(These opinions are mine, and do not necessarily reflect my colleagues'. Though they might.)
This article explores why players get bored of certain games, but not others. Specifically, I theorize that while many players may cite the most recent buff/nerf/rework as the reason to quit playing something (and genuinely do feel that way), they were actually fated to stop playing sooner or later due to deeper systemic circumstances.
The intent of this article is to try and understand what factors go into a player leaving a game, and reasons why a game might keep players forever. Ideally, these thoughts could be used to determine how to either A) keep a player enjoying a game "forever", or B) help a player quit or take a break from a game while still feeling amicable about it.
This post, however, will not provide the above answers (that'll be a second article). This is just going to lay some groundwork as to what some factors may be behind uninstalling a game after a few thousand hours.
Some people say that a good game well-worth your time should yield you about 60-80 hours of gameplay time to be worth the money. I personally disagree (“hours played” is IMO a terrible metric to use alone for qualitative analysis) but that’s not the point of this.
The point is that some games have WAY more than 60-80 hours of gameplay time as part of their design. In particular, loop-based games like MOBAs, MMOs, online shooters and other arena-based games can frequently eat up thousands of hours of your life.
And a frequent complaint I hear from players who are into the latter category of games is: “This game’s **** now. Bad changes. Now it appeals to a demographic that isn’t me, and is also inferior to mine.”
My opinion: the game you loved didn’t “become” strictly bad. It's just that there's only so much fun you can get out of any game, no matter how it's changed.
You're Just Done
And it was inevitable
Here’s a brief of what’s up ahead. This will serve as anchoring bits so you know what I’m going off about.
Getting bored is inevitable
Hating change is maybe also inevitable
The honeymoon phase
Why can some games go “eternal” while others can't?
> CLOSED- AND OPEN-CIRCUIT GAMES
> Burnout Clock
Okay so now what?
Let’s dive in: wouldn’t anyone eventually get bored of a game’s core mechanics if the design was anything less than perfect? No matter how many new characters, cosmetics, gameplay updates and stories are released, a single game will still have its core mechanics. Meaning a person will still be playing the same game.
The fact that a person gets bored after 1k or 10k hours into a game makes a lot of sense IMO, especially considering how quickly humans get bored of other games, or tasks, or even relationships. Longtime players who quit a game tend to cite a very very specific flaw in there that severely wounds them -- and while I believe these players genuinely feel like this flaw was the bullet to their butt, I think their genuine feelings about X or Y flaw comes from the dissolution of their ‘honeymoon phase’ with the game… paired with a reluctance to admit they’ve just gotten over it.
I posit that the rush and enjoyment of a game lasts for a certain amount of time, in which any flaws of the game are either overlooked with rose-tinted glasses or spun into a “uphill through snow both ways” story that can be reused for elitist gatekeeping purposes. In other words: when one falls in love with a game, they fall in love with the whole package (that’s why someone can hate leveling in Legion but be relatively forgiving of how Paladins leveled in Vanilla).
There’s a lot of other potential effects that mess around with enjoying a game at first and hating it later. Here are some ideas:
With games that have patch notes and large updates such as expansions, character updates, metagame shifts, etc. it gets easier for players to have a “pristine” version of the game to associate with their honeymoon-fueled happiness. This makes it easier to hate the current game without admitting the game you loved was flawed - the current game is different now, so if you're not enjoying the game recently, it's easy to blame it on the changes.
Even so, some players who have opportunities to play the game in their “classic” form would probably still find it fun. It would involve everything they loved in the first place about the game, since every change to a game certainly pushes away a few people as it draws in others. If one could go back to the “classic” form of their chosen game, the CLOSED-CIRCUIT GAME effect would come into play -- giving it actually a lot more longevity for at least a few of the players who yearned to go back.
As the honeymoon phase with a game disappears, players will become increasingly dissatisfied with new updates. Maybe some updates are genuinely bad, but while they would have been forgiven -- or even enjoyed -- before, disillusioned players will now be increasingly harsh about the game.
And: since longtime players will have fallen in love with the game, they will become increasingly defensive and critical of it out of instinct to protect what they love[d]. This means that changes in older games will be met with exponentially larger amounts of scrutiny than younger games. Conversely, anything that's been around from the beginning, even if it wasn't necessarily loved, will still be missed if reworked/removed. This is because it's not just losing some bad mechanic: it's losing a part of the overall thing you used to enjoy.
As a game evolves, developers begin to shape it towards appealing to a certain demographic. I think that, yes, sometimes your demographic will be left in the dust when the changes appeal to a group other than yourself. I think this is definitely a thing that happens -- but I don't think that's really the case as much as it feels.
Similarly, there's a chance that you as a player - and person - has evolved. It makes sense to outgrow a game if you've been playing it for years (especially if those years involve late adolescence and early adulthood) and so while it may feel like a game has become increasingly silly or boring, it may actually be that your own standards have changed over time.
A small thought: there's a chance that a person will always leave a competitive game once they start to "peak" and balance out at a 50% win rate. I have zero data to back this up, though.
Finally: maybe someone was only ever in it because of their friends, and when their friends left, only now do they realize that they never really liked the game in the first place.
Whatever the case, after a certain point it gets really easy to latch onto the most recent set of changes as the tipping point to leave a game forever. It’s just easier to blame it on something concrete than to conceptualize being “done” with something you’ve invested so much time and love into. It’s genuinely difficult to do, so it’s understandable.
So that was a few explanations as to why players can get sick of a game no matter what, and why leaving can be something inevitable (or at least independant of the game's qualities).
To this, the most obvious response is: what about soccer? What about SSBM? Starcraft 1? What about sports that players can do their whole life? If getting bored of a game is inevitable, why are some games played forever?
Well, the second half of this super long post is a list of potential explanations as to why some games are eternal while others are not. My instinct tells me that the answer is a combination of all these smaller factors, since they don’t necessarily contradict each other.
Here I will present some theories as to why some games can be 'eternal' while others will make you bored no matter what's added to them.
Theory #1: CLOSED- AND OPEN-CIRCUIT GAMES
(This theory takes the longest to explain. The other theories are way shorter, I promise.)
Notice that I bolded CLOSED-CIRCUIT GAME a bit higher up. I think it could be a key factor in all of this. A CLOSED-CIRCUIT GAME is a game that does not receive additive updates, and *maybe* not even balance patches. (I bet the gaming community has some other name other than closed-circuit. Stale? Static? Well, I like closed-circuit.) A game being closed circuit lengthens the life of a game if it’s already good, and potentially makes it eternal for a few reasons.
the best ones all involve a ball of some kind
Players who are in love with the game do not need to fear being driven away with changes. Each change to a game does shave away a few players in exchange for theoretically grabbing more; by remaining the same, a game can maintain any players who have the potential to form a lifelong passion for a specific product.
Here’s a biggie theory: additive updates to a game make a lot of players interested due to the promise of receiving new content. What that means is many players may not have cared about the game in the first place without “external” rewards. An open-circuit game may have never been good in the first place, and had only kept in players due to psychological reward systems. This is how a game may look like it could go forever, but actually can’t/won’t once you strip away its reward system.
In contrast, a good closed-circuit game that is currently doing well must actually have genuinely great mechanics because it couldn’t have relied on a reward system to keep players in.
Getting into more speculative territory: maybe additive content in a game makes players want to play to gain new skins/heroes/items/etc, shifting enjoyment away from an internally-motivated reward system (getting better) to something more like a drug (getting loot). And maybe this "external" reward system will always feel less rewarding over time. Under this theory, a game could have been eternal, but additive items made players addicted to gaining stuff instead... and ironically made players feel dry and bored of the game once updates were done.
Any of these theories would explain why games like SC: Brood Wars, Smash Bros Melee, Soccer, Basketball, etc. have such long gameplay cycles and lifespans (amongst the communities that enjoy them), and may someday be considered "eternal". The effort required on Blizzard's part to make SC1 players move to SC2 is a good example of the power of quality closed-circuit games. I acknowledge that these games (even sports like soccer and basketball) had patches throughout history, but in the relative mechanical scope of things, these games do seem to be very closed-circuit with regards to mechanical changes. All of the changes in these games, such as the shot timer in basketball, are more about stopping particular exploits rather than shaking up the gameplay itself. Small balance patches compared to content patches seems to be key. (though i’d love a basketball patch that added a rift scuttler.)
So, what’s in the future for games that are designed to constantly update, such as Overwatch and League of Legends? Personally, I think it’ll be really interesting to watch! I’m excited to see the long-term effects of games that rely on a constant stream of new content. My gut tells me that while a few players might be into it forever, games like this will inevitably mostly feature a rotating playerbase that will ‘only’ stick around for a couple of years.
While these games wouldn’t technically be “Eternal” in the sense of being playable forever by an individual person, they might be able to go Eternal in the sense of being playable by someone. The only stipulation is they need to have always have a fresh / returning pool of players to enter their game.
But I no longer am entirely sure that additive updates and/or gameplay changes are a surefire way to retain players, and may in fact prevent long-term retention. If every change has an increasing chance to push away any given player, and rewards have diminishing returns for a person, then open-circuit games may accidentally ruin the chance of any one person being able to stick around forever. It seems like going open-circuit trades off bringing in a larger pool of players for an generally “moderate” amount of time (with some outliers), compared to closed-circuit games which bring a smaller dedicated amount of players who will either stay for a short while, or stick around forever.
Theory #2: Burnout Clock
Maybe the games that feel eternal, actually aren't -- but you just never reach the same number of hours as you do in the games that players get bored of. For example, maybe soccer can only be played for 2-4 hours a week maximum. In contrast, you could play League or WoW or Overwatch for 24+ hours a week.
i dont need a break its just that they remade the queue button and now its way harder to click
In other words, maybe players would inevitably get bored of literally any game they played for a certain number of hours, but simply don't reach that critical mass of hours in sports or other games. And even if you spend a lot of nights training, maybe training feels very different from playing in terms of stress and mood?
Potentially, maybe it's not about a total number of hours, but rather the risk / ability to burn out on a given game by playing it too much. Periodic breaks may allow one to enjoy a game without as much fear of burning out - perhaps the concept of an "offseason" is the only way that athletes manage to stay engaged with their sport.
Anyway the main problem with this theory is that it doesn't explain on its own how games such as Starcraft 1, Diablo II or SSBM have stayed around for so long, since you really can get a ton of hours in and as far as I know people don't give it a break. We don't run into this problem if such players do take breaks to play other games and only periodically reboot their classic every few months.
At least for the case of Starcraft or SSBM, tournaments remain sparse - so one could argue that non-tournament play actually doesn't really count towards the "burnout clock", since that's the "non-serious" part of the gameplay.
Theory #3: The Community's Just Better/Worse
This article has been long enough, so let's be fast: it's probably way better to stick with a game when it has a supportive, strong and respectable community.
Maybe the only reason people could play a game forever is because the community around it feels like a home. Maybe it's inevitable to stop playing any other game at some point, but once there's a group of positive people all together and all playing this one game, it suddenly gets a lot easier to stay.
“AC just tell me your opinion so I can quote or trash you in a conversation”
My main opinions are these:
- Players will almost inevitably become bored of most games. It feels understandably worse to leave games after investing thousands of hours into it, but most players will blame anything other than (the fact that a thousand hours of the same thing might get boring no matter what).
- Some games may be Eternal, where players will never get bored of them. But these games are different animals, for at least three potential reasons:
A) They're closed-circuit, meaning they don't rely on rewards to keep players interested.
B) The logistics of playing these games makes it really hard to burn out or spend 10k hours playing in the first place.
C) They have a more supportive and positive community.
I'll someday write a part 2 where we explore ways to make a game go "eternal" or alternatively be enjoyable and also quittable. But I'd like to reiterate that I don't think it's necessary for a game to go "eternal" in the first place -- I just spent a lot of time exploring "eternal" games so we can recognize why other games don't (or can't) do it.
Overall, what I hope is that people can get better at realizing when they’re done playing a game, when it’s time to move on, when they’re not enjoying themselves anymore. I think it’s important for players to be able to recognize when playing any game that they might not be into it forever, even if it looks like they could be, and that they don’t have to force themselves to be.
I hope that players can can eventually think of thousands of hours with a game as an enjoyable time of their life, but learn to recognize when it’s time to let it go. And ideally, I hope players can celebrate the positive experiences they’ve had with the game instead of finding reasons to hate it now just to move on.
Next up: thoughts on game design that encourages players to amicably end their engagement with a game without it becoming disappointing or regretful. My gut is that games should allow, or even encourage, taking breaks more... but that's a box for later.