Update: Added a bit to my paragraph on subscription games to clarify the point I was trying to make. Keen also has a fair response that acts as a good counter-point.
A while back, Keen coined the term “3-monther” in regards to MMOs. It’s apt and pretty darn descriptive of how MMOs players tend to move from game to game. When taken figuratively, it’s an answer to a question we all ask: Does this game have legs? Or perhaps more accurately, can this game be my new home? When a game is a 3-monther that answer is no and that this isn’t the “one.” The problem with the term is that when it’s taken literally, the answer never changes. Every game is a 3-monther. I’d like to look at why that is.
The first thing to look at is who we’re asking. When a blogger makes a declarative statement like “yes, this is a 3-monther,” even when they hoped it wouldn’t be, nobody should be surprised. A blogger isn’t a player, they’re a commentator. It is in their nature to look at things with a critical eye and pick them apart. Players don’t do that — at least not in the same way. It’s also in their nature to always look forward, to see promise and to seek excitement. So when a blogger gets 90 days, that’s actually a pretty good sign. When they’re sharing the game’s problems and are ready to move on, take it to heart, sure, but it’s also probably a good idea to recognize a few things. 1) They probably hit the game pretty hard (harder than it was meant to be hit?); 2) They’re most likely not the target audience anyway; and 3) They’re looking for something most of them will never ever find again.
On these points. One, normal players do not play for two hours a day, every day. They do not buy each new MMO just to compare it to the last. There is a reason things have become more casual and it’s not because the hardcore is increasing in numbers. Two, since most bloggers aren’t all that casual, there’s a good chance the content was designed for someone decidedly less hardcore than themselves. And three, like anyone hooked on anything, they are always trying to relive those first experiences. It won’t happen. What they’re looking for is a way to make everything new again with years of experience sitting in their back pocket. Sound likely? There is a high to newness and they’ve lived it and lost it by the time they start to blog.
These also are true of many blog readers, too, which is pretty evident the more readers we all get.
When a blogger declares a game a “good 3-monther” they are actually saying it’s not the complete reinvention it’d take to be any more. What does it take to make something new again unless, well, it’s actually new? And we don’t like new, not that much; new is scary and unproven (*cough* TSW sales *cough*).
Take Guild Wars 2. Is it a fantastic game? Yes. It is also a 3-monther? You bet. The vigilant reader can actually see this happening first hand just by clicking through the links on my sidebar. People get excited by conventions being challenged because we know something’s getting stale, but when it becomes apparent that it’s actually just a game and not an answer realization sets in. And bloggers look ever forward.
The term 3-monther is apt, sure, yet it’s use also ignores that times have changed. You know what games weren’t 3-monthers? The ones you didn’t have a choice but to stick with. Mario on the NES. Everquest and Ultima and DAoC. Games of a time when there weren’t options, either by virtue of a smaller market or a smaller wallet. As it happens, a lot of bloggers are twenty-somethings like myself. When we got into this genre, we were teenagers, probably broke, and with only a few games to choose from on our dial-up internet connections. We picked one, had experiences as only teenagers can have them, and stuck with it. A decade later there are dozens, hundreds of games to choose from, and one is a whole lot like the next (compared to the differences of yore). And we have more expendable income to try them all.
We have great memories of epic yesterdays. Memories of times when guilds were brotherhoods, maps were huge, battles were fought and enemies overcome, and that these games were worlds we could feel alive in. There is truth to that but there’s also truth to this: We’re the ground floor generation. WoW introduced gen2 and they really don’t care much about “worlds” or “immersion” or this whole sandbox vs themepark debate. Everything that’s come since WoW has ushered in gen3 and they want action combat and reactivity and scale. Soloability has carried through, too, and probably always will. With such definitive clashes in expectations, it’s no wonder that no one game satisfies everyone, bloggers least of all.
Claiming a 3-monther also ignores that it’s probably okay to get a quarter year for your $60-90. If you buy a single-player game, you’re lucky to stay interested for even one month. That’s the product of having options. New games are always coming out and players will always look forward to them. What we have is yesterday’s news by the time the next game is announced. I’m okay with that. If Guild Wars 2 gives you three months of entertainment, that’s a better value than most of what you bought on your Xbox this year. Without a subscription fee, you’re free to walk away until they fix what you don’t like or add more of what you do. (And it probably means more than complaining).
Sub-games are another issue. By design, they should strive to break beyond months in terms of content generation (ala RIFT) but surely they all begin as 3-monthers. Let’s put that to the side for the moment. In this day and age, if a subscription game can still be looked at positively after 90 days, they’ve got to be providing enough new content or relying on players to keep things fresh, in which case the developers have transitioned into successful maintenance and expansion. Exactly one game has pulled that off since WoW, so it’s safe to say that modern theme parks just aren’t very good at that.
How about EVE? It may do well as a subscription game but, hey, EVE is EVE and we’re better off not comparing this herd of cows to that horse. Then again, what games aren’t 3-monthers? Those where you’re forced to engage with other players. Call of Duty, Battlefield, League of Legends, EVE … these have no definitive end because players supply the competition and motivation. Not very good news for solo players, I suppose.
Where do you find a game that’s not a 3-monther? The game with lasting power is the one where you can find a place to fit in with other players and continuously work at something. In WoW and RIFT, that’s raiding or PvP. In Guild Wars 2, it’s WvW. Maybe it’s RP for LotRO. It really doesn’t matter because the game with legs for me might be totally different for you.
No game is going to hand you the past. If you’re willing to work for it and find your niche, and can be flexible in getting there, you might just find that a game being a game is okay… and care a whole lot less when other people nitpick.