Why We Keep Returning To WoW

It’s a tale as old as time, a tune as old as song — the migration of ex-WoWers back to Blizzard’s land.  I speak specifically of my fellow bloggers, who (like myself) have gone through repeated cycles of playing WoW, breaking up with WoW (“for the LAST time and I mean it, REALLY!”), spending months in other games, and then finding themselves one day reloading WoW.

We’ve seen it so many times that it’s not even worth a single eyebrow lift.  We play WoW, we leave WoW, and some of us return for another go.  What gets me is that a lot of returners tend to then say the same two things:

  1. Upon just returning: “Hey, this is actually pretty fun — I didn’t expect that.  More fun than before, even!  Why’d I ever leave?”
  2. Two weeks later: “Oh, that’s why.”

But obviously there’s something there, something difficult to define but nonetheless present that makes it so easy, so seductive to return.  I mean, heck, even Snafzg — the man who told me he was swearing off MMORPGs forever — is now back in WoW, and that is a miracle of some reckoning.  So why do we keep returning?

I have some theories.  Of course I do.  I’m obnoxious like that.

Theory the First: Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful process of the brain in which good memories are slowly but wholly purged of any negative associations.  We remember great things in the past, but usually those memories are altered to forget about any warts or farts that came with the events.

Given enough time away from a MMO — particularly one you liked, one you played a while, one that might have been your very first online RPG — and you’ll start to forget the bad stuff.  You’ll forget the frustrations, the limitations, the bugs, the negative community attitudes, the slow pace of content patches, and your brain will be left with a pristine alternate history of your game.  Once you latch on to that nostalgia, it almost becomes like a virus that reprograms your entire attitude —  you can’t believe you ever left!  You had a good thing going and you gave it up for whatever current buggy, frustrating MMO!  You need to go back, and stat!

Theory the Second: Impatience

If I was to tally up the virtues of MMO players, I sincerely doubt that “patience” would be anywhere on that list.  We may be a passionate group with loads of spare time on our hands, but that doesn’t mean we like waiting for anything.  We hate waiting for releases, we hate waiting for patches, and we certainly hate waiting for games to improve.

This is why — on the whole — players are a lot less likely to give newer MMOs a fair shot (defined as “more than the initial month following release”) before passing judgment and uninstalling that obviously still-in-beta crap.  This is remarkably different than the earlier days of the genre, where players learned patience the hard way and would stick with broken games because there weren’t a lot of alternatives.

Say what you will about WoW, Blizzard threw a level of polish and dependability into their product that we still don’t see in newer titles.  Couple that with a mountain of additional content since 2004, and there you have a high standard — maybe an impossible one — against which subsequent titles are measured against and found wanting.

I don’t think we give newer MMOs as much of a fair shake any more, and if it hasn’t become a worldwide phenomenon by its sixth month, then many of us are more than willing to pitch it into the trash can and go back to something that has done this.

Theory the Third: Connections

Sometimes it doesn’t matter as much how you feel about a game in particular as it does how much you care about the people playing it.  We might have left WoW, but our friends and family and former guildmates might still be there — online relationships that are dangling into the abyss until we come back to pick up where we left off.

On the flips side, sometimes we return because a spouse or friend or group of friends make the decision to do so together, and you get swept up in a social movement of sorts.

Theory the Fourth: Substitute

I see this a lot as well, where someone returns to WoW not because they want to play it in particular, but because they’re waiting for a future game to launch and they need something reliable and familiar in the meanwhile.

So am I off?  What do you think?

23 thoughts on “Why We Keep Returning To WoW

  1. pitrelli July 27, 2010 / 11:17 am

    You missed out the quality of the game itself, whether you like it or not WoW is a phenominal game and it has had to be to keep players interest for 5 years.

  2. Rivs July 27, 2010 / 11:32 am

    I play for the chicks, and chicks play WoW!

    Seriously though, I think you hit alot of nails on the head. For me it’s a mixture of those reasons.

    WoW is just plain simple to play. You can log on, do a bit of stuff and log out

    Another thing Warcraft evolved with me, I remember playing Warcraft Orcs vs Humans when I first starting to get into computers.

    So though the lore has some wierd holes in it, I grew up with it in a way.

  3. Resand July 27, 2010 / 11:34 am

    First time poster here, but for my money “Theory the First: Nostalgia” is probably the one.

    I do this all the time with EVE online, whitch was my first MMO. Have probably restarted EVE 5 times since quiting.

  4. Slurms July 27, 2010 / 11:34 am

    Coincidentally, I have a post going up later today regarding my return. Mine is mostly for your third reason; connections. I have friends who are playing again, and I’m using the game as a social device more than anything. Hey, it’s more fun than Facebook! You can’t kill things in a group on FarmVille.

  5. Wasdstomp July 27, 2010 / 11:41 am

    MMO’s are like ex-girlfriends. You remember all the great times, and forget why they became your ex in the first place. Two weeks later you remember why.

  6. Ryver July 27, 2010 / 11:43 am

    For me it is connections. I restarted last week to meet up with some guildies I use to play with a *long* time ago and several games ago. Unfortunately, that guild is fractured into horde vs alliance, so I’m only hanging out with the alliance members at this time. For some reason, I never really liked playing Horde races.

    Ease of playing will keep me for a bit. Since my last stint, the Dungeon Finder came out. Now, if I have 1+ hours, I can queue up for a dungeon. At my level (21), each dungeon I have run has netted about 75%-100% of a level along with getting gear to help me out later. When I don’t have that amount of time, I run a few quests and pick flowers 😉 Typical Druid fare.

  7. Scopique July 27, 2010 / 11:46 am

    I’v recently returned, specifically because of Cataclysm: the fking up of previously involate content is not something that MMOs do lightly, if ever; it’s a watershed event in the genre, and requires witnessing IMO.

    Unfortunately, this kind of wholesale modification happens too infrequently to make it into your list. I never had connections in WoW, and have had too many other games to start/return to that WoW would never have made the cut if it weren’t for the novelty of Cataclysm.

  8. moxie July 27, 2010 / 12:18 pm

    I think you’re pretty much right on target.

    I always have one foot still inside the door of WoW due to my guild and the wonderful people in it… it’s full of fun, decent, & kind people who don’t take the game so seriously. They’re wonderful folks and I don’t ever want to leave them entirely, so for me I guess it’s really Theory #3.

    That said, I also really like the game as a whole… love the lore, graphics, gameplay & irreverent humor. I don’t like the overall community, the dependency on add-ons, & Blizz’s arrogance in certain decisions.

    So sometimes I reach a certain level of frustration, and step away for a while to try other games or do RL stuff. I try to give other games a fair shake, but the only other game to really hold my attention long-term is LotRO, because it’s kind of a yin to WoW’s yang, so there’s a nice balance between the two.

  9. Rer July 27, 2010 / 12:22 pm

    STOP READING MY MIND DARNIT! I was just talking about this with Pitrelli!!

    And for the record, its all 4, plus “My friends won’t shut up about how awesome it is 1 month into an expansion pack”.

  10. battlechicken July 27, 2010 / 12:34 pm

    I’ll let you know how right you are if I ever leave. lol.

  11. sente July 27, 2010 / 12:42 pm

    As a player who is _not_ returning to WoW every now and then, I think #3 would be a reason that I might actually pick up WoW again.

    I played the game from the inital Euro release for about 11 months – that’s it. I tried to return a few months later, but stopped after maybe two days – my play time in between with EQ2 and City of Villains had changed my preferences and habits that I could not stand the game anymore.

    The only reason I would have continued would have been if some of my old guild mates had been around, but they were long gone elsewhere at that point.

    After that attempt I have never tried or touched the game and have had no desire to go back.

  12. spinks July 27, 2010 / 12:48 pm

    The third theory you missed out is that a blogger like Snafzg who has always been quite commercial minded has probably figured that there might be some money in writing about the most popular sub MMO going.

  13. Syp July 27, 2010 / 1:10 pm

    @ Spinks – Of course, of course 🙂 I won’t deny that.

  14. Klepsacovic July 27, 2010 / 1:44 pm

    Adding to the impatience, there’s also the factor of starting at the bottom in a new game. Level one, no gear, no keys, no achievements, possibly no knowledge of the game. To go from a geared 80 to that is quite a jump and then to entirely relevel and gear is quite a lot to ask (though clearly perfectly reasonable in a new game).

  15. Dril July 27, 2010 / 2:59 pm

    Because it’s my first MMO. Admittedly this is now a while ago, but still. WoW always holds a special place in my heart as somewhere that was full of adventure and the like. Then I ruined it for myself by getting into raiding and swapping adventure for math and guild politics. But the memory of those early days and my wee lassie of a hunter and her pet always ring true.

    (Side note: what’s up with Snafzg whoring himself out as a guide linker now?)

  16. kaozz July 27, 2010 / 4:29 pm

    For me I suppose I always come back because of these reasons:

    Nostalgia.
    The ease to jump back in and catch up.
    Friends.
    The smooth way the game works.
    Combat is fluent and nice.
    It doesn’t take ten years to kill a mob while soloing.
    LFD
    LFD= Playing any class and still being able to get a group.
    Not feeling lonely like in the last game you may have played, just go to Dalaran for a people fix or do a random dungeon.

    WoW makes it really easy to fall back into things I think that’s a really big thing for a lot of people also.

  17. Mesar July 27, 2010 / 5:24 pm

    WoW does a lot of things OK, and all these things add up to an overall great experience.

    WoW has OK PvP, OK solo PvE, OK group PvE, OK economy, OK virtual world, and OK community.

    Other games might do a single experience much better than WoW, but falls short in every other area, so we go back to our “OK” experience in WoW. Then we quickly realise that WoW is only OK and start searching for the next title.

  18. Tesh July 27, 2010 / 6:01 pm

    Klep… call that “inertia” and “loss aversion”, perhaps? That’s the dark underbelly of the “progression” model of MMOs; you get invested, and feel a need to make sure that the investment wasn’t a bad idea. Ditto for the money spent on subs.

    I’d also suggest gravity. The sheer mass of WoW players makes it a social phenomena beyond the immediate circle of friends, sucking in people who just want to know what the fuss is about… and for vets, it might be good to stay on top of things, at least in passing.

    I go back to it now and then (in ten day trials) because I want to stay on top of what they are doing as movers in the game industry. It’s a professional interest. That’s a big part of why I’ll be checking out Cataclysm… as a ten day Paladin. 😛

  19. Gronthe July 28, 2010 / 10:30 am

    Even though I don’t have any real life friends playing wow, there are a few people I’ve met that I’d be sorry to sever an acquaintence with.

    Your first commenter, pitrelli, had a good point, maybe sometimes the quality of the game itsef draws people back. Maybe we should flip all the reasons people quit in their heads, those will be all the reasons they return. Somebody was nasty mean to you > you find someone super nice who plays wow so you come back, etc., etc., etc.

    And don’t forget the most important one…playing wow so that you don’t have to clean the dishes after dinner (“sorry sweetie, I’ve got a raid in 2 min!”)

  20. Bryan July 28, 2010 / 11:50 am

    Don’t know how I missed this yesterday. To throw in my hat, I’d have to vote that its a mixture of nostalgia and connections that keeps bringing players back to Azeroth.

    For me, World of Warcraft holds memories of a time in which life was a little less complicated. I go back, every once in awhile, in an effort to try and recapture those original feelings. Distance (living 3 states away from my gaming buddies) and trying to coordinate play time (with a 2 hour time difference) kills the experience each time. I want to love World of Warcraft; I want to be dedicated to playing it as my sole MMO. However, playing the game solo is a joyless affair. Anywho, great article Syp!

  21. Rindan July 28, 2010 / 2:57 pm

    I keep coming backing to WOW mainly because I want to have at least one level 80 before the next expansion. Also the game has a fun factor that others are just missing.

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