Satisfying Psychological Needs

I was reading an article called “The Psychological Appeal of Violent Shooters” and thought it had some interesting correlations to MMOs.

Here’s a quote:

In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe “self-determination theory,” a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:

  • 1. Competence – progressing in skill and power.
  • 2. Autonomy – being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
  • 3. Relatedness – feeling important to others.

The article asserts that most shooters do a pretty good job of meeting these three needs, although studies indicate the games could be just as satisfying without all the blood and headshots. It’s worth a read.

It got me thinking about how MMOs come at the three needs outlined above.


One could argue that the entire DikuMUD style (which was a dominant influence on EverQuest, and therefore most of the MMOs that followed it) is built to satisfy this need: you gain levels or skills, hunt for new and better items, take on increasingly more powerful opponents, ad infinitum. And certainly if you look at early games in the genre, they allowed for the types of emergent gameplay that made players feel skilled and powerful. As an EQ monk called upon to pull in Plane of Fear, Temple of Veeshan, or for raids like the Avatar of War, I felt pride in the skills I possessed which made me better than the average player of my class.

However, one of the frequent complaints about MMOs–particularly as they age–is that they’ve been “dumbed down”, made easier for less-skilled players to succeed at. The long list of changes to WoW’s talent system is an often-cited example of this trend.

We have to admit that MMOs today get mixed marks in this category. Accessibility is a key pillar of most triple-A MMO projects so that the game has the best chance possible of recouping its extravagant budget, and in the process, player competence typically isn’t a priority target for developers–even though they often claim that it is. Accessibility is the enemy of player competence.


Using the article’s definition of this word, MMOs get mixed marks here as well. On the good side, MMOs tend to give players multiple types of content to choose from: leveling up a character solo, doing group dungeons, raiding, crafting, PvP, pet battles, house decorating, dungeon designing, collecting, achievements, and other forms of play are common in MMOs. That’s a nice variety not present in most other genres.

However, once you delve into each path in detail, it’s apparent that autonomy isn’t really present. Most paths in triple-A MMOs, be they narrative-based or achievement-focused, tend to be very linear and without a lot of choice. You might be able to pick which zone you go to at a given level range or which instance you’ll run, but once that decision is made, you’re locked in. You can’t choose how to solve a quest. You can’t choose the strategy for killing a boss. You can’t make up your own recipes for making items. You’re limited to a certain type of housing item or paint color.

MMOs are better at giving you the illusion of autonomy rather than the reality of it. Problems tend to get solved once, and then that becomes the de facto strategy for achieving the desire result (and you get yelled at if you try a different approach). While there are certainly exceptions to this trend, they are few and far between–at least among triple-A titles.


Importance to others is where MMOs shine. Just about every aspect of MMO gameplay is done better by other genres of games–shooters are better at fast action, single-player RPGs are better at telling cinematic stories, etc.–but at least so far, nobody beats MMOs at the social aspects. (Note: This is changing fast! Developers, plan your careers accordingly.)

Skilled players are crucial to a raiding guild. Helpful crafters are the cornerstone of any social guild. Nice people willing to help out someone in trouble allow for those priceless moments of player-to-player interaction that make these games so sticky. Players are the glue that hold MMOs together.

And yet, even MMOs don’t get a perfect mark here. WoW’s dungeon finder is the best (worst?) example I can think of. While I have fun jumping easily into content and leaving with shiny new items, all I do is select my role and get pulled into the adventure with a bunch of other players I don’t know and probably won’t say a word to unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong. WoW can get away with it because they have so many players and so much to do in the game, yet for smaller titles this would be a terribly depersonalizing experience. Automated matchmaking gets players to the content faster, but ultimately undermine relatedness. When the appeal of the content runs out, players are left with fewer social times to the game itself. This leads to churn, which most MMOs that aren’t named World of Warcraft are unlikely to overcome.


While current MMOs have a lot going for them, in many ways they have strayed from the early principles that actually satisfied competence, autonomy, and relatedness really well. High production values and expensive cut scenes don’t make up for these losses. The more you try to force an MMO to feel like another type of game, the less it feels like a distinct genre and the farther you get from the core experiences that made MMOs so popular.

It should be noted that most of my observations above are focused on triple-A themepark MMOs. There are certainly smaller, independent projects that are doing a better job of hitting these marks. Ultimately, it may be refocusing on these core principles that returns the MMO genre to its glory days; if not, its best features will likely be absorbed into other genres. Depending how you look at things, this has already happened and will only escalate from here.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

2 thoughts on “Satisfying Psychological Needs”

  1. The balancing act is sizing the MMO so “bite sized” content runs of 30 minutes or less isn’t considered a cop-out or a let-down in some way. WoW’s concept of the “lunch time battleground” was a very good one and a huge part of it’s initial success.

    Quick, Automated grouping is part of what enables that. Running LDoN, a strong group could clear some missions in 30 minutes, and you could string 2-3 sessions together relatively quickly. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? How long did it take you to assemble that strong group? Have trouble finding a healer, wipe a couple of times, etc, and you’re at 90 minutes and haven’t done anything yet besides get frustrated with the random folks you’ve manually paired yourself with.

    The real problem in the equation is that there’s a decent chunk of players who *need* the automated functions to properly experience content in the game in the time they have. Then, you get the min-max crowd jumping in as well because its just faster.

    Limiting the number of runs you can make in instances, particularly for free players, is one option. Not enabling some instances for auto-grouping is another. To do it right though, you have to allow some extra time to move content into the queuing system as new stuff gets released.

    And I don’t care if its an old fashioned pick up group or an automated match maker, the odds of me not talking are low. :)

  2. To be clear, I wasn’t complaining about dungeon finder. I have been playing a fair amount of WoW again lately, and I use it a lot–especially at lunch time. It’s extremely good at what it does, particularly with the layers of polish about putting you back exactly where you left off in the “regular” world.

    I’m just pointing out that it’s a tradeoff. You are sacrificing relatedness for content accessibility. I’m not saying it’s a bad trade; clearly WoW does just fine with it. I’m just saying it’s a conscious design choice that goes beyond the arguments I often hear against it, like how it ruins exploration or the sense of worldliness.

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