[Game UX Case] How I raised an MMO’s player base by 70%

Using UX and behavioural psychology to take Priston Tale back to its former glory

Romario Verbran
11 min readOct 3, 2022

Awarded Game of the Year twice, Priston Tale is a classic MMORPG with 20 years of history and thousands of players worldwide. A game once so popular that you’d have to pay a monthly fee and wait in login queues!

But time hasn’t done PT wellnine New RPGs like World of Warcraft brought more balanced gameplays and innovative features, making most Priston servers shut down. Most players are nostalgic adults trying to relive their childhood memories, with only a tiny fraction of new players.

We are starting to change that, though. Applying behavioural psychology, UX design, and modern game deatures, I helped PTEU (European Union) raise its player base by 70% along with a 140% revenue increase over the last 9hs — and the data shows we are far from the peak!

The challenge

Priston Tale is mostly played by 30 to 40yo people that grew up with the game, BUT the game didn’t care to grow up with them. The result is a 20yo experience for gamers that now play the biggest titles in the market, causing many to quit and seek better games.

Another problem is PT’s code: programmed with a deprecated 50yo language, only a few devs can handle the dreadful backend of the game — and they sure charge well for those skills.

All of this combined, we not only had to learn what players needed but also ensure our creativity was within the code’s boundaries, mostly limiting us to tweaking and fixing existing features instead of creating new ones.


Undercover Contextual Inquiries

Why undercover? Because PT is a passion-driven community where players want to prove they are the most hardcore gamers in the world — and that only gets worse in the presence of developers, which could modify their beloved “classic experience”.

Being undercover for two months allowed me to disguise my interviews as conversations and get unbiased opinions from them. It also enabled me to face the entire player journey like a regular player, which gave me a unique perspective on the game.

The affinity map above shows a few of the discoveries I made, the most important issues being..:

  • Boring grind: you have to kill monsters to level up in Priston Tale, but the process gets extremely repetitive (what we call “grinding”), leading many players to say the game felt like work.

Other servers “solve” this by multiplying EXP points (required to level up), but that’s a huge mistake since level requirements multiply equally. Not only the faster levelling is illusory, but also detrimental because players skip the early and mid-game phases, killing their sense of Accomplishment and Development.

  • Unbalanced maps: hard work never paid off in PT because monsters had bad drops, causing players to always be underequipped. (Which in turn leaves them weak to access stronger maps, forcing them to play extra hours in places they should have already left.)

Also, many maps’ EXP rewards were unbalanced, e.g., a Lv 90 region being less rewarding than a Lv 75 one, leading players to spend even more hours on maps they are already sick of.

Players expected to feel like heroes but felt like menial workers in a factory line.

  • Excluding meta: only 3 out of 10 classes (characters) were good at grinding, while the other 7 only lured* for them most of the time. (*Running back and forth to bring monsters for others to kill.)

Making matters worse, all classes’ performance plummeted as players levelled up, reaching a point where the game was so hard that players felt weaker than when they started. It’s like going to the gym to lose muscles!

  • “Lack of time”: all these difficulties together, achieving anything in the game simply took too long for a regular adult player. Something as simple as a quest would take 45 minutes to complete, but players need at least 7 of them daily — which means 5 hours per day!

You can see Priston didn’t lack features, but reward loops instead. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but make it turn in the first place!

Research Repository

I consolidated all our knowledge in a private database

You never forget how to ride a bicycle, but what if bicycles suddenly changed overnight?

I figure that our discoveries would lead to dramatic changes to mechanics that were already ingrained in devs’ minds with a passion, so failing to get everybody on the same page could kill the project.

To prevent conflicts and enable all devs to update the game independently, I created an Airtable repository explaining our findings and changes, enabling any dev to understand and update the game by themselves.

  • Need to create a new monster? Get the formulae in the repos.
  • Building a new map? Learn how to plan its geography and distribute monsters in minutes.
  • Lost a developer? No problem: all UX and dev knowledge is stored so even an intern could initiate the hardest tasks.

Actually, PTEU’s latest top map was fully set up by a dev* with zero map-building experience and top players are pretty satisfied with it. It’s like having an engineering student building a perfect skyscraper all by himself! (*That appropriate professional was unavailable back then.)

Design Solutions

Maaany things were done, but you can see the biggest changes below:

Monster roles

Although Priston Tale is an action RPG, I noticed the gameplay was surprisingly idle: players went to a spawn (a location where monsters are born) and simply spammed a given spell endlessly without any strategy. (Many even used auto-click software and alt+tabbed the game!)

One of the reasons was that all monsters on a map were similar in power, so I solved that by giving monsters specific roles like..:

  • Minion: dies in seconds just so you feel powerful when crushing them. (Players also get to see their EXP rising non-stop, curbing boredom.)
  • Demi-boss: less frequent, but strong enough to kill a whole party in seconds. You’d better rally the party to take him down ASAP!
  • Shooter: always out of your spells’ range and forms an army of his own if left unattended. At least one player has to hunt them down.
  • Tank: takes a while to die and prevents more monsters from spawning, so the quicker you kill them, the more EXP your party gets.

We are just scratching the surface here, but you can see those mob roles add a layer of complexity to the game that forces players to strategise. Instead of simply gathering 6 players to spam spells randomly, players now assign roles to each other, looking for new ways to speed up their kill rate. (Please, don’t share this article with them :P)

Character rebalancing & new playing styles

Remember this is a 20yo with a low population? This is tragic when only 3 out of 10 chars are good at AoE (mass killing), which is the main way to level up quickly.

Although it’s important that each class has a given advantage over others, I concluded that all classes had to be similarly efficient AoE-wise to ensure no one would quit because they felt powerless.

Removing the privilege of those 3 classes seriously annoyed some players, but the player base increased because now everyone can play any day, any time, under any condition. Fighting skills over class choice! (I.e., efficiency variation dropped from 100%+ to ~20%)

Another important change was how chars were built: I noticed everybody picked AoE builds since mass killing is so important in PT, but that was disappointing because it killed players’ Empowerment of Creativity.

That’s why I reviewed all 10 classes and rebalanced each of their skills, ensuring that every class could be played in 2–3 ways. Players can now forgo their AoE skills and become a 1v1 killer, for instance, annihilating individual enemies. (And as you can see, this contributes to the monster roles system since you could customise your hero to hunt a given monster type.)

New progression / EXP table

What people say is not what people do, right? Priston Tale proved that very clearly.

Many of our quitting players said they were leaving because PvP (player versus player battles) wasn’t good, but I noticed an odd pattern: the worse a map was, the more they complained about PvP — although it’s a completely unrelated part of the game.

They didn’t quit because PvP was bad but because monsters became so difficult that they wanted to PvP instead, which also disappointed them, causing a Cognitive Appraisal Error. (When one projects their feelings of a situation onto something else, e.g.: hitting your toe against furniture and saying the world is actively against you today.)

To address that, I played every map with every single class to note down where things broke (e.g., a Lv 80 map being less fun and rewarding than a Lv 70 one), eventually coming up with my own spreadsheet of how an ideal progression would be.

This enabled players to advance in the world at a steady pace that kept them constantly excited to unlock the next map, removing the feeling of being stuck in a given region.

Actually, the new progression was so effective that players had an Illusion of Progress: players felt they were advancing faster even though I designed many regions to be actually slower than before. The only difference is that they were now sure that their efforts would be rewarded at a reasonable, predictable pace.

The best part is that we had a major uninstall rate around Lv 90 and that has plummeted since then, dramatically raising the number of endgame players on the server. (Where the money is!)

Random events

Who doesn’t like a surprise gift?! Especially when tired and bored!

Even with all the changes to improve gameplay, we learned that players are always looking for a way to “break the game” and make it too easy, even boring to play.

This inspired me to create an Unpredictability system called Mimic: a special monster with rare drops that show up somewhere in the world every X minutes, changing player’s mood from deadly boredom to absolute excitement.

Mimics became so popular that many play extra hours in hopes of getting a legendary item from them, turning what was supposed to be a distraction into an active goal.

Quest system and lore

Bloody Prince, one of the many monster/lore innovations

Priston Tale was purposely designed to be a grinding game: kill monsters over and over again to gain EXP and level up. No quests; no daily goals; no micro rewards. Just pure grinding.

PTEU addressed this by adding hundreds of quests to the game, but they could be very unstable since quests could range from minutes to hours without any particular reason. Many players would start a quest excited and leave right after finishing it because they felt boringly exhausted.

The solution? Calculating average playing time to devise a constant reward loop, giving players many motivation shots based on daily quests that they feel compelled to complete every day.

You can see all these systems feed each other: rebalanced monsters make battles more exciting ⮞ odds are some cool items will be dropped ⮞ while I wait for that, I finish a daily quest ⮞ the longer I take to finish it, the higher the chances of spotting an awesome Mimic!

The system is not perfect yet, but the sentence “I’ve been playing for 5 minutes and I’m already bored” has never been uttered again. Players know for a fact that quests fit in their schedule and they enjoy finishing them.

Player feedback

Last, can you imagine someone playing a game for 20 years and knowing nothing about its story?!

Since PT originally had no quests, its story is completely unknown to most players. That’s why I embarked on a long research to learn everything about Priston’s story, allowing me to write dozens of quests that follow players from Lv 1 to 90 — fostering an Epic Meaning and Calling onto them.

The best part is that researching the game’s story gave the team a new perspective on feature development, motivating all to collaborate on the game’s story with update suggestions that expand Priston’s lore in a cohesive manner. Players now feel it’s a real world instead of a series of random regions stitched together.

Along with these, I also designed a new travelling system, monsters, and skins to bring more life to the game.

This is the Astral Boat: a lore-based travelling system that helps players waste less time walking. Before that, the dev team wouldn’t even consider a new system, but adding lore changed their minds.

Before we discuss metrics, here’s an actual trailer of all recent changes:

Failures and Sucess

Before talking about the good, I must say many things rest unfixed, be it due to coding limitations, failed executions, or simply not knowing how to tackle a problem.

  • We still have low-level brackets where many players quit.
  • Level 90 specifically still makes many players lose motivation.
  • Getting players fully equipped is still hard, making some players feel they aren’t progressing.
  • Some monster roles are overpowered because I accidentally made them cruel to fair players while trying to punish cheaters.
  • Although decently balanced in test results, many players perceive some classes as overpowered due to numeric illusions. (E.g. Class 1 deals 200+800 {=1000} damage while Class 2 deals 500+500 {=1000}, making the former seem stronger because the number 800 is bigger than 500.)

These and other problems were logged and will be addressed in the upcoming season, but we unfortunately can’t say much due to NDA.

Business Results

  • Player count raised by 70%.
  • Revenue rose by 140%.
  • Character price rose from $1xx to over 4xx euros.
  • Seasons no longer die off in 2 weeks, our greatest achievement.***
  • Low-level maps are no longer empty, enabling more players to start a journey.
  • The average player level (=playing time) raised by 40%.

***This is the most important result since PTEU is season-based: every X months, a new server starts where all players start a new journey for the next two months.

Seasons always generate hyped, but problems were so many that most players would quit within the first 2 weeks, ruining PTEU’s profits and also making the game boring and lonely for those who started later.

My greatest pride as a Priston developer is to say seasons now live up to their very last day and many even ask us to extend them. Even veterans, known haters of the seasonal system, are giving it a try due to its success!

As a member of PTEU’s dev team, I’ll keep working on the game for many seasons to come. If you happen to be a fan or simply want to learn more about UX and game design, just follow me on LinkedIn. (And if you are a game design pro, please, come enlighten me with your knowledge!)

Thanks for reading this article!