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MMORPG: Reward Cycle - Part 1 Launch Titles

Massive Multiplier Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) are enormous development effort designed to engage a large number of players concurrently. The huge financial cost means that designers have an obligation both to their investors and players to provide content in a manner that keeps players engaged and ultimately logged into the game and paying the subscription fees.  This motivation generates a reward cycle allowing players to invest their time, money, and effort to achieve varying results providing a sense of progression. 

The reward cycle is critical to the success of an MMORPG because developers cannot create content faster than players can consume it. Procedurally generated content has been explored, but typically the sense of novelty is absent and players lose interest or do not treat it as anything more than previously explored content with different skins/models or a different sequence of the same events.

This reward cycle can either be a positive factor for enjoyment or a negative factor of addiction. The differences rely on the player rather than the systems used.

While these types of reward cycles are not restrictive to MMORPGs this is where they are most commonly found. In this article, we are exploring a number of MMORPGs and how they implement their reward cycles. Among these games are the following:

  • Everquest
  • Everquest 2
  • World of Warcraft
  • Final Fantasy XIV
  • Destiny
  • Guild Wars 2

MMORPG Launch Titles

Launch titles differ from expansions because the initial hook for players is the sense of exploration of a new world and the character development process of leveling a character enabling full access to the world. These systems exist is nearly every MMORPG.

  • Character Leveling
  • Exploration
  • Socialization

Once the players reach the maximum character level they arrive at the "end-game" content that really drives the reward cycle. Why does a player keep playing after they have reached maximum level? What motivates them to continually log the hours in the game and pay the subscription fees?

Character Gear

Having a fancy set of gear and competing with your fellow players to look the best with the shiniest sword and best-looking armor can be drivers for players to repeat the same content hoping to be lucky enough to secure the rare drops. The imposed rarity system, as well as systems of competition, can be used to keep players in the game by requiring investments of time to obtain the most sought after gear.

Everquest implemented group content requiring the cooperation of six players to journey to contested locations while competing with other player groups to farm rare enemies. Small group content enemies had fixed spawn locations with a relatively short respawn timer, but they were designed to only spawn rarely while their common placeholder enemies spawned the majority of the time. If the placeholder was not dead then the rare enemy would not show up. Once the rare spawn actually showed up in the game the loot that the enemy dropped had a mixture of common drops and rare drops. These rare loot drops on rare enemies were the best the game had to offer and caused the players to engage in a competitive behavior loop.  

Non-group content requiring even larger groups of players to defeat typically had an extremely long spawn time, but no placeholders were used. Since these enemies required organization and a larger number of players to defeat they were commonly termed raids. These raid bosses would drop more loot than a group content, but still less than the number of players required to defeat it. As a result, once the raid boss was defeated competition on the rare loot and who would receive it occurred.  In ideal circumstances, this led to player imposed reward systems such as DKP where attending raid earned points used to buy raid loot. In less favorably cases social drama occurred due to disagreements of rewards or outright theft. 

Destiny used a story quest line to drive players to maximum level and then allowed the player to improve their gear and abilities through a light measurement system. This light system rewarded players for upgrading their equipment for stronger equipment and averaged the light value on equipment to provide a light rating for the character. Destiny removed competition for drops by having everything received to be a personal roll of the dice when determining rewards. The rewards came through playing the group content (3 man strikes, PVP matches, and raids). Destiny also had an engram system where colored cubes are collected and turned into a Non-Player Character to open them and find out what was inside. The loot rarity was so bad early on in Destiny that players were motivated to farm lower level enemies in an infamous "loot cave" that could be triggered to spawn many enemies very quickly increasing the chances of engram drops. The high amount of engram drops required was due to the poor rewards from the engram vendor since engrams could provide items of lower quality engram then the color of the engram decoded. 

World of Warcraft used a gear rarity color code that allowed them to mark the progression of the character. Progressing from green quest gear to blue dungeon gear and finally to purple raid gear was an achievement recognized both by the power level of the character but the respect by the player base. 

The character gear reward cycle is strengthening a player's belief that better gear or specific gear is obtainable and achievable. If the player ever achieves their best set of gear in their mind their motivation to continue playing may suffer.

Markets and Economies

MMORPGs have multiple trading mechanics and rules on which items can be traded and which are locked to the player character that obtains them. Some MMORPGs  created a "Bind on Equip" system which allows them to be traded until they have been equipped for the fist time by a player character. Other systems allowed every time to be traded allowing characters to upgrade equipment and then sell their lower gear to the market. These items create a market force and economy to allow trading of these valuable items where the value fluctuates with the rarity of the item or effort required to create the item. 

Earning currency can be used to facilitate the character gear motivation and counter poor drop luck when trying to obtain the item directly. It can also be a motivation in itself to be the most powerful market player by owning the most stock, having the highest net worth or self-satisfaction of finding good deals by buying low and selling high. Reaching game limiting caps on net worth can have negative impacts on this motivation, but market players will utilize alternative characters to house their money in these events. 


Everquest was the first MMORPG to introduce an evolvable faction element to the game. This faction system allowed a character who was inherently hated at first by one faction could earn the respect and admiration to not only be tolerated but rewarded with the best purchases available. Depending on where a player started they could spend many hours proving their worth. 

The methods of earning faction could involve killing the enemies of the faction you are trying to impress, completing quests (unique or repeatable), or completing content important to the faction. The faction grind as it became known involved repeated slaying of enemies, or turning in the same quests over and over. Player vs Player content was typically used to improve the PvP factions. 

In games where competing factions did not exist (to improve the one you must lower another), there was an achievable ending point when all factions had the highest regard for you. In games where competing factions existed choices could be made on which factions to focus on based on results or character choices based on lore. 

Lockouts and Resets

MMORPGs imposed limits on characters in their ability to do the best content that had the best rewards. These rewards ranged from items/loot to currencies used to purchase the best items or quest limits used to restrict improvements to faction standing.  Both daily and weekly resets were used to impose different limits either blocking rewards or lowering rewards until the next reset. 

Faction quests were commonly limited to daily resets in games like World of Warcraft and Destiny.

Financial and currency rewards were limited in Destiny and Final Fantasy XIV. Final Fantasy XIV implemented a weekly cap on tomestones used to purchase the high-quality gear. Combined with daily quests used to rewards these tomestones it rewarded players for playing daily to maximize the weekly cap. 

The dungeon and raid lockouts implemented by World of Warcraft, Destiny, and Everquest 2 allowed players to do the group or raid content and either locks them to a specific instance where it was not repeatable until the reset or repeatable without any rewards. The justification to come back next day/week to try your luck at the raid drop or the dungeon rewards kept players returning.


Console games and the Xbox player score from in-game achievements was added to MMORPGs as a progress of content experienced by the player. These date stamped records of what was achieved and when led to a meta game of players trying to have the highest achievement scores or completionist mentality. Many MMORPGs were released before achievements were created, but they typically added this after the fact.

Guild Wars 2 had an excellent design of each zone with group quests and events that allowed players to fill in the zone map and earn a sense of completion. 

The achievement system can cause players to explore content that does not initially appeal to them such as Player vs Player, other character classes, or character specializations. Some achievements are easy to achieve with effort and others are difficult requiring high skill or large amounts of luck. Due to complexity and variety in achievements added to the game reaching 100% completion is extremely difficult to reach. 


The comparison between players can be player driven or game driven as a result of the systems that exist. World of Warcraft had a PvP title system where constant play in battlegrounds and high performance resulted in rare titles and rewards limited to low quantities of players. 

Battlegrounds in games like Destiny, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars 2 had post match scoreboards that documented statistics such as damage done, healing done, and Kill/Death ratios. The drive to be the best of the matches and develop the skill required to reach or maintain the top spots. 

Player versus Environment typically had informal leaderboards developed as the server or world first victory of raid bosses. Some MMORPGs actually had titles and awards for characters to be the first to reach maximum level for each player class. 


In future articles post launch content, patches, and expansions will be discussed to explore how the reward cycles have adapted and changed post release.


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