Player Life-Cycle

In a recent open-ended set of questions, I asked players whether their motivations for playing MMOs had changed over time. Initially, I was interested in seeing whether certain motivations tended to lead into others as a player spent more time in a particular game. For example, do achievement-oriented players become more and more competitive as they get tired of PvE elements and turn towards PvP?

As I started going through the player narratives, it became clear that many players do go through changes in why they play over time, but that it was more complicated than simply one motivation turning into another. For example, the following are very typical of the "play trajectories" that respondents described:

In the beginning, I was excited to discover new things and was mostly playing solo and loving it. Later I was more drawn to instances and having a fun guild. Now I have come to a point where what I want is to be in a 'serious' guild in order to do high end instances and raids, as well as hone my PvP skills and participate in PvP competitively. [WoW, M, 25]

I first started playing WoW because my husband wanted me to try it out. To my surprise, I actually liked it. I quickly learned that I was very good at making money and I really liked loot. I also started out as a solo player. Now we play together and are always grouped. I used to never do dungeons and now we have a group that does one every Friday night. [WoW, F, 30]

These narratives often blurred the boundaries between well-defined motivation categories, yet at the same time, it was clear that a general trajectory among players was being hinted at. Moreover, there were several points in this trajectory that many players described in very similar ways. Thus, it made sense to abandon framing what was happening as motivation changes and to think about the narratives more broadly as player life-cycles or play trajectories.

In the following pages, I'll lay out what the full trajectory looks like, from entry to burnout and possible return. It's important though to realize that many of the linkages of the trajectory are dependent on the game and how easy it is for players to move through different parts of the trajectory. And of course, many players drop out of a game without going through the entire trajectory because there wasn't enough to keep them going.


The Entry Stage

Newcomer Euphoria

There are two main entry clusters. The first cluster is the typical new-comer who generally describes their game-play in terms of unlimited potential and the euphoria of being in a whole new world. Oftentimes, elements of advancement and exploration are repeated throughout their descriptions, but in general these early play styles tend to be undifferentiated and more driven by novelty rather than a focus on achievement (for example).

Originally, the motivation for playing the game spawned from the novelty factor and sheer size of the world to explore ... something new around every corner ... new discoveries, new races or classes to try out, new quests / zones / instances ... [WoW, M, 31]

When I started playing (this was my first MMORPG by the way), I was content to run around questing with my little pink-haired gnome mage. I though she was so cute, and collecting those 8 boar ribs and 4 bear pelts was so much fun! [WoW, F, 25]

What has always drawn me to video games has been the prospect of entering an entirely new universe. I've always loved figuring out the new battle system, trekking across the new landscape, or taking part in some new story. [WoW, F, 17]

Playing with a Friend/Partner

The second main entry cluster revolves around playing the game to be with a friend or a romantic partner. Players in this category typically state that being with their friend/partner, rather than playing the game itself, is their primary motivation. More often than not, this changes as they experience more of the game.

My initial motivation in buying the game and playing it was to spend time with real life friends who had become obsessed with World of Warcraft. We used to chat online every night and they all disappeared into the game. Buying it myself was the only way I could talk to them online! [WoW, F, 37]

I started playing WoW mostly as a chance to reconnect with college gaming friends of mine, since we were all in the military and separated over great distances. [WoW, M, 29]

I started to play World of Warcraft because my boyfriend got me a Beta account and got me interested in it. We were searching for an activity we could do together over the internet since we have to overcome a large distance and don't see another often in real time due to this. We got my brother and a friend of us interested in the game as well and played together since that time. So the main motivation at the beginning was to do something together, spend time with another and have fun. [WoW, F, 23]


The Practice Stage

Ramping Up / Progress

The initial exploration and discovery stage helps players learn the ropes of the game. As they explore more and more of the world (in terms of both geography and mechanics), they start seeing and understanding the boundaries of the game. These boundaries also highlight the game's mechanics and many players then drift into progression-oriented game-play. Either they realize that they need to advance to explore further or progression makes more sense now that the boundaries have been made clear.

The initial reason for playing is the same: exploration. I want to see new landscapes, new monsters, new characters and new challenges. As play continues the main goal becomes achievement: how much gold can I acquire, what's the best gear and how do I get it or can I defeat the toughest boss in the dungeon? [WoW, M, 36]

When I fist start an MMO I find that I will play because you get to discover new things. After that it is more striving for better stats. [GW, M, 16]

In the beginning it was just for fun, but now it's is more because I want to progress, wanna be the best in in the class, be able to make the best items, be highest lvl. In others words I guess it's that I want the other people to look up at me like that guy is good. [M, 19]

Joining Groups and Guilds

Typically, at this stage, players start to understand the value of grouping up with others. Whereas many players tend to favor solo play early on, they come to see that being in a group or a guild is either valuable or necessary due to a variety of game mechanics.

I used to play to occupy my time; I mostly solo'd and didn't care about being part of a group. Now I like to be a cog in a bigger machine and help a group achieve goals. [EQ, F, 60]

I started to play the game and quickly became involved in leveling my character up as soon as possible, getting the best items and gear which was possible. When I approached the end game content and was nearing a point where it was very difficult to progress any further, I realised that joining a guild was the only way forward. To my surprise, but ultimate joy - I realise that the REAL game in warcraft for me was the social interaction and friendships I made, the teamwork - the camaraderie. I became less and less interested in progressing my character further and instead started enjoying the social dynamics of the game. [WoW, M, 27]

When I started playing, I was only interested in exploring, figuring out how things worked. I hardly ever talked to anyone. Over time I started to talk to people around me, until eventually I did little *besides* talking to people, running a tavern nearly day-to-day for several months. [PlaneShift, M, 26]


The Mastery Stage

Staying for Friends / Casual Guilds

A variety of things can happen after the initial taste of the treadmill. More often than not, this stage in of game-play provides a comfortable landing spot. Many players start getting tired of the leveling grind but have established stable friendships which become the focus of their game-play. In other words, these players are mainly staying in the game for other players. This was the most common ending point in players' narratives.

I ended up playing WoW for nearly 3 years straight, not because of constant new content, but because I formed relationships with my guild-mates that I valued enough to keep logging on every day. [WoW, F, 17]

However, I realized I was going back for the friends I had made ... As part of an adult casual gamers guild, I found myself in a similar place in life as my guild mates with regard to work, marriage, kids, etc ... and continuing with the game for the social aspects as well. [WoW, M, 31]

I now play because of the social aspect. The guild I ended up in led to these changes, as I play with a couple real life friends. Over time I developed some very close relationships with people in my guild and my motivations for playing have now remained very constant. [WoW, F, 24]

The whole reason I continued to play, even after my good friend went on to other games, was probably the fact that I spent so much time playing it already and also the friendships I made. [Ragnarok Online, F, 16]

High-End Content / Raiding Guilds

Players who love the experience of leveling and progression may find it natural to pursue the next step up via a serious raiding guild. It is typically via the raiding experience that players begin to gain access to more exclusive content or gear. High-end gear is now within reach. Thus, status and prestige elements start becoming more important. And even players in casual guilds may find themselves engaging in more and more complex raiding activities due to the progression of the guild or more serious players in the guild.

I was a fairly casual player for quite some time, until I discovered raiding. I became extremely passionate and competitive about raiding. I would tell myself it was just because I wanted to see the content ... but if I'm going to be honest, it was more for the feeling of importance that I was getting from the game, from being in a leadership position, from being in a top guild. I was addicted to that feeling. [WoW, F, 26]

I would say I'm a fairly hardcore raider (4-6 nights a week) and I'm not sure how I made that huge leap as when I was leveling up for the first time I found the thought of doing the same place more than a couple of times in hope that an item would drop to be absurd. [WoW, M, 18]

WoW's initial appeal was the 'new game', and small groups (with friends). As we have all progressed through WoW, our focus has shifted back to endgame content (and the challenges of organizing larger groups of people for raids, etc). [WoW, M, 32]

Later I was more drawn to instances and having a fun guild. Now I have come to a point where what I want is to be in a 'serious' guild in order to do high end instances and raids. [WoW, M, 25]


Social Leadership

For others, the knowledge and social connections they have in the game encourage them to take on roles that impact or guide their guild or community. Like the players who are in casual guilds, these players enjoy the socializing, but they see that they themselves can play a role in shaping the social interactions in the game.

In City of Heroes there's a few guilds which exist solely for altruistic purposes, helping other players with regular transportation needs and generally as guides/helpers when asked, and I'm the founder, perhaps leader emeritus of one of the most well known. I never could have foreseen doing that, it just sort of happened gradually, and I do enjoy it. [CoH, M, 34]

Initially I liked to play because I liked interacting with other people to achieve common goals, and I really liked chatting with people and getting to know them. Later on, I started a Guild geared more towards the lower end players so that they had a place where they could learn, etc. So a big part of my enjoyment in game is helping people out, showing them how to do things, etc. [EQ, F, 37]

I'm more social than before, and have taken up leadership positions in my guild, though I'm not the biggest power - I prefer to be the Emminence Gris, the elder statesman, the cooler head, the arbiter and peace-maker, rather than the actual person in charge. My leadership position isn't based upon my playing ability (which is, frankly, pretty damn good), but upon the way I act as glue in the guild, holding things together. I like that, rather a lot. [GW, M, 43]

At first it was just to play a game, meet new people, and learn more about myself. Now my motivations have changed a lot, as I am a two-time guild leader. I have realized thru kalonline, that I am an idealist, and will stick to my core values of honor, kindness and integrity. Those 3 words that are the purpose of any guild I lead. That is my motivation, to not only be an example of honor, but to be a good man, friend, father figure to others, so that they have a model of what kind of person they can be. [KalonOnline, M, 44]

PvP / Competition

And finally, while many low-level characters are afraid of PvP, a moderate degree of game mastery lowers the threshold for engaging in PvP. While many players expressed their own surprise at enjoying PvP, they tended to agree that PvP offered the excitement of a human opponent once the PvE grind lost its thrill. In many games, PvP also tends to be the only thing left for players who have reached the level cap but aren't in a raiding guild.

I would never have considered PvP, but adding the unpredictability of another human to the mix adds thrills and high tense moments. [WoW, M, 45]

When I first started playing Everquest II shortly after it came out (and World of Warcraft only recently), my main motivation for advancement was experiencing new content -- exploration, questing. Now I have high level characters in both games, and my main motivation has shifted to the 'new end game', PvP. [EQ2, M, 29]

PvP has been my greatest surprise. By far my preferred style of multi-player action is co-operative play against a computer opponent, but I've learned to appreciate the adrenaline rush associated with playing against a human opponent, perhaps because every situation is difficult to grasp, and unpredictable compared to encounters with scripted resistance. [WoW, M, 21]


The Burnout Stage

Grind Burnout

Whether for solo players or players in guilds, the gear-drop or XP grind oftentimes stops being fun. In many cases, it takes players a while to realize that the grinding is no longer enjoyable. They suddenly sit back and ask themselves, "oh - what's the point?"

After a few months at 60, frustrated with running Strat and Scholo over and over again, I was starting to lose interest in the game. [WoW, F, 37]

After getting a character to maximum level, I realized it was just a grind and promptly lost interest. [WoW, M, 30]

Whenever we were online we did dungeon runs, sometimes spending whole Sundays redoing dungeons to get the set pieces. There wasn't any fun involved anymore. [WoW, F, 23]

Social Obligations Burnout

Players in more serious guilds also burnout, but this tends to be from the social obligations and work-like consequences of raiding. What used to be fun with a group of friends has become a logistical nightmare fraught with stress and anxiety.

But by the time I was 50, the game was too focused on the 'grind' to 60- the game required 20-40 players in raids- and the elitism, and classism of the players, just made it no fun. You could not achieve anything without massive support of some player group- and if you were in such a group (guild etc) - they expected the game to be a full time job. It was a burnout. [WoW, M, 53]

The game has lost most of its luster and adventure because I only log on to raid now. I miss the 'good old days' of exploring and knowing every quest. Back then I felt as though I was personally improving myself through solo quests and group quests. It feels more like a job now that almost all I do in the game is raid. Any non-raid time is spent in mandatory quests to gain access to raid encounters. I feel like I am a couple expansions behind now. I get frustrated at the game a lot more. [EQ, F, 26]

When we became the max level, we participated in raids and joined a high end guild. The game became a job. It lost that feeling we originally played for - the raw fun, questing and exploring new areas, advancing characters. We noticed the game wasn't about that any more. It was only fueled by greedy intentions guild members possessed. [WoW, M, 18]



Some players try to get around the high-level grind by re-rolling a new character as soon as they hit max-level. They want to feel the sense of progress and exploration again, and the closest thing they can do is to create a new character.

In fact, when whatever character I'm playing gets to the level cap, I abandon it and start a new one. Raiding for loot just seems sterile and pointless to me. I just enjoy developing a character and exploring its world. [WoW, F, 50]

Although it has been boring, I've tried to satisfy my need for something new by creating alts, but in the end, the thrill of discovery has gone. [WoW, F, 17]

Now I've played through all the missions at least 3 or 4 times with multiple alts, I've set myself different goals. To finish (get to level 50) with one of each archetype, even the ones I don't like playing. [CoH, M, 37]

Nothing Left to Do

And finally, a very few players make it through all the grinding and much of the raiding, but then find that there isn't anything left in the game to do and they have no desire to re-roll.

The same cities seem so different from the first time you go through them to the hundredth time you ran through it. Now, that I have reached the level cap on two characters at the time being its quite different. Now everything is the same, boring and dull. As I'm finishing up most of my quest and have two epic flying mounts already I am running out of things to do when no one wants to instance. Basically its log on, do something hopefully for a while then raid. Basically I just ran out of places to explore and things to do. [GW, M, 18]


The Recovery Stage

End-Game Casual

For players who burned out on the grind or the raiding, some are able to find a more casual re-entry into the game. Knowing the situations and guilds that tend to make the game more work than fun, they consciously steer clear of them and make sure that the time they spend in the game is enjoyable rather than stressful.

I'm currently back in a casual guild, with friends, and perfectly content to be there. I don't seek the same kind of personal validation that I had been, I simply enjoy the time I spend playing - and the game is back to being simply a part of my life, not consuming it. [WoW, F, 26]

I still enjoy PvP but now I approach it with a more laid-back attitude. I don't care to have all the best gear as I've accepted the fact that I don't want to put that much time or effort into the game. In doing so, I enjoy the entire game more. [WoW, M, 30]

I totally quit for about 2 months -- the guild took a big loss as other people left as well -- and I have recently started playing again on average 1-2 hours a night just to socialize/quest/BG with the few friends still on-line and see a bit of the expanding content. I no longer feel the need to have epic gear, or be extremely competitive, and have no desire to be in a leadership role. [WoW, M, 25]

I was in a raiding guild, but felt it was so overly serious. Finally, I've joined a guild that I am happy with. They are very tight-knit, have a lot of high level players, all are over 18, and everyone goes out of their way to help others. They also do some endgame, but have no DKP, and raiding is just not the be-all and end-all of their existence. They even have a joke rank called 'linktard'. [WoW, F, 44]


General Observations

As I mentioned earlier, the full trajectory isn't something that every player goes through. It's a rough map of the potential player lifecycle. Oftentimes, players drop out in earlier parts of the trajectory, and many players who burn out don't recover.

While the lifecycle stages seem to hint at certain well-known player motivations, this is not to say that player motivations are strictly defined by the stages. Instead, the most sensible way of thinking about this is that motivations interact with the stages. For example, an introvert at a party may appear more outgoing than an extravert in a classroom, but personality and situation are still independent concepts. In the same way, a player in the Mastery stage may appear more social than a player in the Practice stage even though their underlying motivations may be the same.

There were several other interesting trends.

Broadening Play Motivations

It was interesting to see over and over again how players began to enjoy play styles they weren't interested in when starting the game, whether this was players discovering the joy of PvP or getting into higher and higher level raids.

While we hear more and more often that it's other people that keep players in the game, it's also important to understand that those social groups also come to have a role in pushing players along the trajectory.

I never thought I would belong to a guild, much less wind up being guild leader. I always said I didn't care about my epic; now I'm working on my 2.0. I never wanted to raid. Now I raid three days a week. I think it's because my friends in the game have all moved in that direction and I want to be with them. [EQ, F, 60]

Switching Gears

Of course, the trajectory differs by game depending on the game mechanics and in particular how easy it is for players to "switch gears". For example, if PvP is only available on a different server, then it's very difficult for a player to explore the competitive aspects of game-play, whereas designated PvP areas on an otherwise PvE server (such as in DAoC or WoW) provide an easy shift to PvP.

Landing Spot and the Slippery Slope to Burnout

There were two consistent patterns worth noting. One was the comfortable "landing spot" that the casual guilds provided for players who found the grind boring but had developed enough of a social network to maintain interest in logging in the game. Many players ended their narratives by describing that landing spot. They didn't see the need to grind endlessly and were perfectly happy where they were.

The second pattern was that players moving beyond that landing spot had either recently discovered serious raiding or guild leadership, or more commonly, were expressing the symptoms or past experience of burning out. This burn out seems almost inevitable as the rewards from high-end raiding (or leading a large guild) require a disproportionately higher amount of effort that isn't appealing to all but very serious players.