Vague Patch Notes: Why we drift away from MMORPGs we still love


Why did I stop playing Star Trek Online? Was it because there was some change made to the game that made it no longer fun to play? Did it come as a result of some drama at the endgame, some major flaw? I bought the game nearly at launch, but I left. Why did I do that? What drove me away?

The answer is… none of the above. There was nothing inherently wrong with the game; the developers did not make some unforgivable changes that broke the flow of the game and/or demolished my enjoyment. I still like the game. I just had other things that I found more fun and so it went into the “former” pile, and there keep consistently being other things that have my interest.

Here’s the thing that occurs to me, which is why I’m writing a column that’s kind of touching upon two linked issues. On the one hand, I think there’s a definite tendency among players to attribute no longer wanting to play an MMORPG to something linked to the game itself instead of the player specifically, and I think that leads to bad places. On the other hand, I also think studios specifically are a bit crap at understanding how to deal with the fact that people are, sometimes, going to lose interest.

No matter how much you like something, eventually you are going to get bored of it when it starts becoming a regular part of your life.

This is not really all that shocking, when you think about it. Everything has a certain lifespan when it’s at its best; everyone finds things enjoyable right up until they’re not. I really loved The Good Place, but it had a run that was just long enough that it never really spent a lot of time running in place, and it still had a couple of story arcs that felt like they were inserted as filler. If the show were still running now, it would have gotten boring.

We act like MMORPGs are somehow different because they reward long-term investment, and to an extent that’s true… but only to an extent. There is no video game I can play every single day of my life and still enjoy. That’s just the reality. There are many games that I love and have played multiple times, but after a certain point you need a break. You need something different. I don’t cook the same dinners every week or order the same takeout every time I don’t feel like cooking.

It's similar. Still.

It becomes destructive, though, when we act like the only possible reason that we could dislike something is because the developers have made a mistake. And I am absolutely including myself in this; while I am confident that my impression of the egregious changes that have been made to World of Warcraft over the years have frequently made the game worse, for example, it’s entirely on me to double-check which reactions are “this is a deleterious change that negatively impacts the game” and which ones are “I may be bored with parts of a game that I have played longer than the entire lifespan of my marriage.”

A decade is a really long time to be doing something, and there are a lot of MMORPGs you could have been playing that long. I’ve been doing this job longer than that. It’s hard, but you kind of have to take a step back and sometimes double-check what the source of boredom is. It’s all right to sometimes feel like you want time away from the game not because it’s somehow failing but because you’re just… bored with it right now.

That doesn’t mean any developer is necessarily doing something wrong. MMORPGs cannot actually be an endless content mill. You will get bored. And it behooves all of us to be willing to take a step back and ask ourselves if maybe the “problem” is just that… we’re bored right now. We can go read books, right?

However, I also think there’s a related if not linked problem because this is also what is hardest for designers to address in any meaningful fashion. If you introduce a system that all your players hate, you can remove it or fix it. If you introduce a system that everyone loves, you can refine and expand it. But how can you design around people getting bored?

For that matter, how can you design around the fact that everyone has a real life to get back to? Not everyone who plays MMORPGs was in college when WoW launched (I wasn’t) or anything like that, but I don’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that we’ve got a largely aging base here who wishes for The Good Old Days without necessarily remembering that The Good Old Days also assumed that you could just devote three days to camping a specific monster that dropped boots you wanted.

I remember when I had the time for multi-hour dungeon runs in WoW, but I also remember that this was a time when I maybe did one dungeon a week, period. If you want more dungeon runs to happen, you have to get rid of entering Wailing Caverns and emerging a changed person a week later.


To a certain extent, you design for boredom by having new things to do, but there’s also an upper limit on that. Not just because “new stuff” requires development time to be made playable, although that’s also true, but because “new stuff” is still part of the same basic game. The core of Final Fantasy XIV gameplay is going to remain Final Fantasy XIV; it’s not suddenly going to swap into being action combat with grappling hooks.

Is there a solution to this? I honestly do not know. On one level I will definitely say that taking breaks is a good and healthy thing for players; let yourself play other things and do other things. But that doesn’t help the developers, especially on free-to-play games, who are trying to attract people and can’t really design around “we’re all sort of bored, we need a break from your game, we’ll be back in a couple weeks.”

Especially when yes, sometimes that “couple weeks” turns into years or more.

Sure, this is not universal. There are plenty of games that lose players precisely because of bad decisions, and when you’re wondering where everybody went, the obvious (and possibly even healthy) response is to assume that you made a bad change and you should roll something back. But getting a bit bored is real too. It happens to all of us. If nothing else, I would hope that we can all grant ourselves and others a bit more grace in this department, space to let boredom happen. Let people go through peaks and troughs.

Sometimes it’s not you, it’s me. I just need to play something else for a bit. I promise I’ll be back soon enough. It’s hard enough to keep interested in anything for years and years, after all.

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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