These friends look to me, not because my friends assume I am a font of all wisdom as it pertains to MMOs but because I'm pretty stable in games. Barring my participation in things like Choose My Adventure, the games I play are staples. I've been playing Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic since launch, the only thing that stopped me from playing City of Heroes was a shutdown, and even my briefer incursions last four months or more. So how do I do it?
The answer is the same as the answer to how you make a long-term relationship work: You commit.
How the options affect you
Back in the day, sticking to an MMO was fairly easy. In the earliest days your options were Ultima Online or nothing, and even when more options began cropping up, they were still few and far between. It's only in the last five years or so that MMOs have exploded around us, with so many titles out there at the moment that it's hard to keep track.
It baffles me when people say "there are no options for players who like such-and-such" because we're living in an age when there's almost nothing but options. We are drowning in options. You may have fewer options than some players with different preferences, but you have options.
No matter what you do, there are going to be a lot of other games you can play. Most of them will also be free-to-play, meaning you can try them out without any up-front commitment. You want a new sandbox? There are at least half a dozen out there to try. Want something in the vein of World of Warcraft? Again, you have plenty of options. There's nothing shackling you to one game or playstyle or payment model or anything of the sort.
The problem here is that since you have a surfeit of options, it's a lot easier to declare your time with a game is over at the slightest problem. Odds are good that I couldn't get through all of the potential MMOs out there if I changed games every week for a year. There's no longer a scarcity of options forcing us to remain committed to one game at any given time, and so we don't.
The trick is that we treat commitment as if it's something that is inflicted upon us, something that is brought on fundamentally by outside forces. But it's really just like any romantic relationship: You decide that you're going to be playing one game or another and you stick with it. You stop thinking about leaving and start thinking about enjoying yourself here in this game rather than moving to greener pastures. There's no grand event that forces you to stay; it's just a decision that you're going to sit down and make this work even if it's a struggle.
Wanderlust and the immersion factor
I want you to go perform an experiment for me. First of all, I want you to go date someone for a month with the expectation that you will break up with that person at the end of the month. Then I want you to date someone with the expectation that you're going to last forever. See which one you open up to more completely.
What, you don't have two months for an experiment? Fine. But I'm going to bet that you get a lot more comfortable with the person you aren't keeping at arm's length. If you're expecting the relationship to end, you're going to treat it as disposable, mostly because you're already making disposal plans.
Getting immersed in a game is one of those things that a lot of serial wanderers claim is no longer possible with more modern MMOs. I have a friend who has, in the two years I've known him, cycled through nearly a dozen games in the exact same pattern, going from claiming the game is great to pointing out all of its flaws to leaving in a huff with a lot of detailed reasons why the game is bad. And always there's the same cry that designers have lost the ability to immerse the player, so there's no reason to commit to the games any longer.
Obviously, a lot of people are immersing themselves just fine in these games, which sort of puts the lie to that theory right off. But I think the equation is also backwards. Getting immersed doesn't make you commit; being committed is key to finding immersion.
I've played both ways. There are games that I've committed to wholeheartedly, and these are games where I've found myself far down the rabbit hole. Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Star Wars: The Old Republic -- in each one I've started out with a dedication to the game, and in each case I've had no problem getting lost in the game world and roleplaying and just enjoying my time in the game.
But then there are the games that I knew were on borrowed time. Warhammer Online. Ryzom. TERA. RIFT. They were games I was playing for work or as part of a limited project or that had otherwise been marked in my head as not a permanent fixture. And in each one I found that the immersion was not happening, that keeping the game at arm's length kept me out of the game, even though I went into each thinking that I was open to the idea that the game might grab me and take me in.
There's no unifying thread to these games except that I started out committed to some and expected commitment to just happen in others. When you consider that everyone in the world has a huge number of choices, suddenly, it seems as if going in waiting to be immersed is basically cruise control for never getting lost in the game. You wait for it to sweep you off your feet with romantic gestures, but you're already thinking about dating other people.
A different call to action
Honestly, I think this is a good thing. I think some people are really happier wandering, and that's great for them. I think some people are already committed, and that's great for them. But I think that there's the distinct possibility that if you have a wanderlust you don't know how to cure, it might be more fixable than you think if you know why it's happening.
And the solution is simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. You need to commit.
You need to look at a game and accept it, faults and all. There are potentially relationship-destroying faults, sure, but those are either knowable in advance or the result of major and well-forecasted changes. More important is the concept of committing, of looking at the game and saying that yes, the graphics might not be the best and there are mechanics you don't like and there are elements of the lore you think are dumb and the developers don't share your view of endgame activities -- but everyone has a home somewhere, and at the end of the day, this is where you hang your hat.
The games I mentioned before? They all have things that annoy me. But I love them just the same, and I stick by them despite the flaws that I see.
Maybe you can't get everything you feel is important from one game -- so commit to two games. Maybe you feel like your favorite games have been shut down -- so find new ones instead of staying locked in mourning. Maybe you're happy in an older game -- so stay in that game instead of constantly looking at something new on the horizon. But above all else, don't wait for the game to commit you; commit yourself.
It might not work. I might be totally wrong. But in my own experience, it changes everything, and it certainly can't hurt.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!