NBI: Armchair Game Designer. Or how that other MMO keeps ruining my Gameplay Experience

One of the two publicly elected topics of this year’s NBI talkback challenge is “armchair game designer” and several bloggers have already posted some fine entries all around ideal MMO design, mechanics, must-haves and wishlists. While I have some thoughts on the second topic of guilds too, it was the armchair that won my vote on the poll.

With few exceptions, most MMO players are rather outspoken hobby game designers of sorts. It’s quite remarkable how passionately and critically MMO design gets discussed up and down our blogs, message boards and other social media, compared to other genres where games are rarely debated with comparable stakes over longer periods of time. Of course that is hardly surprising if we consider how MMOs are these living worlds, made to last for years and unite players of all colors and playstyles under one banner. MMOs are multi-genre the way other titles never have to be and they do not only need to attract a wider audience but keep an audience interested that is bound to change tastes over the course of time. I could imagine easier tasks.

And yet, naturally I’ve done it too and keep doing it; every and now and then, I muse over how much better I could design certain game mechanics or how my ideal MMO is supposed to play. A bit of WoW’s polish, a good chunk of LOTRO’s approach to world and lore – a mix of Tera’s and GW2’s combat – loot from Rift and crafting from UO – oh and while I’m at it, the Arisen from Allods, please. That’s usually how these things go, until we have the perfect product straight from the great bazaar of mix’n match –

It’s tempting to believe that players could improve game design and mechanics – and for isolated instances they probably could. Yet, when it comes to creating the ideal game, I’ve a feeling my persistent yet fuzzy ideas and dreams have increasingly become a hindrance to my enjoyment of MMOs both present and future.

How “that other MMO” keeps ruining all the fun

The longer we’ve played MMOs, the more experiences we’ve accumulated in a particular genre, the stronger our inner armchair designer is getting. Those early months, maybe years of awe and wonder have finally passed. We know how this stuff is supposed to work and make us feel. Why can’t they do it already? That’s when that “other game” starts growing on our mind, starts to appear and manifest ever so subtly. That’s when the stages of carefree enjoyment and exploration become shorter and shorter in every subsequent MMO we play.

We compare. That’s a pretty human trait and in our personal lives too, comparing ourselves into misery is something most of us excel at. We compare less in beginnings simply because there’s less to compare to. Once that changes, our critical eye becomes ever more eager, faster and more merciless. I would wager that assessing a new MMO takes veterans nowadays a few hours at best, if even that.

I am guilty of that as anyone and it strikes me how many MMO debates and arguments aren’t so much criticizing actual design as they’re “opinion battles”. Whenever players demand that GW2 – a game that is fundamentally based on the idea of mass outdoor events and setup flexibility – should have a holy trinity or remove the silly zergfests already, that’s not GW2 being particularly broken but them simply preferring “that other game”. Every time WoW is bashed for cartoony graphics (I have done it) or welfare epics, somebody has stopped seeing WoW and started to see “that other game”. How often are we not actually criticizing bugs, imbalances or broken design but really just saying “why can’t this game be another game”? This goes for changes too: even if WoW has changed over the years, I’m sure many quitters would have been fine with changes they personally approved of.

To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with wanting different games or leaving an MMO. In fact that would be preferable to some of the ranting we sometimes see on official forums.  There’s nothing wrong either with arguing pros and cons of preferences, in fact as bloggers we do much of that. I find creative ideas interesting and passionate discussions entertaining, as long as we remember the rules of subjectivity vs. objectivity. The older I get, the harder I personally find keeping one (consistent) position. While I still have my preferences and undoubtedly want developers to cater to me as much as the next person, I can empathize with other views and playstyles. I used to be a different player in 2004 than I am in 2013.

And the longer I’ve been a traveler on this road, I find my inner armchair designer more and more of a nuisance. It keeps me from enjoying current games for what they are. It keeps dangling a carrot in front of me I can never reach; a carrot of something more, something better just around the corner. Add to this, that I don’t really know what “that other game” is as it seems to change gradually. I’m not convinced that if I ever got to see it go live, that it would actually be a good thing. Would I play this forever? Or would I not much rather tire of it the way I always do?


Alas, dear armchair – this is where we say goodbye. I’m not saying I won’t have a seat on other blogs but when it comes to you and me, we must part ways in the future. There’s a real game or two just around the corner I intend to enjoy and make the most of. I’m not sure it will be perfect, given that perfection is an endless process, but it’s safe to say I’ll have no use for dusty, old furniture there. I’m sure you understand!

P.S. Speaking of furniture, I hope TESO gets player housing à la Wildstar! (ooops)


  1. Very wise words, Syl. I’ve noticed a little of that myself as I’ve actually dabbled in a couple of different MMOs this past year, catching myself thinking “well, that’s a nice feature, I wish other MMOs had that” or “why does it have to be like that, if they’d done it differently it would be much nicer”. The more variety we experience, the more we pick and choose our favourite bits from everywhere, but it’s just unrealistic to expect any particular game to get absolutely everything perfect for your personal taste.

    1. Indeed. I do this a lot, but I honestly wonder if we’d be able too appreciate ‘too much goodness’, anyway. if nothing good can stand out anymore because everything is good…that usually turns into everything stinks, lol. the human mind is treacherous!

  2. The trick to keeping a consistent position as you get older is to be squarely in the middle and always claim it’s a spectrum of viewpoints. 🙂

    I dunno, as I visit more and more MMOs and games, the more accepting I become of each MMO for what it is – how certain design choices create this or that effect, and the much clearer I get about my own preferences – to the point where I can quickly assess how long I want to spend playing it and how much of a “future” I have with the game.

    I tend not to waste my breath trying to ‘fix’ something that wouldn’t likely be changed because the game is foundationally different. I don’t waste either time or passion posting on WoW forums trying to get them to remove raids and RNG loot. I’ll just point out that it’s there, that I personally don’t like the way they do it, and thus the game is not for me.

    There’s always the next game down the road to sample.

    1. Luckily that’s true. I don’t tend to ‘waste’ much time on lost cases either but there are times when I judge overly fast, too. I’ve adapted the habit of playtesting everything twice more recently which helps me to make sure I dislike something for ‘the right reason’. 😉

  3. A valuable lesson for us all 🙂

    The “opinion battles” descriptor is fitting. I almost love participating in them, largely because I know there is no “right”. It’s in those moments that I enjoy understanding others’ joy of virtual worlds. It can get intense and even stupid at times though. Who says we don’t enjoy stupid things?

    I’m not wondering if there’s something inherently polarizing about MMOs. WoW is the most devisive community I’ve ever seen in games. Players literally can’t wait to tear each other down …and that’s a humongous put off, even after I’ve forgiven the game changes I don’t like. And when you play MMOs for the virtual world, and that world is bursting with this kind of negativity, that’s tough to enjoy. I guess I’m saying I think sometimes players are criticizing one game above another for reasons interesting to understand. Not that I think anyone here disagrees with that. I’m just thinking out loud.

    I have more writing inspiration this month than time to write. So I won’t promise a follow-up …but you might see one.

    1. Opinion battles are definitely fun if people play by the same rules. and I look forward to your potential follow-up. 🙂

  4. I’m definitely more accepting of games as they are rather than as I want them to be – while I could probably rattle off the details of “my perfect MMO” I understand that even if it were technically possible to deliver all of them (and within a sane development budget), that would only be the perfect MMO FOR ME, and all of the other players would be wishing it was something else.

    That perspective may come from the fact that while I’m only an armchair game designer, I’m a designer of complex systems (call centres) in real life. That means I’ve got an understanding of what it is to have competing interests from different stakeholders, of how a simple change to one facet of your system can have complex knock-on effects, and of just how much planning and management goes into making even the simplest change to a live, real-time, customer facing service – unless you want to risk bringing the entire thing to an embarrassing halt, there’s no such thing as a simple 5 minute change. Unfortunately, the Dunning-Kreuger effect runs rampant amongst the armchair designers on forums and far too many blogs. These are the guys who think “I can’t see any problem with doing this, so it must be simple” because, quite simply, they don’t know so much that they don’t even realise what they don’t know. Add in a little dash of arrogance and you get “I think it’s simple, and I’m always right, therefore if the devs can’t or won’t do this simple thing they must be lazy, stupid or evil” and hey presto, that’s why armchair designers have a bad reputation.

      1. “… they don’t know so much that they don’t even realise what they don’t know”

        that’s very true. I hadn’t heard the effect named that way, so I went to look it up – that made for an interesting read, thanks. I believe the antithesis to your statement would be when highly learned people say “the more we know, the more we understand how much we don’t know”.

        A big ever-returning issue of amateur game design debates is not understanding complexities and not grasping the difference between short- and longterm effects. you can tune an MMO for more short-term gratification because players cry for it but that in return creates repercussions for longterm enjoyment – something we have kept witnessing in WoW. I remember a great Gamasutra article in this context:

  5. “It’s tempting to believe that players could improve game design and mechanics – and for isolated instances they probably could.”
    In Software Development–not just games development–there’s a saying: customers (gamers) don’t know what they want. They know what they don’t like, and are often vocal about it, but when it comes to actually designing features, the users often ask for something when they really want something else.

    A more concrete example might be in WoW. Back when LFR was created, loot was Need before Greed, and much loot rioting followed. People were having their items ninja’d because everyone just hit Need, regardless of whether they actually needed it or not. So there were clamors on the forums for Blizzard to implement more restrictions, more rules.

    They were asking for more rules to enforce their version of ‘fair’, but in reality what they wanted was their fair shot at items they could use, a subtle but important distinction which seems obvious in hindsight. If Blizzard had followed the userbase down the rabbit hole of more rules rather than redesigning loot distribution , the system would have rapidly become unnavigable by the average user, not to mention likely bug-ridden as all get out.

    That’s not to say there aren’t good ideas. Allowing others to see what people got in the new LFR system so people could see loot was being dropped did a lot to quell the fail-bag syndrome was an idea born in the forums, if I recall correctly.

    But a massive amount of software development is reading between the lines and digging deep to find the real reason why someone is complaining or why someone thinks they want a feature.

    1. Very much this, and also changes requested in isolation can have far-reaching consequences that the requester didn’t envisage. For example, in GW2 the changes to drop more loot from champions have impacted the economy (increased supply of both coin and rare crafting materials), dungeons (fewer people farming dungeons as ‘champ trains’ are now a more efficient way to make money) and the Scarlet invasions (which tend to fail because zerging the pirates yields more loot bags than actually trying to finish the event within the timer). Professional designers are paid to think long and hard about these consequences, and even they don’t predict all of them. Some suggestions you see show that the armchair designers haven’t put even a moment’s thought into it.

      1. Well, for many of us, armchair designing is less about “give me my feature now!” And more like a fun thought exercise, and hey, some good can come out of it. Just because an idea isn’t perfect doesn’t it can’t be massaged or trigger other ideas. Personally I wouldn’t want to actively discourage folks from armchair designing; just to temper expectations if they pitch said designs.

        But yes, laws of unintended consequences run rampant in MMOs in particular. In any highly interconnected ecosystem, tweaking a parameter can affect parts of the system in ways no one could have anticipated. Devs aren’t infallible, and systems are often far too complex for one person to understand the nitty gritty of every piece.

      2. Great points I couldn’t agree more with. be sure to check the link I posted further up! 🙂

  6. I know my blog covers this topic a lot but it’s also way up my alley outside of games. There’s some value in looking at a complex idea and comparing each implementation, as you say, objectively. While there’s always rhetoric, some mechanics are just so complex that no twitter tag can do them justice. Talarian hits it on the head. Great design decisions are subtle and long reaching. Great design isn’t all that common.

    1. Yeah, I think it’s fair to say there’s a good reason why MMO development takes that much time and manpower (and money). not to underrate gamer/fan feedback either, especially once playtesting phases arrive – players are good to name ‘what’s but it takes devs to understand the ‘how’s to get there (if you can get there).

  7. Talarian – I’m all for good armchair design – I indulge in it myself, and I probably came across harsher than I intended. I just get rather fed up with the level of dumb armchair design I see all too often on official forums (and some blogs I’d rather not name). It’s probably spill-over frustration from my experiences at work when business users come along with a (half-assed) technical solution they want implemented, rather than telling me what problem they want solved and let me come up with solutions for them…

    1. I completely empathize. Anytime someone–including other developers!–say that something will be simple in code my first instinct is, “Oh god, how many ways could is go wrong?” Sometimes it actually does happen to be simple, but more often than not that’s not the case.

      A fun but apt adage which applies equally to feature requests as it does to bug fixes:

      99 little bugs in the code,
      99 little bugs,
      Take one down, patch it around,
      117 little bugs in the code.

      1. @Tremayne
        it’s all about tone, is it not 🙂 the type of entitled and frankly disrespectful forum rants you refer to, annoy me as well. as I said further above, armchair design can be lots of fun and I’m all for it, and there’s a place for player feedback in the development process. but it never hurts to go about ‘what we want’ with some humbleness when addressing developers. 😉

        for me personally, this post is not about telling others not to not armchair-design but a reminder for myself to moderate my tendency to ruin MMOs by constant comparison. some players can probably do one without the other; go nuts on armchair design posts but not let it affect their gameplay. I can’t. 😀

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