Here’s a question I’ve been pondering: Are we, as a community, completely forgetting the fact that people do indeed return to MMOs after leaving them? Because I think we are.
I’m pretty much referring to the ongoing, never-ending discussion/debate over certain MMOs (especially newer ones) that are judged solely by how many players they get and retain in an uninterrupted block of time. If a person leaves after, say, two months versus six months versus “hasn’t left yet,” it’s supposed to be telling about the game’s success and long-term prospects. It’s one of those meta arguments that leaves me feeling wearing and uninterested after about five minutes.
But I almost never see in any of these discussions references made to “I might be coming back” or “So and so came back after a four-month break” or what have you — even though it does happen all the time. MMO studios know the concept of “churn” far better than you or I, and they downright count on the fact that a bulk of their playerbase doesn’t play indefinitely, but leaves and sometimes returns later on. It’s why there are so many marketing campaigns out there to get old players to come back, because the studio knows that it got its hooks in that person once upon a time and could conceivably do so again. If Fred plays Guild Wars: The Old Republic for one year straight while his friend Jerry plays GWTOR in three unconsecutive four-month segments with breaks between, isn’t it just the same end result? So why do we treat the former scenario as the defining one for a game’s success?
Many MMO bloggers that I follow have demonstrated a tendency to return to previous games, not because they’re trying to prove that it’s a success or whatever larger game is being played in the public opinion, but because leaving and returning is a much more natural cycle that staying with one game ’till burnout do you part. Sometimes leaving a title can be a huge blessing for your gaming career, as it allows you to rotate through titles and allow older ones to go fallow and grow interesting once more. Plus, the nature of MMO development means that chances are the studio’s going to make some additions and changes in your absence — and perhaps even fix the thing that prompted you to leave in the first place.
So people leave and they return, and there’s always an interesting moment when they do. People rediscover why they liked this title in the first place. There’s giddiness at the new goodies to play with. Coming back might offer a new perspective and permission to try things differently this time around. Or a circle of friends might be involved, offering a different social experience.
Because we’ve long since moved past the era when MMO monogamy was the norm — fewer titles and a sub-dominated market meant you planted them roots and didn’t move unless it was for good — the way we approach MMOs is shifting more toward an old-school gaming style. We can play a game enthusiastically for a while but then be totally fine putting it down while we move on to other games for a while, always retaining the option to return.
I love having an option to return. I’ve almost lost count the number of times that I’ve returned to older MMOs I’ve played. Anarchy Online, I think I’ve gone back to that six times. City of Heroes, well over a dozen. WoW, too many to count. Fallen Earth, twice. LotRO, three times. I’ve never felt that any of these are failures for not keeping me there forever, because I’ve accepted that there’s a cycle to play, and one shouldn’t bow to peer pressure to stay in the game just to keep up appearances or worry about if leaving sends a bad signal to friends and followers.
Never say never — you don’t know when an old cyber girlfriend might come a-callin’ once again.