The migratory patterns of MMO gamers

Darnassus is a little quieter these days, as are Silverwood and Galtrev. The virtual watering holes are changing once again.

The latest and greatest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (abbreviated as MMORPG or MMO) on the block is "Star Wars: The Old Republic."  And according to unscientific numbers based on crowdsourcing from gamers, even since the beta of  this much anticipated game was released, some of the other major MMOs - including "World of Warcraft," ("WoW") "Rift" and "Lord of the Rings Online" ("LOTRO") - have seen a steady decline in player activity.

In December, people from my guild in "LOTRO" excitedly discussed what kinds of "Star Wars" characters they’d like to play as the "Star Wars: The Old Republic" launch date loomed. Soon after, several of them left "LOTRO" to play the new game full-time, even some of the officers and the guild founder.

I watched my “logged in friends” panel get smaller and smaller and wondered if they would come back or if they had moved on for good.

Players switching games isn’t uncommon - as trends come and go, so do the crowds of adoring fans. But any record of their movement from game to game is still something of a secret.

In the months leading up to the release, "WoW" saw a dip in its subscription numbers from 12 million down to 10.3 million.  Yes, 10.3 million is still a substantial amount of subscribers for any game. By comparison, the last subscriber numbers listed for "Rift" were just over 1 million. Yet when "Star Wars: The Old Republic" launched, it did so with a subscriber base of 1 million.

Those statistics don't exactly show who's moving where in the MMO world. It doesn't help that game developers like to play subscription numbers close to the vest. Jim Drewry and Adam Mersky, the vice president of digital publishing and director of digital communications, respectively, for Warner Bros. Entertainment (the company that owns "LOTRO" and whose parent company, Time Warner also owns CNN), laughed when asked about their subscription specifics.

“We’ll just say we’re huge, but we don’t really share too much in the way of numbers. We are adding new players every day.”

Gaming companies know that players will move on for new games. “We know players don’t stay ‘married’ to one game anymore," Drewry said.  "These days, players float between games more and more, but what we’re seeing is that when they come back, they usually bring friends with them.”

With social media, gamers can interact with each other and reps from their favorite games in ways they never could before, even five years ago. Mersky says gaming companies such as Turbine are “constantly evolving how to communicate with people in ways like Twitter and Facebook. It’s no longer just going to the forums.”

Twitter stats portray this very real change in how gamers interact with the games they play: "WoW" has 177K followers, "LOTRO": 25K, "Rift": 27K and "Star Wars: The Old Republic": 156K.

Cameron Cockman, a longtime gamer known as Brushfire, is one of those social, migrating gamers. For almost the last decade, he moved from MMO to MMO with some of the same people, most recently from "LOTRO" to "Star Wars: The Old Republic." He attributes community as a main draw of new games.

“If I buy a console game, I can play that until I’ve (accomplished) everything (in the game).  With an MMO, even if I’ve done everything, I still have friends and people I’ve met to keep me coming back.," Cockman said.

"I’ve always said, you buy an MMO for the game mechanics, but you keep playing because of the people.”

People build relationships in MMOs through running the same quests, joining a guild or hanging out in the same areas of the game. Players might start in a beta version of a game together and choose an MMO server based on the suggestion of people they’ve never even met in real life. Following the lead of someone who may have befriended you while you were collecting rat tails or looking for a particular treasured object is a unique situation that exists in MMOs.

I’m as guilty of changing games as anyone else.  I’ve tried several of the major MMOs and most recently started playing "Star Wars: The Old Republic."  I am still very active in "LOTRO" (I’m a Founder and have a lifetime subscription), but as strange as it might sound, it feels different in "LOTRO now." The surroundings are the same, the quests are the same, but because I no longer have the same camaraderie of my longtime questing partners, it’s a bit empty.

Mersky and Drewry are keenly aware of the social aspect of MMOs. They’ve seen people meet and get married in the game, among other things.  "We’ve had people pass away in real life, and players will hold funerals for their character.  The relationship gets deeper as people play the game,” Mersky said.

So the questions arose in my mind: Can you play two MMOs and still have time for other things in life? If not, what does the choice come down to?  Do you play the game that you’ve been playing and that you know well, or do you strike off into a brave new world to spend time with your friends? What is more important to you, content or friendship?

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