No purpose, no nothing

No purpose, no nothing – that short but poignant conclusion to so many things, coming to me once more while writing Monday’s post and then Kadomi said it again, literally, in the comments:

I don’t enjoy not having a purpose. What good is all that freedom if it leaves me feeling empty after a while?

“Who may be allowed to linger that is fulfilled by purpose?” I’ve asked that before, in slightly different context but no less relevant to this cause. A purpose is an end (hence the double meaning) and in many ways, endings bring a certain degree of linearity or at least progression to life real and virtual. Yet, purpose is also what fulfills that life lest in not be literally point-less. There is a cosmic balance here, a trade-off and even our favorite genre in video games, MMORPGs must struggle for it – that balance between the sandbox and themepark, between too much freedom and too little, too much endgame and not enough satisfaction.


To what end?

No purpose equals nothing, in virtual worlds too.

No purpose, no point for guilds.

No purpose, no point for housing.

No purpose, no point for gear.

Take GW2’s gear grind – so futile, so unfulfilling because it is not required, does not prepare you for any kind of endgame that exists. And what is endgame, by now such an unpopular term, but not a purpose or “life after”? Take LOTRO’s homesteads – beautiful but empty, forever instanced away from the world of men, not serving any purpose really. Take any other MMO you can think of that allows you to solo self-sufficiently, obtain everything on your own and then wonder why people don’t play in guilds. Having co-founded two lasting, successful raidguilds in WoW, I am very pragmatic: guilds are common ventures first, uniting people with the same purpose for that purpose. More often than not, that purpose is what keeps the best guilds alive. So what?

I made some wonderful friendships in MMOs founded on a common goal; common goals glue people together. Maybe they are the only thing that truly does. Common goals on the horizon add purpose to our stride, infuse our dreams, inspire our achievements social or otherwise.

To clarify, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as individual purpose defined on an individual level in every game and for virtually anything (even jumping puzzles! eww) – there absolutely is and it matters too. However, in isolation this doesn’t tend to create the same value on a cooperative level and not the same longterm appeal, either. Not in my experience anyway.

Give me purpose, give me endings

No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

MMOs and not just Landmark, need a ‘hard’ purpose for the features they implement. It sounds simple and yet it’s a glaring oversight in so many games, yes sandboxes and themeparks alike, and it always backfires in the mid- and longterm and affects the community most strongly.

Oh sure, a game’s early flame burns brightly like a bonfire in the night and by all means, warm yourself at that fire. Enjoy it while it lasts. In the long run however, you’ll want some meat on the bone to roast on that fire and sustain you. In the long run, you will need that.


  1. A purpose is nice and all but it’s a bonus not a requirement, at least if we’re talking about entertainment. Leveling up my tenth character in GW2 and enjoying it, if anything, more than any of the previous nine, I have to say that I don’t feel the lack of purpose even though it could well be described as a purposeless activity. I could go back and do the same in almost any MMO I’ve enjoyed and probably will.

    Lots of things in life are worth doing for the sheer pleasure of doing them. Nothing is needed on top of that to justify any time you spend as time well spent. Most of what happens in the course of playing MMOs falls into that category for me.

    1. I feel you’re understanding my idea of ‘purpose’ in too narrow a context. Here’s where I disagree: just because you call it entertainment doesn’t mean it has no purpose. Leveling up a 10th character absolutely has a purpose; in fact it actually proves the point that linear progress with and end (max level) is fun enough for you to do – the leveling process is one of the easiest examples of purpose in MMOs. When I say purpose, I don’t mean only srs bzns, it can be anything that creates a sort of vision and goal.

      It doesn’t always need practical justification ‘on top’ if you for yourself find purpose in it….but a lot of features like housing are only fun for so long without ‘hard’ purpose. I know there’s few players who are cool without one but then, I have yet to find one builder or collector (just to name two examples for activities) in an MMO who wouldn’t like the house they’re building or gear they’re already collecting to also have a purpose besides filling space somewhere. That said, definitely not all of us are looking for the same (social) commitment in MMOs.

  2. Playing devil’s advocate here, but it’s difficult to nail down purpose to any satisfaction. I could say that some people find purpose in grinding ore in Landmark to do repeated RNG rolls for better pickaxes or in creating their perfect vision of a medieval castle – so Landmark has varied purposes, right?

    Yet for some, these purposes never had any appeal. And for others, it occupies them only a little while before the purposes are either fulfilled or they get bored with them.

    And for still others, these purposes could last them as long as the game servers stay up.

    It really has to do with one’s individual perspective. Take GW2’s ‘gear grind,’ some lament how grindy it is to get Ascended, because for them it is utterly inconceivable that they could do without ‘best in slot’ gear, they are utterly -driven- by the ‘purpose’ of getting Ascended and this can last them months of chasing it down.

    Others don’t even think that ‘gear grind’ exists, because they can do everything they want to do in game with exotics or lower, or they’re content with taking their time accumulating materials while playing the game, or they play PvP where all stats are provided. These others don’t need the ‘purpose’ of getting best in slot gear driving them.

    Still others find they have a specific ‘purpose’ to getting Ascended, they want it for fractals and the infusion slots, or they want a specific set of stats for WvW that they feel is optimal.

    Who’s to say who is right or wrong, whether a purpose exists, except each player themselves?

    1. Oh I agree. but then I never said that purposes are the same for everyone – only that everything (ideally) needs ‘a’ purpose or end. If one can read that into my post, then it’s not intended; I am really totally leaving open what purpose individuals can create for themselves. that’s not the component I am so much interested in but the way game design can create more purpose…for longevity. There’s a reason why WoW is being played for this long. It’s not an appealing game from a sandboxy PoV but it sure as hell has nailed the themepark type of purposes.

      If building a house is enough for someone, good for them – only that doesn’t mean some actual ‘hard purpose’ to the house ingame wouldn’t add a lot of meaning for a great many people. The first demography is served already (because it always is), why not broaden the appeal? and if we’re to take GW2’s gear as the example, sure collecting is fun to some people but in the game itself, it lacks purpose. It would be great if it meant a bit more than that objectively speaking. There IS a difference between perceived purpose and progression, incentives etc. by virtue of game design. To me, they’re not mutually exclusive but neither do I want the second one missing. This is also why personally I prefer MMOs that have both themepark and sandbox elements in them.

      1. You do realize that broadening the appeal by adding more ‘purposes’ usually mean that developers will put in an achievement system, right? 😛

        Because many folks need ‘guidance’ to ‘purposes’ rather than being directionless, or have a compulsive urge to fill in the blanks!

        And to give the achievement system ‘purpose’ they will tie in rewards to scoring higher in it!

        *ducks and finds cover*

      2. Haha…oh gawd, what have I done?? 😛

        You’re right though, it’s what they’re trying to do. Only to me that’s the worst way possible, lazy, unimaginative, meaningless. Especially since achi points tend to be nothing but that – they’re hardly ever a currency that gets put to any use? That’s at least half of the issue.

  3. Small update: added a small clarification in the article so it’s clear that I don’t mean to diminish individual value (vs. purpose by design) so much as to say yes, the second is absolutely needed too in MMOs. ^^

  4. No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

    I’m not so sure that we need endings to have meaning. Isn’t life all about the journey? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see the purpose of life being death (the ultimate ending).

    Translating that into game terms, we take out of the game what we put into it. If you want to farm, RP, and putter around a make believe house, go for it. That’s all the meaning you need, even if the game is configured to shove you into raiding and Endgame. But don’t take the lack of explicit direction to be directionless; that comes equally from us, the players, as well as the game itself. Perhaps even more than half.

    1. That’s a very philosophical question with many different views on it. 🙂 I don’t see death as the meaning of life personally but I see it adding meaning to life. Everything that happens during that journey means a lot more because life is not eternal. We are all consciously or subconsciously affected by this fact. Similarly, a unique epic questline probably means more to us than the same daily quests we repeat every day. That’s how it is for me at least.

      I like pottering too and as long as that’s fun to me, it’s meaningful. It just never lasts in the long run, not the way a good mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives do.

  5. Syl,

    I think purpose is what changes a hobby into a game. In a hobby, you just do things to do them. To pass the time, because you enjoy it, like, say, upgrading these theoretical crafting tools and stations. In a game, you’re doing something, even if that something is a very vaguely defined hobby-like activity.

    Very interesting post, and I really enjoyed your take on it.


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