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.
One of the reasons I feel less inclined to return to MMORPGs is that players I know also don’t play anymore.
I never interacted much with them! But the presence of their name tags created a familiar, cozy atmosphere.
Oh – and when will they finally get lag-free internet on Mars !?
Haha! I know what you mean – especially if I think of vanilla WoW raiders were all such a tight bunch, everyone knew everyone and you’d send a /wave around frequently as you passed from AH to bank in IF….just imagine this today?
For myself, I know that I go back to an old MMO in a heartbeat, even will resub, if the right people are back there and willing to make it happen once more. I’ve done that before, but it’s unfortunately not so easy to really reproduce, either.
I guess in the end we must accept that time just beats us all.
As for Mars; gee I dunno, I gave up when M-DSL announced that big merger with Melekom – nothing but tears up there.
Personally, I think the point of no return is when there are no avenues left for social interaction. People come and go in your life. The departures are sad, but the arrivals are thrilling. As long as I have the ability to make new friends and acquaintances and create memories in their company there is hope.
Eventually all my older family will be gone, my husband will probably pre-decease me, and I may outlive my long-term friends, but there is always someone new to befriend just around the corner. So it is with games.
“…when there are no avenues left for social interaction.”
would you say this has happened in today’s WoW? of course, players are still making friends there.
or what needs to be there for you in terms of enough social avenues in an MMO (maybe also more about quality rather than quantity)?
I suppose the point of no return for me would be when the player base dries up to the point that finding each other is an exercise in frustration, or when guilds become exclusionary. I’ve been in dead and dying guilds, and had guildies leave the game, and in one case die, and yes frankly it’s depressing, but I’ve been able to find a new home and new friends each time, and have come to meet some truly lovely people.
I’m not a social butterfly. I don’t have vast legions of friends, but dearly love those friends I do have, and I enjoy making new ones. I’m definitely in the quality over quantity camp, but that doesn’t need to mean I abandon activities I participated in with departed friends.
I see, yeah. In that case though, it would be fair to say that the amount of potential, social interaction is mainly on what happens with other players for you, not necessarily something the game has to focus on delivering (or can screw up for you)(?)
for me personally, things like the dungeon finder and cross-server features (despite the advantages they might have) have had a very negative impact on social interaction, to name one example. strictly speaking, I could still have met people of course or just not used them, but these were clear design mistakes in my pov.
For me it’s a game’s designers stubbornly clinging to the old and not moving with the times. When I set my mind to playing an MMORPG properly i like progression – not just in the content sense, but also in all areas of the game. Game Engine updates to remove glitches and improve the game design options. Graphic engine updates to improve the aesthetics and to stay with modern standards. These are to name a few.
However, the most important thing is to understand your product and not extend it’s life more than you have to.
I’m a firm believer that in any software development, you need to know what the future holds and when it’s going to arrive. This keeps things fresh and, if you get the formula right, will maintain an optimal consumer base. This process is always fluid, you should always be working on the next 2 steps with your current design as well as keeping up firm development of new products. For me, a big no no is running out of fresh ideas and still stringing your player base along fixing old old old problems instead of new developments.
From my previous MMORPG experience, and reading many blogs, i know that friends are loyal and will gladly experience new games with old friends to get a heads up. This group will then socialise and meet more friends and so on. When one particular game starts to flag, friendship groups split up and that is a shame. I know that we all grow up and interests grow apart (I think GW2 will be the last throw of the MMO dice for me), that is part of life, but whilst people are kept interested within 1 game they are happy and will happily try new things together
I know the easy argument is “why should they do this when people are happy to pay them?” What can I say, but we’re all gluttons for punishment. This is just my opinion though. I was a bit curious about how WoW had moved on in the 6 months or that i had left, and when i got a 10 day free play, i was bored after a day or so. Ok ok, Outlands and levelling a DK isn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t the content, it was just the fact i had fell out of love with the game and moved on.
I’m not anti-wow (before people get the pitch forks out) but i do think it’s had it’s day, but if you still enjoy it and love it – fair play to you and i hope you have many more entertaining hours
…it’s definitely had its day. I hope I will see you in GW2. 🙂
I wonder though whether an MMO should/can even attempt to stay fresh that long and completely re-invent (and technically upgrade) itself in order to move with the times, as you said. by now I think WoW had a fair run with 7 years, maybe it’s not the best example anyhow, but I can’t see WoW changing itself too drastically (while still maintaining quality, anyway). I guess it would take a developer to tell us just how flexible they are like that and if it’s actually worth it, compared to just working on a new, next gen game.
In social situations I’m always an outsider. I make friends, but I don’t make hard ties. People come and people go. It’s more the community that interests me. I like the feel of small, cozy communities. Large guilds turn me off, and opening up server transfers took away the server community feel for me. However, I can live with that, since it’s the smaller of my game killers.
My primary concern is the game itself. Do the devs maintain a high quality game? In WoW I feel that answer is a very strong yes. Now, it may not be exactly how I want it to be, but you can tell that they put a lot of care into their designs.
I played Funcom’s Anarchy Online for a few years. I really liked the game, but after an expansion, they never went back and fixed their issues. They just kept forging ahead, bringing out new content, which, of course, had it’s own issues that they never went back to fix. It drove me to distraction! To me, that is just sloppy game development, and I just couldn’t play any longer.
The expansion that Blizzard stops caring about getting things right is the expansion that will make me quit.
Heh well, I am glad that you are not at this point yet in WoW then. 🙂
I’m sure the social factor can be more or less for some players, certainly less than it is for myself – WoW really allows for both playstyles.
The time/novelty factor is something that gets all of us though, sooner or later. it’s hard to detect at times and not to be mistaken for a decline in actual design.