The Fourth Sphere of Gameplay in MMORPGs


Staff member
I spend a lot of time writing and talking about how crafting and the economy are essential to the MMORPG experience - about how a game can't just be a cooperative monster killing simulator if it wants to have staying power with its players.

I mean, don't get me wrong - a game *can* do that. You could build an MMO that's just about progression, loot, and taking on bigger and bigger challenges. Do it well enough and it would probably sell pretty well. People would play it. People would enjoy it.

And then they'd be done with it, and gone.

It seems to me that the point of a persistent-world game is to actually keep players in it long term. To keep them invested, keep them coming back for more. To allow them to really feel like they're in another place, virtually, where they can do lots of different things. From a business perspective, longevity also enables better monetization, whether that's via subscriptions or some other method. We players tend to think that "monetization" is an evil thing, but it's this which helps fund ongoing development and operation of the game we're hopefully going to stay in for years.

This post really isn't about monetization - though I should probably talk about that at some point. It's not even about crafting and the economy, although I led with that. It's about how you make a game last, long-term, for its players. How you keep them around and logging in, and help prevent them from getting burned out and jaded in large numbers. Some will, of course. There's no avoiding it. But the game's developer can do things to help keep those numbers down.

During Vanguard's development, someone at Sigil coined the term "spheres" to connotate different types of gameplay within the same game. Adventuring is a sphere of gameplay. Crafting is a sphere of gameplay. For Vanguard, diplomacy was a third sphere of gameplay. The idea was that each sphere offers a different type of activity that players can participate in, fully fleshed out, which helps to keep them interesting in the world. Each sphere is its own experience, its own progression, but they can also interact with each other and support each other. It was a recognition that activities other than combat and adventuring are critical to retention and the longevity of the game.

Using this terminology, Pantheon may arguably have three spheres of gameplay as well. Adventuring and Crafting are obvious. Based on what we know so far, it's likely that the Perception system through which most quests and lore are delivered is going to be fleshed out enough to be considered a sphere in its own right as well. As a side note here, Brad McQuaid has said a few times that he'd like to take another run at a diplomacy system in a game in the future, because of the raw potential, but we know that's not on the books for Pantheon right now.

However, I believe that there's a fourth sphere of gameplay that's critically important to all MMOs - whether that's Pantheon or anything else. Social gameplay.

You might be thinking, "But wait Neph, shouldn't all the normal spheres of gameplay have social elements?" - and that's true. But it's not just social and cooperative elements I'm talking about. It's the ability for players to do things that are purely social, and get supported and rewarded by the game for doing that.

Parties. Weddings. Contests. Events. Gatherings. Concerts. Plays. All the things that players can and will try to do within the game world that don't directly relate to one of the other spheres. All the things they do specifically for the community.

We like to take these things for granted, a lot. When people ask us what the game is about, we don't think about the player wedding we attended last month. We think about the dungeon boss we just killed, or the crafting we did last weekend, or the quest we just solved. But the reality of it is that without the social sphere - without players creating and doing these things just for other players - there's a lot less keeping us invested in the world simulation of the game.

Eventually we beat every dungeon. We solve every quest. We master everything we want to master. Yet how many of us have done that in these games and then stuck around because of our friends? Because of our guilds? Because of the community?

This is why the fourth sphere is so essential. By giving players tools and methods to connect with each other and bolster friendships and the community, in parallel with the shared objectives they have from other kinds of gameplay, those community bonds become stronger. They can make the difference between someone deciding to keep logging in while they wait for an expansion, versus taking a long break and potentially not coming back. They can help encourage people to do things like create alts, or pick up things that they haven't tried yet, instead of simply getting bored and stepping back from the game.

The truth about the social sphere is that players will do it on their own, with or without any help from the game itself. But the more help the game provides, the more robust the social sphere will be in terms of how it impacts and influences players and enhances their experience. If the game, and especially the other spheres of gameplay, provide support for the social sphere as well, social activities will only become more common.

One of the things I spend a lot of time doing on the official forums for Pantheon is arguing for things like venues where players can host gatherings, minigames that can be used for contests, costumes and clothing that can be worn by players, and emotes that can be used for roleplay purposes. I go further of course, but even these little things can make a big difference. I do this because I believe that the fourth sphere - the social sphere - is dramatically important in order for an MMORPG to have real staying power long term. It's not the only piece in that puzzle, by any means, but it's an important one and we don't talk about it enough.


Staff member
Staff Writer
I love what you wrote here and I have to agree, Pantheon is already making small steps toward this in regards to questing and dungeon running, making it easier for friends to the content together at the groups pace. Main social elements outside quest and combat sounds great. Maybe sitting down and having a meal together at a campfire can buff everyone's charisma and a few other buffs. You could earn titles and unique items for participating in certain social events like weddings and even birthdays etc.


It is an entertaining thought.

Perhaps indeed features for Cultural Gameplay could be implemented into the game.
The question would be, how many players would make use of it?
I'd be one to explore it for sure. To think about social or cultural gameplay, leads me to think about guilds, groups of friends that play and act on some sort of role play within the game.
The game could indeed offer features that allow for a more in dept connection between players or guilds. (allignments "celebrations", championship contests, friendly challenges, gatherings, rituals).

The thing I am really hoping for is to keep this within the lore of each race.
With some general/common features that are the same across races in Terminus. In case you have players of mixed races that want to act on these social features in the game.
But it would be a nice thing, to know and notice the difference between social gameplay amongst dwarves in comparison to the Archai or Gnomes. I am a strong believer that there is a huge potential there for expansions and overall immersion for players and the different races that pass more and more time on this globe they know as Terminus.

So, yeah. Let's hope they don't forget to consider this when developing social aspects of the game.
A really fun topic to think about, Nephele. Thanks.