Massively Overthinking: Forced socializing in MMORPGs

Massively OP Patron Jackybah has a question for this week’s Massively Overthinking that’s probably going to kick up some dust. He wonders whether MMO developers recognize and “serve” a particular subgroup of their players enough — specifically, the group of players that do not want to actively participate in social grouping (for dungeons) or social banter (in guild chat) but still want to contribute to and participate in an online world.

“In quite a number of games I feel that the game forces a player to group up to be able to see content and/or get higher-level gear,” he writes to us.

There’s a lot of layers to unpack here — non-social gamers in social spaces, the current state of MMO group content, and even the fundamentals of MMORPGs. Is our Patron right, and if so, is it a problem studios should be addressing? Let’s get to it.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is probably going to be an unpopular reply, but I do think grouping should be a core features of MMOs. A solo player should be able to level up if a game uses that system. They should be able to see all of the developer’s story if they’re including it. They should be able to participate in game’s economy if a game has one.

What they should not be able to do is get the coolest looking armor, most awesome mounts, or hold the best non-instanced housing. There are tons of Facebook games and not-so-massively multiplayer online games that can cater to solo minded players, and I say that as someone who is frequenting those games more often these days. While I enjoy public questing, it’s socially frustrating for me to be surrounded by soloers in MMOs when I’d used the genre in the past to connect to people. The lack of systems that included socializing as a core gameplay feature (beyond raiding and non-ganking pvp, as these tend to be end-game content) is absolutely maddening. Both my brother and myself have struggled to meet other gamers as adults. Arcades are few and far between. We drive in our cars, so even mobile gamers are probably not seeing a lot of fellow players. I had thought gamer culture in Japan was rough, but having returned to America where we lack local multiplayer game cafes and a dying internet cafe scene, things are downright depressing when MMOs feel like they strongly cater to the soloer.

My own gaming habits have changed, but especially after E3 2017, I’m feeling more like forced grouping is a good thing. I think, mechanically, having simple systems but requiring very basic communication skills is best. MMOs are supposed to be virtual worlds. Remember that MUDs gave birth to RPGs, not vice versa. As MMOs are graphical MUDs, our genre should be supporting the RPer more than random killers. Online multiplayer is cool, but what’s the point of a massively shared world if most of the content can be done brainlessly by yourself? We need MMOs to get back to their social roots, rather than continue down the path of multiplayer murder simulators. There’s no point in my virtually killing if I don’t want to virtually live.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think that MMORPG developers definitely do serve the solo player, or at least the part-time solo player, to a degree, usually in the early and middle stages of the game. I’m sure plenty of people would argue that’s a problem, even, and some will go so far as to argue for forced grouping at all times — the group or die philosophy, the “make people group with me or your game will die” mantra. But it’s also still true that many developers and players consider the pinnacle of massively online gameplay to be multiplayer, which means you’ll seldom find an MMO where you can effectively opt out of guilds and raiding at endgame and not be considered a second-class citizen by the game rules, the devs, and the community. The supposedly “solo-friendly” or “solo-catering” MMO hasn’t really advanced much in the last decade; we’re in a holding pattern where lone wolves are still relegated to the midgame, whales too. It’s almost like when you tell a whole chunk of your customer base that they aren’t welcome or valued unless they play exactly one way, they leave and find other genres!

So I agree with our reader that this is also a problem; contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing inherent in the term “massively multiplayer” that says you must be be teamed up at all times or be social. The game whose devs coined the term MMORPG to describe it didn’t even launch with groups, global chat, or guilds, for crying out loud. So I completely understand that some people want to exist and participate in an online world — its exploration, its achievement, its storyline, its economy, its competition, its simulation — without necessarily joining the equivalent of the cool kid fraternity or an endless stream of school group projects where you drag everyone to the finish line just so you can get your grade and graduate. I get that. Sometimes you just want to go to the mall and buy stuff and sit by the fountain and eat and people-watch and not bring a dozen friends (or your Instagram account followers) to validate your activities.

I don’t see this changing any time soon, as the next wave of MMORPGs is obsessed with turning us all into warlords squabbling over patches of virtual pixel land, meaning those with no desire to be hypersocial or antisocial — those folks in the middle — are going to be waiting a while longer for games that are real play-as-you-like sandboxes and not just ladders to a sticky-social endgame where your virtual relationships determine your play.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’m probably the last person in the world to say that MMOs must, at all times, force social interaction for players whether or not they want them. Ultimately, the social aspect of MMOs is an important part of the game, but not the only important part of the game; the question, then, becomes where the balance should lie and how social you should need to be in order to see most of the game as a whole. Interacting with an online persistent world is another part of the genre, and it’s possible to enjoy that part without necessarily enjoying all possible permutations of group content.

My personal feeling on the matter is that all content should at least be open for players to experience without having to form any sort of static group, and players should feel free to pursue the parts of the endgame that interest them rather than certain “mandatory” large-scale excursions. There are, to the genre’s credit, several games which I think push for a healthy balance between the two; Final Fantasy XIV, EVE Online, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Star Trek Online all offer what I’ve seen as a good split between social options and solo ones, although many of them fall at different points within that boundary.

Too much forced socializing and you wind up with games like World of Warcraft, where they game pushes you into a single path and spurs your efforts if you’re not interested in the one path the designers support (in this case, raiding). Too little, though, and you wind up in a situation similar to that of Star Wars: The Old Republic, where the game basically has no persistent world outside of a standardized friend list and some shared areas. Even some of my favorite games have gone too far in one direction or the other; I love Guild Wars, but you can seriously play through almost everything in that game without ever requiring another human being to join you. (Though some bits get tricky.)

I do think that designers have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to push players into contact. It’s how you meet people and make friends, and that’s an important part of the experience. But you shouldn’t have to have your Do Content Night planned out weeks in advance just to, y’know, do content.

Well, I'll take it, but I won't pay much for it.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think they have, to tell the truth. There has been a lot of movement over the past half-decade or so in the MMO space toward more solo-friendly activities and goals. It’s a hard balance to achieve, to offer both group and solo options and make both viable and rewarding. Remember, players always migrate toward the activity that offers the most reward for the least effort, so if that is soloing, then you can kiss grouping goodbye — whether or not there are people who want to do that. Same goes the other way.

But we have seen games that offer other routes to top-level gear, such as crafting, WildStar’s elder gem system, world events that require mobs of people but no actual grouping (just show up and get your participation badge), achievements, and so on. I applaud games like RIFT for offering single- and dual-player versions of raids to see them on “tourist” mode for those who want the story, not the forced grouping challenge.

Developers in MMORPGs have to be careful not to unbalance the dynamic of the game by being too solo-friendly or too group-dependent lest they fall into a much narrower niche. So different options, all rewarding, all challenging (in their own way) is the way to go.

Your turn!

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83 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Forced socializing in MMORPGs"

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Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

Considering that most groups I join in modern MMOs have no or almost no socialization it feels like asking a question about forced socialization is a moot point.

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Veldan

“While I enjoy public questing, it’s socially frustrating for me to be surrounded by soloers in MMOs when I’d used the genre in the past to connect to people. The lack of systems that included socializing as a core gameplay feature is absolutely maddening.” ~Andrew

I fully agree with this, and with the rest Andrew said. I’m an introvert and love to be alone in a game world sometimes, but MMOs are multiplayer by nature, and soloing should not be the main thing to do.

Neither should zero-interaction multiplayer where nobody even speaks a word and everyone just does their own thing. To me, that’s worse than soloing. There’s a related quote about that, from the late Robin Williams:

f0107ad113f67088bcfd7046c9b79f7e--alone-quotes-true-quotes.jpg
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Alex Malone

Massively Multiplayer Online…..this whole genre is dedicated to 100s / 1000s of players living and playing together in the same virtual environment. I actually feel like most MMO devs have forgotten this and I don’t think we’ve ever had an MMO that truly leverages the MMO aspect.

I also feel that too many MMOs are too solo.

Community is what keeps these games going long term. There isn’t enough content by itself, we stay for months / years due to friends. So, I’m all in favour of devs doing whatever they can to encourage a community to form, be it through forced grouping, an in depth economy, pvp, roleplaying or whatever else.

On the forced group thing specifically, I’m in favour as long as there is something in place to deal with a decline in the population. LotRO had a lot of group content at launch and it was nearly impossible to reach cap without doing a lot of group content. That was great……for 6 months. Then we all hit cap and stayed there, making it really hard for newbies or alts to find groups. Then it sucked.

This is why I’m in favour of scaling technology – it’s the same quest, but scaled to level and group size (much like the generic missions in SWG). That way, most of us can do the quests in groups, resulting in more socialising and better rewards, but when the population drops we can still do the quests, but we might do them solo.

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Veldan

“Community is what keeps these games going long term. There isn’t enough content by itself, we stay for months / years due to friends. So, I’m all in favour of devs doing whatever they can to encourage a community to form, be it through forced grouping, an in depth economy, pvp, roleplaying or whatever else. ”

This is the essence of why I dislike the state of most current MMOs. Community is as good as absent, and the devs are no longer designing for it.

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Chestnut Bowl

I’m a solo player, through and through. No friends, no guilds, no statics. I like MMOs because I like feeling immersed in a larger, active world. That said, forced grouping is a quick way for me to lose interest in the product.

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Sean Drohan

Then play something else…

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Veldan

That’s exactly what people who lose interest in a game are going to do.

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kgptzac

And that’s absolutely fine for everyone involved. Nobody can simultaneously like all forms of entertainment, and that’s ok. I don’t complain about my beef doesn’t taste like strawberry ice cream. There are already games that are “lite-MMO”, which offers much Chestnut Bowl’s desire without downsides, and they don’t (or at least shouldn’t) call themselves MMO.

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Suikoden

Like Justin said, I think there have been strides in that direction. However, what they need to be careful of is that, allowing someone to participate in an online world solo, is different than making it solo friendly. I felt that SWTOR made their game too much a solo game, but I never felt like I was participating in a larger world. Whereas to the contrary, GW2 allows you to adventure completely solo, but I always felt like I was participating; whether it was the world quests or the economy.

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Sean Drohan

ESO has this problem as well and actually facilitates it. You can be part of 5 guilds – the sense of allegiance is absent from the game (for me).

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Avalon Alduin

After 15 years of searching for a MMO that does social well, ESO was the one that finally pushed me back to trying UO again, on the UO Forever shard. ESO is a beautiful, full game, with tons of content, to be honest I really feel like I’m in the Elder Scrolls world, the problem was despite the constant players I see everywhere, there was no communication, no social connection, I didn’t feel like I was a part OF that world. Five guilds, no allegiance, no actual need to group for the majority of the content.

What I really miss is the chat right over someone’s head in UO, where you could have a conversation with a random stranger, offer help, deviously impede a person’s progress, both the good and bad social interactions are what I’ve missed from games.

Three months back to UO, and loving every minute of it, have built dozens of relationships once again that I see as long lasting relationships, both inside, and outside of the guild I chose. I can’t say I’ve gotten the same out of any other MMO these past 15 years. WoW was almost there for me, then came the ever evolving raid content, that if you couldn’t raid 3+ nights a week to keep up, you were left behind.

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Sean Drohan

‘After 15 years of searching for a MMO that does social well, ESO was the one that finally pushed me back to trying UO again, on the UO Forever shard. ESO is a beautiful, full game, with tons of content, to be honest I really feel like I’m in the Elder Scrolls world, the problem was despite the constant players I see everywhere, there was no communication, no social connection, I didn’t feel like I was a part OF that world. Five guilds, no allegiance, no actual need to group for the majority of the content.’

^1000 times, that

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Chosenxeno .

Some grouping is ok but I learned that forced constant grouping is a terrible idea via Vanguard. I do not want my progression tied to population sizes or interest in helping me. It wasn’t the bugginess that drove me out of Vanguard back in the day. It was needing to group to kill basic world Mobs.

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Modrain

As often, I’ll be advocating for the advent/return of virtual world mechanics over ultra-gameified ones.

Forced grouping is the epitome of controlled content, and is more often than not strongly linked to instances. It feels unnatural in the context of a virtual world, the game tells you: “you don’t know what’s ahead, but you have to group with 4 other people”. It does not let the players experience the world, it does not make them understand what is to come. Just: “you must group”. It’s a constraint. Is that even a context to “socialize”? Some might not care about it, but in the end it’s a leash put on players.
Why should that leash even exist? Why should virtual worlds necessarily be experienced in groups? It’s nothing more than a shared space between players. They should not *require* groups, they should *allow* groups.

You don’t even need the forced/queued grouping to want to group by yourself. Allowing players to experience the content independently from a group makes a complete difference as to how you can approach them. You can try the content alone, evaluate its difficulty, understand it. If it’s a content that you really want to complete, and that it is too hard for you alone, then you’ll come yourself to the conclusion that you need a group. Otherwise, you should be given the possibility to just come back later when more powerful, and solo the content. But for that you need a non-instanced open world and a lack of level or quest gating. Basically, you need more virtual world.

Willful grouping > forced grouping.

kjempff
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kjempff

I very much agree. The way forced grouping is discussed has been too obsessed with the forced part. Forced will not get people to socialize, but when you turn it around and let the player decide they want to socialize, it is suddenly a positive thing. Most players are some mix of socializers and soloers and I think most are more social than they think when they are not forced.

That said, when game mechanics and game world has been designed to require a group for some of its content, it is of course forced in some way. But it makes all difference for the player, that they opt-in on the socializing – Which means a social game NEED to have content for solo play, and that the player can participate in these activities with little effort.. which again will be a positive feedback loop for less social player to interact with others.

So what is need is for a mmo to create these less formal socializing mechanics and systems that nudges the player to socialize. There has been too much focus on grouping being the main way to interact with others, but there are so many more ways. Some examples.. trading and hackling by talking instead of anonymous auction house, tradeskills requiring components that only others can provide (efficiently) or even tradeskilling that require teamwork, while adventuring it could be asking players in the area to do small favors such as train these away so I can slip by, invis me, can you show where x is.
I am also a huge fan of informal grouping mechanics such as gw2 (the basic idea, not the execution) where players can cooperate (and therefore socialize) without management overhead or bureaucracy. It is all those small patches of opt-in socializing we need focus on, and not grouping as the only way to socialize.

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Tia Nadiezja

I’ve never found group content in MMOs to be terribly social. Sometimes standing around in San d’Oria or wherever with a partial party trying to finish building a full party led to interesting socialization, but once we were out doing actual content what little talk there was was purely practical.

I’d really rather just keep my guild chat tab open and play solo at my own pace.

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Seamus O'neill

I think it’s good to have alternatives to gearing, and some solo options to an extent. In dungeons you should never be required to speak. It might be in your best interest to listen if you don’t know the fight, but other than that, you do you. However at the end of the day, you’re playing an MMO. This is not skyrim, this is not dragon age, or neverwinter nights even. This is an MMO, they were made to be social and have the game be about difficult group content. Mmos like swtor have forgotten this as of late and they’re suffering because of it. You shouldn’t be able to get the best gear or even close to the best gear unless you’re working together. I find it very tiresome when I’m in a dungeon ( quite a few in FFXIV) and we wipe because someone refuses to even speak or acknowledge what’s happened. If you’re shy, or just not in the mood to talk, fine that’s your own prerogative, but at least look

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Brown Jenkin

Neat to see this discussion brought up around here, as it has sort of been talked around a few times but I don’t think ever really directly addressed. I think it was GW2 that made clear to me how much different types of gamers really do want dramatically different things here. I continue to think that GW2 offered some of the most meaningful innovations in the MMO genre to date, particularly with regard to social play. Many folks complained for ages that GW2 was an “anti-social” MMO, while in contrast I remember it always being one of the most social MMOs I’ve ever played. The issue at hand was that GW2 almost never forced players to be social (this changed later) and for some players that removed any incentive to do so.

I have great memories of playing with my friends, my family and my guildmates in GW2, all things that most MMOs do many things to dissuade. GW2’s moves toward removing fights over loot, and struggles over who to guild with (friends and family or the megaguild) I would argue actually changed the genre. Once folks thought these were asinine moves that undermined the foundations of MMOs, but we see these features (or the exact opposite with full looting and guild on guild warfare) as some of the foundations of lots of MMOs now, and like it or not other “run of the mill” MMOs (like ESO) have realized since GW2’s success that these moves are net positives as they make MMOs less miserable as a genre.

When you don’t force people to play socially, they do so because they actually like to play with others. This should be an ideal that more MMOs strive to imo.

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Schmidt.Capela

When you don’t force people to play socially, they do so because they actually like to play with others. This should be an ideal that more MMOs strive to imo.

This is true for so many activities.

Take PvP, for example. If people are only doing PvP because they want the shiny reward at the end, because they feel like without engaging in the PvP they will be left behind, then you will have droves of players in PvP matches who don’t actually want to engage in PvP, which in turn means those players will do whatever they can to get the reward with the least effort even if it goes against the principles of PvP and ruins the experience for everyone else; it’s how kill trading, exchanging objectives without fighting, and numerous other behaviors that kill all joy in PvP start.