The Pros and Cons of Realism in MMOs

By Jeff Francis
Pros and cons of realism in mmos

One of the reasons why I love to play mmorpg games is that they're an escape from real life. My normal life is rather unexciting as I do work, pay bills, and shop for the cheapest groceries possible. I don't strap a sword to my side and go questing to find forgotten tombs and plunder them for untold riches. The closest I get to flying a spaceship through massive space battles is when I look up at the stars when I get back from shopping at Wal-Mart at 3am. It's been interesting to notice a recent trend in online gaming to focus on realism. It seems that developers want to make the virtual world as realistic as possible all the way down to the most mundane of tasks. Personally, I think that this is a double-edged sword. Let me explain both the pros and cons of realism in mmos.

Survive the Nights crafting

Let's begin with the most basic good aspect of the mmo realism pros and cons. I'm talking about recreating an experience in painstakingly accurate detail that perhaps we wouldn't want to really experience in the real world. Survival-themed games have exploded over the last few years, and I can understand the attraction. Figuring out how to survive a harsh environment can be as rewarding as taking down a major dungeon boss. A player can put their ingenuity to the test in these games, especially ones that merge zombies with realistic survival techniques, such as Survive the Nights and H1Z1. Half the fun of these types of games is beating the odds of starting off cold, alone, and starving.

Another mmo realism pro is that of immersion. The more realistic an mmorpg can be, the more the player is immersed in the game. We all know that snow is cold and that deserts are blistering hot during the day, so having those conditions reflected in the game transport our minds into that situation. It breaks the mood when your hero is climbing towards the icy peaks of a mountain and sees some other players cavorting around in their underwear with no penalties for doing so. Realism in mmos can also ratchet up the tension. You may love to scavenge items in online games, but if your character is starving to death, then looking for gold or really cool gear takes a huge backseat to finding something edible to put in your belly. Seeing your health bar dropping when you run out of food, water, or air can really help motivate you to figuring out what to do in order to survive.

However, there are some cons to mmo realism. The first is that the game can be too realistic where every minute task needs to be done in real time. For me, this kind of defeats the purpose of gaming. I don't mind cutting down trees to make logs for a home, but if I had to spend twenty minutes or more chopping down a tree, I would go mad with boredom. Even though it wasn't realistic, I hated fishing in World of Warcraft because you had to sit there and click on the lure when a fish bit. Just sitting there to do menial tasks isn't suitably heroic. While I want realism in survival-type games, I want that time compressed to make the game playable.

Guild Wars 2 tree chopping

Another negative for mmo realism is that it can lead developers to lose sight of the big picture. When you spend countless hours worrying about the best approach to weave cloth in a game, you might lose focus on other items, such as lore or combat. The setting of an online game is a big deal for me, and I want reasons why my character is doing something within the game. I don't mind doing the small things as long as those items impact the big things happening in the game. If I wanted to play a medieval loom weaver simulation, I would play that and not an mmo. The tasks that I do in the game have to have meaning in the larger context. My development in a zone within a game should lead to having the game send NPCs to settle nearby or perhaps having monsters that live in the area attack me as I'm using up their resources. What I do in the game should matter as part of a grand narrative, but a lot of ultra-realistic games tend to focus on the intricacy of small things instead. Having detailed mining and smiting proficiencies is great but force me to deal with the orc tribe living in the area, either through trade or outright conquest, to build a mine and start harvesting rather than just walk in and easily set up shop.

Overall, it's a matter of personal choice when it comes to mmo realism. I want enough to ground me in the game's virtual world, and it's also fun to try to experience something I have no plans doing in real life. I don't know about you, but I'm not about to start building a settlement with my two hands on top of a mountain range. On the other hand, too much realism in mmo games can distract developers from fully building the larger framework that all that realism has to fit into. There's also the notion of playability. The game has to be playable by gamers who don't chop down trees or build guns from scratch for a living. The mechanics have to be easily understood and accomplished within a reasonable time period. For me, I enjoy realism as long as it fits within the game and I'm having fun.


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