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.
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.
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.
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.