Sunk costs in MMORPGs

As part of my academic studies I’ve been reading about sunk costs recently (wikipedia definition) relating to whether prior investments in something affects your rational decisions made about the future. This concept got me thinking about a player’s “investment” in an MMO and how this might impact their willingness to try another or to get as invested in another.

For example World of Warcraft, despite years of speculation over “WoW-killers”, it remains the runaway behemoth of the genre. How much may this be down to the sunk cost for so many players, the years they have spent developing their characters and social groups in that game?

From my own personal experience I’ve not really settled into another game as deeply as I did for 5+ years in WoW. The depth to my gameplay experience for those years was due to a combination of immersion, familiarity, social ties and affection for my characters. Thinking about all the other MMORPGs that I’ve played since I haven’t had all four of those factors to the same level in another game yet. I may feel immersed in a game (TSW), have a good guild (DDO), a strong sense of familiarity in another (LOTRO) or strong affection for a character (e.g. my Asuran Mesmer in GW2) but not all four.

So the more we play a game the easier it is, in many ways, to go back. I’ve read in the last week several “I’m back” posts by other bloggers and these issues come up in their descriptions of fitting back into the game. Do the sunk costs of our gaming time and memories act as a barrier to joining and enjoying other, rival games to the same extent?

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One Response to Sunk costs in MMORPGs

  1. Sylow says:

    I think both is true to some extent, but the barrier is much harsher for the returning player. When you enter a new game, you generally don’t do all the research to know what you will have to research to be able to play the game in the long run. So at the start you are at the beginner zone and can enjoy the game.

    In contrast, when returning to a game which you left before, you’ll be right where you left off, usually the top end, where all the external ressources are essential. Since you’ve been away for a while, you need to use them even more than the normal player of that tier, so you’ll be forced to be outside of the game even more than the normal player. That’s a very strong incentive to not return to a game but rather find something else.

    But while that now makes it seem like the research is “only” a problem for returning players, this still falls too short. The new player might indeed have an easier start than the returning player, but the all to frequent change of “now the nice and smooth leveling game is over, welcome to the endgame, log out and research for a few hours to play it” is an existing and relevant phenomenon, which indeed drives away players. [One more point for TSW in my eyes. The skill wheel might be overwhelming for the new player, but the actual maximum of 8 abilities on the hotbar, unlike the 50+ of most other MMOs, makes a return quite smooth. All you need is one or another saved deck and you are good to go. ]

    PS: Unrelated to the topic itself: i find the four factors for different games amusing, but dare to point out that “good guild” is not limited to one game but think that you could find a good guild in almost any other MMO (with the exception for a few very toxic MMOs) if you just look for it.

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