The MMO industry is not a particularly sane place to work. It drives people hard and soaks up their passion like a sponge, giving very little back in return. I’ve noticed that MMO game designers go through certain stages as they progress through their career. They may hop back and forth between the stages randomly, but I think it’s often a cycle. It goes like this:
Stage 1: The Eager Newbie
The designer has just landed their first design job and is eager to learn the ropes from seasoned pros. They are desperate for knowledge. They read books like Raph Koster’s and find them deep and interesting. They are hungry for feedback — from their peers, from players, from random people on the street. Anything to help them grow, and quickly!
But over time they realize that most of their peers don’t really have any magic secrets to teach them. The more they interact with the player base, the sadder they are, because players are not kind to developers. They soon come to believe that they have learned all the ropes there are to learn.
Stage 2: The Jaded Artisan
The designer has worked for a while now and doesn’t feel like a newbie. They likely have a key belief like “It’s all about deep story!” or “Balance is crucial for long-term game stability!” or “Dungeon flow is the key to fun!” They interact with the players, but they only absorb the gist of what players say, now. (In the past, they implemented some random player’s ideas and realized that most players are terrible designers, so they no longer really even consider player’s detailed requests.)
But over time they find that their work quality isn’t progressing very quickly anymore. Their key belief starts to seem less logical… they may even come to believe the exact opposite of what they once did. The lack of positive feedback starts to take its toll, too, until the designer no longer approaches their craft in an objective manner.
Stage 3: The Player Hater
The designer has worked on several games (or just been on a live team for more than a year — live teams age you very quickly). They’ve seen players mock their hard work every single time they try to do something brilliant. It almost seems as though players LIKE complaining… so maybe the designer should MAKE them complain! Faced with only negative feedback, the designer decides that negative feedback is GOOD. The designer crafts content that’s tougher, and tougher, and tougher still. They create systems that require players to be extremely good min/maxers just to survive.
The designer takes on an adversarial role with players, all the while saying things like, “Oh, players will complain, but they LOVE it when the new content kicks their ass for a few weeks.” This is sometimes true, but the designer doesn’t really care whether it’s true or not. Subconsciously, they now interpret negative feedback as positive, so it doesn’t really matter what’s right anymore.
But over time they grow bored of trying to evoke passion from players. Without any trusted feedback from any source, they find their enthusiasm waning and their skills no longer growing.
Stage 4: The Burnout
The designer doesn’t care anymore. The stupidity of the gaming industry has overcome them. Budget cuts mean QA won’t be testing the content this week? Sigh, what can you do. The producer wants that perfectly-balanced dungeon redone? Okay, whatever. It’s just a job. The designer puts in their eight hours and goes home. They avoid overtime like the plague (and if they are in a job where they can’t, they have to quit at this stage, or else they’ll soon get fired). They just can’t muster the passion to do amazing work anymore.
There are two paths from here, and they’re equally common: designers can leave the MMO industry completely, or they can work through it. In the latter case, they bide their time. Maybe they take a few months off somehow. Maybe they just stop caring but still manage to put out reasonable-quality work for a year or two, puttering along, until one day…
Stage 5: The Zen Master
The designer wakes up one day and realizes that they understand it all. The simple mantras they believed earlier about story or balance or flow or advancement can now be seen for what they really are: just tiny parts of the big picture. They can finally see the forest, instead of just a few trees.
It makes sense now, and the designer can create amazing work. However, they know it’s easy to fall back into burnout, so they doesn’t work too many hours. And the small stuff doesn’t get under their skin anymore — that way leads to madness. If the designer hasn’t developed an incredibly dark sense of humor already, they develop one now. (You can’t spend more than a few years as an MMO designer without cultivating a horrifyingly dark sense of humor.)
Hopefully the designer can maintain this state for a good while, but eventually they fall back to one of the earlier stages, and the cycle repeats.
Fixing the Designer Cycle
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a good cycle. It’s just how things tend to work. It happens because:
- The work requires long hours for very crappy pay (at least for the first several years).
- A typical starting designer works an average 60 hour week and gets maybe $30k a year. This works out to about $9.50 an hour, which is about what a teacher makes (teachers are another high-burnout profession). The difference is that teachers don’t have to work 60 hour weeks for prolonged periods of time.
- There’s almost no positive feedback.
- Players never say nice things. When a player posts on a game forum, it’s usually to complain. If they compliment the game at all, it’s not in a place where the designer can see it.
- Since the designer works so many hours, they don’t have time to play MMOs much anymore. They don’t see players having fun. Saddest of all, they often don’t even see their own content being played. They lose track of the reason they’re doing this at all.
- Designers are so busy with their own work that they rarely have time to do solid critiques of each others’ work.
- In many companies, designers work by committee — they have no autonomy over any game system. So the feedback they get isn’t personal. It’s hard to become invested in the product. (In the worst cases, designers need to get sign off from the entire 50-person team for their ideas. This is extremely draining.)
A lot of this boils down to being overworked: everybody in the MMO industry is overworked, and there are all sorts of trickle-down effects.
Being an MMO designer doesn’t need to be glamorous. It just needs to be a survivable career path. We need to keep designers from coming to hate players, or worse yet, becoming completely burned out and leaving the industry. Ideally, we should strive to push every designer to the “zen plateau” where they’re creating their best work, and then keep them there.