The more alts, the more burnout

To pick up where I left the trail in my last post: Alts are pure evil.

No really, playing alts is a fascinating subject. Not just on a personal level, but in the greater scheme of things and how they affect MMOs. While I was rather outright about all the issues I perceive with alt-play yesterday, and the general misconception that playing alts is performance therapy, I do understand why people love to play different classes just like I agree it can be beneficial. I can see why trying out a new class is fun and makes for a more informed decision for a main. I do this myself when I start a game. However, personally I’d prefer the approach Final Fantasy XI had there: one character can learn and “equip” any given combination of classes available. That way your main character stays, but learns new things if you so choose.

I understand too, why players enjoy to re-visit content. I think it’s rather problematic if designers promote the feature in absence of actual, new content, but if you’re generally somebody who loves questing, exploring and traveling, leveling up a new class gives you a reason to do so and discover new things on the way. A new class and potentially new race is a new perspective. Shintar is one blogger who frequently let’s us in on her experiences while re-visiting lower content and zones in WoW. They’re fun reads that I enjoy and appreciate from that particular perspective.

Yet, I still wonder: do alts really prolong long-term player enjoyment or do they not rather make for a worse burnout?

Burnout, boredom or nothing to do?

“….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.”

So, when did we get this idea? I’m not sure I ever played a game where alternative characters mattered more than in World of Warcraft. Some MMOs actually require you to buy a new account, others will restrict the level of benefit and interaction possible between your characters. They don’t want a single player to have that amount of self-sufficiency; to unhinge the intended speed of play or undermine social mechanisms and interaction in favor of more freedom, flexibility and soloability.

I’ve known a few extreme examples of players that considered leveling and gearing up a character the main purpose in WoW. They did so at ridiculous speed until they had all 10 classes (I got it right this time Shintar!) fully equipped at 85. After which there was “nothing more to do” so they quit the game. Or a guildmate who was so eager for the new expansion that he did not only raid Ulduar on his main 3 times a week, but on alts during offnights too. Something we’ve always watched with concern in our raid guild because we anticipated (and experienced) just how fast such players burn and bore out on content that you intend to raid for at least the next 6 months. We did even intentionally cut back on alt-runs at expansion starts for this precise reason.

I don’t believe boredom springs from the same things for everybody. Some players would undoubtedly quit sooner if there were no alts. Others spoil what’s actually there for themselves by altoholism and short-term thinking. I don’t blame anyone for either decision, but I think in terms of content development, it’s poor design that needs people to play multiple chars all over in order to keep things interesting. The crux is probably the entire idea behind expansions and how content is usually delivered in peaks, rather than a more natural flow. I am still waiting for an MMO where the developers approach this issue better.

Another problem with the availability of alts is that they’re too convenient a solution – in a way they prevent players from looking for further content and entertainment after they feel “finished” on their main. How does this notion even go together with a character that’s supposed to be your alter ego in an ongoing story and simulate world? It doesn’t; unless you think of the classic game avatar. So, let’s assume for a moment that there were no alts available in WoW: what would you do with your “excess time'”? Would you rather –

a) Turn off the game and do something else?
b) Look for other ways to play your main?

Would people maybe contribute more to the world and community by sticking to their main because they are forced to? Would it not drive them to become more innovative and creative about what to do next? Would they really just run out of things to do?

Ideally, in a more open-world MMO than WoW, I’d like to see no alts. I would rather see people invest time in interacting more and creating things in the game. Yeah, HA-HA, I know that’s not the way things are currently going in the world of MMOs, but it’s what I’d like anyway. In WoW’s case options are limited but let’s still have a look at potential side-effects. Without alts people would probably –

  • re-visit older zones and content on their mains more often
  • team up more with random strangers because they want/need that class*
  • help out lowbies more
  • invest more time in inter-guild relations
  • rely on each other more for crafting and trade
  • play more PVP, arrange more outdoor conflict
  • have less money and therefore do a lot more of XYZ

That’s just from the top of my head. You can think of more things to do without alts at your disposal. Depending on your perspective as a player and customer, all of the things listed can be either positive or negative. Maybe you don’t want to cooperate or rely on others more, maybe you enjoy having an alt for every trade, maybe you are after making money. I’m not – to me most of that list is positive, whatever actually makes people play together, communicate, cooperate, create. The more interaction you have, the more stories you will tell at the end of the day.

*The one big downside I see is group setup / guild related: in a game ruled by the holy trinity, alts give guilds flexibility to go ahead with a run despite the lack of tanking, healing or dpsing mains. Canceled raids are a sad affair. People can respec or if need be, relog. Without this option, guilds would probably just end up inviting more people as backup players for their roster and that doesn’t really work out so great during times when raiding is most popular. This is strictly from a WoW-centric view though, amending one bad with another. In a way specs and alts are Blizzard’s own saboteurs to the trinity, even if “bring the player not the class” is still a dream. A different MMO without the whole class/role hysteria would be fine without alts: you wouldn’t need them for group balance.

The road less traveled by

I will blow into last week’s horn a little and ask just how many opportunities and stories we’re missing out on because an MMO offers the easy alt road. How different could social dynamics and life on servers be if everyone only ever had one main? What would people come up with instead?

Just like short-cuts turn into delays, too much convenience can turn into boredom. I’m sure developers welcome players that spend big amounts of time on alts, but I’m not sure if it really works out long-term? If it makes for a massive and more terminal boreout later, convincing you to keep paying that subscription will become increasingly difficult. Not just that, but the pressure to deliver expansions fast and keeping things fresh and interesting gets worse and worse on the developer’s side.

Nobody likes the samey grind forever. Candy is yum, but eating too much of the same candy is boring and gives you stomach ache. Already my granny knew that.


  1. Disclaimer: This comment comes with EQ-brand rose-tinted specs

    You know I’m one of them that had multiple alts (one of each class at 80+), but I also agree with you that it is symptomatic of a game with too little that is engaging.

    I can’t bring myself to farm pets, achievement points or other shiny vanity items. I want to develop a character and if that means I need to start over to do it, then so be it.

    I played Everquest for years prior to playing WoW and while I had a few low level alts, none of them were either close to max level, nor were ever intended to get there. Despite being at maximum level, there was plenty for me to engage with, whether it was epic weapon questlines or helping others with theirs, crafting, or AA farming (Alternate advancement points – keeping experience interesting beyond maximum level). All ways to develop a character, to round him/her out and to make him stronger without being crazy overpowered.

    Warcraft seems to suffer from this plague that tells them that max level can only mean raids and rep grinds. Grinding a reputation to max level for 10 pitiful achievement points is not content – it’s not engaging and it is not rewarding.

    There were people who alted, who multiboxed etc but it was on a much smaller scale.

    Give people meaningful things to do and the altplague will diminish.

  2. Altitis is also more of a problem in a game where it is far, far too easy to level up! Recruit a friend now works up to level 80 – pitiful!!

  3. @Stumpy
    Hey mate! =)
    “Give people meaningful things to do and the altplague will diminish.”

    Word. I really don’t blame anyone who tries to kill time that way, but I’m sure a lot less folks would do it if there was more to do in WoW. the profession bonus aside, alts just wouldn’t appeal that much.

    The fact that we can level up too fast is just proving your point about the end-game focus, too. it seems to be a trend now, Rift does not exactly take you ages to get to max lvl either. it’s odd how the ‘exp grind’ is being considered a nuisance these days while people will happily grind dailies and rep every day of the week for rewards. we can see what makes the difference here.

  4. “Yet, I still wonder: do alts really prolong long-term player enjoyment or do they not rather make for a worse burnout?”

    Well consider some benefits of alts. As you have mentioned, playing a different class can be a lot of fun, and if you are the type to party (I am), then a different class will change your role.

    Alts give you a better perspective of the game. I can group with different classes and be able to identify with them.

    Having a main on the side gives you power. My main probably has lots of gold and equipment. If I group with someone who is the same class as my main I might give some equipment away, or use my massive pile of gold to get the most out of the leveling game (the value of this really depends on the game and how tight the economy is).

    Also I can sometimes be like an incognito experienced player to help someone who is new to the game, have experience dealing with the instances, the economy, etc.

    Also when I first start a game I don’t really know the extent of all the classes, which ones are interesting, etc. Getting a main to max level first lets me sort of window shop for the cool things I would like to do. It isn’t the intention of making the main, but it happens anyway, which is a key point: for me alts are a natural extension of the experience.

    I do agree that having alts can be due to not having enough to engage in. Grouping is a major difference for me because having a different role basically provides new content and a different perspective. How unique and interesting the different classes are is also important.

  5. @Gilded: “Alts give you a better perspective of the game. I can group with different classes and be able to identify with them.

    This is not an absolute. For some people they can add a perspective. Some people can press buttons equally across any flavour of character. Some however cannot. While neither states are a bad thing, it can make people arrogant and judgemental of others or bring their own morale down very low.

    As a long term GM, I have met many a player who I wished would have ditched the alts. They proved a distraction to them when they could have been very good players if they had focused on the right toon. Players who knew there were performance issues in raids, who would pledge to work at it, to research and to practice rotations – and then spend the next umpteen days playing alts every waking moment between raids. And I’m not exaggerating – invite time to raid end on “main”, either side of that – perpetually playing another character.

  6. Playing WoW with a small friends & family type guild we needed more than one tank/healer because the trinity demands those roles. If you only have 5 players on regularly alts become a necessity to avoid burnout from always tanking, always healing etc.

    Also lack of mentoring system in WoW means that if you level as a group as I always have (duo or trio) then you can’t always play your ‘main’ as the group isn’t always available.

    I’ve often thought it a good idea to try classes before choosing a main as most games give a poor impression of what classes will be like at the endgame play-style

    Rift has reduced my altoholic tendencies despite the fast leveling because of the role flexibility, BUT I still have two mains as one is locked in a leveling trio and I want to be able to play at other times too!

    Finally, the trend isn’t going away I guess as SWTOR will bank on people playing alts to experience the 200 hours+ storyline per class…

  7. @Gamingsf

    The thing is though, if an MMO were to be more heavily story-based and “RP” in that respect, I could understand why there is a lot of replay value in new characters. In WoW you start off at different places which is cool, but you end up on the same track really fast and there’s no real scenario going on either (granted worgen and goblins were better for this).

    Something I loved about Age of Conan was the whole starting chain up to level 20ish. afaik it was the same for all races/tribes though, so not sure how often you’d like to redo it.

  8. I think the streamlined questing process, LFD, and age of the game play a much larger role in player burnout than whether or not a person chooses to have alts. For some players, numerous alts may be a symptom of fatigue, but it’s rarely the cause (unless the game for that player IS the leveling experience itself).

    Although meta-games exist at max level, from the solo to the large group, you have limited options: dailies, dungeons/heroics, PvP, raiding, AH/professions, and achievements/collections. Dailies are extremely limited–you can easily “max out” in a couple of hours. Out of the remaining options, only PvP and dungeons/heroics offer a way to engage with fellow players without having to form groups yourself.

    The ease of player transfer and lack of on-server community has also caused some of this disconnect. I used to commonly get together with players I knew outside of my guild and we’d just go tear through random dungeons. Since LFD, my number of server connections have dwindled to practically nil, so if my guildmates aren’t on, I’m looking at randoms which generally leave me more frustrated than thrilled.

    I think what Warcraft has missed out on (and has hampered the player base with) is removing all the end-game solo activities. Collecting keys, class quest lines, and materials farming were what kept me engaged on my main for the longest length of time in older versions of this game and in other MMO’s. Now that process has been “stream-lined” by the badge/iLvL system, and it leaves me little to do for myself.

    I understand why alts LOOK like the problem. If I was unengaged from any community (didn’t raid, no arena team, rated BG group) I’d probably quit too. But I’d try to stay, I honestly would, by trying a new character and trying to find a guild that matched ME so I could re-connect. However, even know I’m working on a few alts (a couple to play with friends and one for giggles) because I never played a ….

  9. Windsoar, I am so very glad that you wrote that comment, because I was beginning to wonder if I was the one crazy person or something. I love my main but I also love my alts because I find variety in them. Without a game being FFXI-esque, it’s impossible for me to be satisfied with a single character simply because there are abilities that are special to each character.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to love alts. What if I missed something low-level that I wanted to see again? Other bloggers can attest that going back and doing low-level content on a max level character is not the same as doing it at level.

    And there are times when I just want to explore more options. When I began playing WoW, I rolled a ton of hunters because there were so many pets I wanted to tame and only 5 stable slots per hunter. Later, I wanted to see what the game was like from the perspective of a tank. Since hunters can’t tank (according to the roles), I rolled a paladin. I had so much fun with him that I began rolling other classes left and right to try them out. It was an enjoyable experience.

    And think of it from an RP point of view. Some people play their characters as exact representations of themselves. That’s fine but other people don’t play that way. Even if they don’t RP, as I was in the beginning, I’ve seen a lot of people admit to at least coming up with a background/personality for their characters. That avatar on the screen isn’t them in pixel form, it’s a real character that has its own story. And once you make one story, it’s hard not to want and try to make another. When I quit WoW, I missed my friends a lot but I also missed my characters. I have an emotional attachment to them because I watched their story go from an idea in my head to something that also has a life of its own. And they’re all different, none of them are the same because again, I like variety and I like the way they react to the world around them.

    An MMO without alts is a game that I for one would not want to play.

  10. I’ve learned that alts can really cause more burnout with this patch already being I need to run them all through to open the molten front as quick as I can for gear.

    Normally I only worried about gearing my main and doing all questing and rep stuff on my main. My alts where for alt runs and if they were missing a piece of rep gear, no big deal. I always ran on my main.

    Now being we where so short healers to start this expansion I have a fully geared healer. Being we ended this cycle of the patch tank short I geared up a tank.

    Being we still have missing people I have to now gear up my main (hunter) my healers (shaman/priest) and my tanks (druid/warrior).

    Once looking at the daunting task ahead of me I came to a conclusion. Sorry, I am not going to do it.

    I will just recruit more. I am not going to gear up that many characters that fast to raid.

    That is where an alt becomes work. Alts are meant to be fun. If you get an alt geared because you are having fun, fine. If you gear up an alt just to raid, it is no longer an alt. It is a second main. Or in my case, a third, forth, fifth.. sigh.

    Great article on the subject.

  11. @Windsoar

    All your points on burnout are true; there’s lots of features and changes in WoW that have led to this, certainly not just alts. to me the dungeon finder is still the single worst thing Blizzard ever placed in the game…and the whole rewards- and achievement-mania is close next.

    All the positive aspects that many players undoubtedly find in alts aside, I still think the question of whether alts do not also contribute to content burnout is a valid one. if you were given the choice, would you not much rather experience new adventures too rather than repeat many of them?
    alts are not the root of the issue, they’re just a symptom of course. it’s poor design on Blizzard’s part if playing alts becomes such an integral part of the game because your main is ‘bored’. they add to the overall problem that way though and I think they create negative side-effects community-wise (the exception I mentioned aside).

    Hehe, don’t forget that I actually said many times in my two articles that finding fun in playing alts, or the re-exploration and questing part is a perfectly valid reason to play alts. it doesn’t work for me, especially because a lot is a repetition in WoW, but I see what’s appealing about it. I did a lot of re-exploring myself on my main, I’m goofy that way. 😉
    so anyway, nothing wrong with why you love alts.

    it comes down to different expectations towards the game; some people are just happy to replay, collect, optimize and have a variety of toons. or they’re into the ‘meta-game’ rather than a raiding focused person like me.

    but I’m not just a raider; I strongly value the community factor and would like the game to force you towards interaction, rather than self-sufficiency and soloplay. don’t you think it’s an issue in terms of social dynamics if alts give a single player so many options and self-sufficiency, in a genre that was meant to be about cooperation?

  12. @Syl

    I would love new content all the time! Of course, depending on what you’re doing, the content comes through at perfect drips (I was a bit disappointed at the 4.2 release because we only had a few more heroic modes to go!) However, there’s no perfect drip point for everyone–I think WoW has actually done much better than a number of MMO’s I’ve played in providing new content/areas/redesigns to attempt to make the game new and fresh and provide enjoyable places for me to explore on a single character.

    However, as much as you mention “community” I think you really mean “cooperative play.” I don’t ALWAYS want cooperative play. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. When I join in activities with others, I know I am committing myself to others play-schedules which may or may not work for me on a consistent basis. Raiding fills this purpose for me (because I love group-play) but it doesn’t work for me all the time. Sometimes I like to log on and play around for a few hours while I take constant breaks to check laundry/unload the dishwasher/answer the phone and chit-chat.

    For me, community time (guild chat/chatting with friends) is much easier and more enjoyable when I’m not hampered with performing in a group environment. My alt time is often my community time.

    I have quit every single game that denied me solo-play options because I get burned out on group-play only. I need the downtime of solo play to REALLY get to know and enjoy my fellow players. Perhaps I’m just an oddity 🙂

  13. If there were no alts, I would turn off the game or I would delete my character and start over. The problem with a one character design is that sooner or later you’re stuck progressing through the end-game.

    I enjoy questing in Northrend but doing it at 85 isn’t fun.

    Raiding normals on my warlock main, who overgears them, is much less fun than raiding the same content on my druid alt, who’s appropriately geared. It’s also more interesting to do them now as melee dps or a healer than as ranged. The alt makes known content fresher.

    I like low-level pvp. It gets much less interesting after about level 30. You can’t do that on a main.

    I’m also leveling a prot warrior, my first tank, and have found pugging dungeons to be good fun.

    I leveled my rogue from 80-85 purely by archeology and mining because I couldn’t face Cata questing again. I used to run Wintergrasp a lot but these days, she sits in Nagrand in RP gear.

    Alts don’t need to be me and I don’t need to do all of the same things with all my characters.

    word verification: fricraft

  14. @anon

    I think many would turn off the game if there weren’t alts. it just seems yet another big shift WoW has brought to the genre, ‘replay on other characters’ isn’t what I used to associate with MMOs, but ‘gamey games’. oh well.

    “Perhaps I’m just an oddity :)”

    Hehe, I doubt that. and the point about community vs. cooperation is a good one, gotta be careful with terminology.

  15. I agree with others that roleplay of unique characters can make alts more appealing – for me personally each class/race/personality combo is different and has no conscious element of ‘me’ in it.

    Also I do like trying the mechanics of different classes so I could never stick to one character in a class/level based game.

    The other element is that I’m not a raider so having ultra-fine tuned characters is pretty pointless in most of these games.

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