MMO melancholy

proust1It’s about time I admitted that there isn’t an MMO out there that will hold me for more than 2-4 months at a time anymore. What I can’t figure out is if that’s because I’ve outgrown the genre or because of some flaw in the genre itself — or both, or indeed neither. The last game I played for more than half a year at one stretch was my last stint in SWG, which I played “seriously” for about 6 months and then spent 2-3 more months breaking up with (that phase where you’re not really playing anymore and you’re gradually walking away but you haven’t cancelled your subs yet). The only game I can say I played continuously for years is Asheron’s Call, not coincidentally my first ever MMO; I’ve played several other games over several years, but only in shorter stints, and since about 2003 or 2004 my average game-sub stint has been 2-6 months.

Ultimately I’m not too concerned as to why; it’s interesting to speculate about for a while, as I’m doing here, but in the long run it may not be particularly productive. If I’ve outgrown the MMO genre, then that’s just a fact of my gaming life, and if it’s because the genre itself is flawed, then that’s not something that’s going to change overnight — assuming it ever does. It’s probably a little of both, anyway. My life is what it is and I’ve got work and other non-game commitments like everyone else past a certain age, and to be honest I’m glad of it. I’m not the person who could spend 8+ hours in game several times a week anymore. I can’t drink like a fish and pull all-nighters anymore either. Ah, the resilience of youth. All that stuff was fun at one point in my life, but it doesn’t really appeal so much these days.

And one of the reasons why MMOs may not be as gripping anymore is that a treadmill by any other name (or with any other UI and graphics) is still a treadmill, and the underlying principle of most MMOs (and many RPGs, for that matter) is the steady upward climb. We progressively get more powerful and it takes ever more effort to get a certain amount of progress and… well, that’s it, if you strip it down to the essentials. It never happens that we suddenly lose half our levels — and it shouldn’t, because games that rely on upward progression as their primary activity cannot in all conscience require you to randomly have to do it all again. If they did nobody would play them; alts are one thing, but redoing levels X to Y on the same character would cause howls of justified outrage — see also the discussion on the need for/extent of death penalties in games. 

Sandbox games are a little different, in that you can to varying extents make your own goals and you’re not necessarily tied to the item/level/skills treadmill. Even those, however, have grown a little stale for me over the years, and that’s probably more down to me than down to the sandboxes. Part of the problem is that leaving a game for any length of time tends to feel as though it’s not worth coming back — if you stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll lose your place, get left behind, whatever… even when the only goals you’re really living up to are your own. Going on from that, I discovered awhile back that getting un-addicted (metaphorically and mildly speaking) from a game is just a matter of not logging in for a day or two, at which point that all-consuming itch dwindles away and the game resumes its normal (and probably proper) importance in one’s life. I know how easy it is to stop playing now, and in a perverse way that decreases a game’s importance to me and thus the amount of time I’m going to invest in it, especially over a span of weeks or months. I suspect that’s far more healthy, psychologically, but it’s also less fascinating and exciting.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of friends and gaming communities.  Online game communities move swiftly these days and chances are the people you played with in February may not be playing anymore come October, let alone next year. That’s my primary problem with leaving — knowing that if/when I come back, I may not find the people who made it all fun in the first place. Ironically, of course, some of them may actually end up leaving because I did, and so on round the circle.

Ah, people. Hate em, love em, but they make the MMO world go round. I’m quite sure a large part of my jadedness over the past few years has to do with the fact that none of us really play these games as intensively as we used to, and that most of my friends chop and change from one game to the next — as do I, of course. As Tipa (and others, but I remember her quote most recently) has said, it’s not what you play it’s who you play with. It’s good that there are a jillion games to play these days, but it’s not so good that we’re so spread out among them. I know many more people online than I did a decade ago, but there’s still a limit to how many good friends/acquaintances you tend to really interact with at any one time, and that basic pool isn’t much larger now than it used to be because our brains aren’t capable of maintaining a million different close connections at once; so I have about the same number of friends, but we’re spread out among 10 or 20 different games instead a handful — and that’s not counting consoles now.

Last but not least, there’s the creeping ennui the grows from having done something many many times before. MMOs aren’t sustantively different from each other, and part of that magical first MMO experience was, literally, experiencing everything for the first time. That’s just a fact of life and the way we’re built to apprehend the world, but it’s important in terms of the longevity of any given playing experience.

So between shorter learning curves (part of what I absolutely love about games is getting to know them) and smaller friends pools in individual games, it feels like I’ve been around the block 18 times before and that I’m doing it in a much more solitary fashion than I used to.

I’m not sure there’s a cure for that — I’m not sure there should be, but it certainly makes me nostalgic and a little melancholy.  Then again, I’m sure Proust would say a little melancholy never hurt anyone. Have another madeleine

33 thoughts on “MMO melancholy

  1. I try not to be melancholy over the fact that I’ll probably never be as in love with a game as I was with both Asheron’s Call and Star Wars Galaxies. I enjoy the time I spend in the games I play and I don’t feel guilty when I leave one for another. After all, I’ll probably be back. Well, I’ll be back to LOTRO and EQ2 and Eve… not sure any others.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I don’t spend every moment I’m not working or sleeping playing games anymore. I enjoy the time I spend doing other things. 😉

    I don’t really think it is any flaw in the games or the genre… it is simply a fact of life that familiarity changes any relationship.

  2. 2-4 months seems like a long time and a good value to me. So I guess it’s a matter of perspective; I can’t imagine spending a year playing the same game when so many other things are happening in the gaming space.

    Our time on this earth is finite and I’d like to experience as many games as I can!

    But I play for different reasons than you and Tipa. I play MMOs solo. I -make- friends through them, but I -maintain- those friendships outside the games. You’re a perfect example. I met you via Warhammer Online, but did we ever group in-game? If we did, it wasn’t more than once. And we’ve both left that game behind but we’re still friends (well, I hope you consider us friends!)

    Heck, if you’d log into XFire you could even ‘guild chat’ across games. 🙂

  3. I’ve had extensive talks with a friend lately about the saturation of not only MMOs in the gaming market lately, but also the fact that the MMOs coming out are mainly high fantasy, or close to it. There are some sci-fi ones coming and a couple steam punk ones to boot, but other than that, they’re all fantasy AND many seem to be “based” on something already existing in another entertainment medium.

    Plus, the games don’t really give people a reason to play longer than 2-4 months. There’s no reason to once you have the best gear or have seen everything *shrugs*

  4. I definitely have experienced something similar. It feels to me that the existing games out there are so remarkably similar that it’s increasingly hard for one to hold my interest for very long. LotRO had phenomenal PvE and a great community… but it’s in many regards the same game as WoW or AoC or for that matter EQ. I did stay there long enough to experience basically all the content (pre-expansion) though, which is something.

    Some games offer new ideas, or at least offer old ideas in shiny new packaging (e.g. WAR’s oRvR and scenarios), but they fail to provide a sense of purpose; though I enjoy good PvP, and it’s often exciting and unpredictable… the success of such game mechanics, for me, is inextricably linked to the quality of the community. If I enjoy spending time fighting with and against other players, it’s because they’re not being asshats. WAR fails this test, as many games do, because the design doesn’t foment any sort of community spirit; it’s every man for himself.

    I don’t think blogging and thinking so much about game design necessarily helps me become less jaded, either. 😉

  5. @Pete — the thing is, by playing “with” I don’t just mean what most people mean (i.e. joined at the group hip and god forbid if you should want to do something by yourself). I used to bimble about by myself quite a lot in Asheron’s Call — looking for dye flowers, looking for a particular mob that dropped a particular thing I needed at the time, just wandering around looking at the (triangular :D) scenery — but at the same time I was *almost always* chatting with anywhere up to a dozen people at a time.

    I’d group up with people so we could use group chat even if we weren’t doing the same thing, I’d have tells coming in and going out to 3-6 different people, and then there was guild chat (no global or regional of any kind in those days) — all of which kept me socially quite busy and doesn’t count the hours and hours I spent just hanging out in various locations with other people.

    That’s one thing that just doesn’t seem to happen much anymore. We don’t just “hang out” — we always have to be doing something, going somewhere, obtaining something. Just thinking about it is exhausting. I miss hanging out in games.

  6. @ Ysharros: Some games don’t lend themselves well to hanging out for its own sake. I found the pace in WoW, AoC, CoX, and WAR didn’t really aid in socializing… everyone was always in a hurry to do something, as you noted. LotRO felt a lot more laidback to me, and guild chat was more often full of people just chatting while exploring, crafting, riding from one location to another, etc. Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of downtime that contributes there, but even when doing things I found people in LotRO to be very chatty, moreso than other MMOs I’ve played since EQ.

  7. Personally, I agree with Tipa. I’ve been struggling the last six months with playing. I’m a solo player for the most part, too. But I just haven’t been getting out of games what I used to when I played with a great group of people.

    Well, I’ve been in LOTRO for a month now and can’t remember having as much fun in a game. The reason is not the game. The reason is the people. And playing the way that works for me with those people.

    I let down my grouping guard, well, at least once a week I do. I really think forming or joining a static group that fits my schedule will be the key to my future happiness in MMOs. I guess you could say that it’s not the game that had to change, it was me.

    I’m not telling you what to do or anything. Just giving my personal account. It works for me. You’re just not finding what works for you. And…yes…maybe what you think works for you, doesn’t.

    There’s nothing wrong with taking time off. I’ve been playing MMOs for 20 years. I’ve taken plenty of breaks here and there. Don’t worry about that.

    While I don’t disagree with the fact that MMOs need to change, I think there are a few changes left in us players, as well.

  8. Funny, I was just feeling the same sort of way… well, sort of.

    I know I haven’t outgrown the MMO genre even though I’ve boiled them down to what you described above. But you can do that with any form of entertainment. Sports? Movies? Books? Any other type of game.

    Just a few moments ago I was running around Winterspring. The zone is completely empty and it got me wondering what the zone would be like when WoW was in its prime. I stumbled across a gate I couldn’t open, checked the map and saw Hyjal was next to it. Looked that up because it was ringing a bell. Neat little bit of lore.

    That got me thinking of some of the instances I’ve missed out on and about some of the zones I completely missed and have yet to set foot into. Man, it would have been sweet to have been there from the beginning and hang on to game a like sports fans hang on to a team.

    For all our railing against the grind/treadmill, I kind of miss it being worse and being forced to explore and go looking for other areas.

    It’s not just WoW either. They’re all getting to be like that.

    Or maybe it’s me. 🙂 I find that with my alts I push and push to level them up. Ah well.


    1. @ smakendahead: I respectfully disagree that movies and books are nearly as similar as MMOs are today. Even if you take into account the Hollywood machine’s efforts to force all scripts to be 110 pages long (with Act 1 ending at page 27 and Act 2 ending at page 90), there’s a lot more difference between “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” than there is between WoW and AoC. The difference is even greater with books, which are less controlled by a studio system that encourages remaking old properties.

      “For all our railing against the grind/treadmill, I kind of miss it being worse and being forced to explore and go looking for other areas.”

      I surely don’t miss the grind from EQ, nor the forced grouping, nor the tedious spawncamping. That didn’t really encourage me to explore; I explored then, and now, because I enjoy finding things off the beaten path. WoW, if anything, encourages me to explore less than other games did, since every stop on the theme park express is mapped out in advance for me.

      Your mileage may of course vary. 😀

      1. But you’re comparing the setting of movies and books with the mechanics of games.

        Mechanically, movies and books are all very similar. Mechanically, so are games.

        Settings are wildly varied in both cases. This is self-evident in the case of books and movies, but looking at games:

        MapleStory vs Saga of Ryzom vs Eve Online vs City of Heroes There’s a HUGE diversity of settings and stories to explore.

        The “sameness” exists within genres, just as it does with movies or books (eg comedy, crime, horror, etc)

      2. @ Pete: I didn’t say a word about the settings… I was thinking mostly of the structure and content, or more generally the user’s experience. Experiencing Age of Conan is much like experiencing World of Warcraft, which is itself much like experiencing City of Heroes, which is much like Lord of the Rings Online… while experiencing Wall-E is very little like experiencing The Dark Knight. There’s a profound thematic difference, as well as a difference in the way the characters are given depth, and of course the plot structures and the way tension is built are fairly different. Sure, most movies and a lot of books share 3-act structures, but beyond that the similarities (can) grow few and far between. Obviously some works are a lot like other works, but if we examine only the most popular recent forms of each medium (say the New York Times bestseller list vs. the Academy Award winners vs. the MMOs with the greatest subscriber numbers), I think the case is fairly clear: mainstream MMOs are considerably more homogenous than other media.

        Hyboria and Azeroth and Paragon City and Endor are divergent settings, but the gameplay is fairly similar… it’s batch-quest-driven, centered around combat, with similar interfaces, wherein content is geographically sorted by difficulty, and everything is static. Players spend their time doing the same things, engaging in the same sorts of grinding and grouping in the same ways to fight similar foes using similar mechanics. On the other hand, reading “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is very little like reading “The Lord of the Rings”, though both are works of fantasy. It’s more than setting – there’s an unmistakable divergence of approach – not only from comedy to drama, but also in how the authors use description, create background, flesh out characters, develop plots, etc.

        Now, is Maple Story the same as Wizard 101, or is A Tale in the Desert the same as Eve Online? Obviously not. MMOs aren’t completely homogenous, thankfully, but the most popular ones tend to be. Maybe the similarities stand out more to me because the sample size is so low, compared to other media, I don’t know. I have a personal library of several thousand books, and sure, many are similar… but many more are wildly different, too. I haven’t seen that much variation yet in MMOs, but I’d like to. Perhaps it’s just too young a medium to have grown to the point where diversity can flourish.

        To play devil’s advocate, Hollywood is certainly more than capable of milking the teat of creativity well beyond the point where any actual creativity remains. Many movies are heavily influenced by other movies, or are outright remakes or re-imaginings. But the most successful movies tend to move beyond this morass of monotony in a way that the most successful MMOs don’t, at least not yet.

      3. Well, I disagree, but I guess that just illustrates that the way we approach games can be very different.

        Game mechanics are mostly as relevant to me as the size and typeface of a book. I do prefer a nice hardcover printed on good quality paper, but I won’t bypass a great story because its a tattered old paperback. I do enjoy fresh new gameplay mechanics, but I won’t bypass a first rate world waiting to be explored because it uses established mechanics.

        Exploring Tortage (AoC) and exploring the Shire (LOTRO) were wildly divergent experiences, to me. Night and day.

        Picking a bunch of similar MMOs and saying “all MMOs are similar” is no more valid than picking a bunch of similar books and saying “all books are similar”. If you just pay attention to mainstream MMOs, that’s a choice you’re making. If you instead compare WoW with Hello Kitty Online, it’s hard to say they’re the same.

        But that’s kind of a tangent. To me, setting in an MMO is almost everything. So to me, the currently available MMOs are all wildly divergent. Having hit points is like having page numbers. Just a means to an end.

        So, we just see things very differently. So I guess we’re both “correct” given our respective world views.

        I’m out.

      4. @ Pete: Fair enough. I was really just comparing the mainstream examples of all 3 media, but you’re quite right that divergence exists. I don’t think I was deliberately picking similar MMOs so much as mainstream ones, but the outcome was the same. We can agree to disagree. 🙂

  9. Ysh, I think it just takes time to build up a social group so that you always have people to chat with. There’s no shortcut to it, there’s no way to speed it up (other than starting with a bunch of people you know). So you have to like the game enough to not mind that.

    And it doesn’t fit well with the way we all are getting a bit jaded with the games. If everyone is less likely to stay 6 months, then how can any community build?

    1. Aye, but my point is that I’d like to be able to socialise with the people I already *do* know. I know a ton of people who play MMOs – we meet, we play together a while, and then we move on.

      I’m not incapable or unwilling to make new friends — I just would like to have more of a chance to play with my old ones.

  10. I do think that we’re getting past the bulk of the faddish phase of MMO games. (A screwed up economy is creating more “exit points” as well, a death knell for sub games.) The initial heady rush we felt seeing the potential of MMOs was that we could play in interesting worlds with lots of people, but the reality has been little more than subscription based single player games with a bit of multiplayer. We’re paying for the privilege of playing something that doesn’t offer substantially more to multiplayer persistent experiences than Diablo 2 or Counterstrike.

    Sure, there are things even in WoW or GW that aren’t found in single player games, but for the most part, modern MMO design really isn’t living up to the promise of a living, dynamic, interesting world. They are just bigger, slightly more social *games* still, and games are pretty much just meant to be played through. When replay value is just doing the same stuff with a different class, it’s a pretty shallow experience, and there’s no good reason not to look for something more interesting elsewhere, whether it’s another MMO or another *game*, offline or otherwise.

    1. “for the most part, modern MMO design really isn’t living up to the promise of a living, dynamic, interesting world.”

      I hadn’t thought of it like that but …. yes. That’s kind of exactly how I feel.

      I still think virtual societies are really interesting in the MMOs which we do have but it’s not really what I hoped for.

      1. That’s where a lot of my complaints are rooted. The games are fun enough and interesting enough to make money and be popular… but they just aren’t what they *could* be, and wasted potential always makes me sad and a bit annoyed.

  11. I think it’s important to put in perspective – when you consider non-MMO games, it is a rare gem indeed that you log more than say 30 hours of time playing. That might amount to say a month of casual play!

    So to say you spent, say, 4 months playing an MMO…. well, I’d say that’s a fairly good run. Logging up several years playing a particular game means it’s either an absolute classic, or it’s become an addiction.

    1. “Logging up several years playing a particular game means it’s either an absolute classic, or it’s become an addiction.”

      I think that’s a little easy to say. I can name quite a few people who have been playing WoW or EQ2 continuously for several years — and in my opinion, neither game is a classic and none of those people are addicted. They just get more out of what they’re doing in those games than I do (which is a good thing, for them).

      I don’t think of myself as a player who buys, experiences, and moves on all in the space of a few months — lots of people do experience games like that, even MMOs, but that’s not the way I tend to approach them. I still hope MMOs will be a place to *be* and not just a place to *do* and move on from.

      EDIT before I get burned at the stake. I’m not saying WoW or EQ2 are crap. I guess to some extent WoW *is* a classic purely because of what it’s achieved, but neither game has that label in my head, though I’ve played an enjoyed both. I find it hard to judge an ongoing MMO using terms that are applied to single-player games (again, because I don’t “consume” MMOs in the way single-player games tend to be; I had a friend whose main aim when buying a game was to see if he could beat it in less than the time it said on the box… so he could go bitch and moan and get a refund. WTF kind of reason *is* that for buying a game?)

  12. Cantinas in SW:G were awesome for just “hanging out” in. I’ll never forget dropping hundreds of thousands to millions of credits on my bounty hunter per visit to have Twi’Leks dance for me, when others were paying 25-100 credits per dance. Pissed a lot of people off in the cantina because I stole their entertainment! *snicker*

  13. Depending on the number of hours logged per week after all these years, I would be surprised if some of those friends weren’t addicted.

    However, I suppose those who fall more towards the Socializer end of the Bartle spectrum would continue to feel like they’re actually getting something useful out of a game several years after release. I don’t really tend to think along those lines as I don’t really look to build lasting contacts when I game, so I’m not really ‘qualified’ to comment.

    But in terms of actual gameplay… at some point, you’ve seen it all, and if you’re still hanging around… well, it’s not nice to call your friends addicted, but sometimes it’s true.

    P.S. Your friend in that example sounds like a WoW tourist.

    P.P.S. Joking :p

  14. 2009 seems to be the year without MMO for me, too.

    My first MMO love was Ultima Online, and they do not make games like that nowadays anymore. So I am in an even worse situation.

    It is interesting that so many bloggers and MMO gamers feel the burn out by now.

    My hint, I also gave it to Wiqd: Play some cool singleplayer games, there are many around that are really good. Granted, they are not that social, but you might pick up some inspiration for future MMOs. Maybe MMO designers should play more other games, to get some ideas.

    I think it is time for the next big hit in MMO gaming, till then we will have to wait and blog… 🙂

    1. “Maybe MMO designers should play more other games, to get some ideas.”

      Indeed. Games in general are fairly inbred, but the DIKU lineage is even more so.

      I’d actually suggest MMO devs go read some Sun Tzu, Hawking or even Frost to shake the intellectual cobwebs out.

      1. I attended a lecture by Terry Pratchett once that I found inspirational. He advised writers to do a lot of reading ~outside~ the genre they plan to write in. This provides a good grounding in a broad range of areas, and helps create fertile soil for creations to flourish in. It also helps one avoid falling into genre-ruts – doing something the way others did it because it worked well for them, or because it seems popular.

  15. I definitely agree with you guys that games are all the same because we’re making them all that way. And sadly sameness is still seen to be more of a pro than a con by most people.

    The problem is that games that are different end up failing because they were bad, and people blame that failure on being different.

    People will pretty much do anything to avoid admitting that they’ve made a bad game. If your game was crap and you used agile, you’ll blame agile for ruining your game. If your game was using a new engine, you’ll blame the engine. People fundamentally have a really hard time realizing when they suck, and I’m sure I do the same thing.

    I know some really brilliant designers who are exactly who Tesh is describing, who know philosophy, history, tabletop games, obscure ancient games and sports, the videogame tropes from other cultures, etc. Those designers mostly end up having their ideas vetoed by marketing people, their bosses, etc. I don’t think it’s a problem with having new ideas, it’s more of a problem of those ideas making it to market.

    And unfortunately those marketing people at the giant game companies are right to push back against those ideas, because they haven’t been demonstrated to be successful yet. It’s good business to wait and see if something fails before you try it yourself.

    It’s a little bit like Marty McFly playing guitar at the dance, right? Stuff that’s not part of the current paradigm isn’t easy to sell people on. So I think there will have to be a lot more successful non-diku games before it becomes a commonly-accepted idea that you don’t have to make a game like that to succeed.

    This is where the smaller companies come in. Small indies and foreign companies pioneered microtransactions, and only now are large companies like EA Bioware talking about using it. It takes awhile for these ideas to permeate to the largest companies, because they’re the slowest to change.


  16. “I know how easy it is to stop playing now, and in a perverse way that decreases a game’s importance to me and thus the amount of time I’m going to invest in it, especially over a span of weeks or months. I suspect that’s far more healthy, psychologically, but it’s also less fascinating and exciting.”

    Nail —> Head

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