This is the story of Stanley.
Stanley had a hobby, and that hobby was playing MMOs. Every day, he logged in to Final Fantasy XI, where he knew he was expected to press buttons. First, he pressed the buttons needed to put up his party flag. Then he pressed the buttons to get to where he was going; then he pressed the other buttons to do damage to a target. His performance was workmanlike and uninspired. Challenging content did not hinge upon Stanley, but he could be relied upon to show up and hit his buttons. And Stanley was happy.
Until one day when Stanley logged in to find that something had changed. The players were gone. It turned out that the game had instituted a new system called Trust, allowing players to take on the majority of content with a group of AI-controlled characters. Players like Stanley were entirely forgotten. No parties were formed for Stanley, and Stanley knew that something was wrong. That there was a problem with things because players were no longer talking.
After all, if they weren’t talking to Stanley, who would they be talking to?
Apologies are offered to Davey Wreden and William Pugh, but they’re the sort of apologies that come only with a great deal of respect for one’s body of work. Let’s move on, shall we? In fact, let’s start over.
I’ve always had a deeply held distrust of group activities in school. This is likely as much my fault as anyone else’s; as a goal-oriented person who tends to focus on getting things done, I found most of my group projects turned into me and perhaps one other child doing all of the work while the rest of the group did nothing.
At the time, I tended to think of this as a failing of the teacher, as if the teachers who had been in charge of this class for some time weren’t fully aware of which student would be doing all the work and which one would get work done only if subjected to pressure at geological scales. Between age and working in education, I know now that this is not the case; the teachers know full well that, say, David is never going to look at the worksheet and Melissa is just going to do the whole thing in a fit of exasperation. The groups aren’t arranged to produce the best work but to produce some work.
This doesn’t mean that my opinion of group activities like this has changed much. If you’ve got a group of four students and one of them is doing the majority of the legwork, three of them are basically there to fill space. It’s not a learning experience for anyone other than the student doing the work, and what that student is chiefly learning is that in a group, responsibilities fall to the person most unwilling to screw things up.
Our three space-fillers in this supposition aren’t really the villains of the piece, though. Sure, they may lack much in redeeming qualities (I had one regular grouping partner in grade school who I am fairly sure is now doing time in prison), but the majority are just… well, Stanley. They fill the space in the group. They do what’s asked of them, no more, no less. They’re present.
MMOs have long had a problem with presence.
With a subscription model, the broad strokes of what you want to do are pretty clear. You want players to play as long as possible and keep playing no matter what. This is in stark contrast to the traditional model of most video games on home systems. From Software does not actually care if you bounce off Bloodborne because it’s too hard; the game was sold, and the company has your money. Even in a free-to-play model there’s the drive to keep people in the game because that’s what provides more chances and reasons for people to spend money.
You can’t gate a game behind challenge with that. If you want people to play the game as long as possible without making any pretense of fun, the ideal situation is one wherein people have to just stay logged in and everything just requires slow, tedious amounts of time. Log in for a week straight and you’ll get your second level.
No one would actually play that game, of course; similarly, people who realize that the only thing needed for advancement is just being there would probably clock out pretty quickly. So from a design standpoint, you need to provide situations where there’s the feeling of challenge but really it’s just about presence and consistency.
They called this game EverQuest.
Obviously, that’s hyperbole; I’m not quite so cynical to think that EQ was a meeting that just checked off a list of boxes for psychological levers to tug. (Those of you who are that cynical and wish to crow about it in the comments, commence to jigglin’.) But there’s a definite veneer of that, one that’s wound up shot through the DNA of MMOs in a rather pervasive way. The apex may well be World of Warcraft’s 40-person raids, activities that people have long said required about 15 people who could do things correctly at the top end and another 25 who were there to more or less serve as ablative meat.
This is the environment that gives birth to Stanley. It’s not that Stanley is a bad guy. It’s that Stanley is a guy and, well, that’s it. He’s there. And so long as games emphasized “being there” over “doing stuff,” people like Stanley could thrive.
I’m not Stanley. I don’t know Stanley. Maybe Stanley is really great at loads of games and this is just his excuse to just be present. But when Stanley isn’t wanted any more, Stanley is going to get loud and decry the state of affairs, often insisting that things were better back when everyone had to group up to level and people always talked and everything was a warm community of rainbows.
But the community is still there. People are still talking and doing things and enjoying themselves. They just don’t need Stanley any longer. If the choice is between painstakingly assembling a party on the local server or just popping in for fun, people are going to do the latter. If the content becomes more challenging, there’s no space for Stanley to schlub his way through. Nobody is friends with Stanley because they were friends with Stanley in the first place only because he fulfilled the function of filled space when that was needed.
Really, I feel empathy for Stanley. It hurts when you had a community that you were a part of only to find that the community went elsewhere and no longer needs you. It feels as if something is wrong with the world because you haven’t changed, and I can understand if it feels like no one is talking because no one is talking to you.
Yet at the same time, Stanley has the option to change. If Stanley wishes people would talk in groups, Stanley can talk himself; not everyone will answer, but not everyone did back when people were needed to fill the space either. If Stanley wants to be known, he can introduce himself. That’s where the empathy stops, when Stanley sees a world that needs to change in order to fit his particular talent of “being there.”
And while Stanley would once again be happy, it seems unlikely anyone else would be.