I was never going to admit this, because I am deeply ashamed of it, but I have spent almost a year now playing an aging non-MMO browser game called eRepublik. My avatar there, Xander Kross, has made something of a name for himself in eCanadian politics, making friends and enemies (generally more enemies than friends), serving a term as president of his political party, acting as an advisor on the current eCanadian president's cabinet, and generally being a miserable, disagreeable, blatantly-partisan fascist hawk in what is essentially little more than a Skinner box with political roleplaying glued to it.
The reason I admit my shameful secret is because I am actually more invested into eRepublik than I am into a lot of the big shiny MMO titles kicking around right now. Not necessarily financially invested - though I have spent some money on it - but more in terms of emotional commitment.
It's not the only game to which I have found myself profoundly committed. The Lord of the Rings Online was the first, and I will passionately defend that game until the servers close down for good, and probably for a long time after. The same way people still passionately defend Star Wars Galaxies, even after its tumultuous, divisive history and the introduction of Star Wars: the Old Republic as its successor (essentially the Methadone to its Heroin).
Anyway, I remain heavily invested in LotRO, even when I don't play it a lot. I spent a fair chunk of money on that game - I bought the original Shadows of Angmar retail box for 60 bucks, dropped $200 on a lifetime subscription when they still had those, have purchased every expansion, and have spent plenty of additional money buying Turbine Points. But being invested in a game is not just a matter of sinking money into it (though I have spent more on LotRO over the years than I have spent on some of my guitars, and I take my music pretty seriously).
Investment into a game also involves how much time the player has spent in it. When I check my play time on my main LotRO character, Gunkydoc, it shows I have sunk 5 months 5 days 5 hours 51 minutes 53 seconds into him.
And that's just on the one server - I've also used that character to test beta builds on Bullroarer, which isn't likely factored into that total. Besides Gunkydoc, though, I have about a dozen other characters on that same server, many of which were played to level cap and beyond (though most of them are now at least 25 levels behind). And that amount of time is peanuts compared to what I've seen when others link their /played time, not just in LotRO but in pretty much any MMO I've seen.
In addition to money and time, though, is the more important investment: emotional commitment. I would not have sunk the time and money into LotRO that I have if I were not deeply emotionally invested into it. Not so much nowadays - my work duties spread me too thin now to really maintain that level of involvement. But certainly for a while I was heavily emotionally-invested into the game world, the community, my characters, my guild, my in-game friends and my in-game enemies. When things went wrong with my guild, it was very upsetting and I took it personally. It affected my mood outside of the game.
Yeah, a lot of that is due to the fact that I have no life. I'm not going to pretend it's otherwise. But it happens to other people, too - even people who go outside and stuff. We become heavily invested into the happenings of a game, and that game then takes up a great deal of our time and money. Even when better games come along.
My experience with eRepublik really demonstrates that. In terms of what you can actually do with that game, mechanics-wise, there's really not much to it. You work and train, and then click a fight button. It's not even fun to look at. It looks more or less like a cheap Facebook game. There's a political module, with voting and declaring war and trade embargoes and foreign aid, but that's all high-end stuff that most players won't get to mess around with unless and until they become important. But it's not something cool like, say, Elder Scrolls Online with rich, complex characters and story, novel game mechanics, eye-candy graphics and that sort of thing. It's a free browser game with "click button, get reward" gameplay.
The thing that keeps me invested is not the graphics or the buttons. It's the angry yelling. I love me some angry yelling. And politicians get to do a lot of it. The angry yelling is basically the same as actual roleplaying in RPGs. You're playing the part of a politician, arguing politics. Which sounds boring as shit, admittedly, but it's actually kind of awesome. My "guy" there is an angry fascist drowning in a sea of democratic-minded liberals, picking fights and generally acting like a "partisan windbag" - probably the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid me in that game. When stuff happens in eCanada, I get genuinely excited, even though it's just a lot of words on a screen and has almost no effect on the Skinner box mechanics.
That level of investment is rare. I've spent plenty of time and money on Neverwinter, but never felt that level of commitment or connection to that game. Star Trek Online, slightly moreso, because I'm a giant freakin' nerd - I actually have a level-capped Federation Klingon Vice-Admiral, in command of the USS Gungnir. And I'm invested in either of these games more than I am in ESO for some reason, even though I've been paying for a subscription for ESO since it launched and both STO and Neverwinter are F2P.
For a lot of people, the Big Investment game is World of Warcraft. It doesn't matter to them that WoW is an ancient piece of crap that's been bested in nearly every way by hundreds of superior titles since it launched 10 years ago. WoW is home. WoW is where the heart is. WoW has entrenched itself into their lives and no other game, no matter how technically superior it may be, will match it. You can't argue that away with reasoned debate - pointing out the many glaring flaws and deficiencies, using definitive charts and graphs and impeccably-sourced research. None of that matters.
It's like when your friend starts dating a person you know, absolutely, is a despicable, loathsome monster of a human being. You know that person is bad news, and that your friend will be dragged into a world of misery and awfulness by pursuing a relationship with this person. But they already had sex and your dumb friend is in love. When you point out all the things that are wrong with that godawful excuse for a person, you become the bad guy, and your friend's mind is unchanged. Your friend is invested.
That's what WoW is, and eRep also. The despicable significant other. An utterly miserable excuse of a game, but one we have invested in and can't just dump for the hotter, more sensible redhead our friend is recommending. We know we're doing a terrible thing staying with it, and that there are literally hundreds of better things we could be doing with our time, but we're invested. And you don't know everything that goes on - sometimes the game is nice to us. It's not ALL bad.
Got a game you just can't leave behind? Let us know in the comments!