The Grind: How MMOs Can Shape UX Design

What we can learn from a genre of games that are designed to keep players coming back again & again & again.


If you are in-fact a UX designer, you probably want people to use the stuff you design, and use it often. Making an app that is used on a regular basis is tough. How do you make something a daily habit? Being on the mobile design team, I have sought out places that were obvious, and not so obvious, for the answer to what exactly makes something habit forming.

I recently returned to the World of Warcraft (WoW, for short), one of my favorite games of all time and the most popular MMO in the world for more than a decade now. It didn’t surprise me when I felt the pull back towards the game, as MMOs have a curious knack of pulling players back in. Now, when I came back into the world, I wasn’t just a middle schooler in wondrous amazement. This is something that has grown along with me, continuously evolving over the years with each new patch and expansion, while I grew up and graduated from college. I logged back in, after a WoW sabbatical if you will, with a different perspective and understanding of what makes a great user experience.

I wanted to know exactly what the clever minds of MMO designers were doing to keep me coming back, & how those ideas could influence my own design.

The Grind

I would guess that almost everyone who plays an MMO knows the feeling of wanting to log back into that character you just created, right after taking a break to go walk outside. It’s the longing to return to check up on to see if that auction sold, or to complete those last quest. A staple of the genre is its affinity towards a ton of content that is easy to get hooked on.

MMOs have the Kafkaesque concept of “the grind,” a seemingly endless experience of slowly treading towards the end game. The grind is essentially a trek towards a goal that is ever present, only obtainable through hard work and persistence. It’s tedious, a bit sadistic, but yet the grind makes reaching that end goal so much more rewarding.

In stark contrast with the grind, when creating a good UX, designers tend to strive to remove any points of friction, making the path towards the end goal as simple and painless as possible.
Starbucks Rewards by Starbucks Coffee Company

Apps and websites are obviously not the same as MMOs, and making things difficult and laborious all the time would be dumb design. Starbucks, however, has a rewards program that actually has levels, with each tier having its own benefits and perks. Each level is exceedingly more difficult than the last, and is something a Starbucks aficionado would have to work their way towards. Much like reaching the max level in WoW, reaching the final level is a reason for celebration in itself.

Farming 💸 💸 💸

Snap by Groupon

Snap had a cash back program that rewarded shoppers for clipping digital coupons, accumulating cash in their Snap account. Collection of resources in a MMO is referred to as “farming,” yet another tedious activity of accumulating stuff. Despite the monotony of the process, it can be fun.

MMOs & Data Design 📊 📊 📊

The amount of things a player can do each day in WoW is insane, and leads to a sense of an ever active and vibrant world. A player can go out ice fishing in the Borean Tundra, manage a small army at their garrison, even pick herbs and brew them into potions. With all these different bits of content, a player’s progress is helpfully laid out for each current activity. The player can see their level progress, track their quest objectives, get feedback on when they level up a profession, etc. Always being able to track progress gives the player a sense of working towards an end goal, again, a crucial element of the grind.

World of Warcraft -Blizzard
MMO UIs are data heavy beasts that constantly reinforce the notion continuing on with the grind.

Applying this mindset to traditional UX, letting someone know where they are at in their task is effective in instilling the sense of working towards an end goal. We are lured into chasing after the sense of completion, and often times one cannot help but push towards getting that 100%.

Habitica is an app that gamifies the traditional todo list, introducing consequences to real life actions. Users can set different rewards for different tasks, and even lose life for not completing a task. Positive reinforcement after completing a goal is a an obvious key factor in forming a habit. Habitica takes the gamification a step further, featuring an avatar that levels up as the user completes their goals. This is intended to create a 1:1 experience where a user’s real life actions towards their goals have a noticeable effect on the characters within Habitica.

Habitica

Building the Habit

To put this to a close, MMOs are a distinct breed of games, whose popularity and success relies on the health of the community, keeping players logging every day. This focus on the habit is paramount, as unlike a traditional video game, where a single player can complete the story over a course of days, MMOs need to sustain those players over months and months. When considering all of the other popular services that tack on a subscription, adding one more to that repertoire may seem a bit much. Despite this, MMOs are a massive genre in the world of gaming, and are a unique source of philosophical inspiration for crafting a habit forming UX.

Logan Miller is a designer on the Groupon mobile app. He enjoys long walks to the sunset underscored by EDM background music while playing fetch with his imaginary dog, Ziggy Stardust.


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