I recently saw a journalism professor argue that generating a widespread thinking shift in an entire profession can take decades. “You have to keep making the case in different ways,” Jay Rosen wrote. Granted, he was talking about the American press, but it struck me that it’s also true of a whole lot of other industries – and genres.
The MMO genre in particular seems to get bogged down in specific ideas and has a hard time shedding them, and I mean the players as much as the developers – maybe even more. Look at some of the arguments we’ve been having as a genre over just the last decade: crowdfunding, free-to-play, lockboxes, toxicity, designed downtime, addiction, game preservation, elitism, nonconsensual PvP. Player opinion on some of these topics has shifted a lot, but others? It hasn’t changed much in two decades. And as press, we definitely feel the pain of trying to “make the case in different ways.”
For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked the MOP writers what they think about shifting the “mindset” – which major points of debate and subjects of constant discussion on our pages or in the wider genre have not shifted nearly enough in the last 10 or 20 years? What, if anything, can players do to generate the change we need?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Man oh man, where to start? Maybe the easiest part is socialization. Yes, there’s this whole “together alone thing,” but as one of my colleagues has pointed out previously, forced grouping isn’t social, but I’d change it to “not necessarily social.” I do think forcing people to work together is important, but socialization is more than just being around other people. It’s both learning and teaching what the societal norms are. When there are little to no consequences for poor behavior and people can just bounce around random groups to avoid their punishment, socialization simply isn’t happening. We know companies can already track some pretty deep social information, so why not use it to create more social games?
In my mind, the simplest thing one could do is collect the social data Yokozuna talked about, like identifying social groups and who is the center of said group(s). Attach a kind of social reputation to that, which affects others. For example, perhaps a game allows people to give awards for positive behavior, such as for being a team player, mentorship, and mood making. The opposite can also be factors that get reported. Gary and Bob and friends, and Bob is friends with Pat but not Gary. Gary is constantly reported for mood making, positive and negative. Bob always gives Gary positive points for mood making. Gary and Bob’s voting are less weighted less because they play with each other often. However, they also will be less likely to matched with people who vote against Gary. Pat, being friends with Bob, isn’t weighted as much since there’s a tangential connection when on his own, but when grouped with Gary and Bob, any complaints against Gary will weigh on him more than if he were alone. Having similar ratings keeps similar people together, and if someone wants to redeem themselves, they have to interact with a wider range of people outside their network to repair the damage.
We’ve already seen similar systems in MOBAs where cheaters or people with poor behavior get lumped into the same group, but this would be something that scales. I think it might be a bad idea to give players access to hard numbers, but maybe some kind of color gradient to see how well people match in certain values (deep blue being allies, dark red being opposites, so neutral people would be kind of purple) could be beneficial to identifying how careful you might want to be when grouping with someone or recruiting them in your guild.
Oh, and in-game families. These should be in every MMO. Enter the game world near a friend who’s already playing, have a choice about sharing a similar tag/housing, shared chat channel. Not only would it help identify who’s rolling together, but it would help people feel like they don’t necessarily need to be in the same guild, so people can have multiple social circles. We’re seeing more of this kind of thing, but it doesn’t feel like a staple yet, just an experiment.
Andy McAdams: I have two! The first, I wrote about this already, and it generated a Reddit-hate-thread of my very own: our concept of what social means and what games who are “social” have. We are still defining what social games look like so narrowly – only as coming together for group content. Actual social features – like guilds, player housing, player owned-business, hell even chat – are more or less exactly the same as they were 20 years ago. It’s not as if these features can’t be innovated and made better, but players have such a Stockholm syndrome over just getting these things to exist in games that it rarely occurs to us that these things are basic, stale, and wholly unrealized as social aspects of the game. Instead, we cling with a zealot-level dogmatism that forced grouping is the only possible way. It’s ludicrous, insanely limiting, and ultimately self-defeating.
The second is the genre obsession with combat as the only method for interacting with the game world. I’ve mentioned before – why are non-combat classes not a thing anymore? Hell, we largely can’t even get developers to create support classes because conceptually it doesn’t fit into the “meat shield, keep bars full, or stab until it falls over” dynamic. Let me be clear: Combat and combat classes are fine and important. By why are there only combat classes? Where are the traders, the couriers, the merchants – or even the gimme, a released modern game where crafting is more than something bolted on to check a box? (I might give you FFXIV… kinda.) The virtual worlds we inhabit are one-dimensional murder-hobo zones due to nothing more than pure laziness and inertia. Our games should be far more than running around stabbing things. We should demand worlds where we can run around and stab things and also be a delivery boy, start a player-run shop, be a traveling trader, be a traveling bard.
Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I see a lot of comments and complaints about what “passes” as an MMO nowadays. I’m sure if you search hard enough, you could probably even find some incensed lunatic ranting about the content of this site and how the industry has “sold out” for clicks by covering games that don’t fit squarely into the classic MMO template. Slowly but surely, players have begun to accept that online games are more than just Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft, but there are still many who don’t accept this. I think it’s a good thing err on the side of more inclusiveness with our definition. Taking such a posture will ensure that the genre will be around for many years to come, albeit perhaps an adapted version of our original definition.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Just looking at my own list, I’m heartened to see major shifts are still possible. For example: crowdfunding (people have gone from thinking it will save gaming to outright suspicion and hostility for old and new games with abusive crowdfunding models) and game preservation (the positive shift for emulators and rogue servers is dramatic, and all the studios had to do was start arbitrarily closing down more and more good games! Oh. Oh no.). Still, all in less than 10 years? Really heartened.
Toxicity, on the other hand? I don’t think the needle has moved much. I’ve seen people argue convincingly that it’s gotten worse. I’m not sure I personally agree; I think the toxicity that was always there has gotten louder and more desperate to hold on to the dark pockets of our industry in response to the pushback against it, which is deservedly getting bolder and angrier and more vocal. We have a long way to go there.
I didn’t really ask about mindsets that have changed negatively, but that’s happened too and there are fights I think we’ve simply lost. It’s too late, for example, to rescue the original idea of MMORPGs as true virtual worlds rather than combat-and-questing sums, for this current generation of players, anyway. I never give up hope for the future, but right now, we’re not progressing or standing still – we’re sliding backward.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): The mindset I think that hasn’t changed nearly enough has to be the cynicism. Oh. My. Gosh. The cynicism. I swear, with all the moaning and groaning you’d think the current MMO industry lives in the Valley of Ashes from The Great Gatsby, the yes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg providing a stark reminder of what was and what never will be. It’s nuts.
I see it too, but being cynical about it isn’t going to fix anything. Those are the people that stand around and whine about how broken things are. They inevitably turn people who want to get into the genre away. And then they complain about how the genre is dying.
Positivity! Being positive goes a long way. A lot of us are veterans! We’ve seen everything this current MMO generation has to offer. What we can do is show younger players the joy of MMOs. Let them get inspired and let their ideas innovate. It’ll go a long way.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m going to put out a mindset change that I myself have been experiencing of late and one that will probably win me even more enemies than I probably already have: Mobile MMOs are just as fun as “real” MMOs. I’ve been having a great time with Black Desert Mobile and AdventureQuest 3D on my phone, and I’m growing more and more willing to at least try out and accept mobile MMO and MMORPG titles than ever before. At the same time, I still play plenty of “real” MMORPGs on my PC or on my console, it’s just a question of what sort of experience I’m looking for or where I happen to be at any given time. I appreciate that a lot of mobile games are worthy of some derision, but just because an MMO — or any game, really — is on mobile doesn’t automatically make it garbage.