While playing Wildstar recently, I was struck several times about how little I was invested in the story and world I was partaking in. I couldn’t name or even recognize the races of the characters I was dealing with, and the world itself, while attractively designed, simply didn’t draw me in. That lead me down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out why I remember some MMO worlds so fondly and others simply slip out of my mind when I log out of the game.
My first real MMO experience (aside from a short foray into EVE Online a long time ago) was, like many, World of WarCraft, so let’s begin there. I have very fond memories of that game world, and some zones – Elwynn Forest, Westfall, and Dalaran, for example – evoke strong nostalgia for me. I played the hell out of WoW, and blogged my experiences from about level 42 to 85 on Alazar for years before stopping. Part of what made WoW so memorable for me was the pacing. Pre-Cataclysm (the World of WarCraft expansion pack), leveling was more of a slow, drawn-out affair with a lot of traveling and backtracking. While tedious and repetitive, it invested me in an area for a length of time. Now you can cruise through a few zones in a long day, which is great if your goal is the end game (and admittedly, for a large, vocal portion of the MMO population, it is), but you don’t develop a tie to an area if you’re only there for an hour or so before leaving and never coming back.
That “time spent equals personal connection” equation does not always apply, however. For example, I’ve spent a large amount of time in the zones and cities of Guild Wars 2 (my current main MMO) and I still have no lasting interest in those places. Likewise, despite not particularly liking the game, Daggerfall in The Elder Scrolls Online is somewhere I felt connected to, like it was a place I cared about, despite spending considerably less time there than in I did in, say, Divinity’s Reach in Guild Wars 2. So there’s more to this equation than just time. Another factor is immersion; how invested are you in the characters, the story, and its history.
I never really cared about the plight of Guild Wars 2’s Tyria or Champion’s Online’s Millennium City, but I had a passing interest in World of WarCraft’s Azeroth from its RTS roots and I’ve been exploring The Elder Scrolls Online’s Tameriel for years in various games. This kind of emotional connection cannot be forged strictly in an MMO; there’s just not enough time for the kind of personal content required. You also cannot expect your players to invest time in reading novels or comics or watching videos to develop this connection. It’s either there or it’s not. However, this throws another large monkey wrench into the equation: where does my lack of interest in the worlds from Star Wars: The Old Republic fall in all of this?
I spent a chunk of time in SWTOR, and I am definitely familiar with the Star Wars universe, growing up a Star Wars fan in the ’80s, but it has never stuck with me. Here is the last part of the equation. So far we have “time spent plus back story interest equals personal connection,” so let’s add the caveat, “assuming the world is fun to the player.” If you’re not really enjoying the game, it doesn’t matter how much you play, or how much you can relate to the game world and its story, you’re not going to have any positive lasting memories from the experience. On the flip side, if you’re enjoying yourself, you can overlook some story and world unfamiliarity.
Let’s make our final equation, “assuming the player is having fun, time spent plus back story interest equals personal connection, whereas fun plus time minus back story interest equals personal enjoyment.” After all, not all games require you to forge strong memories. MMOs – nay, games in general – are intended as fun, so you can enjoy one without it producing lasting memories. This equation can be worked into most any genre, but I feel it’s most appropriate here. It’s part of what makes an MMO so interesting – they can be experienced differently by 100 different players, and they can all get something worthwhile out of it.