Massively Overthinking: Overcoming barriers-to-exit in MMOs

    
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About a thousand years ago, I wrote an article on Old Massively called “but I already have that game” about barriers-to-exit: the difficulty of convincing gamers to leave an MMO where they’re popular, rich, happy, and comfortable and getting them to move to a new MMO where they are poor and low-level nobodies dragging themselves through yet another newbie slog. I used it to explain why people kept defaulting back to games like EverQuest (in the long long ago) and World of Warcraft (in the less long ago) even when obviously superior MMOs existed.

“It’s easy for [MMO bloggers and blog readers] to have nuanced conversations about whether ArcheAge is a true sandbox, how Star Wars: The Old Republic is more like a single-player game than an MMORPG, or what exactly WildStar borrowed from WoW because we see them as distinct worlds defined by their subtleties. But we’re not most people or most gamers. We’re not even most MMO gamers. And most MMO gamers, the PvE ‘casuals’ who make up the bulk of our extended community, really don’t see all that much difference between the titles that roll out every year, these games that are asking them to pay again to basically do the same things with the same types of experiences for the same rewards, over and over and over. […] Traditional MMO gamers are stuck in a feedback loop where our gaming comfort zones and accumulated personal MMO prestige are directly at odds with the innovation we say we desire.”

I didn’t (and don’t) really hold MMO players themselves responsible for this; it’s the studios and publishers that are at fault for not making their barriers-to-entry low enough to entice people to push past the barriers-to-exit. And it’s the barriers-to-exit that I want to talk about in today’s Massively Overthinking: I’ve asked our writers to ponder the barriers-to-exit in their own favorite MMOs, whether they feel encumbered by them, whether that’s changed over time, and what they wish new MMOs would do to lure them away from their comfort MMOs.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): The biggest barrier to exit for me tends to be the community. A low barrier to entry may get me to try a game out, but it’s harder for me to stick with it if I don’t have a community. Well, more specifically, the right community. Crowfall’s been fun enough, but since no one else I really know well plays, and because I never felt like I found someone(s) to always jump in game with, I stuck to the games where my community already was. That isn’t to say I won’t play a game by myself, but in all honesty those tend to either be for work or single player games, and considering the fact that I haven’t finished New Pokemon Snap’s latest update, what, a month later, it’s pretty clear that the majority of my free-time goes to multiplayer-capable online games I can play with my friends/family.

Now, that being said, this is also why customer satisfaction is important. When those silent fans get upset and abandon their game, those are often the people I’m playing with. I’m vocal because I can but also because I may be trying to voice the opinion(s) of people I play with – if they’re lost, I’m most likely lost too, even if I enjoy the game. Low barriers to entry may help get people into a game, but as we’ve seen with WoW and FFIVX, one of the best things that can happen for a game is for its competitor to ignore its own playerbase.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’ve never really had this experience. When it’s time to leave, I feel it. Logging in becomes a chore and finding something fun to do becomes exhausting. So far, no barrier has been large enough to overcome that “not fun” feeling. Plus, I always know that I can return if the feeling subsides and the curiosity returns. That’s one of my favorite parts about persistent world games. You can return in the future and things will be new and different but somehow familiar and the same as before!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The MMO I’ve had the hardest time quitting over my lifetime has been Ultima Online. Part of it is definitely because it’s still a fun sandbox, and I love setting up shop there and doing the UO economy/dungeon loop. (Just typing that makes me want to go back.) But if I’m honest, the biggest barrier to quitting was always the housing situation: You get only one house plot, you lose it if you stop subbing more than a couple of months, and finding another decent-sized lot in a good spot on a reasonably sized server is basically impossible, so if you quit, you either have to go back every few months to pay up, or you have to pick up all your stuff, mule it on your characters, and let go a house you built tile by tile – forever.

Being unwilling to do that definitely meant I paid into the game more than I was really getting out of it. A few years ago, I dropped my house to try to get myself out of that subbing loop, but it was made a lot easier by the existence of SWG Legends, where I can get similar sandbox/economy/housing gameplay. But even still, I feel drawn back to it. So I suppose that answers the last question: A new MMO can lure me away with the gameplay I liked in the old game, but it has to be significantly better and shinier – or cheaper.

I will say I also struggled to quit EverQuest as well, not because I liked EverQuest but because my friends didn’t want to leave. When they finally wanted to go, I was all about it – turn out the lights behind us and don’t look back, DAOC here we come. The social barrier to exit can be even more potent, or at least it was for me back then.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): I’m in between MMOs at the moment. And this is the first time in 11 years when I’m not actively playing an MMO. The big five MMOs were really fun games, but my friends were what kept me coming back to the game. And while they still actively play their respective MMOs, I don’t feel the need to log into MMOs anymore to connect with them. Discord’s there! I can just talk to them in Discord and chitchat with them no problemo.

Aside from my friends, I stuck it out with MMOs like BDO and FFXIV so long because they were just so comfortable. I knew exactly what to expect, and I like it that way. Perhaps it was that very same reason that led me to where I am today: After a certain point it became too familiar and had to step away if I wanted to enjoy them again. I’ll come back to MMOs. I just want to be sure I actually enjoy them. Also, the League of Legends MMO will probably get me back into MMOs again.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): We use another term for this phenomenon, “stickiness,” to say how attached we are to a game (and how it entices us to stay attached to it). The more “stuck” you are, the more effort it takes to unstick and go elsewhere. Social connections, fresh content, comfortability, and personal achievements all contribute toward that sticky factor, while an attractive new game, negligence on the part of the studio, burnout, and running out of pertinent content all make you less sticky and more prone to taking off for new grounds (or at least take a break).

I am happy that I’m long past the time in my life that I felt obligated to stay with an MMO past my enjoyment and interest. So I leave games on my own terms and return to them likewise, but if game studios want to accelerate that return (or lengthen that stay) by providing more positive reasons for doing so, I’m all for that. I’ll take it into consideration, is what I’m saying.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): This is a pretty good question that I’ve thought about on and off before. My feel-good fall-back game is Guild Wars 2. While I’m not as entrenched as lots of other gamers might be (I don’t have a guild anymore and I barely even play the PvP modes either), I am totally comfortable. I know basically all the game’s mechanics; I have enough gold to get any essentials I need. I’ve got several max-level characters in different classes in the event I want to play anything different too.

So anytime I sit down for my nightly game session, I weigh out in my mind: Do I play and achieve something I’ve got queued up in GW2, or do I slog through something new, or (if it’s one of the PvP sandboxes) do I feel like running around and maybe not getting a lot accomplished at all? Usually I’ll opt for the direct and comfortable game.

Now, if I’m in the mood for something else easy to play, it’ll be more like Rocket League. Super low barrier-to-entry. I think that’s why games like it, Fortnite, and the dozens of shooters do so well.

I think the main thing that can get me to play regularly is making sure there is always something fun to do (not a lot of grinding to get to the fun parts) and that it doesn’t feel like I’m going to be part of the “out” crowd if I don’t invest a ton of time into the game every night.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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Tlilarema

“… even when obviously superior MMOs existed.”

It would be interesting to see the metrics used, by the author, to substantiate this claim. Gaming is subjective. What makes a superior game for one group will cause feelings of hatred for another. Forced PvP, for example, is something some strive for whilst this would force others to turn away.

Fisty
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Fisty

I haven’t been stuck to a game in a long time. They’re almost always swapped out 3 months into play (even with veteran toons) for something a little different. I can’t stick to one game for years and it be my only MMO. I don’t understand how anyone could.

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Dug From The Earth

I dont think the barrier to exit is quite as big these days with most games. At least, not like it was back around the 2010 era.

This is largely due to the monetization mindset of the companies running the games. They arent in it for the long term profits anymore. They want all the money up front. They dont care if you only stick around for 3 months, as long as you empty your wallet before you leave on the cash shop.

If you do empty your wallet, of course you are going to feel inclined to stick around.

But for those that resist the psychological ploys who end up playing without spending much (or anything), its not that difficult (if at all) anymore to just up and leave. The games lack the content, character investment, and social bonds that older games once had.

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Estranged

The ole sunken cost fallacy will live until we die off as a species.

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Dug From The Earth

especially in games that require us to actually sink REAL $$ costs into over and over again.

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Estranged

Right, if I thought of the lifetime $$$ devoted to gaming, would go crazy. 😂

And yes, it is worse.

I still play SWTOR because of having unlocked everything with a stingy cartel coin methodology and it being basically a free game at this point to access all content, unless wanting to raid.

Being an established player in an older game has massive benefits. Starting from scratch can be a daunting challenge.

Even though it is fast to level in WoW now, that sub and expansion cost is still there eating away at you. It’s really an example of their predatory behavior. #1 Arrogance. #2. They know the Vets are hooked.

It really took years of abusive behavior to lose their player base. That is how set in our ways we can be as humans.

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angrakhan

See I actually like the “newbie slog” although I don’t think of it as a slog. That’s when your character is advancing the fastest. You’re gaining new abilities and gear every time you log on. In a new MMO you’re seeing new sights and learning new stories and discovering new hidden areas.

THAT’S THE FUN PART!

Skip past it and you’re missing the best part of the game. Alternating between your raids, grinding dailies, and linking your fancy gear in chat to show off and puff up your ego is the slog.

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Schmidt.Capela

This too. In most MMOs the leveling part is more fun, for me, than anything it offers at level cap.

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Estranged

I have a rotation to keep things fresh, no doubt.

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Does not check email

There is no barrier to exit – you just wander away because nothing in the game keeps you sticking around .

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IronSalamander8 .

It’s friends and guildmates that keep me in a game mostly. For example, I’d have never played WoW past beta back in 04 had friends not wanted me to play with them. When I mostly solo in a game, which for some games that I play but didn’t catch on with friends, I have a much easier time leaving that game, even with a lot of other reasons to stay.

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Rob Hagaman

Even though I tend to be a solo player, community is a big part of a game. That and immersion. With GW2 and now FFXIV, they have great, friendly communities. They are patient and have no problem helping newer players. You can join any PUG in quests, and people are helpful and friendly. There were a bunch of us in one quest that kept wiping, and one guy that had experience was patient helping everyone learn what we needed to do in the quest, till we made it with a few minutes left.

Compare that to my experience in EVE, where the community can be great…if you’re a part of their clique(corp, losec, nul, etc). Otherwise, it’s the most toxic group of scumbags out there. This can be fun for a time; but many just “win EVE” and move on. If you’re a new player, forget it.

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Schmidt.Capela

A barrier to exit tends to work as a barrier to entry (or to re-entry) for me. Or even as an incentive to exit.

I got burned with WoW badly due to guild and friends — the ultimate barriers to exit — keeping me playing long after I wasn’t having any fun. After that, I started to consciously look at the barriers to exit before I even start playing a game, and if I find that those barriers could potentially work on me, I avoid the game entirely. And while playing I do whatever I can to prevent barriers to exist from being created, going as far as limiting certain social interactions (i.e., those where I get to feel like I’m needed by other players) in order to be able to leave at a moment’s notice and without regret; if preventing the exit barriers from building up prevents me from enjoying the game I immediately leave.

Besides, if I have to sacrifice anything in order to leave — for example, if leaving means I will lose my in-game house — then it not only fails in making me stick longer, it also in almost every case prevents me from ever returning.

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Sleepy

I’m still stuck in DDO because there’s been nothing remotely close to the marvellous complexity of the class system since. I’m still playing Planetside 2 because there’s been nothing like the scale, variety and randomness of battles since. And I’m still playing LOTRO because nobody since has bothered to create such an expansive and atmospheric world since.

At some point in the mid 00s there was a crux where the industry tipped from ‘virtual worlds’ to ‘skinner boxes!”, and it hasn’t been the same since.

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Louie

I wonder if we’ll ever get an MMO world on the scale of LOTRO ever again. Technical issues aside, that game world is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. The scale is so impressive.

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Schmidt.Capela

DDO’s class system complexity, coupled with how hard it is to respec, is why I stopped playing DDO long ago; I reached level 2 with my cleric and was hit by such strong choice paralysis that I logged out and never logged back into the game.

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Bruno Brito

DDO respec issues lie on stats, but it’s pretty easy to respec enhancements. The complexity itself is the best part of the game, but it’s a bit too instanced for my taste.

That being said, i actually like it, the missions being a lot of instances, i just think having a bit of a open world would also be nice.

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Schmidt.Capela

I don’t know if it has changed, but last time I tried it — back when it first went F2P, so literally over a decade ago — character builds were about as complex as building a DnD 3.5e character, and mostly immutable after the fact.

Now, I love playing pen-and-paper RPGs, including DnD 3.5e — I have a full set of manuals for it, of the non-digital, dead trees kind even — but since those are run by the players themselves it’s always possible to “respec” the character if everyone in the group is fine with it — and I only play with people that are fine with an occasional “respec”. Also, we often do test plays with characters already created at a higher level. Thanks to this, the complexity is actually enjoyable for me, as I get to try a lot of different ways of playing without having to commit to any of them.

On the other hand, DDO back when I tried it required either a cash shop purchase or a lengthy and convoluted process requiring even raiding in order for players to respec a character, meaning for practical purposes all my choices were set in stone. And if I can’t explore all the ways I could have chosen, if I have to live with my in-game choices with little to no chance of changing them, then I prefer to not even be given any choice.

Or, to put it another way: if I can change my spec whenever I damn please, then I love complex character building; if I can’t change my build at will, I prefer to not even be offered any build options.

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Bruno Brito

It’s still pretty complex. The problem with the game is the high maintenance having to build quest packs ( which i solved with the free quests they gave ). You can get pretty far just by playing but you’ll have to grind a bit without the quest packs.

As for respec, i’m of the same opinion, but i kinda get why you don’t want that happening in DDO, since it trivializes almost everything in the game by allowing you to optimize your class/spec to whatever encounter, which is way harsher in DDO because of how able to build absolute monsters you are.