Massively Overthinking: The FOMO in our MMOs


World of Warcraft has become a very dump-on-able game lately, and Blizzard isn’t making it any harder, as a tweet the company sent out last month reminded me that even MMOs that have won our best business model award in the past and aren’t gross about monetization or blockchain or lockboxes still find ways to be weasely about psychological tricks like FOMO, the fear of missing out.

To wit, the game’s new trading post feature cycles items in and out, and Blizzard amped up the FOMO by warning players to come get their “last-minute deals.”

The sad part is this is relatively benign and common in gaming, so you might not even bat an eyelash at this anymore. But it’s also completely unnecessary, and it really drives home the point that the trading post exists only to get people to subscribe, which means the trading post isn’t really all that different from the same tactics used by free-to-play games with cash shops, even though WoW’s doesn’t involve direct RMT.

I want to talk about FOMO in MMOs in this week’s Massively Overthinking – not necessarily just WoW’s but in MMOs in general. I’m asking our writers and our readers about the current FOMO exploitation in the genre: Which games are particularly egregious about exploiting it, which games are best at exploiting your own FOMO, and which games respect you enough not to try it at all?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Without a doubt, Pokemon Go is one of the worst offenders simply because it can steal not only your time but also your gas money and possibly more. The recent Vegas event highlighted this well, as Niantic screwed up pretty badly and thought it was a good idea to have the event “make-up ” the same day, extending the event from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Attendees who had other plans, like dinner reservations or off site meet-ups, suddenly had to choose between getting their money’s worth or sticking with the original plan. And that’s assuming they had the physical stamina to go another four hours without notice!

Splatoon 3 has become better about this though, specially for Splatfest. While you only have three days to get the max rewards, you have over a week to contribute to your side, earn boosted prizes, and make use of in-game discounts for turning the Splatfest shirt abilities into chunks for customizing your other gear. I had one particularly busy week during a Splatfest but was still barely able to get the max rewards with minimal weekday effort and a few hours play on each day. It was much more preferable than driving to a local park and walking laps while hoping other players would show up for unpopular POGO raids.

Andy McAdams: My initial response was to say “I don’t have gaming FOMO!” but that’s just a lie I tell myself. I think FOMO only works on me to a certain point. Like, if it’s especially egregious, I will nope right out of it. Holidays used to lure me in with promises of time-limited shinies but don’t really hold the same appeal for me anymore for some reason. When it comes to cash-shop shenanigans, I don’t really find myself buying things just because they aren’t going to be available soon. And a thing like the Trading Post doesn’t especially bother me because its not like I have do different things to get the shinies. I just generally do what I was already doing and SURPRISE! I end-up with a skull-demon-clown costume with weird dangly bits.

The one place that really bothered me with FOMO was in Guild Wars 2 with the living world and you had to login when the chapter was active or else you’d have to piecemeal buy the pieces you didn’t have. That annoyed me a lot and actually kept me from playing quite as much as I wanted to until ANet made it a little easier to get old chapters that you’d missed.

A few others have mentioned battle passes, which haven’t really been a thing that have bothered me or made me happy. I tend to ignore them because they don’t “work” for me in most cases in that they require me to contort my playing habits to match arbitrary goals and force me to do content I don’t enjoy. That, I’m not a fan of. The reason I think the Trading Post works for me, though it is essentially a battle pass, is that I progress on it by doing the things I was already going to do anyway. For maybe 10% of it I have to go out of my way to do things I wouldn’t normally do in the game (at least, in the two months that it has existed so far).

But I’m also not convinced that time-limited content is bad. It is 100% arbitrary and not a function of supply as it is in meatspace, but I appreciate the experience it adds when it’s not exploitative. For example, there’s a beer that I like called Sugar Cookie by this brewery Ellicottville Brewing. It’s always a super limited run, and I’m able to get it maybe or twice a season before they run out of stock. I think I enjoy it more because it’s not always available and it feels special and like a treat. I know its not the same, but I think I apply some of the same logic to time-limited content in games. Maybe because its of a difference focus? Instead of “Fear of Missing Out” its more like “Joy to Experience a Thing I Like” or JTEATIL – not nearly as good of an acronym though.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): World of Warships is incredibly bad about leaning in to FOMO. It’s gotten to the point in that game that they’ve convinced players to spend real money to finish chain bundles that contain an early access version of a tech tree ship as the end reward. As a reminder, tech tree ships are the ones that are completely free to grind once the ship line leaves “early access.” In essence, players are paying to complete a chain that WG allows them to start with free currency to be the first to play a ship that will eventually be available with free currency. The emotion they play on is the fear that a player might not be one of the first to be seen playing the ship, and players fall for it all the time.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I definitely fall prey to FOMO. I know it’s a weakness that I share with most people, and knowing and recognizing it helps us resist it. One way I try to fight it (and not just in gaming) is to make lists of things I want and buy it only when it’s on sale later – and not immediately when my lizard brain is shrieking buy buy buy. My list trick helps me through most of my urges. And I usually get bored of the thing by the time it comes back around again. But not always, and if not, then I usually have some spending money saved for it. Usually. Nobody’s perfect. So for example, I really freaking want the noodle cart chair in GW2. I am being very good so far and not buying it. I’ll wait a while and see if I just can’t live without it. It’ll be back, and it’ll be cheaper too. Fortunately, this is much easier in gaming; some of my other hobbies have literal one-time only offerings and the FOMO can be overwhelming, so I try to budget and plan for those too.

As for games that aren’t super tempting? This is going to sound weird, but LOTRO’s cash shop is so boring that it rarely tempts me even when it tries FOMO tricks. Oh, I look forward to the new sales every week, but SSG almost never puts anything on sale that I am actually hoping to buy (and yes, I have a list!). And so… I just don’t. Thanks, SSG! I also don’t find myself falling into FOMO for a lot of new games or new patches or events.

I think experience helps you remember that at least in gaming, almost everything that goes up for sale will come around again. Every event will be back next year. There will always be more. And games that try too hard to subvert that usually end up triggering my contrary side anyway (the whole “Well if you don’t want to sell it to me, I don’t want to buy it anyway!” thing).

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): By and large I find myself generally immune to FOMO tactics, whether it’s a battle pass, seasonal goodies, or a string of login rewards; if I happen to get some limited shiny, great! But I also don’t twist in agony over missing it.

To that point, I tend to find these kinds of monetization the least bad of the lot. That’s not necessarily meant to mean I find it desirable but more like I find it the most palatable.

Of course, there are exceptions. The limited quests and grinds that Dauntless has been pushing forward as an event is… well, it just is not. I also still have wide-eyed at what Guild Wars 2 was doing with it’s story content once upon a time.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I always think of it as a “school of fish” metaphor, that within the MMO community there are a lot of us that will dart toward whatever the pack is doing. Maybe that’s prompted by a special event (promotion, expansion, launch) or maybe it’s a chain reaction from a burst of community engagement and goodwill that spreads via word-of-mouth. And I feel this brand of FOMO pretty strong because there’s the expectation that wherever people are flocking, that might be a healthy, vibrant game populated by lots of like-minded players.

But to answer the question more specifically, I don’t get that jaded at studio marketing teams trying to trigger FOMO rushes. It’s their job, and it makes sense to try to apply pressure points to psychology to make it happen. I’m not a gullible forest waif; I can see the strings being pulled behind the scenes and make up my own mind whether I want to be manipulated or not in that direction.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): True confessions time: This question is quite interesting to me, probably because FOMO affects me in real life. Having grown up extremely poor, I’ve had serious trouble resisting things like treats brought into the office because I still had the nagging feelings that I never knew when I could have something like that again. It’s also the reason I try to avoid buffets (eating until you feel you “get your money’s worth” just makes you sick!). My decisional paralysis in menus is also the fear of missing out because I may never return to get to try something else out. I feel serious anxiety with it. Seems crazy, but that mentality is deeply rooted and hard to overcome because it has been there since my youngest days. So you can imagine how this can bother me in games!

Luckily it doesn’t really count with things like cash shops and battle passes; since I can’t afford doing much with cash, I can more easily bypass those. (However, I’ll admit that seeing a couple outfits in the Fall Guys current season battle pass does tempt me a little!) Talking about holiday events with goodies or in-game grinds, however, is another story altogether. Those are harder to resist. I used to hit them hard so I didn’t miss out on the free stuff to earn. Thankfully, my main games like EverQuest II always had the older loot still available in the list for the holiday next year, so I could get something next time around if I missed it, or I could also run alts to get more. So recurring limited-time things are a milder FOMO that I can live with. That said, I am glad to say I have broken out of the holiday events cycle and just don’t care as much. That might be due to health that just can’t take any hard core play anymore, but at least I am no longer shackled by that guilt of missing out.

The one gaming FOMO that backfired spectacularly was Guild Wars 2. After starting the game at launch with a friend, I ended up missing getting the Living World Season 1 due to a break in play. When I was able to return and found out I missed a significant part of the story, I said screw that and tossed the game aside for basically a decade. I never even looked back until the game brought in mounts that lured me to check them out. Other really in-the-face SPEND ALL THE MONIES NOW FOMO annoy me, but they can’t make me spend when I don’t have anything to spend with. If missing out will affect my enjoyment of the game, then the game isn’t worth spending time on anymore. Who needs more anxiety in their life?

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m no fan of games taking advantage of FOMO to get me to buy into something – who would be? Of course, for me though it isn’t usually the FOMO of buying things but of missing on content, especially if it was limited loot that only drops during a festival. That’s probably the one that’s gets me the most.

I think by now basically any game that has seasonal events is trying to get us on the FOMO, which is basically all of them. Now, the better ones will usually at least allow you to earn that loot the next time the event is active. Guild Wars 2 has gotten better about this. I think ArenaNet does it right, although it often increases the cost on previous seasons rewards too, which is kind of punishing.

It’s also funny that we call them rewards. Likely the games that push the FOMO really hard recently would be battle pass game rewards. Those likely are what pushed me up not caring as much about the FOMO loot. These often long grinds to get me to hurry to earn something before it’s gone and on top of that I better pay to even have the opportunity to earn it. That’s where they lost me.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’m not overly fond of developers leaning on FOMO, but as with most issues relating to monetization, I view it as a gameplay issue, not a moral one. It’s annoying, but nothing more. I’ll also point out that like most things we gripe about in regards to monetization, it’s been around in one form or another pretty much since the dawn of the genre. Back in the day when everything had a sub, holidays and one-time only events tried to get money through exploiting FOMO just as much as modern cash shops do.

But yes, it is irritating. No one likes feeling pressured into a buying decision. As for worst offenders, as a fan of the game I hate to say it, but I think New World might qualify. Almost everything Amazon adds to the cash shop is limited time only, and while it has brought things back occasionally, the schedule for doing so is unpredictable at best, and often it’s in the form of expensive bundles where you might only want one or two of the items. ESO and GW2 are also a bit obnoxious about it, but to a slightly lesser degree.

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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