23 Mar 2011

Burnout By The Numbers

It’s ironic that almost a year ago I was writing about the same topic and how to cope with it. Back then, players were complaining about being burned out with Wrath. They’d done everything they wanted to, achieved what they wanted and were ready to throw in the towel. I was as well, which is why I wrote about how I cope with hitting a gaming rut.

Yet here we are, a slim 14 weeks since Cataclysm was released and feeling burned out already. These aren’t just isolated cases either – MMO Melting Pot reports that 75% of all respondents to a burnout article on WoW Insider are themselves struggling with the problem.

So what gives? What turns a loyal fanbase of players into burned out deserters in the space of three and a half months?

A lot of people cite how the difficulty curve has changed between Wrath and Cataclysm, or how they’re having to learn new ways of playing their favourite class. I think that these are partial red herrings – players like to be challenged as long as they feel progress instead of frustration. Progress is definitely being made – we might not be talking about the walk-in-the-park that Naxxaramas was but boss kill counts are creeping up.

Instead I think that the problem is partly due to analytics. Players are now measured on their performance in far greater detail than they once were. We went from threat meters to damage meters to damage uptime monitors to log parsing without a pause for breath. Don’t get me wrong, these tools are great for those who want to be the best of the best. For those who aren’t at the top end of raiding, the information overload and the way it’s being used only serves to frustrate.

That said, I don’t think that raiders are burned out from raiding. The current tier of raiding is hard, but it’s also varied. We have a lot of choice, which means less repetition, which means less burnout. So if it’s not raiding what else is making people log off in their droves?

Simple: ask your raiders what they do when they’re not raiding. Are they running heroics or doing PvP? Are they levelling alts? Are they roleplaying? Are they logging off completely and going to play something else?

The biggest contributor to burnout that I know of is repetition. You get it in all walks of life from your job to your family. Something that you have to do repeatedly day in, day out is going to wear you down eventually. People need variety in their life.

But does Cataclysm encourage variety? A quick look shows that Burning Crusade had 15 heroic dungeons at release, while Wrath had 12 (with 4 more introduced in content patches). Compare that to Cataclysm, which had 9 heroic dungeons at release including 2 refreshes of old ones. Whichever way you slice it, you’ll grow tired of Cataclysm heroics more quickly because of the simple drop in variety.

The second contributor to burnout is frustration. The old symptom of throwing your controller at the TV when getting angry at a console game applies just as equally to PC based MMOs. The only difference nowadays is that we want to reach through the internet and choke the people that fate has thrown us together with.

A game needs to have a blend of different difficulty levels in order for it to be constantly appealing. Having something that is constantly difficult requires concentration and focus, which is only sustainable for limited periods of time. Reasonable breaks need to be possible to allow players to relax and relieve tension. If a game doesn’t provide this then it’s no surprise that gamers look to find it elsewhere. If you find that your guild is only logging on for core raiding hours, chances are they’re spending their relaxation time somewhere else.

The third contributor that I’ve seen for burnout is replayability. This is again a curse of single player games – how often do you play through Portal or Halo 3? Once, twice maybe? These are both examples of on-rails progression paths that deliver great experiences but provide rapidly diminishing returns every time you restart them.

Counter that with something like The Sims or Civilization. For these styles of games replayability was one of the key selling points. I played Civ II so many times it scares me, and I still know people who play classic Civ regularly.

Cataclysm has become synonymous with an “on-rails” MMO for a lot of us. While heavy phasing manages to deliver the great storytelling that we’ve cried out for, it comes at the natural expense of replayability. It’s the same as watching the same movie or reading the same book – you’re not going to repeat it often, particularly at close intervals. As a result, getting all your level 80 alts to the new cap feels more of a chore than a challenge. Also, notice the repetition thing again?

In some respects, Cataclysm is Blizzard’s greatest triumph. But in other crucial areas it lacks those things that just keep people playing. The lack of variation, the “always on” challenge and the lower replay value all mean that burnout is reached much faster.

I have to confess, I’m taking a holiday from Warcraft. In the same way that I’d book myself a holiday if I was burned out at work, I’m currently mageing away on other shores, doing a bit of exploring and meeting new people. It’s healthy for me – I still love Warcraft and I’ll come back and play again but I don’t want to grow bitter and resentful of the game. And when I return, I’ll have a bag full of tales to share and memories to smile at.

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