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Rethinking the Pillars of MMO Design

Genese Davis Posted:
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RPG designers often refer to the four pillars (Combat, Progression, Exploration, and Story) when discussing a new game or concept for an upcoming title. Their goals often aim to improve or reinvent one or more aspect(s). SWTOR emphasized their efforts to improve the story pillar, while Wildstar showed special interest in the combat component. There are MMOs that aim to invent new pillars altogether like Everquest Next, while others focus on improving a variable within a pillar such as micro-changes to PVE, PVP, Questing, or the Social component. Could these pillars of game design be stifling innovation or do they merely keep the design process grounded in what works?

Dr. Bartle created the Bartle test that breaks down player personality types into four categories: the Socializer, Achiever, Killer, and Explorer. As you can see, these categories fit nicely into the pillars of game design. One or more of these aspects of game play is often the driving motivator for players. We’ve seen developments like Sandbox MMOs challenge the status quo and break tradition. A radical re-design of core mechanics could change the nature of how MMORPGs function and thus influence the concept of the four pillars entirely. What aspects of the four pillars are overdone, and what new ideas could we implement?


Designers are caught between balancing the mechanics that work while inventing new ones. Take the trinity of core classes: Tank, DPS, Healer. This structure works well in many MMOs, but game reviewers ask, are games missing inventive opportunities by too often sticking to what has worked? A whole new approach could potentially create a revolutionary gameplay experience.

How is the experimentation of hit points received where combat isn't just about reducing an enemy's health? When the goal of combat goes beyond causing or preventing damage, players must disable the opponent or build toward other opportunities. Different design concepts might eliminate specialized roles, but allow the use of tactical options. Another interesting opinion suggested a character’s weapon skill retained only with continued use. So, a player skilled with a sword might lose his skill with an axe if he were to neglect practicing both weapons, while mobs would still be more or less susceptible to X or Y weapon.


Progression intrigues most players and keeps them striving for goals. This pillar has seen its fair share of development proposals. Vertical progression, where players aim to reach a max level cap and earn the highest tier gear, has held in popularity for a while now. Though we’ve also seen horizontal progression grow in popularity where players progress by expanding their abilities and weapons. Designers are looking to change progression but often find it difficult to stray from what has worked.


Exploration can be an individual or collective experience driven by environment, discovery, and loot. Linear games allow the creator to point players deliberately, while a sandbox environment allows the player to choose the path.

One player suggestion referenced the idea of their characters having a finite lifespan. As they explored the world, their character would age in real time, thus putting in place windows of opportunity to do different things over their lives and reap rewards fitting to that age in time.


Entertainment will always be subjective, and story is no exception. While one player may like reading quest lines, another may enjoy cinematic cut scenes. Writers attempt to create games with a story driven purpose. MMOs are unique in the way that players create player-driven stories outside the game stories. The social component in MMOs drives dynamic, unexpected experiences. MMOs function as a kind of collective unit, wherein players are impacted by the decisions of all other players in the game.

How does a player’s actions relate to their individual story, and how does he/she influence the world or empire’s story at large? There’s been experimentation with a fifth pillar to bring new elements to games—a fifth pillar called time. Even though seen in some games, have designers been able to harness the idea of an ever-changing timeline? The following is one example of a game designer’s ideas.


The majority of MMOs offer the same instances/quests for players to repeat creating a static world. There is no time. There is nothing changing. A time pillar would aim to bring a dynamic, individualized experience. Depending on when someone logs in, a different world event would be taking place. Game admins could take over NPCs bringing new challenges every week. Things would go haywire, and thus be unique.

If designers can come up with a way to dynamically change the world then the game is changing and creating history, in real time, affecting specifically those players logged in at that moment. The technology for this can be daunting, and game teams would have to rise to a new level of support. But these special, one-of-a-kind world events become moments in history forever remembered by the players.

When designers think about creating a foundation for a game, they may instinctually stick to the traditional four pillars. If the four pillars were radically altered, would gamers flock or flee from the design? It’s interesting to ponder whether innovation is restricted with these unspoken rules, or if revolutionary games are only revolutionary because they began with the foundation of tradition.

Over to you! What pillars do you enjoy most?

Let’s connect! Find me on Facebook, Google + and Twitter. Until then: write at night, game on, and lark your life. <3

Every week, Holder’s Dominion author Genese Davis opines about MMO gaming, the issues the genre faces, and the power of shaping online worlds.

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Genese Davis

Genese Davis / Bimonthly, The Holder’s Dominion author Genese Davis opines about video games, the issues the industry faces, and the power of shaping online worlds. Find her on Twitter @GeneseDavis and GeneseDavis.com