Massively Overthinking: When social play in MMOs is predatory by design
Blogger Tobold recently wrote a provocative piece on social play in MMOs, as pointed out to us by our dear tipster Sally. In a piece cheekily titled "Why I can live without other players in my games," he writes that far from being the foundation or glue of MMOs, guilds are actually one of the worst bits of the genre, being platforms for selfishness and drama.
"Guilds were never designed for positive social interaction, they were always a means to an end of individual character progress. You needed those other people to get the most powerful gear in the game. And the way there wasn't exactly a constant stream of friendship and happiness. Look at what MMORPG blog posts have been mostly about when talking about their guilds: First people complain if others aren't investing as much as they do and become a hindrance to killing raid bosses, and then when the raid boss is finally dead they complain that somebody else got the loot."
"The people most loudly complaining about the lack of other players being forced to play with them," he finishes with a zinger that resonated most for me, "are the kind of people with the most predatory play styles."
I've presented Tobold's piece to our writers for this week's Overthinking. Do they -- and you -- agree with his thesis? Let's Overthink it.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I still mostly identify as a PvP player. I'm more of a crafter/gatherer in terms of mechanical gameplay, and that's partially because it's easier for me to socialize with that gameplay than grinding mobs or actively seeking PvP fights, but I get the whole "forced to play with you" barb at the end.
That being said, I don't think Tobold's remembering the early days of the genre and how social organizations were used. We've had both the Asheron's Call 1 and 2 devs mention that they designed monarchies (which are a kind of guild, and I'd argue a more effective one) not only to encourage progression but to foster relationships. I'm still in contact with my AC1 "patron" (recruiter), and other guilds that used similar systems of co-dependence helped me to keep my social connections (and time in game) lasting longer than I'd anticipated.
Now, I'd argue other systems, like World of Warcraft's original guild levels, as well as RIFT's, were more along the lines of what's being argued, as a person could simply join, get "registered" to help the guild unlock something, and leave. That's still ignoring loot drama associated with raiding... er, and all other raid-centric drama. As the AC series was never about simply hitting a cap (an impossibility in the former, while the latter was originally about PvP followed by a similar impossibly high level cap), and because "raids" were organized to either reward everyone involved equally or give social gear/mass XP to participants, social structures were the glue.
Some modern MMO still do this. I can't remember much about guilds in ArcheAge, but the family system, at least, was more about home ownership than progress, if I remember correctly. TERA's guilds weren't about progression either (originally), they were about political parties and shiny mounts, which may have caused "drama," but it was mostly the fun kind. I should know, as I organized town hall meetings and other RP events involving the system. We had good showings for those, more so than the PvP events and scavenger hunts.
The only part I really agree with here, is "the lack of other players being forced to play with them." This works both ways, in that I don't stick with a lot of PvE oriented games because PvErs can grief too. In both FFA PvP situations or back with older MMOs, being a butt-head could result in being killed and dry-looted or blacklisted. The strength of the MMO is persistence, and when you lose supplies or your ability to gain them, it hurts. When the genre's been expanded so people can be more anonymous, less responsible, and have easier access to group play without needing the social skills to make it work, the genre starts to fall apart.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I can live without other players in some of my games. I call them single-player games. I can also live without socializing with players in all of my MMORPGs all of the time. I love being in a world where there are other people; this doesn't mean I want to chit-chat or team up with them at all times. My happy medium is usually somewhere in the middle. I play MMOs that respect that.
I do join Tobold in being fed up with games that force interaction in exchange for loot and power in a game world, but I don't necessarily agree that "guilds were never designed for positive social interaction" or that "they were always a means to an end of individual character progress." That's probably true of raid-centric (or more specifically, forced-group-centric) EverQuest-style themeparks, but as Andrew notes, it wasn't true in many other types of early games, especially sandboxy sorts that were roleplay- or PvP-driven, like Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and Star Wars Galaxies. Likewise, my guild has been drama free for a long time, but that's down to being the kind of group that has transcended petty squabbles over loot in whatever game is hot this year. If you're mired in that, or playing a game that focuses on that, then yeah, your guild experience will struggle.
All that said, I have long argued that modern MMO devs have tried to harness the social power of the guild mechanically, hoping to translate it into game stickiness, which has led to all sorts of garbage that turns guilds into tools and trains new generations of gamers into not just thinking of other people as their figurative ticket to "epix" but thinking of guildies as literal ladders, as numbers, as cogs in the gear or ghall grind. And I'm talking about everything from guild achievement perks to exclusive spaces and quests, the things that arbitrarily and excessively reward anyone willing to game the system for benefits -- not actually create the willing social environment that generates real stickiness.
Still, that's just forced-guilding; forced-grouping is a separate but related problem, and I think Tobold is spot on when he points out that it's mainly predators, be they PKers or PvE achievers, who complain when others aren't forced to be their content or their ladder. The wolves need the sheep, but the sheep don't need the wolves.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing is that on some level, guilds can be one of the most toxic parts of any MMO's environment. On the other hand, they can also be one of the most valuable pieces of the equation that makes the game run, and for some people the MMO is really just the framework for interacting with one's guild. So saying that guilds are inherently toxic is like saying that they're inherently beneficial, painting a complex issue with a simple brush.
Some guilds are functionally jobs. They exist, first and foremost, to facilitate getting content done which would otherwise be impossible or very difficult. These are the guilds where things can quickly turn predatory because you're joining the guild to get X, above and beyond anything else. If for some reason you aren't getting X, you're going to be annoyed with the people involved. They're there to facilitate this.
On the flip side, some guilds are formed by people who just genuinely enjoy playing with one another, and any benefits derived from doing so are secondary. In that case, the structure is inverted. You're not with the guild to get X; you're getting X because the guild is doing it. The nexus of fun is the guild itself.
Designers want people to have the latter, but the more mechanics in the game force you to rely on a lot of other people, the more you push toward the former. This is especially true for games that don't allow only one membership; games like Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2 allow you to have different affiliations for Doing Specific Content vs. Just Being Friends. When you can only be a part of one guild or group of players, you have to choose between social interactions and the benefits of a coordinated group.
Personally, I've said many times that if games still required the same amount of constant socializing that was the case when I started in the genre, I probably would have moved on by now. I run a lot of group content in FFXIV, for example, but that's because the game has tools to facilitate making 90% of the group content something I can form a group for without needing to rely on having a dedicated guild as a means to an end... and 100% of the story and meaningful progression are gated that way, as well. So I'm free to spend time with players whose company I enjoy rather than those I need to get a boss downed.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Putting aside this particular author's growing disdain for MMOs and how they function, the issue at hand -- guilds and the potential for nasty drama, their necessity for advancement after a certain point -- is quite subjective and changes depending on guild, game, and overall community. You tell me that guilds are poison and laboratories for backstabbing and bile, and I'll be able to provide you with plenty of examples of wonderful, nurturing, and supporting groups. You state that guilds are bliss and the backbone of the MMO experience, and sure, I can dredge up encounters with guilds that soured a game and became a millstone around a neck.
But I will contend with his presupposition here that "guilds were never designed for positive social interaction." Talk about a gross generalization that is quite untrue! Even well before MMORPGs, players have formed social groups for mutual support, encouragement, discussion, advice, and play, because for many of us, it's not as much fun to game as an island unto yourself. Arguably the biggest selling point of early online games were that they existed online and allowed you to communicate and interact with other human beings in the same virtual world. The formation of groups happened unofficially at first and then was solidified when more online titles started adding guilds as a feature. If guilds didn't exist, players would make them.
Developers know that player retention is key to success, and players tend to stick around groups of friends that they enjoy being with. Guilds make MMOs "sticky" by providing some of the social glue that connects people. In high-level, competitive guilds, sure, there may be plenty of drama and far more selfish behavior, but I sincerely believe that a majority of guilds in MMOs are more casual and social constructs in which everyone in the guild wants to be there instead of feels forced to by necessity due to progression mechanics.
He? He can live without other players in his game, which is why I'd recommend that he scamper off to the wealth of single-player games on the market. Me? I love and play MMOs because they provide many things that those other games can't, including those wonderful social bonds.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Well, I would agree... except I don't. Since I personally never care about the most powerful gear in game, the argument that guilds are only for that is extremely inaccurate. Were they designed just for that? I don't think I can say what exactly was in the mind of the first people who gathered a group together to play with, but I think I can say that the purpose of a guild is totally dependent on the individuals in a guild.
Perhaps if your goal in gaming is only end-game elite content and being the best, that is precisely how you would see guilds -- as a way to further your personal interests. Maybe because I started gaming as (and still am by the way) a roleplayer, guilds are exactly about the social aspect. Guilds have never been anything about character progression for me, unless you count roleplay story as progression. The whole reason I have ever been in guilds is precisely for the social connections. In fact, I have made some of the closest friends of my life specifically in MMO guilds, and these friendships have spilled into real life and have lasted more than a decade. In non-roleplaying situations, being in a guild is just to more easily hang out with people I enjoy being and gaming with. And I play MMOs to be with people. Playing is just way more fun with folks, not even caring about progression. Sure, progression happens, but it's more a byproduct of hanging out. In roleplaying scenarios, guilds are about a part of the ever-evolving story of the world around me, which is endlessly fascinating to me. There, it is being a small part of a whole story, so it isn't even just about furthering my own story. If that were my goal, I could just sit down and write a story; the whole point of the RP in games is the unknown elements that others bring to the story!
That said, I totally understand the view. One of my closest friends wouldn't bother one bit with guilds or other people (other than for roleplay) except that it is the best/only way for him to partake in various content. And since he doesn't roleplay much anymore/can't find roleplay in most games, guilds are nothing but a means to a progression end.
On the topic of drama, however, I can totally agree: Guilds can have drama. In my first ever guild I experienced my first drama when another player went seriously Single White female on me. Then you get the jilted leaders who are put out when you won't! After that, I made a rule to stick to my own guilds where who is allowed in can be controlled and anything amiss can be dealt with swiftly. Thankfully, drama has been pretty non-existent in all those guilds. Sadly, I broke the rule once when my gaming partner and I decided to give guilds another go years later in a game because we didn't want to go through the effort of running one in that particular title. The goal was to have more fun just enjoying playing. Things were pretty fun for a while, until freaky jealousy stuff and the various relationships happening throughout the guild exploded and the guild imploded. Can guilds not have drama? You bet! I've experienced that. But it entails having a clear focus on what the guild is up front and only having people who fit with those ideas there. It also helps to keep the guild smaller instead of growing to a massive size.
Now as for the comment of people complaining, well, you are always going to find people complaining. This is the internet after all. The trick is surrounding yourself with the kind of people who don't. And that's where a good guild comes in!