Perhaps you’ve done it yourself: ragequitting an MMO. After all, falling in love with an online game is something that happens to many of us. As you spend many hours in the MMO of your choice and the years progress, things will inevitably change, and not always in a direction you like. Where did the magic go? You may have written several threads with your concerns on the official forum. You may have included suggestions that would fix the game for you, but it all falls on deaf ears.
The changes you dread so much are still happening and suddenly you realise that logging in makes you feel frustrated rather than happy. This may be the time to “hit them where it hurts”, unsub and logout of the game for the last time. You write a final angry note on the forum and never look back. But did your actions indeed have any effect on the direction of your MMO? This is the question I want to tackle in this article.
A ‘success story’: Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)
The direct inspiration for this topic is a recent case in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR). Ragequitting players seem to have played a vital role in the 180 degree change of course in its reward system this spring. Although SWTOR’s last two expansions have been somewhat of a unique case, focusing on cinematic storytelling exclusively, the game as a whole is an MMO with a traditional setup: a core game with leveling content and expansions that raise the level cap and add new endgame group content.
Historically, SWTOR has been surprisingly gear and alt friendly compared to some of the other titles out there. In the past, I’ve recommended the MMO to friends that were looking for a new raiding experience, because it was quick to get to level cap and easy to gear up with the help of knowledgeable guild members. This all was about to change with the introduction of a game changing feature: SWTOR’s Galactic Command system.
In the autumn of 2016, SWTOR rolled out this system as part of their expansion Knights of the Eternal Throne (KOTET). Players were wary and critical from the start. Galactic Command introduced three tiers of gear, divided over 300 ranks, available to level capped (70) players with an active subscription only. Participating in activities would grant command experience (CXP) that would allow players to increase in rank. Each rank, a command crate was earned that had a low chance to drop a piece of random gear. Traditional sources of gear, such as raid bosses, did no longer drop any.
Bioware’s argument for Galactic Command was that it would streamline the gearing process and would allow players that do not participate in group content to gain gear. However, the SWTOR community recognised the system as an enormous gear treadmill that was more frustrating than fun because of the random nature of its rewards. The outcry was enormous, and several things happened at once.
First off, the new reward system seemed to radically steer player behaviour in the game. Rather than participate in traditional content such as flashpoints (small group content) and operations (raids), players resorted to slaughtering great numbers of gold star mobs because they awarded more CXP per minute. Players were constantly looking for the fastest way to gain CXP and the developers could only wait for a new way to game the system to pop up before plugging the leaks, much like a futile game of whack-a-mole.
Secondly, the introduction of a huge gear treadmill in an otherwise respected MMO did not go unnoticed in the MMO scape. Massively OP awarded SWTOR with the not too prestigious “worst business model of 2016” title. Galactic Command completely overshadowed the main content of the expansion: the cinematic conclusion of the story that had started with the previous expansion in 2015. And finally, there were the rage quitters: great masses of players, some loyal fans from the first hour, emptied their hearts on the forum and ended their subscriptions.
The trouble with numbers
I want to briefly pause my account to acknowledge the thing that makes judging these cases tricky. I write “masses of players”, but a problematic factor is that we generally don’t know how many exactly, as that’s information game designers are not willing to make public. Obviously, numbers do matter. If one player ragequits, it won’t have much effect at all. It is something that happens every day. But if many players leave the game at the same time, it sends a message.
In the case of SWTOR, I can only go by my gut feeling and what I hear from other players around me. My impression is that never before in the history of SWTOR have so many people unsubbed at once, except for in the months after its launch in 2012. Most people would know at least one player personally that quit because of galactic command. Also interesting is that people would quit all over the casual-hardcore spectrum, so it wasn’t just one specific type of player that threw in the towel. Galactic Command was universally disliked.
So what happened then? Over the course of half a year, SWTOR’s developers made small tweaks and changes to Galactic Command that made gear more accessible. For most people that quit, this wasn’t enough, as it didn’t change anything to the core system of getting gear at level cap: through RNG only. In February 2017, a particularly out of touch tweet enthusiastically announced 100 more command ranks to grind. The announcement invoked a second huge outrage among SWTOR players.
Take your rule of the galaxy to new heights this spring.
100 new Galactic Command levels and exciting new gear rewards, on the way! pic.twitter.com/cyfqqZhDDf
— The Old Republic (@SWTOR) February 26, 2017
In the end of that same week, far reaching changes were announced to gearing that effectively rolled back time. Gear would drop from raid bosses again; the last boss would even drop two. Raid gear was buffed to drop a higher tier and would always be ‘gold’ (the rare version that could drop from command crates). On top of this, Galactic Command still rewarded players with crates that were buffed to drop more useful gear more frequently. Overall, gearing in SWTOR has never been as easy as of today.
I’ve put forward SWTOR here as an example of ‘ragequitting done right’: although grudgingly so, its developers eventually listened to its players. Many MMOs have experienced similarly defining moments in their life, moments in which its developers endeavoured to reinvent the wheel. The more I look for examples of successful ‘ragequitting campaigns’ by players, though, the more I find the opposite: MMOs that changed anyway, and suffered the consequences.
When developers don’t listen: Lord of the Rings Online
One such MMO is Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO). LOTRO celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and has experienced several defining moments throughout its lifespan: from its launch in 2007 and its re-release as a free-to-play game in 2010, to its far reaching class changes with the Helm’s Deep expansion in 2013. Both 2010 and 2013 turned out to be defining moments in the MMO’s player base.
The implementation of free-to-play LOTRO in 2010 made some old time players leave, but as it also brought a steady influx of new players to the game, so it is not surprising that this ragequit wave did not have much of an effect. In a way, the free-to-play system was also a reaction to ragequitters (although not quite the response leaving players had in mind): before its implementation, people had already begun unsubbing due to being disappointed with its previous expansion, Siege of Mirkwood.
Helm’s Deep was a different story, though. The 2013 expansion featured radical changes to long-established class mechanics. First off, skill trees were introduced, and designed in a way that heavily discouraged many classes’ formerly ubiquitous hybrid builds. Secondly, all nine classes were completely revamped, ‘dumbed down’, if you will. Tons of skills were removed in order to make the game more accessible to new players. As a result, many felt like completely different classes: a huge turnoff for old time players who had grown to love their class over the course of six years. Add the initial bugs and clunky combat and it will be no surprise many of these players ragequit.
In contrast to SWTOR’s Galactic Command uproar, however, this player reaction was completely ignored by the developers, who stood by their changes. Although no official subscriber numbers have been released, it does look like ragequitters have had a lasting effect on the health of the MMO: after 2013, no new expansions were released; instead, game development has focused on smaller landscape and quest updates and in 2015, the number of available game servers was reduced from 29 to 10. Although the MMO still holds a nostalgic spot in the hearts of many old time players, LOTRO is no longer regarded as the triple-A MMO it once was. Nowadays, it is mostly played by casual free-to-players and endgame revolves around a shallow grind for essence gear.
The ultimate sob story: Star Wars Galaxies
But if you think LOTRO’s story is sad, then I present to you: Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). Released in 2003, SWG initially launched with a lot of bugs, but nevertheless managed to attract a respectable (for its time) estimate of 300,000 subscribers. But then World of Warcraft (WoW) released in 2004 and dwarfed that number.
Behind the scenes, SWG’s developers worked on a completely revamped version of the game that would effectively simplify the MMO by reducing the amount of available classes from 34 to 9 and replace its turn based combat with fast paced action. These changes, referred to as New Game Enhancements, were meant to attract a different, larger player base; one more like WoW, one could say. But it completely disregarded its core population of gamers that enjoyed SWG’s original skill progression and complicated character builds. What didn’t help was that these far reaching changes were announced a mere two weeks before release, and were initially riddled with bugs.
The New Game Enhancements produced an unparalleled outcry among the player base. Many players experienced the updates as something that changed their characters’ identity and their surrounding virtual world to its core. The commotion over an online game even reached the ears of traditional offline media and, over time, became an example of how not to redesign MMOs.
Letters by ragequitting SWG players addressed to George Lucas give a unique insight into how a change in game design emotionally affected players. “Ragequitting” might not even be the appropriate word: someone working in the health-care industry recognized the emotions displayed by SWG players as “death-in-the-family-type grieving”.
The New Game Enhancements did not bring the influx of players the game developers had hoped. In retrospect, this was often attributed to its loss of flavour: what made it so successful initially was its uniqueness in the MMO-scape. Instead, SWG silently sunk into oblivion, until officially closed in 2012 to make space for SWTOR.
It makes one wonder what would’ve happened to SWTOR if it would’ve clung to its Galactic Command system as originally implemented. Did, in a twisted turn of events, SWTOR only succeed because it learned from its predecessor’s mistakes?
Conclusion: ragequitting as a strategy to steer MMO game design
I obviously haven’t been able to revisit every case of players ragequitting all MMOs out there. However, from what we’ve seen, historical cases do not exactly give off positive vibes for ragequitting as a viable strategy to influence MMO game design. When game developers want to implement far reaching changes that affect the core experience of the MMO, they generally seem stand by their decisions. Whether they listen to the playerbase seems rather arbitrary from a gamer’s perspective.
Cases that had real impact always included players of all types (casual – endgame) being outraged over a change. If only one type of player dislikes a change, developers seem eager to dismiss this type of player and cater to an audience that does like, or is indifferent to, the new style instead. Naturally, ragequitting only has an effect when done in great numbers at a time. Finally, it also matters whether developers have learned from historical examples, such as SWG.
This does not mean that it’s a bad idea to ragequit a game, per se. When an MMO affects you negatively to a point beyond repair, it may be healthiest for you, as a person, to let go. If you are very attached to this hypothetical MMO, you may have to suffer through various stages of grief, but eventually you can find peace in that things are as they are. We have seen that forming social connections and memories in a virtual world can create a strong attachment that is not unlike the loss of a friend or family member when taken away. In this respect, it is not surprising that ragequitting players often leave an angry note behind when unsubbing: anger is one of the emotions in the stages of grief and it is considered a healthy thing to express it rather than bottle it up.
So does ragequitting an MMO work? It is effective for the person who does it, on an individual level, to deal with the emotions that come out when experiencing loss. Whether it will influence the course of the game’s design, however, remains to be seen.