I recently read a review of Call of Duty: Black Ops, in which the reviewer estimated that the time it took to play through the single-player campaign was about 6 hours. Of course one can play the game through several times, and spend a lot of hours in the multi-player part as well. But compared to the nearly 6,000 hours I’ve played World of Warcraft for over the last 6 years, modern single-player games sure appear to be extremely short. Or, seen from the other side, the fact that MMORPGs are extremely long in comparison to other computer games seems to be one of the defining characteristics of the genre. If a reviewer of CODBlops wrote his review of the single-player part after 6 hours of gameplay, few people would complain; after all, he played the game through from start to finish. If somebody tried to review a MMORPG, saying he played it for only six hours, he’d get a lot of nasty comments telling him that it is totally impossible to judge a MMORPG in that short span of time.
Now World of Warcraft is a huge game. But whatever measure you use, be it gigabyte on your hard disk, or number of zones, WoW is not 1,000 times bigger than CODBlops. Playing through CODBlops in 6 hours will be an action-packed experience. Playing WoW for 6,000 hours by necessity will have periods of less action, as well as repeating the same content many times. The length that defines MMORPGs makes repetition and slow periods unavoidable. Even the most action-packed parts of a MMORPG will be repeated many times. If you are a raider, just check your stats for how often you killed the first raid boss of a typical raid dungeon; and that’s not even counting the wipes you probably had. Over the years you’ll do thousands of rather similar quests, and kill tens of thousands of monsters in rather similar combats. And even if you switch to different MMORPGs, in most cases you’ll find yourself doing more quests, and killing more monsters, in combat systems that resemble each other a lot.
In 2009 I wrote a series of posts on Why do we play?, discussing factors of storytelling, gameplay, challenge, character development, rewards, social interactions, and learning. But all these factors together give something that could be described as “entertainment”, or even “killing time”. Unless you work for a gold farming enterprise, it is most likely that you play a MMORPG to kill time in a fun way, being entertained by the factors listed above or other game features. And that you pay for the privilege of being thus entertained. The rest is just details. Whether you play for virtual rewards, for social status among other players, or for feeling leet is ultimately not important, those are just different ways of deriving entertainment from a game.
The worst case scenario for playing a MMORPG is spending a lot of time without gaining any entertainment value. Unfortunately that isn’t always possible to avoid. If for example your main entertainment interest lies in end-game activities like PvP or raids, you’ll have to spend time to level up your character, even if leveling up is something you enjoy less. If, on the other hand, leveling up is what you enjoy, and you don’t like PvP or multi-player PvE, you’ll find your enjoyment of your character diminished when he hits the level cap. MMORPGs are full of “to do this, you first have to do that” chains of activities. Many of the rewards handed out by a MMORPG are in fact keys to other activities, and so players frequently find themselves doing something they might not thoroughly enjoy, just to gain access to the rewards opening up content they do enjoy.
It is well worth to stop sometimes, and spend time to think about what you really want. The chains of activities leading to other activities pose a major danger: Putting the game on rails, which players follow, sometimes without thinking. It is easy enough to map out the steps necessary, for example in World of Warcraft, from creating a level 1 character to killing the game’s current final raid boss. Most of the steps are a purely mathematical problem, with a given theorycraft solution for maximum efficiency, and ample documentation advising you on that optimal path. What is not possible to predict for any given player is whether that path is the one of maximum overall fun. What if it turns out that in fact you don’t enjoy raiding all that much, or that killing the game’s final raid boss only gives you 5 minutes worth of satisfaction, having cost you hundreds of hours of activities you didn’t enjoy?
Once you realize that the overall goal is killing time, or being entertained, you can have a look at the factors I mentioned above on why we play. How much does each of these factors contribute to your own, personal entertainment? How much preparatory activity does each of these goals require, and how much do you like or dislike these necessary activities? It is possible to chart a path through a game, or even through a series of many different games, which would maximize entertainment value and fun. But that path is highly individual, and you can’t find a theorycrafted solution for maximum efficiency for your personal path of maximum enjoyment. Solutions like “play several alts” or “switch between several games” can well contribute for you to enjoy MMORPGs more, in spite of not being on the theorycrafted optimum path for maximum leetness and efficiency.
Of course your path is usually not something you can plan out long in advance. A big part of it is just trying out new things, and to see how much you enjoy them. For example I do like the new archeology activity in Cataclysm, but I’m certainly not going to level it on more than one character, and I still need to decide for how long I want to pursue it, before the activity becomes so boring that it isn’t worth the potential epic rewards any more. And with raiding changing so much in every expansion, I have to re-decide every time how much raiding I want to do this time.
I might not have the most efficient or most consistent path of advancement through World of Warcraft, having tried a bit of everything at various times, having played numerous alts, and having taken breaks to explore other games. But the overall effect is that I don’t regret the nearly 6,000 hours I spent in this game. It was time I had available, without taking sacrifices in my personal or professional life, and WoW was a good way to kill that time. I see so many players calling their time spent in a game “work” or “grind”, that I believe not regretting the time you spent in a game is already a goal not everybody reaches. I can’t tell you how you’ll get there, but I’d sure advise you to find your own path, and mistrust the readily available “most efficient” option.