The ‘itch’

It’s that feeling you get when a game can no longer hold your interest. Some call it the ‘The 3 year itch’ but it varies person to person. I’ve felt the itch… gosh, I’ve lost count of how many times. The feeling has been most common for me when playing mmorpgs because, in my opinion, the itch is only noticeable when you’re playing a game that requires an investment of time and effort. For the sake of simplicity I’ll stick with commenting on mmo’s.

Common causes of the ‘itch’:

  • Exhausting all content (content hard cap)
  • Reaching the level cap (content soft cap)
  • Guild drama
  • The game feels like a job
  • A new game comes out that you would rather be playing

All of the above are on my list of reasons why I quit a mmorpg. Most of the time it’s from exhausting all content and realizing I have nothing left to justify my subscription fee. Sometimes it’s the negative social experiences, often from guilds, that cause me to misplace my frustrations onto the game instead of on a group of players. And it’s even possible for the itch to have multiple causes; I quit WoW because I exhausted the content, was tired of guild drama, and it felt like a job.

The longest I’ve gone without feeling the itch is 3 years. I stuck with both EQ and DAOC for about 3 years before feeling the urge to quit. I justify EQ’s longevity because it was the first of its kind for me (full 3d world, etc) but it’s the qualities of DAOC that interest me most. What made it so special compared to the other games?

A few things that fight the ‘itch’:

  • Expansion Packs and/or introducing quality new content on a regular basis
  • Quality repeatable content
  • Community and Social Interaction

DAOC had the quality repeatable content. The entire end-game was centered around taking territory in a never ending struggle for domination between three realms. It sorta had the expansions and new content, although they made some nasty mistakes with it later. It also had the community and social interactions with guilds, alliances, and the intrinsic realm pride. Take away any of the above and the retention rate for any mmorpg will plummet. Eventually that’s why DAOC died out for me; I couldn’t take the 1.5 years between updates back in the day and to have Trials of Atlantis finally release doing what it did to the game was killer.

I find myself looking forward at the mmorpgs in development and thinking about how long I’ll be able to last. Eventually I’m going to feel the itch and quit Warhammer Online. It’s inevitable. But what will cause it? Will it be a lack of content? Maybe. Mythic is planning their game to be ready for content updates over the next 5+ years. Will it be the lack of quality repeatable content? Probably not. WAR’s repeatable content is DAOC 2.0 – I’ll be taking keeps and cities happily for years. Will I lose interest from the lack of community and social interaction? Quite possibly. My luck with guilds blows.

Based on my track record, Warhammer Online will probably get at least 3 years with me. Then again, DAOC didn’t have anything to compete with when I was playing. There are several ‘greener pastures’ that may sneak up on me. But will games like 38 studios’ mmo codenamed ‘Copernicus’ have what it takes to fight the itch? What are they going to do differently? The past three mmorpgs that I’ve played have not held my attention for even 1/3 the time of these “classics”. Vanguard was a few months, LOTRO was half a year, and AoC was a matter of weeks.

I need a sense of security and that state of being where I know I can dig in and enjoy something for a long period of time. A well designed mmorpg is still capable of providing this experience – I know it. Not all mmorpgs have gone the way of shovelware but some are starting to come mighty close.

What I want to hear from the companies with games currently in development is how they plan to address the ‘itch’ and raise the retention rate of subscribers.

  • I don’t think there is anything wrong with jumping around if your not satisfied with the game or its content.

    I’ve played, EQ, EQ2 (twice), CoH, AoC and LOTRO. I’m currently playing WoW and Lotro, although I have considered leaving Lotro and giving EQ2 one more shot till WAR.

    You have to either find a way to keep busy once the bordom sinks in, which is what I’ve managed to do in WoW or you move to something else. Its very understandable and normal. WoW is the only game I have ever managed to get to the end game with, and in fact, its the only game in my history of gaming that I have technically beat, by reaching end game and I have bough tons of games.

    Scratch the itch I say.

  • You know I lurk a lot of blogs, but this was the first time I heard some of my own voice in anothers post about MMO’s. Well done sir.
    I have the same causes, but I’d add one more. Itch contagiousness from friends. Even though I might not yet have caught an itch the core group I game with might. It was amazing how quick our small circle abandoned past games once any of the group started to jump/split time with the new game on the horizon.
    I am patiently waiting for WAR, as I am so itchy I can barely stand it. WoW has become the standard, but in its rise the enjoyment seemed to flatten.
    Now if I’d just get a closed beta invite.

  • I hear you. I’ve quit all my MMORPGs to date because of the itch (one or all of the three things you mentioned). When it comes down to it though, the developers can only control two of the three elements you described, so I don’t know if there will ever be an MMO that truly does it for everyone.

    I think MMOs are really above par in most cases when compared to games of other genres. Have you ever experienced three years of continuous joy in any other kind of game? Maybe it’s the best we can hope for…

  • Itch occurs when content that can be done in a reasonable amount of time is gone. I recently stopped playing Final Fantasy Tactics A2 because it got to a point where I was just doing more of the same for no real goal.

    A good way to combat the itch would be to have an engaging story and world. I’ve played through some less that fun Japanese role playing games just to see how the story would go.

  • Good post.

    I used to have a theory with MUDs/MUShes that there was a natural 3 year lifespan beyond which it was practically impossible for a new player to catch up due to mudflation and social cliques forming. I think that being based on that model, MMOs are subject to some of the same. ie. even the best ones.

    It’s not just to do with the content. Some people really enjoy the new game thing where you are always meeting people and sorting out the server’s social structure, and when new people stop flooding in, they’ll naturally get less interested and more likely to look for new games with new people.

  • I played Anarchy Online and WoW for about 3.5 years each. The main factor in keeping me from quitting a MMO is the community aspect, if I have a good guild and the server community is relatively good I can play the game for along time. Of course the game has to be good, or the community really doesn’t matter. A MMO can’t flourish without both of those aspects IMO. WoW could be the possible exception with a decent community, but the game was so good compared to everything else that the community wasn’t really as much of an issue.

    Actually just thought of one more thing to add that would keep the longevity is a good PvP system. PvE is great, but the thing that will keep me playing your game is a great PvP system because I believe it can never become boring. At least not nearly as fast as PvE.

  • I have always thought a great way to help with the itch is to constantly add new servers. If EQ kept adding servers I would of stayed with it longer. If DAoC did that I would of stayed longer. Most people like fresh starts. I think companies need to realize that people need fresh starts at times. Starting over on an old sever is painful for many for many reasons. What mmorpgs should do is have a constant stream of new servers. Maybe once a month or something. When other severs slow down or die out you merge them and delete the other to make room for a new server. Yes you will get people crying about having to reclaim their status but you will no doubt get far more people back playing. I can’t tell you how many times I said man, if only they would release a new server I would love to come back. It isn’t just me, most people would. Look at Diablo2, they just reset the ladder and again thousands of people are back playing it. I wish I would have of know earlier because I would of been back as well 🙂 I hope companies start to realize that adding new servers and combining the low population ones is one great way to keep people playing.

  • The itch may hit sooner than you think. Ever since WoW I expect a higher degree of polish. AoC didn’t have it and I left. No idea if WAR will have it but after AoC, I’ve decided to not rush into most MMOG until they have been out a few months to “settle down” and fix all their beginner bugs. I no longer feel the need to rush into & thru content with all the “newbies”. I’ll play later if it turns out to be worth it.

  • Yup…such a long list of boring and mediocre games have not been able to keep me going…you would have thought these new “generation” of games would try to break the mold..

    Tabula Rasa

    Really hoping the right mix comes soon, because if WAR proves to be the same as the above then I will officially move back to single player for a while.

  • My husband and I could have written this post. Right now we’re just killing time with CoH, which we always go back to, albeit for short periods of time because it is so repetetive. Also, neither of us has even come close to level cap.

    We met in DAoC, and we played it a long time. And now and then I wonder if I should resub and go back, but then I realize that the game I loved for so long is gone now. I think we’ll head to LotRO when we get tired of CoH, since we both have lifetime accounts.

    But what we really want is a game that we can both “dig in” to, as you so appropriately put it, and know that we’ll be playing for years. Like a comfy old shoe, no surprises around the corner. Unfortunately, WoW’s “surprise” grindgrindgrind for geargeargear so you can raidraidraid or arenaarenaarena direction killed that idea with that game. Sometimes we even look wistfully at each other and wonder about going back to Azeroth. But that idea gets put down faster than the DAoC one.

    Mythic, our hopes are on you, as Funcom dashed them senseless within a month. 🙁

  • My roommate is playing Sims right now, she’s been playing Sims on and off for the past 8 years. It’s totally possible for a game (not just an MMO) to have the depth to hold players for a very long time, it just doesn’t happen often.

    Quality of repeatable content is where most lack, that’s my take.

    Immersion has a lot to do with it too. If a player feels immersed and it’s not interrupted (by any of the reasons above: running out of content, etc.) they’ll feel a lot more at home.

    I suspect the 3 year itch timeframe has a lot to do with the similarity of these games, they’re all based upon the same basic model (EQ, or Diku, take your pick). 3.5 years might be the outside stretch for most players if the game maxes out its potential.

    Oddly, WoW held me for 3 years, but one of my biggest criticisms of the game is that the playerbase is so damn migrational, transient even. They’ll hop from guild to guild, server to server and even class to class depending on the current flavour of the moment.

    I suspect Spore will become the next example of long gameplay.

  • @ Keen.. i would be surprised if War held you for 3 years. There are 2 quotes that i like to use that describe why MMO’s cant hold you as long as they used to.

    “You are only a virgin once.” and “The more you play different MMO’s the less likely they are to hold you.”

    Both statements refer to something being new and exciting and also been there done that.

    My first MMO was AC in 1999 and I was in awe of the game. It was so cool just being able to interact with all these people online. The technology was so cool, wow i can trade an item with a guy and when i log in i still have the item!! Simple things like that blow you away when your new to the genre. I remember 1 guy asked me, How do i save the game? That is the virgin part… People always have fond memories of their first. If AC came out today as it was it would be a laughing stock but people who played it then still rate it as the “best”.. not rose colored glasses but virgin ones.

    The second statement refers to the genre shares a ton of stuff. That is why it is part of a genre. It’s multiplayer, it has xp, it has loot, trading, classes, races, pve, pvp, etc etc. As you play more of these games you get bored with them quicker because there is nothing really new about it just variations and a few bells and whistles.

    I predict you will have gone through all the content in 3 months and play for 6 months joyfully in rvr. Then the questions will start like why do i log in?

    After that the only thing that will hold you will be your social ties within the game and if there is no other competition that drags you away. As others have stated the community and your guild etc is the real x-factor and the reason most stick with a game in the long run.

  • Never played DaoC, but I contstantly see references to Trails of Atlantis having destroyed the game, can someone explain to me why

  • For me the biggest killer was when my guild/side dominated the game completely.

    In DAOC I played for the only really dominating Midgard realm on all US server. Through excellent alliance leadership over time Mids basically eliminated Albs and relegated them to being RP cows. Only competition were hibs, at one point we had all the relics wanted (3 power) for 7 month straight… When shadowbane came out I could not resist! Tried to come back but TOA came out /cry

    Lineage 2. Again the clan I was an officer in ran most of the competition of the server. Held all castles through our pawns, collected “protection” money from chinese gold farmers, were despised by everyone and feared.. after many month of this WoW came out and we moved.

    Other itch. Shadowbane, basically I had enough of bugs and broken stuff that kept being introduced 8 month, some of the MOST memorable battles in my mmo time but you can not release a game that is broken to the degree that SB was.

    WoW. All of the pvpers I moved to it with quit. Tried raiding hardcore, but it was just too boring, moved server, run WSG 100000 times, afk farmed AV. Realised that the game blow chunk for pvp, quit. Might have stayed longer if I could find a good Arena team to play with, but my server had pretty terrible selection of people to play with and I was sick of transferring.

    SO my biggest fear for WAR is that the clan I am coming together with will lead our side to a total domination, fair weather players will start switching sides.. BORING.

  • I think as I have gotten older, I play a game less and less. Meaning it has to work harder to keep me interested and want to play it.

    With MMOs in particular it requires two things:
    1) I must feel like I am accomplishing something tangible every time I play. If for the entire session of play I only achieve maybe 1/10th of my next tangible goal (like a level or new item) then it is a grind.

    Pirates of the Burning Seas was the first game where I got max level. I got at least one level about every other play session. It was not until I was working on getting my own Ship of the Line did I realize I had dozens of sessions to go of running the same thing over and over to get enough in game cash to see the next “level” of content in the game.

    2) I must have some personal stake or affect in the game world. There has to be something worth fighting for. This is both at the personal level and at the guild/alliance level. In UO you could claim a piece of the world and make it your own in a way. In EVE you work towards creating large empires of players.

    Once I lose one or both of these, the game loses its “itch” for me.