Thoughts on burnout in MMOs and how to avoid it

via 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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