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.
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.