Massively Overthinking: Overcoming barriers-to-exit in MMOs


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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