can’t seem to deal with the leveling process.

There’s no reason for it, they say. No purpose. Something’s missing, and it’s just not lack of direction or guidance. They’re running from one point of interest to another, connecting the dots, but somehow feeling disconnected with the world. Like there’s no story for the players to be the center of and our characters just wind up around the periphery clearing wasps and helping groups of NPCs do something or other.

Personally, I never had that problem when the game first launched. Everything was new and shiny and unfamiliar. There was something AWESOME to see around every corner, and something novel and cool to discover. Even after hitting level 80, I held back on 100% world completion for a long time because I was terrified by the thought of officially consuming all the content and making the world familiar. Known. Habitual. Boring.

In the lull between Living Story seasons, I have been taking my time and leveling a charr engineer the old fashioned way. While I’m still having no problems keeping apace with levels, probably because I kill everything and am not above popping a food and wrench (20%), and occasionally a 50% XP booster to go with the 18% account bonus from achievements, I started feeling…

…what’s the word… Bored, maybe.

Like something was missing.

In my case, I suspected that I was meta-gaming way too much. I’ve seen all these maps before, several times. I know their schtick and what the NPCs are up to in each of them. I could probably find each jumping puzzle entrance unaided by a wiki, going from memory alone. The personal story from the orders on is SO SO DONE before.

Always on my mind is the possibility that I could log in on one of five other level 80s to do something -else-, and by god, are there a lot of something -elses- to do in GW2 – world bosses, TTS runs, WvW, a dungeon, gather or farm stuff, etc.

Except that I’ve also repeated a bunch of these activities… if they’re not quite to the point of being nauseating, they’re at least to the point of “having been done before.”

Strangely enough, a temporary cure for this malaise was serendipitously found when I saw the “Fear Not This Night” video and decided to watch a series of all its Youtube variants in the other screen while I went around leveling.

Between the stirring music and watching all the fantastical cutscenes and incredible art and rekindling that sense of potential GW2 had when it was new, I think I recreated some of that sense of wonder and awe that I personally CRAVE like a thirsting man needs water.


I started feeling more like a hero, more immersed into the world again, rather than my character acting as Tool #6 for Future Experimentation with AoE Spam in WvW and Condi Builds in PvP.

There was still one more thing missing though.

And this was where I really started missing the Living Story. It was -hard- to find a story, a linear narrative that my character could get involved in.

In GW1, this was front and center. Every story mission you went on, there was this one big overarcing story that we traced.

In GW2, the stories are fractured and scattered. Yes, I could chase the Personal Story. It’s the most linear narrative we have. It’s spread out geographically though, and with level gaps that enforce pauses and breaks in between.

I could do dungeons and follow Destiny’s Edges’ story – assuming I don’t get kicked out of impatient PUGs for daring to watch cutscenes – but again, the story is broken up by dungeons and levels. Anyway, we know the story. They squabble a lot. Our character tells them they’re being idiots. They eventually wise up, kiss and make up.

The open world itself has teeny tiny storylets that are unfortunately caught in time. They’re interesting, no doubt. I enjoy the Fields of Ruin for instance, the tension between the charr and the humans and the peace treaty and the characters that are still clinging on or struggling to get rid of old prejudices. But we can’t progress those stories in any meaningful fashion.

A narrative needs a beginning, middle and end. A line. Not a closed circle that continuously loops.

So I end up stuck waiting for the Living Story – our last, best hope for narrative in GW2.

Thing is, what’s missing for me, may not what’s be missing for you.

Which led to a fevered attempt to brainstorm motivations and reasons for why people play MMOs.

(Which has, of course, been attempted multiple times by others – some far more scientifically than me.)

In no particular order:

  • To feel like a hero – to be at the center of a story, or to be unique or stand out in some fashion, via prestigious cool-looking armor perhaps?
  • To feel like one is improving oneself, eg. via increasing stats or levels, or demonstrating competency via overcoming challenges
  • To be validated or acknowledged by one’s peers, eg. earning social respect via leadership or game skill, defeating others in a competition, etc.
  • To experience a shared purpose, commonality of goal, ‘teamwork’
  • For self-expression – customisation of a character and its looks, or to tell a story or build a home or express creativity in some other form
  • To experience a microcosm of life – MMO as a ‘flight simulator’ of life, test running and learning life lessons about social relationships and interacting with people within the game (a role also fulfilled by reading fiction or otherwise experiencing stories)
  • To feel like one is in a world – interconnectedness, have real people be doing stuff all around you or roleplaying, playing someone you’re not
  • To experience constant change and bursts of novelty, “new content”
  • To discover and learn new things
  • To master mechanics and optimize for efficiency
  • To experience a story – which segues nicely into the dev-created narrative or player-created narrative debate
  • To experience emotions, such as awe and wonder from seeing fantastic landscapes or large-scaled monsters in comparison to yourself (see WoW raid bosses and Shadow of the Colossus), or triumph and victory from defeating a difficult challenge, or a sense of belonging via falling in with a community of like-minded people

I’m sure there’s more.

And of course I noticed that a bunch of these were overlapping, so to speak, and I struggled to try and categorize them in some fashion.

We could fall back on Nick Yee’s main categories of Achievement, Social and Immersion.

Things to do with advancement, power, ambition, improving of self, mechanics and efficiency, perhaps competition might fall under Achievement.

Anything to do with belonging, relationships, player interaction, shared goals, teamwork and cooperation, perhaps even competition might fall under Social.

Immersion being the grab bag that then covers things like escapism, wonder, awe, curiosity, discovery, story-seeking.

Though we end up with a last hanging thread that I might end up terming as Self-Expression – being creative, enjoying customisation, being unique, storytelling and roleplaying (which overlaps onto Immersion), standing out (which overlaps back onto Achievement)

But then I noticed that maybe, just maybe… there was something even more universal at play here.

Note the many repeats of words like “feel” or “experience” or the various emotions that get named.

We say we play a game “for fun.”

We know that this “fun” means different things to different people, and we keep struggling to neatly delineate even more and more subcategories of “fun” in an attempt to get at what we’re really after.

Perhaps we’re really playing a game to feel -something.-

Preferably not boredom.

Many don’t like to feel anger or frustration in their games, but a few others do crave some of those negative emotions, if only to make the opposite emotion the sweeter when it finally arrives after a long struggle.

Different people crave certain feelings over others.

Different games feed certain feelings over others.

(GW2, as is, is pretty good in the Achievement and Social and Self-Expression categories – they keep pushing those agendas anyway, with a stress on cooperation and community organization rather than competition or elitist domination – but they’re kind of dropping the ball on the Immersion one and I think we’re seeing some of the repercussions in the recurring complaints about stories, lore, new zones, lack of caring about roleplaying, etc.)

If we end up feeling nothing or an overall lack of excitement in a game, that apathy becomes a problem which seems to eventually lead to the game being dropped.

Thing is, who’s in control here of our own emotions?

Do developers have a responsibility to entertain and feed us some of these emotions via their game design, since we’re choosing to play their game, after all?

Will it work if we ourselves are determined to not feel anything, having already been there and done that?

Perhaps an awareness that these things are in play is what we need to cross that divide of feeling and not-feeling.

At any time, perhaps we should be picking and choosing to play games (and do activities within a game) that do reward us with the feelings we’re craving.

It’s not a one-time life choice, after all.

We can swap them in and out like watching a comedy movie when we want to laugh and watching a horror movie when we want to be scared and thrilled.

We just need to remember to do it.

8 thoughts on “That MMO “Feeling” – What’s Missing? A Purpose? What’s My Motivation?

  1. Excellent analysis and a good indication of why we often find it so hard to agree on whether a particular MMO is “fun” or not, or, indeed, even on what fun is. I would say that the most common feeling I look for from MMOs is calm relaxation.

    Particularly during the week I like to get home from work, sit down and chill out. Simple, repetitive, almost zen-like activities are welcome. On Friday and Saturday nights, once I get a bottle of wine opened, however, I start to look for something very different – a bit of excitement, unpredictability, chaos. When play during the day – Sundays or weekdays off, I tend to be a lot more open to Achievement-oriented activities, searching for the satisfaction of Getting Something Done.

    I do think, though, that one aspect of MMOs is frequently overlooked. It applies to most MMOs but particularly to GW2. Everyone always focuses on narrative, comparing MMOs to other narrative forms like novels, movies or single-player RPGs. I think a more helpful comparison is with music.

    Most kinds of music are designed to be listened to over and over again. You wouldn’t buy a CD, play it once enjoy it, then put it away and never play it again. Quests and especially GW2’s dynamic events are like the songs on a CD, or movements of a symphony. They can be played and appreciated many, many times for the pleasures of their construction, their rhythms and their melodies. What’s more, they are like live performances rather than recordings because they are never play out exactly the same way twice.

    I can listen to songs I like hundreds, thousands of times. There are events in GW2 that I have played through dozens, scores, even hundreds of times and still play with the same pleasure each time.

    I have probbaly done the Wurm Hunt sequence outside Krennak’s Lodge in Wayfarers several hundred times now – I have done it two or three times a day, five or six days a week, for over a year. I only began to tire of it, like a song played a few times too often, a few weeks ago but I’m still a long way off the “I really don’t want to hear that tune for a while” stage.

    I’ve been thinking about that for a while but your piece helped a few things to come clear in my mind. Putting it on the pile for possible topics to explore at greater depth. Apologies in advance if I cannibalize this comment for a post.


    1. I like that music analogy!

      In my post, I was referring to two particular things I do seek out in my games – a sense of awe/wonder which feeds some part of my Explorer soul, and narrative/story, which I’ve forever been on a search for in various games if only to see how they do it, trying to find that certain magic blend where non-banal emergent narrative arises…

      But repeating music tracks is a really good analogy with regards to all the activities we repeat in MMOs. Some of us have a higher tolerance for repetition than others too. I can repeatedly loop a song and street sweep mobs, while others might want to claw their eyes and ears out after a short time.


    1. Good point. Those are two separate things, which may appeal to different players.

      LOTRO, if I recall, has a central storyline, but one’s characters tend to be doing background things around the book characters and aren’t the main protagonists, so to speak.


  2. This was a fantastic read!

    To me, I think the element mostly missing is that otherworld-ness. I want a MMO that helps me escape through immersion, through socialization, through community, through achievement. MMOs have repeatedly moved to quantify all of these things in tangible ways, which keeps me set in that meta-mindset, rather than lose myself in the game directly. They are sandboxes where the walls are always on your mind and instruction manuals are as plentiful as the sand itself.

    I hate the phrase ‘for fun’ because fun is often considered to be purely frivolous/unnecessary or its a poor stand-in for something more specific. People tend to use it in a way that starkly splits ‘diversion’ from ‘experiencing/feeling’. If I read a classic novel ‘for fun’ and I play a MMO ‘for fun’, are those both just diversions from my everyday life? Can my diversion not be done to some extent for personal growth as well? Why are we ‘high-minded’ about novels and ‘low-minded’ about MMOs by default?

    Sometimes I want a mindless experience, sometimes I want a mindful one. Mostly though, I want something in the middle. Just easy enough that my brain doesn’t hurt, but difficult enough that I feel like I am gaining something.

    MMOs often feel like mindless experiences masquerading as mindful ones.


    1. I agree with you on the “for fun” attitude. I’m not sure I do anything just “for fun”. Why would I do something that didn’t feel special to me in some way? lol, imo that would be a waste of my time. If I play a game, it is for a meaningful experience.


  3. I’m glad I found this blog just now actually. I’m an ENTP on a kind of search to find stuff I feel is worth doing. So far what I’ve realized is that I enjoy working with others, or doing work to show others, far more than just doing stuff on my own. I’m wondering if what I’m searching for, the amazing excitement I remember feeling so often as a kid, would be found most easily in gaming. I know I get a rush from that feeling of achievement when it is in relation to something social. It feels almost like gaming makes more sense than going out of my way to find work that some how mimics this just so I can SAY that it’s meaningful and helping mankind. I wonder if helping mankind needs to start with people doing more of what they actually enjoy. tangent cubed. Anyways, I really liked how this post looks at reasons people game from multiple angles.


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