MMO MMOnkey: Why I stopped playing Age of Conan

Stopped playing because . . .
I like Age of Conan. I like the combat system that demands active engagement rather than the auto-attack, go-make-a-cup-of-coffee style of combat used in so many other MMOs. I enjoy exploring Funcom's recreation of Hyboria with its lush graphics and infinitely varied and "realistic" topography. I find the early game's seamless integration of an instanced nighttime story with a shared daytime world both innovative and engaging. I think the design team did a fine job capturing the spirit of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories in both the look and feel of the game. Funcom got a lot of things right.

As everyone playing AoC knows, Funcom also got a lot of things wrong. Announced features like DirectX 10 support aren't in the game, many of the features that are in the game aren't working properly, technical issues cause frequent crashes for some players, in-game and tech support are apparently dreadful, bugs abound. Although Lord of the Rings Online showed us that an MMO launch doesn't have to be terrible, most of them are. I expected AoC to have these kinds of problems at launch and wasn't upset by them. With the disaster that was the Anarchy Online launch looking over their shoulders I also expected Funcom to work hard to eliminate AoC's launch problems and all indications are that's exactly what they're trying to do.

But yet I've stopped playing the game and I think game developers would be interested in knowing why.

You can draw a distinction between quitting a game and stopping playing. Players quit when something about the game angers or displeases them. They quit with attitude and sometimes take to the forums to rant about why the game sucks. They need approval for quitting, they expect you to feel their pain, and they want you to quit too. In the more extreme cases they play other MMOs and fill general chat with invective about the game they quit. They can be funny in their extreme overreaction but usually they're just annoying and sad.

Not everyone who quits a game reacts this way and not everyone who quits does so for frivolous reasons. Players who quit Age of Conan because they got fed up with the out-of-memory error that causes the game to crash repeatedly have reason to be angry. Not so much the guy who was beside himself because the breasts on his female toon had gotten smaller. (Really. I'm not making this up.) Game developers should be concerned about players who quit in anger because the game continually crashes; they might be excused for thinking their game is better off without players who are outraged about shrinking breasts. Funcom, however, does not appear to share this view as they announced they were all over the tiny-tit problem and would have it fixed asap while the last time I checked the out-of-memory error was still there. Maybe they don't want to lose those "mature" players.

 . . . I found something better to doIn contrast with quitting, players don't stop playing a game out of frustration or outrage; they stop playing because they find something better to do with their time. For me it was Guild Wars but it could have been anything. This isn't about the relative merits of Guild Wars and Age of Conan. They're very different games in many ways and I enjoy playing both of them. Guild Wars just happened to come along at the point in time when AoC's grip on my attention had weakened.

Many of us are familiar with the process. We've been eagerly awaiting an MMO, it finally launches, and we're right there. We become fully immersed in the game as we explore a new world and a new game system. We find things we like and things we don't but the former outweigh the latter and we continue to play. Sometimes we even get a little obsessive about it and play every moment of our spare time or even play when we really should be doing something else. (Yes, I know it's hard to believe but from what I've heard it's true. Some people actually ignore their real world responsibilities to play computer games! ) However, the time invariably comes when we get comfortable with the system and have played enough that we know the next play session is going to be pretty much like the last one. Enjoyable, yes, but also both familiar and predictable. We think maybe we'll do something else for a bit before we play. This is the moment that game developers should fear.

I took a look at Guild Wars simply because I happened to read an intriguing post on massively.com right around the time my initial surge of interest in Age of Conan had waned. One of the first things that struck me after I set up an account was how easy it is to get in and out of Guild Wars. No waiting for interminable minutes for the game to load. No crashing out of the game, having to reboot the system, and then waiting for the load process all over again. No having to reboot the system after play because even on a successful logout AoC left enough garbage behind to cause instabilities and conflicts.

Now I know that AoC puts much higher graphic demands on your system (and mine is fully capable of handling them) and that Guild Wars has had years to eliminate the performance bugs that still plague the early days of AoC but none of that mattered. Playing Guild Wars made something instantly apparent to me. Age of Conan is an enjoyable game with a great deal of potential but after a month of intensive play I'd gotten to the point where it just wasn't worth the consistent and mundane technical hassles involved in playing it. I wasn't angry, I wasn't frustrated, but at that moment in time I'd found something better to do and so I just stopped playing.

I don't expect the particular reasons why I stopped playing Age of Conan will be of much, if any, interest to many players. I'm not complaining about AoC and I'm not trying to convince you that my reasons for stopping are sensible and justified or that you should stop playing too. On the other hand, Funcom and any other developer preparing a game for release should be concerned about why I stopped playing because when a player finds something better to do it can be hard to get them to go back.

Full scale MMOs like Age of Conan, World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Rings Online give us rich game worlds and complex game systems that demand a great deal of time to fully appreciate and enjoy. That's one of the reasons we play them so avidly. We love games that provide hours upon hours of enjoyment. While this deep level of engagement keeps us playing the game, it can also pose a problem for the game developer. The combination of the time needed to really get into one of these games and the monthly subscription fee results in many players devoting most, if not all, of their MMO gaming time to one game. Players check out new games at launch but if they find something better to do, they stop playing.

The players who quit in anger over technical failings may return to the game if the problems that frustrated them are fixed. This is more likely to happen if they quit fairly soon after starting the game. Players who stopped playing because they found something better to do are likely to have played longer and this can make it harder to get them to come back. You don't want to start all over again with a level one character but when you log in your high level main you can't remember what all those icons in your quickbars do, you've forgotten a lot of basic information like where things are and how to get from here to there, the half finished quests in your log are a complete mystery to you, and your skills are so rusty that greens are kicking your ass while you keep hitting keys mapped to the attack functions in the game you were playing before you returned. If players regularly returned to games they had stopped playing, SOE wouldn't be reactivating cancelled accounts in Vanguard and Everquest 2 and giving them free play time.

Game developers can afford to ignore the player who has a tantrum and quits because he can't play without bigger breasts to ogle. They can't afford to ignore the players who stop playing when they find something better to do because these are the subscribers who are more likely to play for a long time and have a harder time returning once they've left.

The solution, of course, is to design your game so that players are less likely to find something better to do with their time. Easier said than done. The first step is to identify the points in the game where interest is likely to flag. When does the player begin to feel like they've done all this before? When does the next achievement seem so far away that continuing on with the same-old, same-old doesn't seem worth it? New goals and game features that will interest players need to be overlapped with ongoing game elements in such a way that the player is motivated by the new before the old gets old.

New games at launch have the additional problem of making sure that the bugs and technical problems that were easily ignored in the initial flush of enthusiasm don't hang around too long. On average, how long does it take before other things in the player's life begin to look interesting again? A week? Ten days? A month? Whatever the answer, that's how long developers have to kill their launch problems if they don't want players to stop playing their game. I have no idea whether or not I'm typical in this regard but, for me, Age of Conan didn't get it done in time. With Warhammer Online on the horizon, I hope EA Mythic is listening.

And, no, you can't have my stuff
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This article was originally published on Massively.