informa
37 min read
Blogs

Why Players Churn in MMORPGs? Analyzing Existing MMORPG Content Design Strategies.

An autoethnograpical research on player churn in MMORPGs and analysis causes of this phenomenon from the view of content design and player motivations.

Abstract

The aim of this research is to discuss the phenomenon of player churning actions in massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGs). Player churn occurs frequently in well-established MMORPGs, however, there is minimal research on examining the cause of this action. In this research, the author reflects on his self-experience of playing several well-established MMORPGs. Using an auto-ethnographic method to review the potential causes of player churn in MMORPGs from the angle of game content design. Consumption Theory (Sheth et al, 1991) and the theory of 5 Domain of Play (VandenBerghe, 2012) are used as guidance to explain author’s motivations and preference of play and hence answering the inquiry from a psychological view as well. The author, as an auto-ethnographer, concludes the lack of content design in novelty is one possible cause of player churn in MMORPGs.

Keywords

MMORPG, Content design, Player Churn, Player motivation.

Introduction

In recent years, population of player base of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games (MMORPGs) has shown signs of periodical tidal movement – players are stepping into a MMORPG they choose to play but tend to leave the game for a while after played a certain period. Some of these players can continuously repeat this process for a long time. This situation is especially common in some already well-established MMORPGs, such World of Warcraft (WoW), Guild Wars 2 (GW2), Final Fantasy 14 (FFXIV/FF14):

Fig 1. Estimated monthly player count of WoW from Feb. 2019 to Mar. 2022 (World of Warcraft, 2022)
Fig 2. Estimated monthly player count of GW2 from Jul. 2019 to Mar. 2022 (Guild Wars 2, 2022)
Fig 3. Active player count of FFXIV from Feb. 2016 to Apr. 2022 (FINAL FANTASY XIV Online - Steam Charts, 2022)

However, neither many research have addressed this issue in this specific game genre of MMORPG, nor in-depth investigations been conducted to understand the causes of this issue. The reason of such tidal churn action can be complex, be it player schedules, content release timings, advertisement strength, competitor game release etc. However, other than those, the design of game content itself also plays a vital role in this phenomenon. For examples, some players report getting bored after a relatively short period of playing certain game content:

“So I am kind of a veteran player from pre HoT (Heart of Thorn – game expansion) but quit shortly after W2 (Wing 2) raid release Now I started again, bought PoF (Path of Fire – game expansion) I play my weekly raids got bored, did daily fractals for some weeks (got bored) found a new main class, got bored, started doing Aurora collection but got bored. So all in all, I really want to keep playing GW2 (Guild Wars 2), but I get bored so fast by all the content (I played) ……” --- quoted from a GW2 player in Reddit thread.

And in fact, some replies can explain why this situation happens in terms of content design:

“GW2 is designed as a casual game, so it doesn't quite fill the entirety of the available playtime of a hardcore player. My……” --- from replies of the above thread.

Indeed, when game designers designing a game, they want their game to hit some pillars in terms of content design and delivery. It can be any idea or vision the designer wants the game to achieve. However, those visions may or may not naturally favor a longer, sustainable gameplay design for fun and scalability. Hence, there can be lack of concerns on developing game contents to give longer gameplay length for players in MMORPGs, which can potentially result in players’ periodic absence from playing the game.

About the term “Gameplay Length”:

The author defines gameplay length as ‘The actual enjoyable or meaningful time of play that a player can attain through playing the game’, or in short, the duration of meaningful gameplay for a game. Hence even one can spend literally 24 hours a day idling in a game, this duration (24 hours) is not considered as a legit gameplay length for the player since idling neither requires physically playing the game nor psychologically impactful as a play experience. Note that this term has different scalabilities in different game context due to the repeatability of content itself. For example, a quest or encounter that can be designed to be played daily; Large group activities such as raid dungeons that can be designed to happen in a weekly fashion, same as monthly PVP (Player Versus Player) tournament and yearly special in-game festival events.

Defining “Game Content” in a MMORPG context

Game content refers to any part of a game that provides interaction potentials for its player, either it be human-computer or human-human interaction or a hybrid of both. For modern MMORPGs, different game contents are usually structured under certain hierarchy. Although each game has very likely its own specific hierarchy, but in general, there is a common pattern. Most MMORPGs separate game contents by Player Versus Environment (PVE) and Player Versus Player (PVP), where PVE content explicitly designed for player to interact with pre-programmed, computer-controlled environment, while PVP is designed mainly for player-player interaction. Down here, popular subdivisions of PVP are contents like ‘Small Group PVP’ which has a smaller number of players compete usually in a fixed map instance; ‘Massive PVP’ that has a larger scale PVP that usually involves fifty to hundreds of players competing simultaneously; And ‘Open World PVP’ with uncertain number of players involved and usually happens in open game world. Subdivisions of PVE often have more category of content, such as Storytelling, Achievement Hunting, Crafting, Leveling, Collections, Open World, Dungeons, Raids and Role-playing etc. The hierarchy can be extended further, and it usually becomes quite game dependent, the above mentioned are just few subdivisions of game content that can be commonly seen in modern MMORPGs.

Literature Review

This section is a walk-through of different content design decisions made in three modern multiplayer games – Diablo 3, RIFT and Guild Wars2. These decisions in some degrees helped prolonging gameplay length by introducing novelty to players during different phases of the game’s progression. The game genre is not limited to MMORPG (e.g. Diablo 3) as it helps to provide more and give a much wider view of existing strategies of practice. The design decisions chosen for each game in this section do not represent the entire content of that game, in fact there are much more different contents than those discussed in this section. However, due to the scope of this research (i.e. PVE focused) and personal interests of the author, only these below mentioned decisions are picked.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 by Blizzard Entertainment is the third version of Blizzard’s Diablo game (Diablo III - Wikipedia, 2022). It is a multiplayer RPG game that heavily emphasizes on player character development, while also having features that players would expect from a typical RPG game, such as storytelling and achievements. Thousands of players can play on the server simultaneously, but only up to four players can share a same game world (instance) at a time.

Major game contents in Diablo 3 are consisted by two game modes:

A. Story Mode (Fig. 1): contains all narratives of the game. Content of this mode is pre-defined and fixed, meaning player will only play the same content if he chooses to replay this mode. New content for this game mode was only released on expansion (DLC) launch through the history of Diablo 3’s game releases.

Fig 4. Diablo 3 Story mode main interface

B. Adventure Mode: in this game mode players are allowed to explore the game world freely and no longer tied to story objectives. To support this, this game mode has several subdivisions that designed for repeatable and endless gameplay experience. They are Bounties, Rifts and Greater Rifts (Fig. 2).

Fig 5. Adventure mode, Bounties, Rift and Greater Rift

In Bounties, players are asked to complete 25 random bounties across 5 different maps (5 randomly selected bounties for each map). Rewards are given after completing each single map. Rewards contain specific gears and materials that are useful for character progression. Rifts are instances for purely monster slaying without restrictions like a timer. Killing any monster has a chance for dropping rare gears, the drop rate is varied from different game difficulties, which player can choose before joining the game. Also, the environment map, type of monster and skills they possess are all randomly generated, which offers players a vast range of different gameplay experience. Greater Rifts are timed instance for more end-game oriented gameplay because players are asked to progress through the instance by killing enemies until reaching 100% completion (Fig. 3) within a 15-minute time frame. Difficulty can be chosen by players as well from a scale of 1 to 150 and the difficulty (e.g. monster’s health and attack strength etc.) scales exponentially with each increment of the difficulty level.

Fig 7. Greater Rift Scales

Rewards are random gears like in Rifts but only dropped on successful completion of the Greater Rift (i.e. 100% progress within 15 minutes), the number of items dropped increases as the difficulty scale. Players also get a minimum of 3 chances to upgrade their gems (a different type of items compared to gears that boost player character’s attributes) plus a drop of any gem if they don’t have one already. The possibility of successfully upgrading the gem is depended on the difficulty scale of the Greater and the current level of the gem. Same as in Rifts, all maps, monsters, enemy skills and other special mechanics are randomly generated. This game mode compensates the shortage of gameplay length that occurred in story mode. It provides a much deeper learning curve and progression routes for players with different difficulty scale and randomness of gameplay and rewards.

In terms of rewards, gears have random prefix and attributes value within a range, although the number of attributes a gear can have is mostly fixed. The prefix generally indicates how potent the gear is, however, as more potent the prefix is the chance of acquiring it from random drop through game content is rarer. For example, an ancient legendary item occurs every one in ten legendary items, and a primal ancient legendary item occurs only one in around four hundred legendary items (10257 legendaries, primal drop rate, 2022). All prefixes are listed below, from low to high rarity: Junk, Normal, Magic, Rare, Legendary, Set Legendary, Ancient Legendary/Set Legendary, Primal Legendary/Set Legendary. Furthermore, each gear obtains random value within a range for each of its attribute when the gear is identified. For instance, the [4 - 7] % damage shown below.

Fig 8.  Attributes shown in a gear with number of attribute and attribute value range indicated.

RIFT

RIFT is a MMORPG launched by Trion Worlds in March 2011 (Rift (video game) - Wikipedia, 2022). The game has a strong sense in designing a game that has deep character item progression. Thus, the game provides large amount of end game PVE content that compared to other MMORPGs, which generally refers to dungeons (57 in total in RIFT) and raids (28 in total in RIFT). Dungeons reset at a daily basis, while raids are weekly. Players can only receive rewards from dungeons and raids once on a successful clear after each reset. There are light weight casual contents in RIFT, in fact the name of the game comes from such casual open world content called Rifts, which is a dynamic event that happen in all around the game world. It is much like the dynamic events in GW2 – have several objectives/stages for players to complete to receive rewards and spawn randomly around the world, though it has a vast visual distinction compared to those events in GW2. Rifts has several variations that have been added through the game’s history, such as Raid Rifts, Crafting Rifts, Stronghold Rifts, Nightmare Rifts and even PVP Rifts. Each type has a unique playstyle and different rewards that suitable for players that enjoy casual open world contents.

unknown_(19).png

Fig 9. A normal Air Rift and its stage and objectives

Zone event is another activity that can happen in open world for casual play. These events require players from the entire map to contribute to some map-wide objectives, such as closing Rifts in the map to summon the final boss in open world. Other than Rifts and Zone Event, the open world in RIFT largely serves as places for leveling, exploring, questing, achievement hunting and some other casual activities. The ultimate PVE content in RIFT are Raids, which are instances designed for 10 or 20 players, monsters and bosses in Raids are much more challenging than those in open world or dungeons, in fact Dungeons and Raids have minimum requirement for players that want to attempt. Players have to progress through their gears after reaching maximum level in order to meet the requirement, the general progression sequence after a player reaches maximum character level can be illustrated as below:

Fig 10. Rift PvE gear progression route

Hit is an attribute on gears to determine the Hit Rating of the character, if a player’s total Hit in number is lower than the required Hit of content (i.e. Expert Dungeon, Raid etc.), the player will contribute significantly less output damage per second (DPS) in that content no matter his skill level. This is very likely to result in a failure engagement in Raids as most encounters have a timer and thus a DPS check. RIFT has addons that displays all players’ DPS so it is fairly easy for other players to check if someone does not meet the requirement. As end game content, Raids are much more difficult and require much longer time to progress through, even for the most skilled players in the game it could take weeks, depends on how much encounters that Raid has. Raids are reset weekly and rewards for each encounter are only given once after a successful completion to prevent overdo. Rewards are randomly dropped several (2 or 3 most likely) pieces gears across all 5 different classes and 14 possible gear slots (such as chest, helmet, leggings etc.). Consider a group has 10 or 20 players and rewards are only given weekly, it can easily take months or even over a year for all players in the group to acquire a full set of gear, which means there are always players in demand of raid gears.

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is a MMORPG developed by NCsoft’s subdivision company ArenaNet. The game was published in August 2012 and its aim is to address previous design issues in terms of massive multiplayer game and consistent world of its predecessor game Guild Wars. In the 2013’s Game Developer Conference (GDC), the game’s lead designer Isaiah Cartwtight and design director Chris Whiteside talked about their main pillar of designing the game Guild Wars 2, described as:

“To create a dynamic world and bring new life to Guild Wars with branching missions, new professions, and a mounted combat.” --- Isaiah Cartwtight 2012

To achieve this goal, designers have come out with ideas of multiple content designs for PVE that are unique for this game. Here is a brief introduce of those design decisions:

A. Heart quests, Vistas, Hero Points

These open world features are announced with the core game right at the game launch in 2012. Heart quests are quests that offered by different NPCs in open world maps. Unlike traditional quest system in MMORPG, Heart quests are automatically given to player whenever the player step into the quest area rather than been picked up by players from NPCs. Players complete objectives outlined in the Heart quest description to progress through the quest. Objectives are usually located around the Heart quest NPC. This design is to allow players to play together in an area rather than spread all round the map.

unknown_(22).png

Fig 11. Heart quest on map and NPC

Vistas and Hero Points are simple features for players that enjoy exploring the world. Vistas are simply place of interests that worth to visit on the map. Player gets a Vista point by simply watching a cutscene after interacting with the Vista marker in open world.

unknown_(24).png

Fig 12. A Vista

Hero points are challenges scattered around maps. Player can complete the challenge, which usually involves in a mini boss encounter. Hero Points are used for unlocking traits or skills for player avatar.

unknown_(26).png

Fig 13. A Hero Point

B. Dynamic events and Meta-events.

Dynamic events are events that appear pseudo randomly in open world to give players a sense of dynamic, ever-changing world. These events contain objectives that players need to complete to receive rewards. Events are designed with the same philosophy as Heart quests to allow more grouped gameplay opportunities for player when they are exploring the game world. Dynamic events can be seen anywhere throughout the world of GW2.

Fig 14. A Dynamic event shown on map

Meta-events are dynamic events but happen in a grander scale in terms of number of players needed to conquer the challenge. They are scheduled through in-game timer and only happen at a specific time within every 2 hours. The largest meta-event can take more than 50 players to play on a map for a maximum of 2 hours. Player are allowed to join a meta-event at any time, unless the map of that meta-event reaches its maximum cap of number of players. There is no need to sign up or organize beforehand unless players want to. This makes meta-events one of the most popular activities in the game since player can jump in anytime during the event and there is no minimum requirement in terms of gear progression or gameplay skills.

Fig 15. Soo-Won, the final boss of Dragon’s End Meta event

A meta event always repeats itself every 2 hours which means players can access them fairly frequently as well. Some old meta-events especially those in the Heart of Thorn expansion and Living World Season 4 are, despite how old they have been, still very popular among players. Although rewards of those events can be a factor for this phenomenon, the design of easy accessibility and inclusive gameplay for all players certainly plays a crucial role as well.

C. Living World Seasons (1 to 5)

Living World Seasons (LWS) are episode content released to further expend the game’s original stories and game world. The first LWS – Scarlet’s War was launched with 26 small chapters of new stories that described the aftermaths of what happened in the core game story, introduced many new story characters who played a vital part in later episodes. Several new Dungeons, Fractals and World Bosses are also included in the release. The season started from Jan 28th,, 2013 (5 months after core game release) and lasted until March 18th, 2014 (Living World Season 1 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W), 2022). LWS 2 followed the same idea in terms of content design, new stories chapters for players to play through and new allied NPC introduced to further the plot branches (Living World Season 2 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W), 2022). Note that for both LWS 1 and 2, no new zones (game maps) are introduced, all new stories were taken place in the existing world of that released in 2012 GW2’s core game.

In LWS 3 (July 2016), LWS 4 (Nov. 2017) and LWS 5 (also known as the Icebrood Saga, Aug. 2019), new game zones (maps) are released as part of each Living World Episode to support its story line (Living World Season 3 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W), 2022) (Living World Season 4 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W), 2022) (Living World Season 5 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W), 2022). The map inherits features of the original GW2 Heart quests, Vistas, Hero points, dynamic events, as well as the well-appreciated meta-events (though some episode maps do not have meta-events). This is the time of when a new GW2 special group play phenomenon called ‘Meta-train’ truly emerged.

Fig 16. LWS 4 Meta train in Looking-for-Group

In a Meta-train players chain-complete multiple Meta-events in a roll, as there have been plenty of Meta-events added to the game (a total of 14 from Heart of Thorn, LWS 4 and 5). These trains ran by players can last few hours, generating plenty of activities for grouped gameplay that has easily exceeded the average playtime per day of video gamers.

Theoretical Framework

Sheth’s Consumption Theory of “Why We Buy What We Buy?”

In 1991, Sheth, Newman and Gross developed the theory of consumption values through the article “Why We Buy What We Buy: A theory of consumption Values”. The theory describes human as a consumer, their behaviors and motivations towards consuming goods through using the five consumption values developed across multiple disciplines such as sociology, psychology, economics, marketing and consumer behavior (Liblik & van Berlo, 2016). These five consumption values are known as Functional Value, Conditional Value, Social Value, Emotional Value and Epistemic Value (Sheth et al.,1991):

The functional value is defined as: “The perceived utility acquired from an alternative’s capacity for functional, utilitarian, or physical performance. An alternative acquires functional value through the possession of salient functional, utilitarian, or physical attributes. Functional value is measured on a profile of choice attributes.”

The emotional value is defined as: “The perceived utility acquired from an alternative’s capacity to arouse feelings or affective states. An alternative acquires emotional value when associated with specific feelings or when precipitating or perpetuating those feelings. Emotional value is measured on a profile of feelings associated with the alternative.”

The epistemic value is defined as: “The perceived utility acquired from an alternative’s capacity to arouse curiosity, provide novelty, and/or satisfy a desire for knowledge. An alternative acquires epistemic value by questionnaire items referring to curiosity, novelty, and knowledge.”

The social value is defined as: “The perceived utility acquired from an alternative’s capacity to arouse feelings or affective states. An alternative acquires emotional value when associated with specific feelings or when precipitating or perpetuating those feelings. Emotional value is measured on a profile of feelings associated with the alternative.”

The conditional value is defined as: “The perceived utility acquired by an alternative as the result of the specific situation or set of circumstances facing the choice maker. An alternative acquires conditional value in the presence of antecedent physical or social contingencies that enhance its functional or social value. Conditional value is measured on a profile of choice contingencies.”

Although this theory does not directly address player motivations for playing video game contents, it indicates in general why things attract human to consume. Player buying a game is not the end of story, the player continues to consume the game through gameplay to satisfy his or her needs both psychologically and physically. And the motivation of such acts can be possibly explained using the consumption theory if those values can be perceived by players through gaming. In fact, all five consumption values stated by Sheth et al. have been manifested through current practices of MMORPG content design:

The functional value can be perceived as, in the context of game content, (1) any item, gear, skill, level etc. that improve character’s strength and (2) any other game sources that supply those; (3) game services that provide any extra in-game utilities or accessibilities.

The emotional value can be perceived as, in the context of game content, (1) any story, plot presented in any form in game, (2) any music, sound and game visual, (3) any in-game function that supports communications on emotional level, such as in-game chat function.

The epistemic value can be perceived as, in the context of game content, any new content players can engage, whether it is different or brand new from previous experience players have had, no matter the scale or type of the content.

The social value can be perceived as, in the context of game content, (1) any content that support in-game social identity building, such as class, profession, title, character appearance etc. and (2) any content that requires or offers potentials of group play, such as open world, dungeons and raids.

The conditional value can be perceived as, in the context of game content, any temporary content that rewards player with in-game items/services that improves his/her functional or social attributes, for instance, in-game festival event that only happens once a year that rewards players with gears or cosmetics etc., this sort of festivals contains conditional values for players since they are not always accessible.

Hence the theory provides a psychological foundation for designers to design game rewards and game economy by understanding what are likely to give players perceived values so that they can be properly allocated as rewards when players to progress through contents.

VandenBerghe ‘s Five Domain of Play (based on The Big Five - O.C.E.A.N.)

The theory of Five Domain of Play was proposed by Jason VandenBerghe in 2012’s Game Developer’s Conference. This theory is based on a widely reviewed, massively sited psychology model that used to describe personality traits of human (Matthews, 2009), called The Five-Factor Model. The model summarizes five separate domains of personality traits, which known as:

  1. - to new experiences,
  2. Conscientiousness/Lack of Conscientiousness,
  3. ,
  4. – to matters and people,
  5. – tend to/not tend to experience negative emotions.

VandenBerghe connected these five factors with his proposed five domains, claiming these traits can be motivations of why player choose certain type of games to play (VandenBerghe, 2012). The five domains are:

  1. Novelty (correlates to Openness) – player seeks new or unexperienced content to play, opposite end is player enjoy playing similar or same content over and over.
  2. Challenge (correlates to Conscientiousness) – player seeks difficulties and competence and usually try to conquer those through actions, opposite end is playing games with low difficulty and easy to play.
  3. Stimulation (correlates to Extraversion) – player that likes to connect with other players, usually plays inside a group or community, opposing to play solely.
  4. Harmony (correlates to Agreeableness) – player that enjoys cooperative play with others to reach their goals, opposing to games that cause conflicts between players.
  5. Threat (correlates to Neuroticism) – player enjoys playing games that bring negative feelings, such as danger, tension, provocation, gloom, humiliation and addiction.

It is worth to mention that multiple of these domains can be found within a single player (Adams, 2014). Each domain has a scale from one end to the other and domains can intertwine between each other resulting a very diverse pool of player traits.

The theory helps game designer to understand psychologically what a player needs through the act of gaming. It is easily arguable that if developer could continuously create content to supply those psychological needs, the game would have much longer gameplay length as far as the gameplay itself is acceptable. Due to the nature of MMORPGs, it seems by default this genre of game supplies rich content for the domain of Stimulation and Harmony, while other domains can be further manifested in subdivision game content. Moreover, due the massive freedom of choice provided by this genre, game content can be designed to fully utilize the entire scale of each domain, since players can always choose to play or not play, for instance, a brain-exhausting end game raid or just go fishing near a pool. Other game genres don’t necessary offer the full scale of choice in a domain of play, such as in the game of DOTA/DOTA2, players are always forced to fight (engage in conflict) to win the game and cannot play solely (lack of choice for introversion).

Methodology

To achieve the aim of this research and answer the research question, the author decided to use an auto-ethnographic research method. An auto-ethnographic method, or autoethnography, is a qualitative research method that the researcher (auto-ethnographer) reflects on his or her personal experience with others to explain and critique social phenomenon or culture (Poulos, 2021). As an auto-ethnographic method combines both methodologies of autobiography (self-reflection) and ethnography (study of practices) (Carolyn Ellis, 2010), the author first reflects on his own experience of playing through different PVE game contents as well as communications with other players during playing in multiple MMORPG titles (e.g. Diablo 3, RIFT and Guild Wars 2). Followed by critically analyzes existing practices of content designs in those games by relating those designs to theories outlined in last section. The self-reflection is mainly focused on how well in each game, the content designed can supply the need of novelty in players’ Novelty domain, as well as the sustainability of game rewards in terms of keeping player interested in continuing playing the game. To give a comprehensive and in-depth review of those practices, the author referred to official game designer talks, game release notes and player comments to show wider feedback about designers’ decision makings and rationales. The author mainly focuses on discussing PVE contents and their gameplay length that has a longer time scale, which means those contents are very likely to be played over and over again by players.

The author has conducted the research through following steps:

  1. Present design decisions found in official developer talks, release notes in the Literature Review section.
  2. Recall memories of signature game contents, extract feelings of those moments of play through watch recordings or revisit them in game.
  3. Write narratives about those experiences in terms of feelings after extended and repetitive playing of those contents.
  4. Analyze those decisions through self-reflection as an auto-ethnographer and corelate them to theoretical metrics presented in the Theoretical Framework section.

The reason of choosing an auto-ethnographical method is due to the author has a tremendous duration (more than 30,000 hours) in playing and testing contents in those mentioned games. The nature of multiplayer games also provides rich chances for the author to connect with other individuals in the field, enables wider reflection of experience in the context.

Discussion

In this section, I’m writing as an auto-ethnographer to reflect my own experiences of playing Diablo 3, RIFT and Guild Wars 2 (GW2) through the last 8 years. I will talk through different PVE contents, how I engaged them and what I felt as a player with a subjective mind. And finally, I ask myself why I choose to or not to churn in these games accompanied with self-justifications.

Diablo 3 Story Mode and Story in General in MMORPGs

I didn’t have much fun of playing through the stories of Diablo 3 in general, since I had never played a single chapter of the story line after I first time finished it. And I’m pretty sure it is not because of bad or boring plot or poor mechanic design. The story itself is amazing and I gave a lot of credits to the designers and artists who brought it out as game content. However, what really discouraged me is the feeling of obey what I was told to do by designers when I was playing the story mode since we both know that there was only one end to the plot and my character would travel exactly like the designer pre-planned to finish the story. In the other term, I was totally aware there was probably only one way to go and that made me to feel very passive when I was engaging the story content. This is generally what I felt after first time completing the story not only just in Diablo 3 but for most other MMORPGs as well, since their story contents are usually fixed and only had one end. The story content is supposed to be the place where players discover the past and present of game settings, building their connections to the game avatars. However, I think a fixed story with one end is not very compelling after all, as real life is always full of uncertainties and unexpected journeys. So, I believe that this current design strategy of incorporating fixed story into MMORPGs should be discarded.

Diablo 3 Character Progression through Bounties, Rifts and Greater Rifts

I spent most of the time while I was playing Diablo 3 to progress my characters. I want my characters to be strong and powerful. I enjoyed progress to higher Greater Rift tiers solely to see my character growing stronger over time and being able to slay more challenging monsters. The fun mostly came from the fact that I was able to customize my character with items I got from my rewards and achieving new heights in a timely fashion with my customizations. At the early stage of my character progression, the game provided me with lots of useful rewards by playing through Rifts and Greater Rifts. I got different legendary items with different special powers that could change my playstyle. I spent a lot of time playing through different builds in Rifts and Greater Rifts and they all gave me very positive experience. There is a large pool of special powers in Diablo 3 and it creates a diverse gameplay that lasts long for me. The randomness of map environment, monster types and abilities they possess also add a bonus to the novelty. However, the feeling of fun started to decrease when I had most of the special powers of items I needed. It became less rewarding and the time between each time I was rewarded began to get longer. The end game of Diablo 3 is more about min-maxing numbers on items which has very limited influence on improving playstyle for fun and creative gameplay. But overall, the diversity presented in this game in terms of choices for character customizations and randomness for game environment and challenge design, gave the game a much deeper and satisfied learning curve to play with.

RIFT

RIFT would be my top game to recommend for play if its publisher Trion Worlds didn’t sell themselves and stopped developing RIFT in 2018. The game has many good designs for game content. Firstly, the skill system (called ‘Soul Tree’ or ‘Souls’ in game) allows thousands of different ways to customize in theory, although in a realistic situation it is much less than that, it still provides a lot of different playstyles to play with. Players can customize their soul tree to fulfill specific roles in game, such as Tank, Damage Dealer, Healer and Support. These roles are explicitly demanded in game, which allows player to have practical goals when they customize their soul trees. Secondly, I enjoyed dynamic events (Rifts, Raid Rifts) in open world as they reward me with actual meaningful items for character progression. I can perceive more functional values from their rewards when I was doing those dynamic events (as well as Dungeons) in RIFT compared to other games. These dynamic events also gather players to play together, giving a much pleasant experience by fulfilling my needs of interacting with human and cooperative play in the Stimulation and Harmony domain. Lastly but my most favorite – Raids in RIFT. Raids in RIFT gave me all the satisfactions I can ask for from a MMORPG. There are a total of 28 raids, with larger ones have more than 10 encounters per raid and each encounter is quite challenging and can easily take up a lot of time to beat. The amount of novelty provided by raid is tremendous from my point of view. And as a group activity, raid supplies the Stimulation and Harmony domain just like dynamic event. Raid in RIFT provides end-game items for character progression that can be found nowhere else in the game, and I was absolutely and crazy fan of doing raids for those powerful items back to the time playing. In contrary, I wasn’t so motivated to play raids in GW2 since it’s less rewarding (functional value wise) in terms of loot in GW2’s raid. Overall, I found myself enjoying RIFT a lot as its contents fulfill much more in the positive side in all domains in Vandenberghe’s theory compared to other games.

Guild Wars 2 (GW2)

I started playing GW2 not too long after it was released in 2012, but I found I had a hard time of playing through its core game open world content as I was leveling my first character of the game. I didn’t enjoy walking around the world doing Heart Quests, Vistas or Hero Points because they are relatively simple and too casual. Dynamic events in the world were fun, but they were mostly randomly spawned which made me felt a bit lost. And since dynamic event was one of the main sources for acquiring experience to level up my character, the uncertainty of where and when it would happen seemed to undermine my experience of progressing my character. I quit the game when I leveled my character to 76 (80 is the maximum in that time) because I don’t like this disruption on my character progression, as well as I felt there were not enough challenging end game PVE contents presented in the game so that I can set a goal for. Hence, I left the game completely in early 2013 and it was until early 2016, I came back to the game for its Heart of Thorn (HoT) expansion. I really enjoyed the open world dynamic events in HoT compared to the core game as they were more structured in schedule, less random in spawns and happened more frequently around the map. Meta events were a blast as they attracted hundreds of players to play together simultaneously when they happened around the map instance. It was a good feeling to see so many players were playing around me and accompanied me through different challenges in meta events. It was a truly a pleasant and exciting experience of doing meta events in HoT during its peak time due to new playstyles introduced in the expansion and the fun of massively cooperative actions in an easily accessible open world environment.

Why did/didn’t I Churn in Those Games?

My first long AFK (away-from-keyboard, meaning ‘stop playing’) in Diablo 3 was around 2 years after I started playing in 2014. I remember I had a mostly geared wizard just missing two or three perfectly rolled pieces, which wasn’t a big deal for me as I wasn’t looking for absolute perfection in terms gears. So, I quit the game due to there was no new content and change to classes at that moment. Since then, I only went back to play Diablo 3 when there were changes on class or items that enabled new playstyles. However, the duration of my return usually didn’t last very long (2 or 3 weeks maximum) as I didn’t feel like they gave enough novelty to support longer time of play. I didn’t play Seasons in Diablo 3 at all, since each seasonal hero had to start fresh (no gears, levels, money etc. inherited from non-seasonal heroes). And I felt this completely violated my satisfactions about the game of building up a powerful character over time with my efforts.

I don’t consider myself churning in RIFT at all when I was playing the game. As I reflected through my experience, the game provides a lot of different interesting contents in PVE from casual to hard-core play. Rewards were given properly and continuously as I progress through harder contents. Thanks to raids I found myself being able to stick to goals that were meaningful to me and enjoy play with others throughout end games.

Although I consider GW2 a very high-quality game, I leave the game from time to time. It usually happened in the middle or later part between new content releases. Dynamic and Meta events can be fun for a while after releases, but that usually don’t last very long, so that there were periods of time when I couldn’t find new things to play for fun. Rewards in end game contents such as Fractals and Raids weren’t significantly attracting in terms of values they can bring at least from my own perspective. Another reason of causing my churn in GW2 is due to the relatively easy learning curve of game mechanics, since the game is more casually oriented in terms of game content delivered.

Conclusion

This research presents a real-world issue in modern well-established MMORPGs that some players leave the game periodically and then return. To understand the potential causes of this issue, the author conducted this research autoethnographically through presenting existing content design strategies in three modern MMORPGs and the use of Consumption Theory and player motivation theory – the 5 Domains of Play to analyze the question from the perspective of player psychology. Then the author reflects on his own experience of playing through those games over the last 8 years, presents his feelings and emotions during gameplay as an auto-ethnographer, and reflects on reasons of what have caused him to churn in games or not. Finally, the author concludes that the lack of design for novelty in MMORPGs is a common problem for game designers of modern MMORPGs. This cause can be further described as lack of innovative game mechanics design, learning curve design in terms of content difficulty, sustainable reward design and longer development cycle for new contents.

Reference

The Game Statistics Authority. 2022. World of Warcraft. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 April 2022].

The Game Statistics Authority. 2022. Guild Wars 2. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 April 2022].

Steamcharts.com. 2022. FINAL FANTASY XIV Online - Steam Charts. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Reddit. 2022. 10257 legendaries, primal drop rate. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 April 2022].

En.wikipedia.org. 2022. Diablo III - Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 April 2022].

En.wikipedia.org. 2022. Rift (video game) - Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Living World Season 1 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Living World Season 2 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Living World Season 3 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: < ; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Living World Season 4 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: < ; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Living World Season 5 - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: < ; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Sheth, J. N., Newman, B. I., & Gross, B. L. (1991). Why we buy what we buy: A theory of consumption values. Journal of business research, 22(2), 159-170.

Liblik, K.-C., & van Berlo, K. (2016). The Business of Micro Transactions : What is the players’ motivation for purchasing virtual items? (Dissertation). Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:hj:diva-30578

VandenBerghe, Jason. 2012. “The 5 Domain of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games.” Lecture delivered at the 2012 Game Developers’ Conference, San Francisco, VA, March 2012. Slides available at www.darklorde.com/2012/03the-5-domain-of-play-slides (referenced April 5, 2022).

Adams, E., 2014. Fundamentals of game design. 3rd ed. New Rider, p.82.

Matthews, G., Deary, I. J., & Whiteman, M. CM 2008. Personality Traits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., & Bochner, A. P. (2010). Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-1...

Poulos, C., 2021. Essentials of autoethnography. 1st ed. AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION, p.4.

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Dungeon - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Wiki.guildwars2.com. 2022. Raid - Guild Wars 2 Wiki (GW2W). [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Latest Jobs

Treyarch

Playa Vista, California
6.20.22
Audio Engineer

Digital Extremes

London, Ontario, Canada
6.20.22
Communications Director

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, California
6.20.22
Senior Producer

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
6.20.22
Lead UI Programmer
More Jobs   

CONNECT WITH US

Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter

@gamedevdotcom

Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Register
Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Subscribe
Follow us

@gamedevdotcom

Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more