Vague Patch Notes: Contemplating MMORPG exit barriers

    
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Whenever you're ready.

In episode 13 of season 9 of The Simpsons, after having spent far more time than she wants in the Movementarian cult, Marge angrily declares to the gatekeeper that she wants to leave. “Ma’am, you’re free to leave any time you want,” he replies, pointing to the path out behind him, which is covered in mines, barbed wire, trenches, and other hazards. But, of course, no person is going to stop her from walking out there. She’s free to leave.

Leaving an MMO is not quite that severe. But it’s certainly similar.

The topic came up at work the other day when we were talking, naturally, about the surge of people who appear to be departing World of Warcraft for other games (Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online are the more popular destinations, at least from our totally unscientific study of anecdotal evidence). And that brings up questions about the barriers that games put up to leaving, or more accurately, the ones that manifest over time… and what it means as those barriers erode – or worse, no longer become an impediment.

Let’s start by establishing some definitions. When we’re talking about barriers to leaving a game, what we’re not talking about is an odd or incomprehensible user interface for unsubscribing. Instead, we’re talking about the things that make you want to reconsider unsubscribing in the first place. And those penalties take three forms, for our purposes: punitive, opportunistic, and historical.

Deep blue sea.

Punitive barriers are the most obvious and sometimes feel like the most cruel in an absolute sense. A good example of that is decaying housing. Fail to do the necessary legwork to keep your house in Ultima Online or FFXIV, and the next time you log in you’ll have lost your house altogether. Other games have it in a more passive sense, like the threat of losing a character name during server merges. You can also find the community changing, guilds that you were in no longer extant, and so on. The point is that leaving gives you a good chance of losing something you currently have.

Opportunistic barriers are the inverse, barriers that remind you that you might be missing out on things you could have. Leaving the game means missing out on seasonal events, for example, some of which might have one-time-only rewards that you simply can’t get through other means. You’ll lose out on any special promotions. You might find that a project you were completing is unfinished and takes more time once you return. Nothing is being taken from you, but you’re missing out on possibilities.

Last but not least are historical barriers, and this is the one that doesn’t get talked about much. Historical barriers are things with no threat of going anywhere but are an incentive to stay where you are just the same because where you are is also where all your stuff is. You have your long list of achievements in WoW, all your money, lots of items, lots of reputations leveled, unlocks, and so forth. For that matter, you know how to play the game.

Punitive barriers are often talked up as things to keep you from ever walking away, opportunistic ones get brought up a lot to draw people back, but the historical barriers are, I think, one of the biggest elements keeping you locked into any game. In some ways, they’re like a version of the sunk cost fallacy that isn’t altogether fallacious.

Please come out here and please be good.

Consider my own particular history at this point. Let’s say that Blue Protocol rolls out and it turns out that it’s literally everything I could ever ask for from a game. (Highly unlikely, but we’ve got hypotheticals here.) It has housing, it has the character customization I want, it has the fun sort of group content I like, involved crafting… the list goes on. In fact, it’s all so good that I start to ask myself questions about remaining within FFXIV because it scratches all of those same itches.

Except… I have stuff in FFXIV. I have a house. I have loads of money. I have levels, and items, and friends, and achievements, and… jeez, it’s really hard to convince myself to just leave that all behind forever. Even disregarding the parts I would lose, I’d feel very weird about just letting go of all the things I already owned.

Of course, hopping over to Blue Protocol would be leaving for a new game. It’d be even more intimidating to switch full-time to, say, EVE Online (again, this is purely hypothetical). Then I’m moving from being a part of the established audience to being a new player, leaving a community I know for one I don’t, and fundamentally having to learn everything fresh all over again.

That’s a big ask. And the fact that it does happen says something both about the game that’s being swapped to and the one you’re leaving behind.

So... BYE.

Obviously there’s no law against being subscribed to multiple MMOs and/or actively playing them. But there is a certain amount of opportunity cost baked in; past a certain point you can’t give any individual game sufficient time or attention, and you wind up being a de facto tourist. There are times when you want to play another game as a lark and times when you are looking at another title as an actual honest-to-Sobek replacement for what had heretofore been your main title.

And to a certain extent, yes, this is probably informed by the good things you’ve heard about that new game. But it seems like as often as not it’s both parts. It’s that you’ve heard good things about Game X, and it’s also serving a need that Game Y is increasingly either not addressing at all or is addressing in an increasingly terrible fashion.

It takes a lot to overcome that inertia. You’re unlikely to leave for good over a bad patch, for example, but a series of bad patches and enjoying your new side game enough eventually erodes that sense of having an investment in your prior game. And enough poor decisions over time can make that investment either feel worthless or just no longer worth caring about; while there’s still some worthwhile stuff squirreled away on my account for Star Wars: The Old Republic, at this point I consider that basically a closed game for me just the same.

A lot of designers, of course, are aware this is a thing that’s going to happen. FFXIV’s Naoki Yoshida outright encourages people to take breaks and play other games; the patch cadence is reliable and steady, after all, and there are lots of fun single-player titles out there for people to enjoy. It’s an effort to avoid making that pressure feel overwhelming, to make sure you don’t feel like your options are either to stay around or leave for good.

But I think that historical pressure is one of those things more designers need to think about and acknowledge. Both as the sort of thing that’s more likely to make people stick around over the longer term… and a bigger indicator of when something is really going wrong. If people are willing to leave that history behind, it usually means that the present is bad enough and the future not bright enough to balance the cost of goodbye.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I stopped playing Villagers and Heroes, knowing that I’d lose my house if I didn’t keep logging in to reset the countdown timer. I made sure to move everything into my character’s inventory. But, I don’t think I’ll ever play the game again.
I got fed up with how slow it was to level up in the game, thanks to, I’m sure, the devs designing it that way, so people would get the sub to get the exp boost. That kind of thing really grinds my gears.
I just want game devs to stop trying to hold my free time hostage.

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FormlessOne

Look up “sunk cost fallacy,” and know that MMORPGs count on it to not only keep you in the game, but to keep you paying for specific features.

If you spend money on a game, you need to treat that money the same way you would if you spent it on the lottery, or in Vegas – if you can’t afford to lose it, don’t play. I’ve spent more than a little over the last couple of decades on MMOs, most of which I’ve departed (and more than a few of which, themselves, departed.) If you spent that money and had fun, that’s why you spent the money. Don’t spend it if you’re not having fun, and if the game no longer brings you enjoyment, dust yourself off, walk away, and find another if you so choose.

Don’t let the sunk cost fallacy keep you in an MMORPG.

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elenie

I kept coming back to WoW for multiple expansions because I missed my characters, whom I’d been playing for years and had grown close to in a way (especially my druid and my hunter and her main pet). Most of my WoW friends had left before that, so it was really just my characters and longing for new story that kept me playing.
What helped me get out was a series of expansions I did not enjoy and that also made it hard/time-consuming to level my beloved alts. So yeah, historical barriers are a big factor for me at least.

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kalech

Interesting. Never really considered any of these. The only barrier I’ve noticed has been friends. I’ve stuck to WoW for a long time, despite hating the game, because its still fun to play with my friends even if the game itself is garbage.

But I often dont stick super hard to any one mmo. I often switch it up, pausing one and popping into another to check how things are or to take part of an event that seems fun. The amount of stuff I’ve gathered or achievements Ive completed don’t really matter. Its fun to work towards those goals, but once completed it doesn’t really matter to me if I leave them behind.

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Ozzie

While it probably wouldn’t stop anyone from leaving, an annoying punitive barrier is the leftover currency on your account. Like if you bought $20 of super duper rainbow magic gems, and only spent $11.99, it’s annoying to throw that out when you leave. With the many cash shop and f2p MMOs, it probably happens quite a bit. Of course, they expected you to do that and it’s part of the reason special currencies exist.

There should be a regulation or something that obligates that they buy it back.

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Schmidt.Capela

Ever since WoW almost made me burn out with the whole MMO genre I actively keep my exit barrier as low as possible; if I notice that the exit barrier is getting large enough that I might not be willing to leave at the drop of a hat, then I immediately leave the game as a way to avoid that future exit barrier.

A few caveats, though.

First, many of the potential exit barriers serve, instead, as entry barriers for me; time-limited rewards and events, as well as excessive grind required to reach the end of the content, fall into this for me, as well as most things that could make me wary of “wasting” the effort already spent on the game. Heck, if I’m aware of any “must have” item that can’t be obtained anymore then it’s a hard pass regardless of anything else about the game.

Second, playing when I’m at the top and have plentiful resources tend to be somewhat boring for me; in games, I like the build-up better than I like having power and resources. So, accumulated levels, gold, mats, etc, tend to not be much of an exit barrier for me, and might even evolve into a drive to either start anew in the same game or leave it altogether.

Third, I tend to better enjoy the early days with a new game; I love learning about new mechanics, new lore, developing my understanding and mastery of the game. It’s something that can’t be recaptured by starting anew in the same game, as even if I’m starting from nothing again a lot of the discovery is already done. So, the need build up my knowledge base from scratch for the new game is, for me, actually an incentive to leave.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

None of these barriers have had any barrier on me, if anything if I find them petty enough I’m more inclined to leave and never come back out of spite.

creationguru
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creationguru

I used to have these issues with MMOs but I had to break myself of what I love to call “Digital Hoarding” once you don’t have this hanging over your head then it becomes much easier to step away for times or all together. I have come to the realization I don’t want to play any game that feels like a job and now that everything is a gear grind that does not do it for me I love to level so trying new games and going through the story is key for me.

Its a mindset that so many people have not gotten over as in the end you really have nothing as if the game shut down tomorrow you just have digital dust and that is it. I say just ignore the barriers and just move in and out fluid through the journey that MMOs provide and don’t worry about what you miss.

Last thing to say is I also don’t have FOMO in games as really in the end nothing that is a one time thing does not come back as a re-skin or really was not that important in the first place.

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Ironwu

I think you missed the largest barrier to leaving an MMO: The other people with whom one forms bonds and friendships.

I find it MUCH easier to move on from an environment where there is no one that I am interacting with in a personal way.

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IronSalamander8 .

This is a great point. Part of why I hung on to EQ long after I wasn’t really enjoying it was the fact that I had made some good friends there and we played every week, almost every day. It’s much easier to enjoy something, even if you’re not as thrilled as you once were, when you’re having a great time with friends.

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Schmidt.Capela

I almost got burned out with the whole genre exactly because of this. I felt a duty to my friends, and in particular my guild, and this prevented me from stopping with WoW despite not enjoying — and, in the end, even loathing — the time I spent playing.

It’s why I now take steps so I never, ever, feel duty-bound to keep playing again. In particular, I will never allow anyone, or any group, to depend on me; if that starts happening I will try to break that dependency, gently at first then growing more forcible, and if that fails I simply leave the game.

Bereman
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Bereman

That historical barrier…that can be a tough one to crack.

So say you’ve largely shifted to another game, and enjoy most of your time there. But there’s that part from the old game, the one that says:

“You never quite finished this. You never ticked off those achievements. You never got that mount. You got a bunch of these other things, why not come back and finish these last bits…and maybe try out the game as it is and maybe stick around again? I know you don’t really have fun with the game anymore – no one you know plays, the mechanics just aren’t your preferred mechanics, there’s a dozen things that irritate you…but hey, come on back, get that rare drop and finish that reputation to unlock something you wanted before, eh? For old times sake? All your characters are right here, waiting for you.”

WoW was that game for me for years, and it legitimately took deleting all of my characters to break through that barrier for good. I don’t regret the time I had that I enjoyed with the game, but I also don’t regret eliminating the part of the game – the history I had with those characters, some stretching back over 10 years – that I realized was preventing me from personally leaving it behind.