The common alt misconception

In a recent comment on a not so different topic, Klepsacovic left the following comment:

What’s so great about alts? It’s nice to have something to tinker with and to learn a bit about how other classes see the game, but when and why did we get the idea that we must have max-level, max-profession, max-gear alts? That’s not an alt, that’s a second main! Is one main not good enough? Maybe we need more fun and more to do on our mains, rather than spamming alts and then getting sick of repeating quests.

This is particularly interesting: for one thing, it did remind me of a similar comment I had left on BBB where I stated that the gravitation towards alt-play in WoW was a bad sign for the game, not a good one. I’m no fan of alts for many reasons. But this recent comment brought another interesting notion to the table, one quite contrary to the popular belief that playing alts prolongs the fun of playing the same game for long. You hear it often in that context: playing alts makes people tire less fast of WoW because it provides them with the chance to review content from a different angle. Or maybe not.

Why alts are no friends of mine /open parentheses

I’ve never been into the alt business for several reasons. Firstly, I am a rather strict “alter ego” player that plays MMOs for virtues such as story, world, simulation, community and immersion. It always felt like diving headlong into a book or strange universe to me, one that I travel and explore as myself – my adventures, my continuous story. And for that simple reason, my toons would resemble my true self and there was only ever the one me. That’s a matter of preference and perspective – I don’t expect others to join me on this. Let’s just say that playing multiple characters in an MMORPG feels like I am sat in front of the start screen of some classic console game where I’m supposed to pick a random character to go with.

My second reason is that I cannot play a “second or third rate character”. Unless you have an endless supply of time and a more casual guild, alts inevitably end up being your inferior toons. A little less shiny than your main, a little less experienced, a little less travelworn, a little less access to things. A little less of everything. I hate that; I hate sub-par, I don’t do sub-par versions of myself. If I was to heal some random 5man on an alt, I would constantly end up comparing it to healing the run on my priest – it would seem absolutely pointless to me or even a little selfish (“sorry group, had my priest been here we’d be so much faster”). To make matters worse, I’d have to repeat a ton of content, let alone stupid daily and rep grinds that my perfectionism would force me to go through. Myeah, I think not.

Last but not least, one big reason is playtime. I already dedicated a lot of time to WoW as it was – raiding, guild leading, forum and webpage work, PVPing, collecting silly baubles and exploring the world, you name it. There were dailies and token runs and whatnot, I could barely keep up doing those regularly. So, if I ever truly felt I was “finished” with Syl for the day, I really did not want to relog and start over on some alt. I’d rather dedicate time to my other hobbies. The balance hasn’t always been there between WoW and other things I enjoy, but I used to draw the line at playing on weekends or playing alts.

To honour truth here: I levelled a shaman once into the early 70ies and played her on a few 5man and 10man runs. My total playtime at the end of WotLK was 12 days or something and it felt pretty much pointless, besides showing me that elemental is OP levelling up and that I pity the melee for constantly running after tank aggro. I think I did it mostly to have the chance to join guild alt-runs (:peer pressure:), but I never got there. Every time I logged to the shaman, I felt like forcing myself: this wasn’t an alt of Syl, this was a nuisance, a disturbing sidekick. And yes, I had a lot less gold than most of my alt playing mates, but here’s the thing: I like asking other people to help me craft something. 

Besides this experience I never had any alt worth mentioning. Oh, I created toons aplenty and transferred them to Elwynn Forest where they became happy mules ever after. I can escort you from northern Kalimdor to Stormwind on foot with my eyes closed.. However, most available time must be dedicated to “maximize” my main. And if not, I log off (or alternatively, idle and chitchat while running through Dalaran in circles which is jolly good fun). I also believe that you are never “done” on your main, anyway. If I really had “excess time” besides my main focuses, PvP was always the next stop. Here I felt I was doing something meaningful towards my experience as a player and healer.

Personal parentheses closed.

The common alt misconception

Preferences aside, the longer I played and met various “altoholics”, the more I detected issues. Not with everyone mind, but quite a few people. The most prominent notion around is that alts make you a better player. Just like that. I remember a particularly mind-numbing conversation with a former maintank of our guild who wasn’t only one of our most fickle and unstable members, but such a screwup in various situations that we used him as melee whenever possible to “minimize the damage” (sorry DPS, it’s true) to the raid. So there I was, finding myself playing arena matches with the guy, probably by the machinations of some sadistic deity or something. We were short on a member and one of my team mates just grabbed the next best replacement before even asking me.

Wonderful. I spent the next 60 minutes listening to his blabber during queues, about how playing his priest and warlock had given him profound insights towards our raids and how he was definitely the best of our MTs in both PvP and PvE for this reason. He was also rather adamant about being able to give raiding priests and warlocks tips now because he had teh multiple perspective. He also finally understood all the “spell abbreviations they like to use”, like PoH and GS….Things between us went downhill from there.

The guy was just a hilarious example of the underlying issue. He was a shitty player with no degree of self-awareness and understanding of his own class – and therefore he stayed a shitty player despite his alts. Quantity is not were the insights lie. And WoW is not rocket science, no matter what some guys on Elitist Jerks would have us believe. Good players are good players, no matter what toon they play and vice versa. In fact, some of the best players I ever met were passionate about their main and the other half was excellent no matter what class they played. Because they set their mind to it, because they had a quick grasp or just a lot of ambition. They approached their alts in the same way they approached their main. The sucky players sucked no matter what character they played, some shades of difference granted.

So, to sum it up for kicks: You don’t go and play your priest and hunter because they will help you suck less on your warrior. It doesn’t quite work that way.  First and foremost, you play alts because you have time to play alts. You play alts because you enjoy playing alts. And that’s all there is to it. If you truly want to improve on your main, play your main. In any possible situation: practise on your main. First stop to improve your flexibility: PVP. If you’re set on improving, surely you’re willing to go through the drudgery?

Playing alts can give you insights into other classes. It does not make you a better player. There is no direct causality between these two things. 

Now, I can see why somebody who generally likes to “know everything” (aka walking encyclopaedia) or someone who loves to re-visit content would enjoy alts, or why a raidleader would consider it beneficial. It is. A change of focus is always beneficial if you actually know what you’re looking for. I’d never claim that playing alts has no positive potential, but it’s the player that makes it work or not. And it is not necessary in order to be a great player. There is also such a thing as “knowing too much” or thinking you know something when you do not quite yet. From years of personal experience and teaming up with great leaders, I have found this to be true: you don’t have to know everything about other classes in order to lead a charge well. That’s just airy nonsense some leaders like to intimidate you with or to boost their own ego. There is something called “functional knowledge” and that’s what I used when coordinating raid healing. I knew the things I needed to know about the other classes. I knew what was in any way relevant to our role, job and position in raids, about co-healers’ classes, about the tanks, about the DPS. And I knew these things from actually talking to those who had raided on their mains for years, from observation, from learning from them and working together. Plus being an attentive and active person on forum discussions and on healer specific sites.

So, this is my recommendation for all ye coordinators: do not be tempted to know everything about others to the point where you start doing all the thinking for them. They can be expected to know the things that concern playing their class properly. You should not have to know all the ins and outs for others or you will start babysitting every last thing much sooner than you know. Especially if you are a bit of a perfectionist or control freak, which is almost a given in leadership, save yourself by some intended ignorance.

Bottom line: do it all if you enjoy it, knock yourself out – but don’t think you “have to”.

Further issues with playing alts

Manalicious recently posted an article on how playing alts affected her raiding in negative ways. As mentioned before, I have very little personal experience with situations like these, but I can still relate. The few times I ran 5mans on the shaman, I was overly aware of the healer in my back, more than your average DPS would be. As a consequence, I was helping out with healing when I felt the healer struggling, too often than I probably should have. If you’re switching class frequently, it can be demanding to ask your mindset and routines to fully switch over every time. Maybe it is even impossible to perform on the same level as somebody who plays the same class for longer periods of time and has therefore a lot more “automatisms” in place.

But to get back to the beginning of this article: one big issue with playing alts is player burnout. I’m not at all convinced that alts really achieve long-term, what their short-term effect is being sold for – keeping people entertained longer and giving them more things to do. It seems to me that especially long-term, alts have the potential to lessen your enjoyment in the game and not just that, they have the potential to affect the entire world, the social mechanics on servers and their internal progress, negatively. This is the essence of the initial quote I posted and something I want to look into in a follow-up article tomorrow:  

More alts, more player burnout?Let’s find out.


  1. Fine read, a bit long, but fine. You might have wanted to omit the ‘players who like alts are shitty players’ – notion. 😉

    I think from a developer PoV you want the game to be alt-able. It is a safety net. Players don’t just leave, but rather make an alt. However, the second people fall into that safety net, you also know that you have a problem.

    I also concentrate on one main at a time. I do, however, occasionally switch it. In WoW I had a fire mage in classic (note, not a mage, a fire mage). I hade a feral (tank/dps) druid in TBC.
    In WotKL I had another mage (note, just a mage). And in Cataclysm I leveled the druid again.

    But in each expansion that was my main and I had almost no alts, except from a few lvl20 failures I started to play together with friends.

  2. @Nils

    Oh thanks! 😛
    I was of course waiting on that and I’m all for provoking reactions. but the notion you mention is not in my article and is not intended although, no doubt, the fact that I focus on the negative aspects of alts here will drive some players into a defensive corner.

    but what I actually say is that good players are good players with alts and without alts. it’s not the alts that decide over it. some good players have alts, some don’t (same for bad players). or in the text: “…the other half was excellent no matter what class they played” (= players with alts).

    I do hope most readers can see the difference in nuance.

  3. Hehe, I still don’t see how not having any alts makes for a more immersive game, as for me the immersion is all about being something different, a not-me. And not-me can be a lot of things. But I think this is one of those cases were the phrase “agree to disagree” has some merit. 😛

    I like alts, but I find the comment from Kleps that you linked very interesting. I’ve definitely noticed a certain “alt burnout” in myself that started in WOTLK, due to the accessibility changes. In BC all my alts eventually hit some sort of progression ceiling, and that was good because it kept them alts. While my main was raiding Black Temple, my alts became Champions of the Naaru and I could be proud of it. But in WOTLK, it all became kind of samey. Every time the badges got updated, all my alts could upgrade their entire gear. They could all raid Trial of the Crusader. It actually felt kind of tiring, and I’m still struggling a bit with where to draw the line in Cataclysm.

    So yeah, I actually feel that Blizz has kind of made the game more unfriendly towards happy alting. They want us to roll more but haven’t added more character slots per server. They want us to roll more but make levelling really linear so it’s tedious to redo. They want us to repeat content but make it so fast that it doesn’t even quite grip us the first time. Etc.

    But that stuff will probably be covered in your next post. 😛

  4. @Shintar

    “…for me the immersion is all about being something different, a not-me. ” I find this really fascinating, how for some players it’s the complete opposite from me. I can totally understand what you’re saying here, it’s just not working for me, hehe…no idea why.

    and some of it will definitely be in tomorrow’s post, but hey – you cannot tell me you got boreout of alts now too, you’re actually gonna be my reference in the article for positive altoholism!! 😀 /shhh!!!

  5. Haha, now I’m even more curious! 😛

    But no, I’m not bored of alts, it’s more… it feels as if they aren’t fulfilling quite the same purpose as they used to? While they were always clearly inferior to my main and had fewer activities to engage in, just the act of playing them was a little like becoming a more casual player. Relaxing. But now there’s always something to grind on all of them, so it feels as if they require just as much attention as my main.

  6. “alts inevitably end up being your inferior toons”

    I have to disagree with this. Usually my alts become much better than my main (and sort of become my mains). In some sense the main tends to be like the practice run.

    For some reason I always like my alts better, and leveling them is always more comprehensive due to having previous experience.

    As far as not wanting to identify with more than one character, I take the “all the world’s a stage” mentality in games. Sticking to one character isn’t absolutely necessary for me.

    It’s sort of similar to how a writer would write a variety of different protagonists or an actor would play a variety of different roles. “All the worlds a stage” as they say, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Virtual worlds are an extension of that mentality in a very literal way (you literally have a character creation screen to make a specific character from the very beginning).

  7. @Gilded
    “”Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.””

    I like that. if alts are the logical consequence of it for you, then I’m all for it. however, I think I can create myself and grow on a main too, after all the outward resemblance is just cosmetics. all the other things an avatar can be – raider, leader, achiever, explorer, killer, conqueror, diplomat etc. – add depth to it.

    I also find your comment about your own alts interesting. how come you still call your main your main though? If you spend more time on other characters and play them better, doesn’t that kinda constitute a main? I think what you do is use your first character as a “dry-run” on purpose; there’s no reason why you couldn’t stick to it and perfect everything about it, right. 🙂
    for me it was rather clear that after so many years of raid and PVP experiences, collectibles, gear, points, rep and whatnot gathered and seen on one character, it would’ve taken me years to get a second character to the same place. it would have annoyed me to miss things I’m used to have at my disposal.

  8. I think there are a lot of assumptions about what makes an alt, what I do with my alt, and how I expect my alts to fit into my overall gaming profile. (Not that you were speaking directly to me, but it helps keep the pronouns tidier.)

    “There’s only one me.” Yes and no. The game can’t remake me fit into a single avatar that has its OWN back-story irrespective of how I think it should fit. There are multiple starting points and stories that make each race unique, and I want to experience them! Sometimes I want to smash things, sometimes heal, and sometimes tank–I can’t encompass all of these roles into a single character (unless I’m a druid) and even then… is that the STORY I want for my character? Maybe, maybe not.

    Whichever character is my dedicated raider is my main. Always. Sometimes I have a second raider… other times it’s a PvP’er. I’m not a big fan of doing every little thing on a single character because it gets OLD. How often do I have to click the same buttons to be effective? Is questing (where I stand and nuke) really preparing me for a raid environment (where I have to call on a plethora of abilities).

    As a player who had a few level 60’s in the original game, I have a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that players would not want to try all the flavors the game has to offer. I don’t play an RPG one time and then never touch it again. I change my party, try a different response with that innkeeper who gave me the once-over, and generally test the limits of my characters and the game.

    While some might have a hard time rolling up a character and plugging along leveling, dungeoning, or pvping just for the fun of it (even I’m not the BEST!) I don’t particularly see a problem with wanting to push out into new vistas and really explore the game from a completely fresh perspective.

  9. Good points, but I can’t help but feel like you missed a point in all of the irritation and frustration towards your inadequately capable guildie.

    First up, I do agree; there are definitely players who are better and more capable than others. Whether it’s better reaction time, more time invested in gear and optimization or theorycraft, there are players who are simply better at it. For the players who are not good, they can get better, but the key, which you hit on is self awareness.

    Simply put, players who are selfaware of where they fall in the spectrum of capability are able to improve to their desired level. They can objectively look at and gauge not only their performance, but that of others. Then there are the players who cannot; as Zelmaru from Murloc Parliament so eloquently phrases it, these are the players whom we desire to throw into the bee pit.

    So, with all of that said, where do alts fall into the picture? First off, I have many alts. Historically, I have played a Shaman as my main since Vanilla, and when I have been gainfully raiding, I had no real need or desire to play any other class, for any other reason, perhaps comprably to the situation you find yourself in. However, during Wrath I branched out and rolled a tank. I had no idea of how to tank, only the things I had learned as a Resto Shaman, which apply to all classes. But, when I started tanking, I began to gain a bit of insight into how tanks function, and gained a better feel for how *I* wanted to be healed as a tank. In short, learning to tank made me a better healer. I also think that as I swapped back and forth between my resto shaman and prot paladin that the lessons learned increased my capability for operating in both roles.

    Ultimately, I think there is definitely value in broadening your perspective when it comes to MMOs based on the so-called trinity. I don’t think it’s essential that everyone should play alts despite the postive impact I feel doing so has had; alt play simply isn’t for everyone the same way that living on the bleeding edge of progression isn’t for everyone. But even having an awareness of a different perspective can lend a good deal of insight and help refine and improve your own capability by opening up the bigger picture to you.

  10. I loved this article, I disagree with a few things, but you know where you’ll likely find my opinion on that!

    All in all though the article was a GREAT read, spot on for the majority. I’m so glad that there are other people in the world that can see past all the bullshit.

    I’m not saying alts are bad or good but every point you threw out in this article has in one way or another been a part of my World of Warcraft experience. I am a one toon type of guy, my main is my main (I do have alts but they normally get the main job just before a new expac if I’m looking for a change.)and there are pros and cons to having alts, but in the situation of the ex main tank of yours and his profound discovery of his own class through other classes is just funny. Had he said ROLE I might(and that’s a slim might) have understood…

    Either way congratulations this article is the first to work its way onto my “Cork board


  11. @Windsoar

    I agree that there are such limitations to how much “me” you can play anyway – that’s a given in every MMO and depending on how they set the starting points up, how relevaqnt history is etc. it’s a stronger or weaker factor. but that doesn’t really strike me as a reason not to only play one character.

    What I definitely agree with is that as you say, there are benefits to diversity and different perspectives. I can understand why people like to play alts, I will cover that a bit more in my next article. what I don’t like is using it as an excuse or make it some sort of “science” it is not.

    I wouldn’t say that first-hand experience is always the best or only way to knowledge – otherwise a lot of great books would never have been written – but it’s certainly one way and it can help you “if” you have the awareness. for me, it would have been impossible to gain the insights my trusted MT of 5 years gave me towards healing (I always worked closely together with the tank team) through experiences of my own; not with my time it hand. and frankly I didn’t see what for, I couldn’t have wished for better counsel.

    I think it’s about awareness here just as much: if you do something a lot, in any given situation, just like I healed a ton, and you’re not just focused on your “job” but nuances in your targets, how they do with your healing and what their feedback is for you, then all you need is right there, learning by doing too.

    “I don’t particularly see a problem with wanting to push out into new vistas and really explore the game from a completely fresh perspective.”

    Me neither!

  12. @JThelen

    Ahhh yes, the bee pit – don’t we all love it! 😀

    I think I’ve covered a lot of it already in my comment to Windsoar: yes, it can lend insight and perspective to a player. just as much as it cannot. that’s what I meant by saying “it’s the player that makes it work”. whether alt-play is any good for improving as a whole, rises and falls with the player. I’m happy to agree that it’s fun to re-visit content and zones etc. , but I don’t agree that it does an awful lot to improve player performance on “average”. and while that particular guildie of mine was an extreme example, he was not a rare occasion – he was just more outspoken about it than others (and ready to make a fool out of himself).


    “..this article is the first to work its way onto my “Cork board”

    Ohh, I feel flattered hehe, thank you! 🙂 this is an awesome idea by the way, I am almost tempted to copy it!

    The distinction between role and class knowledge is probably a good point too, although I’d have to think it over. I think I forget sometimes that I simply take a lot about MMOs for granted because I’ve been playing them for such a long time, it’s hard to imagine what might seem beneficial to people for whom WoW is the very first MMO.

  13. I’d be happy playing a single main if I could change its class and spec on a whim.

    Then again, I’m not in the game to prove or improve my skill with any one given class/spec. I simply want to explore the game and its mechanics. Alts are usually the only way to do that.

  14. I think what people don’t think about, and this is also something you talk about in the post, is that whether an alt will be beneficial to you or not ultimately comes down to you as a player. As you say, there is nothing about having an alt in itself that will make you a better player, and vice versa nothing about it that will make you a worse player.

    It might remove focus from your main in a way that will have you become less good. Without putting the time and effort to become good in one class you might in fact not learn any of them good enough to be viable in tougher content.

    On the other hand it might actually give you that extra insight needed to learn you main better. It depends on play style.
    I get equally annoyed by someone who constantly switches focus as I get freaked by someone who after several years of playing still only has one, maybe two chars at max (or 70+) level.

    Alts, and what you can learn from them, is as good and bad as you make it.

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