Massively Overthinking: Making MMOs more social from the inside out


This week’s Massively Overthinking topic from an anonymous Kickstarter donor asks us to set aside our criticisms of the social environment of MMOs and figure out what we, as players, can do about it.

“We criticize MMO devs for making our MMO experience less social, but are they the only ones to blame? I think our (the players’) behaviour to others and within the games themselves has also changed. I’d like to know if you can think of ways we players could improve that situation – from behaviour, less game or guild hopping, ways to grow our friends lists – to make our MMO experience more social again.”

Is he right? Have we changed, too? And how do we solve the problem from the bottom up in an MMO genre that increasingly thinks social media shares are all the social we want and need?

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): The past few years have seen an undeniable trend in gaming toward faster-paced gameplay designed for shorter gaming sessions, which I think is partly because of the growing age of the average spender in the gaming market and partly due to new media. There are a lot more adult gamers today with responsibilities and limited free time, so it’s no surprise that we try to cram as much gaming into short sessions as possible. With the ongoing saturation of the PC gaming market, titles that offer shorter session-based play tend to perform better with this demographic and so studios are naturally catering games for that audience. Even MMOs have had to adapt themselves to decreasing session time with tools like dungeon queues and matchmaking supplanting the need for guilds and the other social structures players used to create. It isn’t anyone’s fault in particular; it’s just a market trend and unfortunately the social aspect of MMOs suffers for it.

In order to get eyes on the product, games today also increasingly have to cram something compelling into every hour of gameplay in order to fit the format of a 30- to 60-minute YouTube video or livestream. Nobody would tune into a stream to watch someone spamming trade messages or standing around trying to get a group together to run a dungeon, so games without modern conveniences and shortcuts would make for poor viewing. New media has been driving sales and market trends so heavily over the past few years that games really do have to be compatible with the format. At this point, enforcing sociality over convenience as a matter of game design would be fighting against too many major market trends and would be financial suicide. This isn’t a trend developers will have a hand in reversing; it’s up to us as players to make conscious choices to play our favourite MMOs hardcore and deliberately seek out guilds of likeminded individuals.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think most people prefer to play alone together, and I think it was true back in the early era as much as it is now. Games nowadays just do a better job of providing gameplay for both introverts and extroverts. A lot of what we look at as socializing in early MMOs wasn’t designed to be social, after all; it was an accident, a byproduct of game design still in the transition from MUDs to MMOs, like waiting for boats and resting up between between trash fights. My chief complaint isn’t that MMOs have less social or that we are less social but that the social stuff MMOs provide tends to be either entirely endgame (like raid or PvE content) or entirely fluff (like wedding systems). Social once existed in the cracks between the game, and those cracks have been sealed up. Studios have to plan for social now — and they don’t.

Since I don’t truly expect to live to see the return of the good kind of social downtime a la Star Wars Galaxies, I think that people who live for socializing in their MMOs are bound to make friends the hard way the way they would in real life: attend events, host their own parties, put together their own painstaking groups, promote guilds and forums, form alliances, work around the game’s limitations. Does it suck? Hell yes. It’s work. It’s always been work. And when MMOs refuse to support those community facilitators, they have only themselves to blame, not the players, when those community members quit.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I think a lot of this does wind up coming down to how players tend to see other players. A lot of people argue that people no longer socialize because there’s no need to socialize, but that says something about why you socialized in older games, doesn’t it? If you’re sad that people aren’t social but then make a point about how games no longer force you to be polite so you don’t bother… what does that say about your first instinct? All else being equal, do you want to socialize with others, or do you want to treat other players as tools and content?

Over the years, as Brendan quite fairly stated, we’ve seen a general move in game design away from slogging sessions and slower process and into systems where you can log on, get going, and log off within an hour. What makes that less conducive to social interacts is that the game is no longer forcing you to be social with others for ulterior motives. You don’t have to get along with everyone else on your server to get a dungeon run going, you just have to queue up. Just like you don’t have to talk with your waiter at a restaurant, or you don’t have to be polite to someone when you’re both waiting in line. Saying that these games don’t have the social frameworks in place just because they allow you to play the game with less random shouting to others is like saying that you’d prefer restaurants where the servers only bring you food if you compliment their haircuts.

So really, the question is right on the money. If your games seem empty and antisocial, that isn’t a function of the game except insofar as games have, over time, removed the absolute need for diplomacy and tact. If you feel like there are no people out there to meet and befriend, but you’re hopping between games on a regular basis, that’s not the game that’s the problem. It’s a complicated situation that can’t be fully answered with three paragraphs, but the short version is that it says more about your willingness to talk to others when you don’t derive a benefit from it beyond socialization.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): Ultimately the lack of socialization in MMOs is only an issue for a tiny minority. I’m not discounting that minority because I’m a part of it, but most MMO players in 2015 simply don’t care. It’s not a problem that can be solved because time-poor people will keep buying power, status, and self-sufficiency via cash shops, and devs will keep enabling them.

The only thing for disgruntled MMO socialites to do is just pick a game, stick with it, and work to build the community in that game. Don’t game-hop or retreat to private servers or single-player games. Spend your game time building the community in the one MMO that checks all of your boxes. If you’re not willing to do that by being an active guild leader, organizing server events, constantly communicating the need for more social gameplay to devs, and basically spreading the gospel of MMOs by showing people how and why MMOs should differ from single-player games, you’re not going to see socialization make any sort of meaningful comeback.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): You know what? I’m exactly as social as I want to be in MMOs, and I am fine with that. For the most part, I want to play alongside others and do appreciate tools that help me quickly and painlessly team up for tasks and fun events, but I don’t want grouping shoved down my throat. I’d be open to clever systems that allowed players to interact more, such as giving dungeon run karma out or being able to create content for others to interact with and talk to me about later. Just spitballing here.

I love the idea of joining multiple guilds or chat circles, which all MMOs should totally have, and am a little envious of’s system that allows players to talk to friends in other Blizzard games. So other than a unified system that would let me keep track of my friends and talk to them no matter what they’re playing, I can’t think of anything that would make me more social in MMOs.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I’m not sure that MMOs are becoming less social, but I do think that the way people socialize in an MMO is changing. When we old farts started playing MMOs things like voice chat took up so much or precious bandwidth that many of us didn’t use it. So the majority of human-to-human contact was via text. Now VoIP is clearly the predominant and in many games necessary way to communicate.

As to who is to blame… I don’t think you can blame one party. We players use it because we have to in order to communicate well in fast-paced environments, but those fast-paced challenges were created by the developers. However, the devs made that type of gameplay because we, the players, demanded it. Or maybe we took it because it was available.

So to answer your question: what we’re we talking about again?

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly, I think devs are just catering to what the customers are demanding via their wallets: single-player experiences with a communal chat room. A fact, by the way, that depresses me terribly. I cannot blame developers who need to run a business for following what the market wants; I just wish the market (gamers) as a whole wasn’t so stuck on bite-sized, individual, title-hopping gaming. In order to make social experiences and community building an actual priority in development, we as a community would need to already be demonstrating that that is where we want games to go. That means settling in a game or two and spending our time there being a major component of said community. In my ideal gaming universe, folks would settle in a virtual world (or two) and spend their time, effort, and resources on building up their community. There are many ways to bolster a community, from running guilds and events to joining said guilds and attending those events/

But I do not think this is even the direction that the majority of the gaming community wants to go. It doesn’t matter if the reason is short attention spans, too many choices, lack of play time, carrot-chasing progression obsession, or what have you — as long as people speak with their wallets that they want the no-strings-attached kind of socially deficient experience, that is what the focus of game development will be on.

Your turn!

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