There is currently a lot of discussion in the World of Warcraft playerbase about a recently added feature: Horrific Visions. Visions are personal areas you can enter alone or with a handful of players and have 5 objectives with increasing difficulty plus additional difficulty options. The details aren't that important, but the core is that these Visions require careful planning of resources and time if you want to progress the harder difficulties, both during the visions themselves and in how you earn the right to complete a Vision. In return for completing these Visions, you can earn increasingly better gear based on difficulty (though repeated gear rewards decline in quality) as well as upgrades for an item you need against the final bosses of the raid that came in the same patch.

Now, usually in games that have really hard content you're supposed to defeat, there is no limit in how many attempts you can do, or the limit is sufficiently high that it makes no real difference. However, this isn't the case in Visions. Visions require you to buy an item to make an attempt, and this item is so costly that even if you log in every day and do all the content that rewards the items you need to buy this item, you can at most earn 4 copies of the item per week. There is also incentive to save these tokens for later weeks because later upgrades require you to complete increasingly more runs, which you can speed up by not using additional tokens in weeks where you don't need them.

This is what many people see as the biggest problem with these Visions. They're hard content, but you have only a couple attempts per week and you need to make them count. So there isn't really a safe way to practise them so you can learn how they work and what the best way to do them is. If you mess up and you don't do enough to earn the upgrade token mentioned above, it's a huge potential loss and you fall behind other players who did manage to complete them.

I'm trying to understand possible design rationale behind this. I don't usually come across this design element in games, and I can't even remember another game with similar design, especially for such a core feature of the content update. in other hard game content, Soulsborne games don't really restrict you in attempts, and Roguelikes actually are built around immediately starting anew when you fail, again without real limitations. AFAIK neither genre really limits you in how often you can try them. And it has been years since Blizzard last put a hard limit on how many attempts you were allowed for the hardest content, especially such a low amount.

What can be potential design rationale behind putting hard content behind a restrictive attempt limit?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems a bit strange to try to compare this aspect of MMO's with how roguelike/soulsbourne games deal with this. since those are generally single player, and basically never MMO's. \$\endgroup\$
    – JMac
    Jan 30, 2020 at 15:48

8 Answers 8


In addition to the excellent existing answers, there are a couple of other ways this type mechanic can boost retention.

One is by helping to keep a cohort of players on par with one another.

When attempts/rewards are limited only by your play time, then players with a lot of time to invest in the game can very quickly race ahead, and players with more limited time tend to lag behind.

Your more casual players (who vastly outnumber those who play most intensely) can feel left in the dust, like they'll never be able to catch up, and this can demotivate them into dropping out of the game. For games with multiplayer, social features, leaderboard competition, or cooperative raids, this can make it harder to find peers to play/share/compete with.

With a limited rate of progress, it becomes easier to keep a friend or peer group playing together at approximately the same level - with all the social stickiness benefits that come with that. Even outside of direct synchronous interaction between players in the game itself, sharing on player forums, Discord, Twitter, Twitch streams, etc. with other players who are in a similar bracket as you helps players feel like part of a community striving together, rather than "the slow one" who can't keep up or so peerlessly far ahead of the masses that you have nothing left to strive for.

This can also disincentivize sinking "too much" time into the game in a short interval, reducing the temptation of a game's compulsion loop to lure players into unhealthy play patterns, or burning themselves out.

There are also retention benefits due to player behaviour and psychology:

  • If I can do an activity anytime I want, I might be inclined to put it off to tomorrow, or the next day, or next week... until I forget about it and lapse out of the game

    • But if I have only a finite number of opportunities per week, each time I put it off, I've lost out on one of my chances. Human psychological bias of loss aversion kicks in, making this missed opportunity feel more dire, more urgent.
  • Logging in regularly to make use of all my opportunities helps develop a habit that I'll tend to persist. If I can just grind the content until I succeed in a shorter real-time interval, I don't have a chance to develop this regular habit that keeps me coming back.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer was my first thought on the matter based on the title, but the second paragraph of the question makes it clear that time is not the true gating mechanism, here. The OP references "time" only assuming that the player is earning the required currency to purchase the item to make an attempt at this "Vision" thing. While this is a good answer for the title, I don't think it answers the question as asked. \$\endgroup\$
    – Onyz
    Jan 30, 2020 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ My interpretation was that it was still a time gating mechanism, just at one remove: I have timed daily activities to do to earn currency, then I spend that currency to buy my 4 items each week. I cannot earn all the currency I need for my 4 weekly items in a day, even if I play 24 hours straight, because the currency-earning actions are available on a daily cadence. So I have to keep coming back regularly - multiple shorter sessions - to maximize my earning rate. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Jan 30, 2020 at 15:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Definitely a valid interpretation that I didn't see the first time. I don't know much about WoW, so I did a bit of research and as far as I can tell there's a linear reward structure where you just play more to earn more currency so you can buy the items, but I could be wrong. Would need to hear from OP either way I guess? \$\endgroup\$
    – Onyz
    Jan 30, 2020 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, the content is caped twice. You get currency for 3-4 tries a week but you cannot earn higher upgrade level than is the current global limit (same for every player). So there are two caping mechanics - one direct(upgrade level) and one indirect(try count), effectively requiring you to have ever increasing percentage of the tries sucessful (higher upgrade levels need more successful tries) in order to advance with same pace as everyone else. OP asked about the latter. \$\endgroup\$
    – wondra
    Jan 31, 2020 at 8:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I recommend we move this conversation to Game Development Chat if we'd like to discuss this further. The point has been made that this answer assumes that the currency-earning activities are time-limited, and if they are not then these particular rationales do not apply to this case. If users feel this is a poor match for the situation posed in the question, they're welcome to down-vote it for that reason. Judging by the votes so far, it looks like users find this answer useful/interesting, even if it may not be exactly what they came here for, so I'm inclined to keep it here. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Jan 31, 2020 at 13:53

It improves player retention.

When you expect the player to take a lot of attempts to overcome a challenge, and you only give them a limited number of attempts per real-world timespan, then players will take a long real-world timespan to complete this bit of content.

When you have a game with a monthly subscription model, or which you monetize by regular mandatory expansions, then you want to retain players as long as possible. So any features which require your players to return to the game again and again over long time periods make your game more profitable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Jan 30, 2020 at 18:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Moderators can move comments to chat once, and we did 20 hours ago. Further discussion about the answer should be done in chat. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Jan 31, 2020 at 14:42

Another aspect that hasn't been mentioned yet is basically a variation on "security through obscurity". In this case, it's difficulty through obscurity. The content is hard because you can't practice it. If you could grind it as much as you wanted, you'd have more chances to learn the mechanics and figure out how everything works. Because it's limited, you have fewer chances to study how it works. Sure, you could watch videos of other players doing the content on the internet, but they're going to run into the same problems. If the means of completing the content are difficult to learn and detect, they're going to be difficult for everyone, and it will take much longer for the player community as a whole to develop effective strategies.

This is also why these types of battles tend to be heavily mechanics-driven, rather than just increasing the difficulty by cranking up the numbers (more hitpoints, higher damage, stronger resistances, etc.) Basically, if you know how to beat one tough boss with a given set of attacks, you can figure out how to beat a tougher one with the same set of attacks - the only difference being it will take longer. If a boss fight is fundamentally different from all other boss fights in some way, using unique attacks and tactics not seen before in previous content, it adds difficulty of a different type, where you have to learn how the mechanics work rather than just "how to do more damage/healing in less time". These are exactly the kinds of things that are harder to learn if your opportunities to even make an attempt at them are time and/or resource limited. (The example seems to be both in this case.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. The game becomes about thinking on your feet instead of repeating rote actions until you get the drop you were looking for. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 30, 2020 at 21:45

Basically, unlike in most parts of many games where the goal is at least partly to teach you how to understand the game mechanics, the primary goal of limited tries is to cause emotional reactions.

Roguelikes actually often have some kind of daily or weekly leaderboard challenge, where there's a special dungeon and you only get one attempt to beat it for the day. Losing in XCOM Ironman mode can wipe out days of progress.

Not being allowed to retry seriously ups the suspense when even minor setbacks happen. It's more emotionally gripping, with higher stakes. I assume you're supposed to practice by playing less intense but equally difficult parts of the game elsewhere. Perhaps with a few unexpected wrenches thrown into the Vision mission, like how in a heist movie the plan goes off without a hitch, until the pace ramps up even more and everything is thrown into chaos.

From a team perspective, having limited playthroughs makes it more like planning a heist. You try to establish what everyone will be doing during the mission, because when it actually happens the team doesn't have time to coordinate. Sometimes people have difficulty getting together the same group of friends for 20 hours of playtime a week, so having high-intensity group events the players can schedule around helps them make the most of more limited overlaps in schedule.


Another reason not yet listed is to increase communication. With limited attempts, what you do outside of the attempts gains value. Sharing info online, talking with guildmates, watching runs on youtube--none of those are single-person tasks. (Even youtube requires a youtuber, unless you're only watching your own replays).

In other words, time-gating it, in theory, doesn't necessarily decrease the amount of time you spent working on that content. It just shifts the balance from grind/practice to prep and communication.

It's about building community.


Now, usually in games that have really hard content you're supposed to defeat, there is no limit in how many attempts you can do, or the limit is sufficiently high that it makes no real difference.

Usually, games have no interest in how long you play the game. They're interested in you buying the game, and that's where the developer and publisher's interest in you as a customer ends.

There is some interest in ensuring you like the game as that will lead to future sales (you buying next games or you recommending the game), but time played is not a concern.

Unless... your customers are paying you for the time spend playing the game. Now, you as a developer/publisher have a clear interest in ensuring that players keep playing your game for as long as possible. Anything you can do to extend that time is in your financial interest.

Imagine if every you get a playing card when you click a button, and I've really interested you in collecting all 52 cards. If you can spam click that button, you would get the deck in a minute's time, and you would only be buying one month of game time before you complete the deck.

But suppose I make it so you can only click the button once a week. Now, it will at least take you a full year to complete, and thus you will buy at least 12 months worth of game time to complete the deck.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck. If I make it so you can click the button once a year, you will simply stop playing the game as it's no longer fun. But as long as I can extend the play time in greater proportions than I remove the fun, then it'll be financially rewarding for me.

Your question contains a few examples of exactly how/why game time is being maximized:

  • you can earn increasingly better gear based on difficulty ...
  • ... (though repeated gear rewards decline in quality) ...
  • ... as well as upgrades for for an item you need against the final bosses of the raid that came in the same patch

Every step takes time, totaling a lot of time. If you want to defeat the final boss of a raid (which of course you want if you do the raid), then you must invest a long time.

even if you log in every day and do all the content that rewards the items you need to buy this item, you can at most earn 4 copies of the item per week.

If the item were easily available, people would be able to do it often enough to reach their end goal too quickly

There is also incentive to save these tokens for later weeks

Because putting things off means that you plan to keep playing the game in the future. If you somehow stop playing, you will have "lost" the special thing you spent effort saving up for.

So there isn't really a safe way to practise them so you can learn how they work and what the best way to do them is.

If there was, you wouldn't need to retry it as often, and thus it would take you less weeks to successfully complete one.

In other hard game content, Soulsborne games don't really restrict you in attempts, and Roguelikes actually are built around immediately starting anew when you fail, again without real limitations

These games do not increase profit margins for the developers/publishers when you start a new game.

However, think of games with microtransactions. Virtually every game with addictive or highly enjoyable gameplay will somehow lock your attempts behind some sort of currency that you can get freely in limited amounts or can pay real money for to unlock immediately.

WoW doesn't do microtransaction currency in the same way (at least not for providing access to its gameplay), but instead uses a time lock, which in turn makes you buy more game time, which is a similar way of getting players to "pay to play" the game. It's the same scheme in a slightly different form.


I think the existing answers are great! I'll also add a few things, and boil it down to a few points. :-)


  • Making players do the same task over an extended period of time without burning out the player. @DMGregory exaplained this perfectly.
  • Artificially extends the task length from hours to many weeks, which in turn adds a lot more variety to the game - by forcing the player to try other things while waiting for the content to be available again.
  • Players are more likely to socialize and group up with their friends to complete the content.
  • If MMO players could grind it by allocating more hours to it, there would be players grinding for many days with no sleep to get it. This would create a rift between players who have more time to play the game, and those who are more casual with time constrains.
  • It gives players something to do between expansions.


  • A major currency / resource / time sink - as you said, players are required to collect many things to participate in the content.

  • Optimized/controlled reward distribution & reduced market inflation. Its just another way of controlling the influx of items available from the event into the game's economy.

Content Obscurity

  • Makes it harder to progress to the end and much tougher to learn/master due to long intervals between attempts.

  • If it takes more time to claim the rewards, whatever the player gets from the action becomes more valuable to the player.

  • High obscurity of the rewards among the community increases the demand for those items. Achievers who like to show off their accomplishments will have a lot more encouragement to grind for it, even if it takes them years.


A lot of the other points I wanted to make were already made better in other answers (like monetization rationales), but two items weren't mentioned that much:

  1. Producing scarcity in the interest of an in-game economy. If any of the rewards from these boss fights are tradeable, restricting the amount of units per time that can enter the market per player turns them into rarer items that people will then grind lesser items for to buy, or the like.

  2. Helping balance the onrush of players, and spread out players more evenly so there are fewer "low traffic" times. This is more a thing with bigger MMOs, but by forcing players into a 24 hour rhythm, instead of all of them grinding for this one item all weekend and nobody playing the game during the week, you encourage players to also play during the week if they can, which in turn ensures the minority of people unable to play on weekends will have some players to play with. It also means that people will not grind for a single thing all weekend, possibly redirecting them to re-playing older content, thus providing warm bodies for new players to play with.


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