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A Lapse of Loyalty

Tim Dale

As they say, you never forget your first time, and to the brand new MMO player, it isn't immediately apparent that there is a substantial genre behind the acronym, spanning into the hundreds of titles. Indeed, the acronyms themselves are probably things that make little sense. For the true newbie, there is only The One Game, an unexpectedly deep and broad game, which swiftly becomes as much a place to be as a way to pass a few hours of an evening. Mine happened to be EverQuest, but it could be any of the increasingly broad list of MMOs available today.

Content with their choice, they might continue to be a steadfast participant to the exclusion of all other gaming, for many months or even years. Their depth of involvement brings the game to life for them, and in turn, that life becomes a significant part of their own. Such a player may not even be aware that there are other games out there; other worlds and other communities; what could any of that offer that they don't already have?

Others might have a different view. Driven by months and years of similar repeated experiences, the grass does indeed seem greener in these other games. Perhaps an urge for similar kind of gameplay but in a new and unexpected setting, or a craving for something entirely different, some game with completely different rules, skills and objectives. For these gamers, variety is the spice of life, and the more the merrier!

What makes one player a loyal mono-gamer happy with the game of choice, and another a flighty poly-gamer, playing many titles in quick succession or all at the same time?

Very few new gamers approach the genre with poly-gaming in mind. Picking up four or five MMOs right off the bat and signing up for them all at once suggests a kind of deliberation which simply isn't there in the first-timer. Instead, there will be one title which has a particular appeal and draw, and it will be this title which will represent the entire genre, informing that player's future opinions on what an MMO should and shouldn't be. This may be a recommendation by friends, a review or simply an impulse buy in a game store, but however they arrive, the player has now found their first online home.

The time spent in this first home can vary greatly. For some it may last a matter of weeks, as the nature of the grind becomes apparent; the fundamentally repetitive nature of basic gameplay underlying almost all of the MMO genre. Not everyone's cup of tea, especially those more accustomed to the immediacy and focus on the player as lone hero that off-line single-player gaming can provide. These players pass the MMO off as a bad buy and are never seen again. Those that stay soon settle in and begin a span that can last months and years; progressing up the levels, tackling increasing challenges, making friends and forming social networks and generally making a place for themselves within their new part-time world. This kind of contented bliss is fine as long as it lasts, but for some, things eventually change.

Perhaps a new and particularly interesting title is launched, and the player wants to try it out; the lure of the more attractive kind of online life is strong. Perhaps social reasons compel a move; either from – to escape a guild drama gone awry, or toward – to follow migrating groups of friends who are all excited about the newer game. Perhaps more fundamental reasons to do with eventual fatigue, or grudgingly admitted boredom. Nothing lasts forever and sooner or later, even the most ardent fan is likely to cash in their chips and move on; either to the new shiny, or simply out of MMO gaming altogether.

But some, myself included, have troubles letting go, and difficulties in making concrete choices, an inability to stick to the one game for better or worse. So rather than putting in a solid gaming commitment to a single specific titles, several subscriptions come about and the MMO schedule becomes a quite hectic thing. At any given time, I usually have two or three subscription MMOs on the go; when I move away from one, another will usually take its place; each of which will have at least one night of the week set aside for it. In addition to those, there are a handful of free-to-play titles which I'm nominally a member of – accounts I dabble with when the mood strikes.

"Part of it is simply greed; I want to play everything!"

Part of it is simply greed; I want to play everything! Time and money only allow so many games at once though, so I pick and choose a handful to keep me going. A good number of years playing MMOs has jaded me a little too, so that simply playing the same game throughout the week, every week, doesn't hold as much appeal as once it did. Playing at least three different titles during the week spices things up greatly and means I genuinely look forward to when that particular day comes around again; a good way to combat my own personal bouts of burnout. Playing three different MMOs is partly a way to keep in touch with different groups of online friends too – people who I might otherwise lose touch with. It would be convenient if they all liked the same, single MMO, but a lot less interesting too.

The poly-gaming lifestyle does have significant downsides though. For a start, specific progress in an individual title suffers. While overall, I put in the hours, I don't do so in any one game, making me poor raiding material, and unlikely to ever reach the dizzying heights of the end-game. Jack of all trades, master of none. The more focussed mono-gaming player is likely to make much more out of their time in that one game.

Only paying for one subscription or item-shop is another advantage the mono-gamer has over the poly-gamer. Paying several sets of monthlies can quickly become excessive; no longer the negligible minor entertainment expense, particularly if each title only gets one play a week. Value for money starts to become more dubious and marginal, although deals and packages can help, such as the Station Access plan or Aeria Games transferable micro-payment points, all-in deals that cannily acknowledge and promote the poly-gaming life, so long as you stay within that company's range of titles.

"I'm always trying to jump in Guild Wars"

Also a peculiar problem for the poly-gamer is the risk of each individual title blurring into the others played, and the process of subconscious comparison; this feature in Game A is like that feature in Game B. With several similar games on the go, those similarities can become painfully apparent at times, and worse still, the differences can cause disorientation; pressing the wrong buttons, because the same function in the previous game was on a different key. I'm always trying to jump in Guild Wars, despite having played it for at least three years.

It could be argued that poly-gaming and its attendant tourism are very much signs of the Bartle Explorer type of gamer, while mono-gaming and the propensity to dig in and knuckle down is more indicative of the Achiever. Poly-gaming is driven by a need to experience a broad variety of gaming, whereas mono-gaming is more about a specific depth of experience, the need to fully explore one game. Do Socialisers and Killers mono-game or poly-game, or both?

It is also possible that poly-gaming is something of an inevitability; that given long enough in the MMO genre, the ability to attach to any particular title drops off, making for lighter kinds of visits to more kinds of worlds. I never started off wanting to play many – my current promiscuity just sort of happened.

Are you a mono-gamer or a poly-gamer, and what drives your pattern of gaming?

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