How game design determines community

Game design determines the community.
image by freepik -

“The game was good until the toxic community destroyed it.” You can read such and similar opinions in abundance. However, the opposite is true. The game design makes the community. Read how to build a good community!

Table of contents

Aims and rules determine behavior

Neither is community behavior something random, nor are games destroyed by a “bad community.” Rather, each game has exactly the kind of community it created by its rules.

Each game has exactly the kind of community it created by its rules.

Do you agree?

Humans are economic beings and strive for goods. These goods can be anything: a new car, attention, or just not being hungry. Therefore, humans have aims in life.

In a game, in contrast to real life, game design channels the players’ aims and the ways of achieving these. Whether you like it or not: your game rules determine your players’ behavior.

A game that rewards cooperation and courtesy will attract exactly that kind of community.

The best intentions can build a toxic community

As with many catastrophes, they start with good and honest intentions. The intentions were to make games more accessible to so-called casuals. Casuals, in this sense, are players that play the game less often and/or have a low player skill.

The intentions were good because an accessible game is a good game. And the intentions were honest: they were driven by economic consideration. There are more casual players than hardcore players.

Therefore, the idea was that players should be independent and self-sustainable. Players should achieve almost everything alone or with a fast and anonymous grouping mechanic.

The result was exactly that toxic community you can find in so many games today. This is not by accident! Read again what the players are by design: independent and anonymous.

“casual” MMORPG
players are:
traditional MMORPG
players are:
independentdependent on others
anonymousneed reputation
result: toxic communityresult: nice community
The casual trap: how making a game accessible went wrong

The “casual” MMORPG players don´t need others to reach their aims. Being nice and building up a reputation doesn´t pay off. Rather showing this kind of behavior is ignored at best and exploited at worst.

Read here how to make an MMORPG accessible without breaking the community.

How to build a good community

Item retirement

Removing items from the game is essential when you want players to be excited about new items. Even more, when the maximal item level is fixed. You will see, that only item decay and item reset support both community-building and accessibility.

The following mechanics remove items:

  • item binding
  • item outdating
  • item decay
  • item reset
  • permadeath

Item binding

Making items soul bound on their use or on their pick-up is a game mechanic to effectively remove items from the game. However, item binding feels artificial and gives away an opportunity to strengthen the community.

The source of items in an MMORPG are creatures, quests, and crafting. Add trading to that list. Items should always be tradeable. Giving your old sword to a lower-level friend is a good way to strengthen relations between players and reduce the power difference between the top dogs and the lower-end players.

Advantage: Efficient item retirement mechanic as long as the BiS item is not reached.

Disadvantage: Works against community building and accessibility.

Item outdating

Offering better and better items in the game is an effective way to make old items obsolete. Item outdating is possible the most efficient and player-friendly item retirement mechanic.

However, item outdating has two downsides. Firstly, it requires a permanent influx of better and better items. Secondly, item outdating increases the gap between player groups with different skills and time commitments and therefore decreases accessibility.

Advantage: Efficient and player-friendly item retirement mechanic.

Disadvantage: Requires a permanent influx of better and better items. Works against accessibility.

Item decay

Item decay or item duration loss is a game mechanic where items degrade with each use. They don´t lose their power gradually and they don´t degrade over time. However, when the decay is complete, they are useless with a blow.

This is a strong mechanic to remove items from the game. However, it is an unfamiliar mechanic for many players. So don´t expect decay to be popular. You need to balance the decay speed carefully. Nevertheless, item decay is essential. It sets your game priorities towards a friendly community. How so?

The best items are usually acquired with the help of other players. In a game without item decay, the player aims to have items. Therefore, the player needs the community once. Or at least until the best items are collected.

On the contrary, in a game with item decay, the player aims to have the means to get items. Therefore, the player needs the community. Do you see the difference?

In addition, this mechanic does not punish casual players, because their items are more rarely used. Therefore, they will stay for a longer time.

Advantage: Effective item retirement mechanic, even when BiS items are reached. Strengthens community.

Disadvantage: Unpopular among players.

Item reset

An event where all players lose all items is an item reset. This is an effective, yet not efficient mechanic.

Advantage: Most effective item retirement mechanic, even when BiS items are reached.

Disadvantage: Only acceptable when the entire game is built and balanced around regular resets.


Permadeath is similar to item reset, but only a single player is affected. Permadeath is a very special feature with a separate paragraph in this article.

Remove anonymity

Why is anonymity bad in an MMORPG

Forgetting your good manners is much easier if you don´t fear the consequences. That´s not important in a single-player game. However, it is unacceptable in an MMORPG where one player’s rude behavior can scare other players away.

Furthermore, it´s not only about rude behavior. Anonymity effectively prevents trust and reputation. Even with the best intentions, you cannot build a reputation when you and your counterpart’s identity is as solid and reliable as wet toilet paper.

Solid Pseudonymity is better than anonymity

Playing a role in a game benefits when it is pseudonymous. That means your real-life identity remains hidden. However, your virtual identity is persistent and recognizable.

Players must be forced to face the consequences of their actions.

That means transferring the player character to another server or renaming the player character should be impossible.

How to protect players from being stalked

Being anonymous in online games protects against being stalked by other players. When removing anonymity, you must take care to implement mechanisms against stalking.

A simple method is a well-implemented ignore list with the opportunity to make notes.

Keep a human scale on player numbers

How many concurrent players needs an MMMORPG?

The M in MMORPG stands for massive. So what is massive? The size of the game world? The number of concurrent players online? The hardware requirements?

There is an saying in the Laws of Online World Design:

The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing.

Koster’s Law (Mike Sellers )

So while the M may stand for massive player numbers, the R, P, and G in MMORPG stand for a roleplaying game. MMORPGs are not about as many concurrent players as possible. Rather, they are about:

  • more than enough players around to play with
  • epic battles with countless players

More than enough players: Dunbars number

The number of persons an average human can hold social contact with is no more than 150. Possibly it´s a limit of the human brain. This number is called Dunbar’s number. Similar numbers in the range of 80 to 250 are discussed by several other scientists.

So what to do with this number in MMORPGs? Dunbar argued that 150 is the maximal number of contacts that a single person can maintain. So don´t mistake that with in-game contacts. The average player plays more than one game and has a real-life.

In the end, Dunbar’s number tells a story: there is a surprisingly low limit to meaningful player numbers in MMORPGs. After all, you want a community with remarkable individuals and not an army of swappable bots.

No matter all the numbers, what is most important to a player is: are there enough players around to play with now?

Having no player around or having too many players around can damage the MMORPG experience. Therefore, the real challenge is to cope with the highly volatile number of players.

Communication barrier

Another approach is to look at communication behavior. Play options, communication, and strategies increase with 2, 3, 5, and 10 players.

When you play with more than 10 players, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate efficiently. Therefore, players will establish a communication hierarchy. Instead of talking to “Merlin” or “Adria”, they will talk to “the healers”, the “intercept group”, or the “guards captain”.

The point at which communication switches from individuality to hierarchy marks the number of players needed.

Epic battles: the epic onion

To create an epic feeling, you need to build the epic onion. The innermost part of the onion is the player. The next layers are the best friends, surrounded by his less known friends, surrounded by masses of unknown players, surrounded by even bigger masses of enemies.

To create the epic onion, you must channel content. You need to create game mechanics that lures all players to the same place. Read here how to do it.


Players hate permadeath and they have good reasons

Permadeath is a game mechanic where the avatar is really gone when dying in the virtual world. Permadeath is an old, well-known concept from the ancient age of arcade machines. Permadeath wasn´t a carefully crafted game mechanic. Rather, the first gaming machines were unable to store data.

Most MMORPGs refrain from permadeath. Why? Because players hate to lose everything and start from scratch. A permadeath mechanic is no small matter. It has fundamental implications on all other game mechanics and on player behavior. Players will try to avoid permadeath or its consequences at all costs. That may include games with permadeath.

Permadeath threats the design cornerstones of achievement (players hate failure), progression (players can lose progress), and collecting (players can lose items).

Consider, that permadeath in an MMORPG isn´t the same as starting a game of chess anew. In the latter, even as a loser you may gain insight. Your skill grows. In a game where the progress of the player is almost entirely stored in his items, permadeath takes all progress away.

Also, true permadeath is a binary property. A game where some progress can survive permadeath, hasn´t true permadeath. There is no permadeath lite.

Besides, permadeath reduces the motivation of the player to invest emotion in his avatar. When playing a game of cards, the player doesn´t really care for his cards on an emotional level. However, in an MMORPG this can be completely different. When you introduce permadeath to your MMORPG, you risk that players avoid connection with their avatar to prevent the pain that would arise in the event of losing it in permadeath.

You need to adjust game difficulty so that permadeath is a rare exception and not a regular event. This means lowering difficulty or including safe withdrawal mechanics.

Risk is high that a player blames other players for his permadeath. Therefore, permadeath can work against positive social interaction.

Permadeath has some advantages

Permadeath supports the design cornerstones of achievement (no pain, no gain), immersion (the world is more intense), and positive social interaction. Why the latter?

When the player can lose everything, only one thing is left: the community.

Support this by giving players a forename and surname. The forename dies with the avatar. The surname stays. Therefore, players can build a reputation. The son/daughter carries the name of its deceased ancestor. A good reputation is the best prospect of help a player may have.

Permadeath against all odds

In the end, the disadvantages of permadeath outweigh the advantages. However, you setting or opinion might be different and you want to introduce permadeath against all odds in your MMORPG. The consider the following.

A world with permadeath can be more intense. The risk of losing everything breaths adrenaline in every action. The risk to frustrate players is high. Death needs to be a rare exception, or the player won´t connect emotionally with his avatar.

Don´t let death occur through bad luck. The player should know what he did wrong. You must give a fair chance to calculate the risks. The same mechanisms that make your game accessible can make it ready for permadeath.

Smoke bomb: desorients enemy for five seconds.
Withdrawal mechanic: Smoke bomb – disorients enemy for five seconds.
image by macrovector –

Rather than making combat easier, add many withdrawal mechanics.

Besides, remove the threat to the design cornerstones of achievement, progression, and collecting. So the items of the deceased are smashed in the fight. However, let players keep their none-progress rewards, their crafting skills (you taught everything to your son/daughter), and the stuff in their bank account.

Grant players the security of these progression systems. Otherwise, they will create alternative characters for storing crafting skills and treasures.

Also, you may decide to abolish item decay from your game because permadeath is already a mechanic that removes the best items of an avatar in the event of its death.

Permadeath and PvP

Everything said about permadeath strikes exponentially when players can die at the hand of other players. Also, you gain a wealth of emotions, mostly negative: pride, revenge, anger, mischief, griefing, and fear.

Negative social interactions are more impactful than positive ones. So you risk turning the positive effect of permadeath on social interactions into the opposite.

It is harder to implement safe withdrawal mechanics for PvP because players will try to find a way around them. In contrast to creatures, players can prepare ambushes and traps that lead to guaranteed death of the surprised and unwilling victim.

You will need good regulatory game mechanics to prevent the natural course: few top players kill the rest. Even with such mechanisms in place, player death would need to be a common occurrence. In PvE, it doesn´t hurt when all players win 99.9 % of the fights. This is not possible in PvP.

Therefore, PvP excludes permadeath and vice versa.

A compromise might be a “training battleground” where players can fight against each other in a protected environment, yet not to death. Another modus could be “honor duels”, where two consensual players can fight to the death.


In conclusion, to build a good community you should promote the following concepts:

What do you think is important to build a good community?

Game design considerations.
Design Doris

A good community is the strongest player retention factor. However, that does not come by accident. Rather, your game design determines the community.

(Last Updated on May 11, 2021)

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