The Returners

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.

17 thoughts on “The Returners

  1. Tesh March 5, 2012 / 1:24 pm

    It’s precisely this sort of migratory habit that makes me think subs are dying, though. Yes, people will come back. It’s a good idea to make it easy for them to do so.

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus March 5, 2012 / 1:25 pm

    Who is forgetting this fact exactly?

    As one of those MMO bloggers that is always returning to old games (just rolled yet another character in LOTRO on yet another server this past weekend) I will say that there are MMOs that I do NOT return to, and they tend to be the ones that fit the pattern that people are trying to apply to SWTOR. Warhammer Online, Star Trek Online, Runes of Magic, are all examples in my own history of games where I played for 60 days or less in my first go and then never had a yen to return to again.

    The part where I vary from what I read a lot of people are saying is that I never ran out of content on those games. I didn’t end up liking them enough to play through the content they offered, even with a single character, before I was done. A game interesting enough that I play out the content with one character will generally spawn alts and a desire to explore other paths and so on. I will make my own content if I like the game enough.

    So I can see that 60 day metric as a personal one, a key indicator of my likelihood of returning. But the argument about that this is happening because there is not enough content… well, that does not seem to apply in my own situation.

  3. Liore March 5, 2012 / 2:39 pm

    “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?”

    It is the same amount of time played, and the same amount of money (probably) for the company running the game, but it is not at all the same thing for the game itself.

    Fred, during his year of continuous play, manages to set and meet long term goals such as clearing a certain raid instance or becoming a PvP demon or building a house (like in Wurm). He meets people during this time, making one or two genuine friends, a handful of acquaintances and/or guildies, and more that he recognizes on his server.

    Jerry, during his intermittent play, has a harder time meeting long term goals as goalposts get moved during hiatuses, motivations change, and usually a good part of intermittent play is spent trying to remember how to play your character anyway. Jerry met a few people last time he played, but most of them have moved on and he can’t remember their character names anyway. He does not recognize anyone on his server, and does not contribute in any lasting way.

    As someone who ran a goal-oriented guild for many years I can say without a doubt that trying to run a guild full of Jerrys is an exercise in futility and frustration.

  4. bhagpuss March 5, 2012 / 3:02 pm

    My playstyle really hasn’t changed all that much since 1999. You’d think that as a complete newbie to MMOs back then, with supposedly so few MMOs around, I’d have played the heck out of EQ and not touched anything else until I burned out but that wasn’t what happened at all.

    I certainly played EQ as my primary MMO (what I now think of to myself as my “focus MMO”) but within a short while I was also subscribed to and playing The Realm and I’d bought, tried and abandoned UO and Asheron’s Call. I played Endless Ages as soon as it went into beta early in 2001, spent a week trying and failing to launch Anarchy Online from the beta disc later that summer and still bought it when it launched anyway.

    I finally stopped playing EQ for the first when I moved to DAOC at launch. That lasted about six months. SInce then it’s been many MMOs at once all the time. Like Wilhelm I could make a shorter list of the MMOs I haven’t gone back to than those I have.

    I think it night be an age thing. I’d already passed 40 when I bought EQ and I was already well beyond the phase of doing one thing obsessively to the exclusion of all else that often marks the teenage and early adult years. I like to potter and have several things on the go at once, none of them too intense. As the MMO audience ages, maybe it’s catching me up.

  5. Syl March 5, 2012 / 5:02 pm

    I think most of us would actually agree on this subject….who actually “quits” MMOs these days? people go back and forth and there are fewer and fewer tragic gestures of finality to be found among players, I find. I like this freedom personally, and I agree with Tesh that subs are becoming an old-fashioned model real fast (not just due to this, but it’s another good reason).

  6. Telwyn March 5, 2012 / 5:14 pm

    Hmm,I was always interested when reading the DDO and LoTRO forums that those games (pre F2P on the Codemasters service) had lots of forum posters who dropped subs after a bit and resubbed whenever a patch landed. Maybe they were the exception to the rule or the tip of the iceberg?

    Certainly I know people from WoW who did the same, Blizzard’s policy of never deleting characters from an inactive account made such behaviour a safe enough option.

    Now with widespread F2P it isn’t so important. I can play SWTOR as my main sub game but dip in and out of several others (EQ2, Guild Wars etc). My dilemma is Rift, I really enjoy playing when I do but all my friends have moved on (to SWTOR or back to WoW) so my reason for playing has gone – if I want a solo game EQ2 is probably a better choice as it has more depth.

    Some games I’ll never return to – Warhammer, Runes of Magic, DCUO – doesn’t matter if their sub or F2P. I think I have a limit of the games I want to see on my desktop – if there’s too many it makes the choice of what to play too difficult 😉

  7. Vatec March 5, 2012 / 9:20 pm

    @Syp, @Liore –

    It’s actually not the same amount of money, either. Due to the concept of “time value of money,” $15 today is worth a lot more than $15 six months from now. Jerry’s subscription fees, spread out over an unknown time period, are simply less valuable than Fred’s subscription fees, whether paid up front or spread out over a single year. Even if Fred played for a year, quit, and never went back, his contribution will still be ahead of Jerry’s until Jerry subs for a thirteenth month, at least.

  8. Asmiroth March 5, 2012 / 9:20 pm

    MMOs have ebbs and flows. I’ve gone back to Rift after a 6 month hiatus and I’m having a blast. I usually play the first few months of a WoW expansion then leave it alone til the next one. Plenty of F2P games are in the same boat. I think I have too many icons on my desktop 🙂

    TOR is one where I plan on revisiting after the summer break. The devs have stated pretty clearly that they are re-writing major systems in their next big patch (1.2) and even more later on. That’s the sort of stuff I want to see and will go back when it’s there. Sort of how like Rift’s Ember Isle is miles better at dynamic content than what came out at launch.

    A lot of us expect 100% out of the gate – and I admit after Rift’s launch I was spoiled on this fact – but the truth is that games take time to mature into something worth playing. Even the MMO darling WoW took quite a few months to get to a “sweet spot” in vanilla.

  9. Azuriel March 5, 2012 / 10:20 pm

    The uninterrupted subs are important because you cannot really engender a thriving community in which everyone breezes in and out every other month. I absolutely agree that it is better for the individual to stop playing when the game becomes boring, or to take breaks to recharge the batteries. But that absolutely kills guilds in MMOs, when you cannot rely on Fred showing up to the raid on Thursday. Or when Bob just unsubs without warning because he’s bored.

    I mean, what you are tacitly describing is a guild-hopper, right? A tourist? Someone with no interest in the underlying ecology that makes the guild hopping and tourism possible. A lot of the actions people take in MMOs only make sense in the context of a long-term commitment. I farmed that Resist trinket from Tol Barad because I expected to still be using it 10 months later, not because I needed something to do to fill time.

    I didn’t quit WoW ~6 months ago because I was tired on the game. I quit because I was tired of logging on every night to an empty guild. These were people I used to game with daily for nearly 3-4 years straight. Now they’re gone, or logging on only 1-2 days a week. Could I branch out and make new friends? Sure… I could also do that in a new game too. Or maybe I’ll just keep in touch with old WoW friends via Steam. To an extent, I’m with you insofar as I’m no longer interested in commitments. At the same time, I recognize how much worse off I would have been today if everyone was doing the tourism thing back in 2008.

  10. Vatec March 5, 2012 / 10:58 pm

    @Azuriel – Yep, the collapse of my guild in Rift is the reason I’m not currently subscribed, despite my belief that Rift is the best theme park MMO running right now. Half the guild left for SWTOR; the rest merged with a new guild. I finally moved to the new guild, but the culture is very different (more hardcore, more interested in raiding than invasions and instances). So I’m taking a break.

    @Asmiroth – Ironic, because I can’t stand the dynamic content in Ember Isle, while I simply =loved= the zone invasions back on the mainland. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons: A. on the mainland it feels like you’re defending actual settlements and people while on Ember Isle you’re defending … a hole in the ground; and B. on the mainland you’re fighting an enemy that seems to be a coherent fighting force while on Ember Isle you’re fighting a hodgepodge of random enemies with no unifying theme other than wanting to capture that hole in the ground.
    Maybe the “gameplay” is better on Ember Isle (being able to build defenses, less time spent running around trying to find the enemy), but the “immersion” is much, much worse. And I play MMOs as much for the world and immersion as I do for the actual gameplay….

  11. kaozz March 5, 2012 / 11:53 pm

    Very well said, Syp. I never say I quit an MMO even if I stop a sub or take a break for a bit, I am one of those players that is bound to return because I like variety. I do know a few people who will play until they burnout and well beyond it, kind of unhealthy IMO.

    Like you said sometimes we need a change of scenery, so when we come back bugs are fixed or content added, it is very refreshing and fun to go back to a game.

  12. Bernard March 5, 2012 / 11:56 pm

    There is a wide selection of titles available today and I have no doubt that many players juggle several games, resubscribing for content patches. People that are spending 2+ hours every night playing a single title for 6+ months need to realise that they may not want to be doing that forever.
    I don’t think that games will ‘fix’ the migratory habit, all developers can do is accommodate it. F2P will help a lot but also ‘buddying’ and other social tools.

    Maybe it’s time the community stops using terminology like ‘tourists’ or ‘locusts’ and accepts that people play different games at different times?

  13. Jacquotte March 6, 2012 / 12:27 am

    Old cyber girlfriend, huh? Referring to your Massively article today, your wife rolling for 300 hours with a studly tattooed Sith Warrior is one thing, but this surely kicks the “tit-for-tat” up a notch. LOL.

  14. flosch March 6, 2012 / 1:53 am

    You are right Syp, people of course return to MMOs all the time. I think the reasons for returning differ though, between returning to a game you’ve played for 3 months before, compared to one you’ve played for 3 years. The “3-months-a-couple-of-times-with-breaks” will leave when the game gets stale, and return for a new content patch, for example. The long-term player will leave when the _community_ gets stale (i.e., guild emptying, friends leaving, etc.), and will return maybe for a new content patch, but more probably because he remembers the “good old times”.

    Chances are, the 3-monther will be a happier returner.

    I think my point will be clearer when I just link my last blog post, if that’s ok: http://randomwaypoint.fajs.de/2012/03/heimweh-lost-worlds-and-first-game-experience/

  15. Telwyn March 6, 2012 / 6:52 am

    I was pretty disappointed with the speed of churn in Rift – it was the first game that managed to drag my regular gaming buddies away from WoW but sadly it didn’t keep them. I’m enjoying SWTOR for the stories but I think Rift has better gameplay evolution than SWTOR.

    I suspect I may ‘forget’ to cancel my Rift sub as it’ll be interesting to see what changes come along this summer when I have the time to play more than one game properly.

    I would not describe myself as a guild-hopper by the way since I never join a guild in the games that I play sporadically – certainly I have less community involvement in those games than in my main game but I do still randomly group up for content and trade with other players via the AH etc.

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