The last time I was asked where the social aspects of MMOs went, I was pretty directly snarky: They’re still there. And it’s true, but it’s a bit heavier on the “pithy” end of the spectrum over the “explanatory” side. Ask for sound bites, receive same.
Pithy comments aside, all the participants on PAX East’s Where Did Multiplayer In MMOs Go? panel Saturday agreed that there has been a large-scale shift in how MMOs handle other players and how we view our fellows. The initial discussion focused on the experience of being in a World of Warcraft garrison at max level, where you aren’t talking or directly interacting with anyone. The only sign that you’re in an MMO is the fact that general chat is still rolling.
With two MMO journalists, one founder of a gamer social network, one community manager, and one lead developer, you would expect that we would all be coming to different conclusions. But we were actually all of more or less the same mind, and a lot of the question of “where has the social gone” can be answered simply by looking at how players and developers look at other players.
Consider the difference between, for example, Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft. If you’re running through the world of Guild Wars 2 and you see someone else fighting a monster, there’s every reason to help out. You get credit for the kill, you get experience, you get money and drops. In the same situation in World of Warcraft, helping out is usually a neutral action at best; you’re expending resources and time on a fight that offers no rewards. At worst, it makes your life harder because that’s one fewer target for you to kill.
That’s disregarding the fact that unlike, say, City of Heroes, WoW offers you no way for you to play with your lower-level friends. You can play adjacent to one another but not actually interact in a meaningful way. And that has an impact.
When you’re conditioned to more or less ignore other players outside of very narrow circumstances, the rest of the game’s population winds up feeling less like potential new encounters and more like a set of tools to be used when you need them.
Tools like group finders and the like haven’t made games less social by themselves, but in content where you have no reason to interact with other players, you’re more likely to just leave said other players alone. If boss fights are entirely self-focused affairs — if you’re just doing your steps in a dance and hoping everyone else does the same — you don’t have a reason to chat and make new connections with other people.
Rewards for talking help. Reasons to seek out individuals help. It’s not that auction houses are problematic; it’s that if crafters can do nothing more meaningful than make Generic Iron Shortsword, there’s no real sense of identity or unity between crafters. That’s not a good thing because it diminishes the idea of specializing or being unique.
We also talked about forcing players into content and not letting players fail. Forcing players into huge groups leads to players resenting the grouping process and not wanting to associate with others outside of the “required” group content; meanwhile, making it harder for players to screw up character specializations and the like make games easier to balance but less engaging to play. If you can’t be wrong, you also can’t get the satisfaction of being right.
Obviously, we had to discuss out-of-game socializing as well, since that’s a whole different ball of wax. On the one hand, having a stable group to socialize with definitely helps keep your immediate community together; on the other, when you have a very fixed community in place, you’re less inclined to reach outside and start getting invested in experiences with people you don’t already know well, which is something less than ideal.
It’s important to note that we also touched on the simple reality that the MMO audience of today isn’t the same as the MMO audience of years ago, nor should we necessarily be. We have jobs, we have families, we have obligations, we have concerns beyond simply sitting and raiding (or farming or whatever) for several hours. It changes the dynamic and it makes us all more prone to trying to get stuff accomplished now rather than doing the hard parts work.
And those coming into MMOs now know that as the way things are with no concept of the way things used to be.
Unfortunately, there’s no way that a text piece can really convey the tone of the conversation as a whole, since there is currently no technology that allows for real-time interjections and discussion in text. (You know, aside from a chat room, but that’s also a different thing.) But it was a fun conversation, and definitely still an open conversation worth having and considering.