Ask Mo: Why MMORPGs still need traditional chat

    
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I dug this intriguing question out of our brimming-over letters-to-the-editor bin, and it’s particularly timely given the recent launch of Wander, notable for its curious glyph-based chat and language system. Massively-that-was reader NerdWithABigStick wrote in to ask about MMO chat, calling back the decision made by the devs of Divinity: Original Sin to shut down global chat within a few minutes of launch.

This resonated with me. The first thing I do when joining a game is seek out general chat and immediately turn it off. It’s only in the last six years or so that I’ve noticed an increase in the amount of “snark” in chat. There was definitely a time when chat was fun, helpful, and yes, even entertaining. People shared their positive excitement, and while the occasional asshole did show up, it was the exception, not the norm. That time is long gone, sadly. After working a full day at the office and signing in to a game that I am loving, the very last thing I want to do is to have that happiness and the joy of the experience ruined by reading negative remarks and armchair designer opinions full of Family Guy-style “humor” and poop-slinging. So I’ve gotten into the habit of turning those channels off, sometimes even hiding the chat window entirely.

So I keep wondering whether more game studios, particularly MMO studios, will ever embrace D:OS’s attitude? Will they ever say, “You know what, this really isn’t helping our game — or our community — at all. It’s not adding anything to the game experience or the social experience. In fact it’s detracting from both. Let’s shut it off.”

Heck, I hope not!

Let me back up. I’ve been playing online games a long time too. The one constant I’ve found in all my travels through these online worlds is that jerks are universal. There were jerks then; there are jerks now. And a game-wide or zone-wide chat is the fastest way for them to manifest themselves in your gaming, piss you off, ruin your day, and drive you out of the game.

It wasn’t always so easy for the jerks, though. Ultima Online didn’t have global chat for many years; it had a primitive version of chat bubbles that floated over the heads of the folks within your immediate vicinity, and because spamming could literally cover everyone’s screen, it was considered a serious violation of social etiquette to do it. You would be silenced, reported, and shunned for being annoyware in chat. If you were truly egregious, someone would probably log in his thief to harass you into shutting up. I had a guildie who liked to tame woodland critters and set piles of them to /follow and /guard annoying people around town until the spammers were forced to recall out. Mad vigilante justice, there.

The shift to tidy chat boxes and later to convenient global chat channels made chat a more casual experience — more like everyone jabbering in IRC than trying to stay elegant and afloat at a crowded cocktail party. But there are several other factors that combined in the mid-aughts to turn chat into the monstrosity NerdWithABigStick wants to see eradicated from gaming:

  • MMO studios stopped investing in public customer service. Visible gamemasters who once kept the peace by being present were replaced with behind-the-scenes support, creating a belief, fair or not, that no one was monitoring the world or dealing with problem players.
  • Online gaming in general shifted from being the semi-private domain of the technologically privileged to being something to which a critical mass of people have easy access. Etiquette took longer to evolve and proliferate than communication tech took to weasel its way into our back pockets. Culture changed to accommodate. “Oversharing” is now a thing. A new generation of gamers grew up plugged in, with a very different conception of personal privacy, shared space, and how they ought to behave in a digital world.
  • An oversaturated MMO market, devs’ reliance on easy-to-produce, unsticky gameplay, and the lowered barriers-to-entry engendered by free-to-play business models created transient communities that feel little investment in the games they play, let alone in the other people playing them or their own personal reputations.
  • Guilds and other groups protect their members from toxic chat by moving their communities to private channels, websites, and voice chats, further reducing the number of mitigating, rational voices in games’ global spheres.

I don’t really think the percentage of jerks on the internet has changed, but the jerks we already have are now greater in number on the whole, capable of far greater damage within a tech culture that simultaneously lowers their inhibitions and hands them a megaphone or 10 to shout into. For Gen X and the older Millennials, it’s a shock to the system, and it’s why I frequently join NerdWithABigStick in turning off my chat channels too — me, the Editor-in-Chief of an MMORPG website. Seriously.

That’s rock-bottom.

If seeing Melissa Bianco's text in that chat frame doesn't break your heart, you are dead inside.

Still, shutting it all down on our end is a temporary solution to a problem that needs a long-term fix from above, and the fix won’t be simple.

Several years ago, Karen Bryan, a columnist for Old Massively, wrote a smart piece on games with supposedly “safe chat” for kids. What she found in her investigation is that safe chat in kid-friendly MMOs is laughable. “Kids find a way,” she wrote ruefully. No manner of filter or blacklist or keyword-based clicky chat stops clever kids from communicating abuse when they are determined to convey it. What heavy-handed chat restrictions do in reality is hinder legitimate communication: They hinder trade, they hinder helpers, they hinder grouping, they hinder socialization. Breaking chat breaks MMOs worse than does the abuse we’re hoping to prevent. As we’ve seen over and over, the chat-based equivalent of “dong-detection software” can’t possibly work as well as an actual moderator.

Now, maybe shutting off the chat valve works for an online game like Hearthstone, whose “chat” is as a limited as the most lawsuit-averse family MMO and cannot even be properly called chat. And maybe it even works in console ports of MMOs where detailed, long-form chat is too tedious or difficult for players to physically manage anyway.

But the core of MMORPGs — real MMORPGs — is community, and communities that can’t communicate are doomed alongside their games. We need to be able to talk to each other, to reach out to each other, to group and trade and teach and learn. We don’t need to be around people all the time, and we don’t need to be engaged in conversation every moment we’re logged in. I don’t want either of those things myself. But without some measure of communication and a reason to chat — even if it’s an imaginary language or wiggly scarf trails — everyone around us may as well be AI. That’s a far worse fate than the irritating abuse and chaos we face in chat now. I’d rather have that messy something than nothing at all.

We’ve lost too much of what makes our genre our genre in the last decade, a truth devs and players of dwindling MMOs are slowly realizing. I don’t want to willingly give up more.

Are video games doomed? What do MMORPGs look like from space? Did free-to-play ruin everything? Will people ever stop talking about Star Wars Galaxies? Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and mascot Mo every month as they answer your letters to the editor right here in Ask Mo.
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q945
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q945

Damonvile The opportunity to determine how you live your life.
My comment was a variation of the oft quoted ‘if we don’t <insert soapbox theme of the day> then the terrorists win”

Werewolf Finds Dragon
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Werewolf Finds Dragon

Roleplayers have had a solution to this for the longest time. We just use emotes and turn say off, it’s almost a thing that we all do. Then we just emote at each other. Not to mention that some mild, playful snark is fine in the Elder Scrolls Online, as the khajiit and bosmer both have that to them. It’s in a very friendly, elbow jab sort of way, though, and it carries its own wisdom. So if you can’t do it well you end up sounding like Wildstar.
No one wants to sound like Wildstar.
Still, most people get it right, and the roleplayers I’ve encountered in The Elder Scrolls Online on the Aldmeri Dominion have been an absolute joy to spend time with. So if you’re a roleplayer, there, pat yourself on the back. In fact, AD seems to be devoid of less pleasant people, so much so that it’s actually taken me off guard more than once. For example, approaching a node at the same time as someone and both back up, not just me. That’s weird. I haven’t seen that in a single other MMO, not once. Not ever. It’s just so weird!
Do you have any conscious idea of how odd that is? In most games, you just have extroverts who hate gathering alone so they’re just powering through it and if you hesitate they’ll steal a node from right under your nose even if you were there first. They have no etiquette at all, since they just want their gathering over as fast as possible so that they can make their consumable sets and get back to raiding. That’s normal.
That ESO isn’t so geared towards that kind of person (or raiding in general) is one reason why there’s less of those people there, but not by much. I’ve still encountered them on both the Covenant and the Pact. Intriguingly, I’ve even heard an extroverted acquaintance say they like the Pact best because everyone hates each other, it’s all about games and manipulation, which isn’t my cup of tea. And having tried the Covenant and seen that that was much the same (with the orcs being played for patsies), I began to wonder…
What if it’s the setting that changes things?
The Aldmeri Dominion is an obviously left wing, Socialist environment where you’re being friends with incredibly green-minded people (the bosmer). It’s a faction lead by a strong, independent, progressively-minded woman who’s likely going to come over as snooty simply because she’s more intelligent than the average gamer (which isn’t saying a lot). I found her delightful. And Razum-dar’s humour is going to go over a lot of heads, the khajiit can be surprisingly sly for an MMO, in that there were a couple of jokes that I felt like an idiot for not getting right away. And that’s saying something.
Such as the khajiit outside the king’s chambers in Grahtwood.
So, what you have is a faction of intelligent people, who’re all about non-violent approaches, diplomacy, and will generally say so many things that will go so far above the average MMO gamer’s head that it’ll bore them. I know, because I find their general lack of intellect boring, too. It’s why I very carefully choose my friends. What I don’t want is to be surrounded by a league of Happy bloody Hogans.
I ended up realising that the Dominion has so many decent people not only because ESO isn’t designed to appeal to the usual MMO gamer so much (which is why so many of the usual crowd hate it), but also because the Aldmeri Dominion would be an incredibly uncomfortable place to be for the usual GamersGate-ish gamer. It damns racists, misogynists, fascists, right wing politicians, and testosterone-fuelled anti-thinkers as idiots.
It’s funny because I was reading on Science Daily that that kind of person is just too ‘busy’ to be intelligent, I read that extroverts didn’t care about being green, for example, because they were too busy trying to get involved with huge crowd of people or trying to get laid. I’m serious, this was on Science Daily, go read it for yourself.
Similarly, other studies have shown that introverts tend to be left wing, thoughtful, and green, whereas extroverts are right wing, reckless, and… reckless.

So a faction like the Aldmeri Dominion is going to repulse the kinds of people I wouldn’t want around and be inviting to those I would. Which means that roleplaying opportunities are plentiful, and the people I’ve met have been delightful. It’s a truly bizarre way to keep out the people you don’t want, but I can see its effectiveness. No matter how much an undesirable might want to stay with the Dominion, being called constantly on how wrong and unintelligent their views are would have them give it up.
And it’s completely intentional. I love it.
I will admit that in most MMOs, I tend to leave the chat off. But in AD I’ve left say on and I haven’t been burned by it, yet. It’s a pleasant surprise. It’s like a private little clubhouse for people I’m probably going to like. So it’s worth the risk of keeping chat around.

redtoadsage
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redtoadsage

My dream system for communication in an mmo would be VOIP based on radius of your character. Simulate how far sound carries when you talk and have other characters within that distance able to hear you. It would obviously need lots of refinement and be more complicated but I feel that would give the best experience if done right.

grimjakk
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grimjakk

tobascodagama grimjakk  I agree with that.  In my perfect, imaginary, no-developer-would-ever-do-that MMO there is no text chat outside of notes left on physical bulletin boards… open audio chat would be 3d localized with text-to-voice conversion for those of us with less than impressive vocal roleplay skills… auctions would be handled by honest-to-goodness auctioneer NPC’s that would take bids for consigned items… and actual voice chat would be limited to group and guild channels.

But that’s just me. ;)

Futabot
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Futabot

I wish we could have a deep cooperative exploration mmo without chat so we have to communicate with emotes and other such things.
I mean, yeah, most people will be on voip with their premade group of friends, but going in solo would be a pretty interesting experience with communication becoming a sub-game.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Peregrine_Falcon I’m so glad I had that one… I didn’t have many with pics of chat from that game, or any game, but especially that one. But I was clearly snapping just the text there (Melissa Bianco’s comments in spatial there break my heart).

Robert80
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Robert80

Damonvile  The chance to be lonely among themselves…

Paaperclips
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Paaperclips

Denngar http://www.gog.com/game/divinity_original_sin

It’s a fantastic game. If you were a fan of any of the Inifinity engine RPGs, (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, etc.) It’s a really good love letter to that whole genre.
And you can add to it a ton of freedom, modern quality of life improvements, and good humor. :)

Robert80
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Robert80

Personally, I wouldn’t mind not having a world chat.  I don’t even mind not having a smaller zone based chat.  Having to be in range for ‘hearing’ somebody say or yell something just feels right to me, from a personal immersion standpoint… and I usually end up just turning the other chats off.  *Every now and then I bother, and on rare occasion actually get to help somebody, but usually I just find them to be a waste.*

Darth Fez
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Darth Fez

I find that it helps me to keep the chat filter turned on. They’re certainly not perfect, and some are rather obnoxious in their own right, but it still creates a better experience for me to see “****” or “*&£%!”, and be intellectually aware that someone is cursing, than to actually read the words. I also tend to put the “General” chat into a secondary tab, if possible, because they’re often busy. (This is doubly true when people insist on misusing the General channel for trade.) That way I can keep my local, guild, party, etc. channels with much less risk of missing something or needing to constantly scroll up to catch what someone wrote.