Thoughts on burnout in MMOs and how to avoid it

via pwnware.com I was reading about Nick Yee’s idea of the five-phase player lifecycle in a game.

This can be paraphased as:

  1. Starting out. Everything is new and exciting.
  2. Ramping up. You know the basics, now you’re setting more long term goals.
  3. Mastery. This includes being settled in a social group for endgame as well as mastering your character, for whatever type of endgame you decide to do.
  4. Burnout.
  5. Casual/ Recovery.

The first thing that strikes me is that many players (probably the majority) don’t ever go through the  mastery and burnout phases. They hop straight from ramping up to casual, possibly even skipping the ramping up phase if the game offers that option.  (There should probably be a “6. Bored/ Distracted by new game or hobby” phase too.)

This means that casual guilds potentially attract a mixture of ex-hardcore players and never-will-be-hardcore players. Or in other words, our definitions for casual need  more work because some people will play a game casually but still be far more invested in it than others who play similar hours.

The other thing that strikes me is that ramping up is often seen as a noobish phase. It’s the part which the elite players try to rush or even jump, and everyone else is encouraged to short cut it by making use of offsite guides, videos, and other player generated tutorials.

And yet, if you ask players which their personal golden age was in their favourite game, often it will be the one where they had the longest time in the first two phases. Usually the first MMO they played, or the first one they were invested enough in to master.

So the pressure to master a game quickly might actually be encouraging players to have less fun, and get them to burn out faster too.

Another thought is that if people keep playing similar games and then picking similar classes, it will mean that they master a new game more quickly. Sometimes that’s even part of the appeal. If you anticipate a lot of competition in the role or an aggressive playerbase, it’s a confidence booster to know that you have previous experience with a similar class.

Once enough people do this, there is no one for the ramping up people to play with. We see this happen in older games. Starcraft (original)  is a good example, people have been playing that competitively for over 10 years. How many of them do you think are still ramping up or might be fun to play with for a newbie? Eventually, designers don’t bother with much of a tutorial. They assume the majority of players will be familiar with the genre. You see this a lot in shooters at the moment.

And people who pick a similar class because they just love the playstyle will still master it more quickly. That means that sometimes, playing the games and classes you love is a fast track to burnout.

I suspect this is part of the reason why post-WoW style MMOs have struggled to maintain long term subscriptions. The hardcore players mastered them fast because they were so similar to existing games, and it’s very difficult for a new game to instantly ship with enough content and depth to keep the hardcore interested for several months. Yet at the same time, casual players checked the games out and decided for whatever reason that they didn’t want to make a longterm commitment.

Burnout can be a mental health issue

If you type burnout into google, you won’t get a bunch of gaming links up top. You’ll be directed to mental health websites.

Here’s a definition which I picked from one of them:

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Being burned out on a game is very different from just being bored of it. This is why burnout is so strongly associated with hardcore players, who make the most commitments and feel the most stress.

So if you care at all about your own health, you really should act if you feel that you are burning out. Why? It will make you happier and less stressful in game and, perhaps more importantly, can show you how to cope better with burnout in real life if you should ever face that.

There are two types of player, those who burn out and those who don’t

And yet, there are players who do play similar games or similar classes for years at a time without ever seeming to get bored. They either find challenges in tweaking the playing style they love, or they enjoy the ease which familiarity gives. Or maybe they mostly know how to skip happily to the casual phase of play without ever worrying about mastery.

So what are the secrets to avoiding burn out?

  1. Recognise the signs of burnout before it hits. Unfortunately you probably need to have burned out on a game at least once to do this accurately. If you start hating the thought of logging in on a specific character or to do a specific instance or doing so puts you into a bad mood, then that’s a fairly good indicator.
  2. Is there one specific issue causing the burnout. One instance that you detest, some players in your guild who are driving you nuts? If so, can you find a way to minimise those?
  3. Diversify your game. Try a different character or a different spec. Join another guild with an alt and get to know new people. Try a different server.
  4. Play less on the character/ playstyle that is burning you out. This can be tough if you have time commitments to a raid guild, but you won’t be any benefit to anyone if you burn out. And no decent guild leadership would pressure  you to stay if that was the case.  (If they do, it’s a sign that you need to find a new guild anyway.)
  5. Diversify your hobbies. Putting all your free time into one hobby may help in mastering it, but it can help a lot with burnout to look at doing other things too. Getting more sleep also can’t hurt.
  6. Step away from or minimise stressful commitments. If being a guild leader or raid leader is stressing you out to the point of burnout, find someone to share the job or step down. Yes, it’s hard but this is a game. Also, it won’t help anyone if you burn out. It is sometimes possible to find ways to delegate or reorganise guild management so as to put less stress on one person, look into those. The bonus of recognising the signs of burnout is that you can do this before it is too late.
  7. Talk to people. Make new friends. Friends and communities in game can be surprisingly supportive, even just by being there. If your community is not supportive, it’s time to find another one. Spending more time with friends offline can help a lot too, it just resets your perspective.
  8. Know your limits. If you have X hours per week to play a game, don’t mimic a playstyle that really requires X+1. Don’t rush to be as hardcore as possible if it’s just not practical. Stress between life/ gaming balance will make burnout more likely and may make the consequences way more severe.
  9. Redefine your notion of success. In WoW at the moment, a hardcore raider might see hard mode Lich King as the only achievement worthy of note. And yet, many casual guilds are rightly proud of their normal mode kills. A casual player with no guild might be just as proud of having gotten a character to 80 and earned enough emblems to buy heirlooms for alts. So who is right?
  10. Consider whether you want to make the shift to a casual/ recovery playstyle. I’ve mentioned a couple of times the possibility of switching guilds or reducing responsibilities in game.
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16 thoughts on “Thoughts on burnout in MMOs and how to avoid it

  1. I have followed your option “Diversify your hobbies. Putting all your free time into one hobby may help in mastering it, but it can help a lot with burnout to look at doing other things too.”

    I’ve been developing phpBB and web-hosting skills, including CSS, as a result of the forums at pwnwear. That itself has been a great project, and lots of geeky fun, and totally avoids burnout. I’ve been working on things around the game.

    Great post, Spinks.

    • That sounds great. And being involved with a community also hits another of the options, especially when they are people who share your hobby but you necessarily don’t play with as part of your regular group.

      I find that blogging has been similar for me. Sure, I get to hone my writing skills, but interacting with comments and other bloggers and figuring out what works and what doesn’t has been a big part of the fun.

  2. Burnout: Play another game.

    Social groups should not keep you playing and paying if it is no longer intrinsically rewarding for you.

    The whole notion of playing one MMO forever is just wrong.

    This is why I preach the Guild Wars approach all the time: It is the sensible thing to do. The idea, for those who don’t know, is to put the game away till new content comes and play something else and hopefully return to a new “chapter”.

    The most exciting phases are 1-3 – so don’t alternate between 4 and 5, play something else.

  3. Or instead of playing some other MMO change genre: I have my foot steadily in the FPS, something I never, ever thought I could be lured into. But playing with my son (who so pwns me in PvP but lacks in deeper understanding) was enough to make me try to develop in a PvP FPS.

    Still I’m bad in it, but now I can say for sure that WoW PvP sucks and is out of any balance and playability whatsoever.

    Aye, differing your hobbies helps a lot. My other hobbies take me away from the computer all together, making the returns sweeter and the departures more bitter.

    C out

  4. For me burnout is closely associated with a lack of options. When I was playing several interchangeable alts in WoW everything was fine. When I am playing Eve in a number of different ways everything is fine. In fact I recently burned my bridges in one area of activity but switched quite happily to an alternative.

    My hardest burnout in WoW was when I was committed to being a raid tank and my class got nerfed hard. I felt no desire to raid and didn’t have an alternative playstyle.

    • I wonder if it’s lack of options so much as the rigidity and commitment. If your class hadn’t been nerfed you’d probably have been happy with it for much longer, regardless of the fact your raid wanted you to tank all the time?

      It’s just once you feel forced to play a character or role that you really don’t want to, you’ll probably burn out really really fast. But whether or not you want to might depend on outside stuff like nerfs.

      I just keep feeling that the raid game is a machine for mashing players up and burning them out.

  5. Problem though is that I think people are starting to burn out on the GENRE, not just a specific situation. The current MMO genre status is just too much grinding and work, and not enough wow moments. That’s got to change.

  6. My burnout in WoW came when the semi-casual guild I was raiding with reached the limits of its collective competence. No progression, attendence issues, escalating drama… eventually I realized I was having no fun at all, was beginning to despise the people I was raiding with, and dreading having to keep bashing my head against the wall. And for what? To help validate the devs design decisions that had delivered an unfulfilling game experience?

    In the future, if I continue to play, I’ll bail from any guild that starts to go down that path. If there’s no fun alternative, it’s /gamequit time.

  7. I have to take issue once again with your assumption that mastering a character is a hardcore trait. I may not raid but I *do* like to know what my char can do and I do like to learn how to do it well.

    Non-hardcore speaking out for freedom and liberty and l2p! ;-)

    Actually, thinking about it I’m starting to wonder if raiding even is a hardcore thing anymore these days. Being a regular attendee probably is, but the rest? Hrm. Blog fodder. I’m outta.

    • I am assuming that being hardcore is more to do with how invested you are in a game than with how many hours you play or what you actually do. If you love that game enough to actually care whether you have mastered your character, then you are hardcore, in a way.

      Although, mastering a character in a very competitive environment (like high end raiding or PvP) is pretty demanding compared to most soloing. I mean, in terms of being able to instantly react to what is going on around you and press the right key in second perfect timing.

      So there’s mastering and then there’s Mastering. But I think mastering here just means mastering the stuff you actually want to do.

  8. Pingback: It ain’t what it used to be | Stylish Corpse

  9. I always think I am suffering burnout, but I think boredom is probably the real reason. I gave up on my BW, and rolled an Archmage. I figured a new character would invigorate me.

    The problem is now that I am in Tier 4 I have noticed I am in the same boring cycle. Do Orvr, get gear, raid city, do scenarios, get weapon,.

    It is different class completely, but in the end the game is the same no matter what class you play. I think I may enjoy the lower tiers more than getting to the end game, and putting myself to sleep from being bored.

    I stopped playing the last week, and I can’t say I am missing it. I am enjoying my free time. I keep trying new games outside of the mmorpg genre, and it isn’t quite the same.

    I really think the hype of GW2 has also had a huge factor in my boredom of WAR. I know I am going to play it, and so now I feel I will be playing a game that once GW2 launches I will drop, and never look back.

    Currently I am hanging on to WAR because it is all I feel comfortable about. I think my relationship with WAR is similar to a bad RL relationship. You know you hate it, but without something new to go to you just hang on because something is better than nothing.

  10. This really resonates with me right now, Spinks, thanks for writing it. The problem that I have is I feel that if I take any kind of prolonged break from the game, my guild will fall apart (I’m the guild leader, husband is the raid leader, officer 3 has been feeling burned out himself, and officer 4 has been away from the internet all summer).

    I love the guild, the people, and even the raiding, but Wrath content is so stale right now. I want to raid with these people come Cataclysm, but I don’t want to drive myself nutty getting there. We took a two week break from raiding to give all of us a chance to recuperate from the summer doldrums. Now some folks are excited to raid again, but others wish the break would last longer – and sign-ups are suffering.

    Husband said to me last night that he understands why people in positions of responsibility in games like this often end up getting burned out. I’m not sure if there’s an alternative. I have been playing my alt mage on another server to escape the pressure, but I feel guilty about that, and even guiltier when I just don’t log in at all. I guess I need to find a way to implement number six… but all of the people who’ve been approached about taking leadership roles of any kind have balked. I guess everyone wants to raid, but not many people want to be the ones responsible for leading a raid.

    • *vibes* I really think this happens to more people than you imagine. A lot of players move on from guild leader or raid leader and find it’s much relaxing. Also we don’t yet know when Cataclysm will be released or how long this state might go on for.

      My suggestion is sit down and imagine for a moment that you have either closed the guild down or told everyone that you will not be raiding any more until the expansion, and taken people’s realID or email address or whatever so you can keep in touch. Is your first reaction to feel a wave of relief that the burden is gone and you can go off and play alts and enjoy the game without feeling guilty any more?

      It might also be that the other people are feeling burned out, and that’s one reason they’re not stepping forwards. I just think that once you know it is making you miserable, it’s in your power to make things better and it’s not at all an unusual decision to take right now.

  11. There are many aspects of the game to master and several for each class. The role you play while soloing differs greatly from that which you would play in a group or even a raid.

    Soloing has one controlled variable – you.

    Grouping or raiding has several uncontrolled variables and one controlled variable. How those other variables play out forces you to play differently than you would as just you.

    I know, I delved into ‘solo’ instead of casual. Casuals can and will master a class – not all of them, but some of them. Soloers? Not so much.

    I don’t mean to pick on Ysh, but it’s like claiming to be ‘worldly’ without leaving your home continent. You can know, but not experience. Hard to be a master with just knowing and not experiencing.

    As for burnout?

    Gah. I’m the worst for that. I’m a little burned out on WoW at the moment, but that comes from months of running ICC in 10 man and 25 man modes. The churn of people giving up, or disappearing for a time or taking a break or burning out sooner.

    It takes a toll on you. That and I’m not sure there is much else that I want to do or see until Cataclysm comes out. It’s funny, I drag ass to log in but I nearly sprang from my seat to try to find where I could order the Collector’s Edition of Cataclysm.

    Go me!

  12. “many players (probably the majority) don’t ever go through the mastery and burnout phases”

    That’s a nice insight there. It’s never occurred to me since I identify so strongly as ex-hardcore.

    I burned out once, hard and heavy, and have always believed that everyone has to go through all of Nick Yee’s phases at least once in their lifetimes, in order to get to phase 5: casual/recovery, older, wiser and more experienced and well-informed to avoiding burnout. As echoed by “Unfortunately you probably need to have burned out on a game at least once to do this accurately.”

    On thinking it over, I certainly have made the acquaintance of many game dabblers who play a game casually for a while and put it down without having moved beyond Ramping Up, or indeed recognised that there was more to learn or improve or master. They were quite content at their current level, or didn’t care for the game being played at higher or different kinds of intensity. So these players do exist.

    In contrast, I have hardcore tendencies, and need to keep a tight leash on them, keeping aware of my actions in order to maintain a sane casual pace.

    Many WoW players will no doubt think my labeling of myself as ‘hardcore’ as asinine. I only began experimenting with raids in Age of Conan, with no EQ, DAoC, FFXI, or WoW background whatsoever. Sorry, the hardcore world consists of more than owning multiple level 50s (or is it 85s after Cataclysm now?) and knowing intricate patterns of specific raid boss encounters. I freely admit I’m a beginner at group raiding and quite happy to keep it that way because I find little fun in scheduled massive-group events.

    On the other hand, I like reading tons of class and stat guides, and would rather bend concept to play an optimal build than gimp myself in the name of roleplaying. I enjoy min-maxing, dabble with multiple accounts and dual-box in various games. I empathize strongly with players who try and solo a team challenge and do other “climbed it because the mountain was there” stunts because of the crazy difficulty. I am terribly proud of my Alien Swarm Insane Campaign achievement (1.1% only have done it!)

    People can be hardcore in teams, hardcore solo, hardcore in terms of time played (9-12h or overnight marathons, anyone?) – any time you push to greater levels of intensity than the average majority would, you’re more hardcore than not.

    The only question is, are you all playing the same (meta)game?

    One last comment on burnout. It happens “when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands.” Demands from who? Other people? Friends, family, bosses, guild leaders, raid members, PuGs? Or are you demanding too much from yourself?

    Perhaps that is why raids burn people out the most. The reliance on other people and the social obligation not to let them down. There’s less pressure to perform in a PUG – though I’m sure some people still feel pressurized (especially if you tank or heal in a holy trinity game).

    And unrealistic expectations and demands from yourself may add to the feeling of burnout. “I want shiny piece of gear by X date. Thus I must grind YY hours repeatedly!” :(

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