A comment Liore left on my article of last Friday got me thinking about a question I have visited in the past, but never quite found the ultimate answer to. Or rather, I have found too many answers for myself to only stick to one. I’m talking about the question of what exactly it is that finally triggers our often very difficult conclusion to quit a long-time MMO completely and with that, leave our social ties behind (which is sadly the truth for most), putting a stopper into our bottle of fond memories.
In the light of many recent blog posts I’ve read on the topic of quitting WoW, I don’t believe I’m the only one still struggling to answer this question. It’s tough to leave a virtual home of many years behind; it hurts to wave that final goodbye to people you have played side by side with for so long, sharing victories, real laughter and tears together. So, why would the answer come any more easily, anyway?
The more I thought about this, considering different players’ experiences and my own, I came to the conclusion that there are mostly the same three basic reasons involved when long-term MMO players pull the plug on the game they used to call a second home – and that these reasons all need to be present to some extent (some more or less) for it to happen.
Reason #1: The game changed
We feel that the game has changed over time, fundamental design aspects of it having been altered to a point we can no longer tolerate. World of Warcraft for example DID change in many ways and there’s no denying that some of it were drastic changes. Yet, there’s a question here of why we are willing to put up with changes in some areas and not in others. Or rather, why we are often willing to go along anyhow, until we don’t. What causes us to make the call of “enough is enough”? While we might have valid qualms with the game, what influences the time of our final decision-making truly?
Reason #2: People changed
While many of us start out solo in a new MMO, our continuous enjoyment of the game will soon be generated by playing and interacting with other people. It’s a gradual shift we hardly notice, until bonds have been established so thoroughly that we play the game because of others just as much as for ourselves. However, our social environment is constant subject to change: our friends-list, our guild will never stay the same forever, no matter how stable they may seem for a while. People come and go, some leaving for pastures new with a different guild or server, others snatched away by real life. For a short while only, we walk side by side. It’s completely out of our hands but it affects us deeply, especially when those start leaving (or changing) who we consider the main characters in our story. They leave a painful gap behind which sometime is too great to overcome.
So, as we go on complaining about how much the game has changed since the good old days, what we really mean to say is: “it’s not the same anymore because they are missing”. That realization comes sooner or later – and with it comes a feeling of general disillusionment maybe, a melancholy or wistful sigh over the things beyond our control in life. That is not to say that we cannot make new friends, but there comes a point when we just don’t have it in us any longer.
Reason #3: I have changed (or: the nature of time)
While we might believe that we never change in our gameplay wishes, we do change. We might not change much on “the surface”: we still want to go on adventure with our friends, raid a little, do some PVP – but there is that elemental quality of time itself. Experiences change us always and as we grow (older) we have more and more of them. There are only so many times we can find joy and wonder in the exact same activity, there are only so many maps to travel, dungeons to run and even items to gather in the same game. Inevitably even the new will feel old – everything feels like a repetition, the same thing with a new coat of paint. Not even the best MMO can last forever, been there done that will find you sooner or later. You’re getting older, the world feels smaller. It’s the way of life, as cliché as it sounds and nobody is to blame here.
This concludes the list of the three main reasons. And it is rather striking how often we actually mistake the reasons 2) and 3) for the first one. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.
The glue that holds it all together
In “The Mexican”, a rather frivolous Hollywood crime/romance movie from 2001, the protagonist Samantha struggles to find the answer to her fundamental question for the full duration of the film: the question of “When do you get to that point of enough is enough?”. In her case, a question about just how much more she should put up with in her life because of her rascal partner, an endless trouble on two legs constantly getting her mixed up in dangerous business. While chased by a rather unusual assassin, Samantha tracks down her heart’s answer as she sets out to save both their lives. More about that in a minute…
We never leave a beloved MMO behind over just one reason, exceptional cases and acts of nature aside (someone’s life changing drastically, financial struggles, moving to Mars etc.). The game has to change and always in more than one way. We have to change. The people around us have to change or leave*. All these factors need to coincide.
Funny enough, it’s people too who have the power to bring us back. And why is that? Because we long to share our time and adventures, we long to pick up arms together once more. I believe that especially social ties have the power to keep us for much longer in a game that we otherwise wouldn’t enjoy; other people generate new and countless ways of content (and fun) in MMOs. Our joys and victories get bigger when we share them, our worries smaller. Our friends make our best moments memorable and thus our virtual experiences all the more immersive and real.
No developer can code this fundamental aspect and mechanism into their MMO, none of them can “produce” this powerful effect they benefit from so immensely. They can only set the stage and create enough room for us to do it – to really “live” in their worlds. And if they achieve this, then we’ll likely be their guests for a long time to come.
Which brings me to my final, simple conclusion: we don’t leave a long-time (!) MMO just because it’s gone bad. We don’t leave it because we changed. We don’t leave it because it’s just old.
…Samantha’s question is finally answered by the unlikeliest person imaginable, namely her persecutor Jerry, at the end of “The Mexican”:
(Samantha) “I have to ask you a question. It’s a good one so think about it. If two people love each other, but they just can’t seem to get it together, when do you get to that point of enough is enough? – (Jerry) “Never.”
We leave an MMO for the combined three reasons mentioned above. Most of all though, we leave because of the missing glue that held it all together for so long: people. Friends. The world looks completely different when they are around. Maybe we even manage to bring them back, sometimes just to realize that we still fail to reproduce that feeling of “back then together” today…but it was worth a try, anyway.
And that’s why future developers must never under-estimate the significance of social interaction and (enforced) cooperative play which ultimately sets the stage for meeting people. You really want to make sure players can and must play together in your MMO!
*P.S. While I use the terminology of “people leaving” to simplify, the loss of your social environment does not necessarily require an explicit, absolute “physical” distancing. Just as much, we can lose important people in our picture due to a changed relationship, a disappointment (the loss of an idea of somebody) or overall new in-game conditions. In terms of personal loss (and reason #2), they all come down to the same.