Massively Overthinking: Making MMOs more social from the inside out

    
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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 Battle.net’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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schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

melissaheather 
You basically pointed out why I went with WoW instead, despite loving dearly the Star Wars franchise. A game where I would have to depend on others to this extent is a game I wouldn’t be willing to play.

peyo01
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peyo01

I agree with most of what is shared in the column and in the comments. But if I have to choose which opinion I share the most, I’m going with Jef’s and Justin’s and will use a quote from Justin to summarize my thoughts (an approximate quote at best, but he often mentions this idea): “what MMOs have to give players are options: the more options, the better the MMO”.
That applies to socializing too. So, if you have the option to either go solo with the feeling of not being alone coming from the active chat window and many players evolving in the game beside yourself, or the option to group, be it using an automated tool or using the old-school methods, you basically get the best of both worlds and I like it.
Options are the key to avoid frustration and to find a MMO entertaining whatever mood you’re in.

imayb1
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imayb1

Line with more hugs imayb1 I agree, wholeheartedly!

Enikuo
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Enikuo

I try to socialize in MMOs and the results just aren’t that great, usually. (Although, I did meet my significant other in an MMO several years ago, which was pretty great.) I’ve never found that forced grouping or inter-dependencies lead to any meaningful social interaction, anymore than checking out at a store might. And, as much as I like using slow transport, like boats, the waiting in between has only ever led to fleeting social blips.
Honestly, I don’t see much difference between the players that want to force me to socialize with them through game mechanics, like some pseudo NPC, and the players that treat me like a henchman in their dungeon runs. In the end, it’s not really about making a connection with other people, it’s about subsidizing their own game play. 
So, yeah. I guess it is more on the players, because you don’t need the game to reward you for making friends and socializing. It might help. And, I’m sure there are a lot of tools that game makers could make and improve on to better facilitate it. But, given my experiences, I can kinda understand why developers don’t focus on it.

p_mersault
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p_mersault

Vexia p_mersault I loved how TSW did that- at least before their NPE. Alone, fighting mobs could take some time but if you did quests in a group of, say 2 or 3 people it became fluid. I think that was a good way to motivate grouping. Of course, most didn’t group anyway (myself included, except for a few times) and just swallowed the one-minute-per-mob-fights.

I would have liked to keep game design out of this discussion, but it seems you can’t- Larry’s got a point there. Also i think it is entirely valid to think about the content/progression/direction of a game and how it could help communities if you’re mainly playing MMORPGs from that angle. Nothing wrong with that. We’re all playing for different reasons, and i think the opinions on this topic show that- it’s a great read.

melissaheather
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melissaheather

You build in dependencies into the construct of the game.   EQ used spells that were exclusive to classes, run speed (spirit of Wolf) for Druids, Resurrection for Necros, things like that.   People provided these as ‘services’ for free or for pay.   You could log on and spend an hour just making a few coins at a bank or hub offering people run speed buffs, i.e., providing services not easily obtainable elsewhere.   There were times when you just flat-out needed other live players in EQ.   Love it or hate it, you needed people to get through it.
Star Wars Galaxies (pre NGE) had Battle Fatigue, that slowly lowered the maximum hit points of those who went through combats.   Battle Fatigue could only be restored/alleviated by Entertainers, generally in Cantinas (although homes too – making ‘private dancers’ possible).   So warrior classes eventually needed entertainers, and sought them out, and the few minutes it took to heal battle fatigue forced socialization.  And it worked well.  the cantinas were hubs of chat and trading and socializing.   Battle Fatigue as a concept, used this way, is brilliant.  It would be part of any game I envisioned.

goldstariv
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goldstariv

Telos_ See in EQ, I rarely did small talk.. I can hardly small talk IRL.. But what EQ did is kinda made it beneficial to actually have friends of other classes (unless you were totally anti-social and multi boxed every class you’d ever need) to help in certain situations..

Networking is a social aspect lost not only among the players, but to the systems and mechanics of MMO’s as well.. The struggle to make every class basically a re-skin of one another (normalization) means that we no longer need to network or get to know one another.. We can do it all ourselves..

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Koshelkin schmidtcapela 
It’s not about meeting people, but specifically asking for help. And it’s not like I’m unable to do it, I just find it to be very unpleasant. So, while in the real world I will bear with it and do whatever I need to, in a game — which is meant to be an enjoyable experience — I will flat out refuse to ever ask anyone for help, because to do so would make the game unenjoyable for me and defeat its very purpose.

Besides, I like challenge more than victory. Doing things to reduce the challenge — which includes, but isn’t limited to, seeking help — would just reduce how much fun I can have with the game.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Peregrine_Falcon
Oh, I doubt I’m in the minority in wanting to be self-sufficient. How
often have you heard about players creating a whole stable of alts so
they could craft anything in a game without asking for help? Or how Star Wars Galaxies at first had a strict one character per account limit because the devs knew otherwise many players would go for self-sufficiency?
Many
people don’t like feeling like they depend on others. Heck, the feeling of empowerment, of being in control over one’s own destiny, is one of the strongest draws towards many kinds of entertainment, including games. So I doubt this will ever change.

@wjowski @Cambruin
It’s kinda common, people that have a narrow view of what a MMO should be and how a MMO player should behave. This kind of person will often keep telling everyone that doesn’t fit that model to abandon MMOs and leave the genre to the “true” players. What they often don’t notice is that the big budget MMOs many of them prefer and try to stake a claim to would never be financially viable without casting a wide net when trying to attract, and keep, players.

Besides, for those that ever heard about the silent majority, one of the very few guaranteed things about it is that most introverts will be in there. It’s, after all, kinda obvious that those that have any kind of issue speaking in public are more likely to avoid raising their voice. And introverts are very common in the population at large.

The ironic thing about players like @Peregrine_Falcon is that, in behaving like that, in trying to shun away the players that don’t fit their exact model of how a MMO player should behave, those people actually work to prevent the niche they desire from ever rising again. They effectively sabotage the devs that attempt to attract new players to that niche, to show people that interdependency and group dynamics could — for a certain kind of player — be very enjoyable.

Silverbourne
If it’s paralyzing enough to prevent the person from actually functioning in society then I do agree it should be treated as a condition, for the good of the person himself, but I believe such cases to be rare. For every other case I do think help should be available if the person himself wants to change, but the choice should be left to him, and I see any kind of pressure for the person to take this help as unethical at least.

FVerret
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FVerret

I believe that aging gamers’ shorter play sessions and the breadth of activities available in a single game have a negative effect on socialization. Despite the fact that we want the diversity, that we want to always have something we can do, it can be a burden until the player has gone through all of the meaningful content available to them.

When I log into my MMO of choice, I already have a set of tasks on which to focus. Since I only play about once a week, I simply do not have the time to join a guild and chat away or attend events, otherwise I will never progress. I am probably not in the majority, but I am sure I am not the only one who feels like (s)he does not have enough time to become involved in the community.