When Does an MMO Become a Foreign Country?

One of the tenets of the MMORPG industry these days is that players will come and go.  After a certain point in the life cycle of an MMO the installed base, those who have played the game at one time but who are not currently playing, is the most fertile ground for marketing.  Somebody who has enjoyed your game once may come back to try it again.

And a lot of us do come and go from various MMOs.  There are many posts on this blog about my poking my nose back into this game or that for a summer vacation or autumnal nostalgia tour.

Unfortunately, this sort of revolving door view of MMOs does tend to be at odds with another constant of MMOs: Change.

Change, big and small, is part and parcel of the genre it seems.  Think of how many blog posts and comments have included something akin to, “I liked this game back when…”

Changes can be small, confined to a single class or a single ability, or huge, changing how every class works or even how we look as classes in a game.  Blizzard likes to revamp classes, stats, and combat with every expansion, something we can look forward to yet again with the 6.0 patch before Warlords of Draenor.  And Turbine did a giant turn on Lord of the Rings Online classes shortly after my last time playing the game, remaking classes in the image of the talent tree god.

specs and talents

specs and talents

Change is meant to be good.  These revamps are meant to improve the game, to make it more playable, to balance out the classes, and to make sure there isn’t just a single “I win” skill for a given class.

And if you are playing a game actively and such change occurs, you pick up and work your way through the change with everybody else.  There is a lot of sharing when it comes to adapting.

But if you were away when the change hit, if you were taking a break, on hiatus, or just getting the hell away from a game that was starting to feel more like work than fun for a bit, coming back can be a very different experience.

It can be like a foreign country.

Sure, things look about the same as home at first glance.  But as you look closer, differences start to become apparent.  They call french fries something else on the menu and when they serve them up they have a side of mayonnaise or are bathed in gravy.  The money is all different, so you can’t tell what is expensive and what is a bargain without a bit of math.  And the customs are all different, so people are rolling their eyes or giving you angry glances as you wander about trying to figure out what is going on.

Now, in a foreign country, you have to grow up there in order to really fit in.  MMOs are not so complex.  If you have friends or a regular guild or group, they can help you assimilate to the new state of affairs.  And, when all else fails, you can go back, roll up a new character and, in essence, “grow up” again in the game.

I have used the new character method quite a bit, especially with LOTRO, which seems to change quite a bit between my visits.  But even that has its flaws.  In LOTRO, for example, I have now played through the 1 to 40 content with so many characters that, even though I enjoy it, I do want to see something else.  And in EverQuest there is so much content and so much has changed over the years (and there are so many out of date guides and such on the web), that somewhere between the tutorial zone and some level… somewhere between 20 and 50… I inevitably fall off the rails.  I have not played the game seriously in so long that the game is almost completely foreign to me, to the point that even “growing up” through it again isn’t possible.

It seems like I have simply been away too long to ever really return to EverQuest.  It isn’t what it once was, I do not understand what it has become, and I have no base of friends or other support group to help out.  And I feel that way when I wander into EverQuest II these days as well.  The old guilds are all deserted and the skills on my hot bar are like a foreign language.

This is why the various insta-level schemes haven’t really thrilled me.  If I am lost where I left off in the midst of the game, boosting me further along, and thus removing even the bits of context I remember, isn’t going to help me much.

It all makes me wonder if there is a quantifiable gap in time after which returning to an MMO becomes difficult, a point after which the inevitable divergence between what you remember and the state of the game starts to turn the game into a foreign place.

Or maybe it is just me.  I swap classes in a game and it takes me a while to come up to speed.

16 thoughts on “When Does an MMO Become a Foreign Country?

  1. Jenks

    I’m in the same boat, it’s not just you.

    As for EQ1, I have that lost feeling on live servers and never can log in more than 10 minutes – but I did greatly enjoy PoP era Al’Kabor until last year. I’m toying with getting my classic EQ fix from shadier places (P99 maybe) but I can’t convince any of my friends, and EQ at its best isn’t a place to be alone.


  2. Pasduil

    I find the re-learning curve a fairly significant problem as well.

    I had characters of most classes in LOTRO, but things have changed so much since the trait trees that it would be pretty hard for me jump back and know how to play most of the classes well now.


  3. tipa

    Reduced to?

    RISING to!

    But — I agreed with everything else! I’d love to return to EQ, but can’t. WoW is the same.


  4. bhagpuss

    But really, in the greater scheme of things, we’re all just tenants of our MMOs…


    I find MMOs break down into three broad categories in this regard:

    1. Games where I have kept my hand in. EQ and EQ2 figure strongly here. Over the lifetimes of both I’ve never allowed myself to go long enough without playing to fall completely out of touch. Whatever else I’m focused on I’m almost always still noodling away at some character or other in either or both EQs. I’d say the longest I’ve ever gone without playing either would be around 6 months but really it’s probably rarely even six weeks.

    In those MMOs I am generally a long way off the pace but I still always feel engaged and connected.

    2. Games that barely change. Quite a few MMOs on my desktop seem identical when I log in on a whim after months or even years. They tend to be F2P titles where my characters are low level and either they aren’t getting much updating or if they are it’s in content I scarcely know exists anyway.

    3. Games I used to know quite well but haven’t been following very closely. These are the ones that do start to feel very foreign, unfamiliar, disconcerting. LotRO, Anarchy Online, DCUO (which now requires such a huge update I balk every time I go to log in). The chances of playing any of those again is slim.

    On the other hand, my usual playstyle heavily mitigates against disenfranchisement. I like to solo low and mid level content. That’s the part that tends to change the least and I don’t need anyone’s help to enjoy it.


  5. Isey

    The birth of the Poutine Principle . You saw it here first folks!

    Change is good. This is why divorce happens. Wait, what? (I took silly pills today).

    All kidding aside, I tend to find there is enough familiarity to not hesitate to boot back up on basics alone – but enough change to not stick around. There is probably a per-person per-title sweet spot.


  6. sid67

    The mistake that I dislike the most is changing the game for the people who don’t play your game. It’s a know your audience thing.

    How often does that even work? I can’t come up with anything that had a lasting impact in bringing back players. Of course, on the other hand, I can think of dozens of examples where it didn’t work and alienated the existing players.

    And I think your ‘foreign country’ analogy is just more evidence why developers should avoid that trap. Even if they get enticed back to play, will they agree with every change that took place while they were gone? Will it feel like a foreign country?


  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @sid67 – I always assume that the devs are watching how people play and analyzing data and what not to plan these sorts of changes. And they aren’t always bad. Ask any vanilla WoW pally how fun it was to be a tank.

    But the LOTRO thing where they put in a bunch of effort to change up the classes to fit into the three spec mold… I know somebody must have been asking for it or there must have been some reasoning behind it, but it escapes me. That change might literally be the break, the gravy on the fries moment, that keeps me from ever returning to LOTRO seriously.

    Of course, I am a lifetime subscriber, so if they drive me away, they win.


  8. Telwyn

    I’m in the same boat with LOTRO, I’ve been through three distinct periods where I was playing it as my main MMO. But the last time tried to I come back after the talent tree revamp and everything seems out of whack. My champion main’s combat rhythm has lost something. It really felt like playing a new game but not in a good way.

    I feel it with WoW too, playing in Mists I just never enjoyed the combat in the way I used to. Too many signature abilities gone (shaman totems :-( ) and a very directed style of combat rotation now on the classes I play.


  9. mbp

    How about game companies give you a one use token with your welcome back invite that allows you to convert your character into a cookie cutter build of the appropriate level with appropriate gear and talents. They could probably get away with one build every ten levels. It wouldn’t be optimal but at least it would allow returning players to start playing straight away.


  10. tsuhelm

    Well I am not sure that game developers should be aiming their games at their own playing audience as that is what gets us into mundane MMO territory – wish developers would just develop the games they dream of making…

    But I agree the changes in LOTRO have killed off something, just cant put my finger on it…and yes I developed a play-style over 2 or 3 years for my hunter and champion (later a captain) which I really struggle with post HD! Now I play almost 100% with my RK, as a character to explore ME its great but its not the way I truly dream of playing an MMO…


  11. C. T. Murphy

    I like your country metaphor. I admit, with the older MMOs that I once enjoyed but now no longer can, I feel a lot like Rip Van Winkle. It’s familiar in the way one square object looks like another!


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