Massively Overthinking: Are MMO social hubs overrated?

    
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MMO reader Random recently winged us an article from Kotaku arguing for the abolishment of pointless social hubs in video games. “Here’s a radical idea,” it begins, “Turn every social space in a video game into a menu.” It suggests that many social hubs are wastes of time and space and we’d all be better served by a menu instead of shuffling around from NPC to NPC and door to door. Admittedly, the Kotaku piece is clearly intentionally hyperbolic, as while it refers to video games in general, the actual examples are smaller-scale (and console-oriented) multiplayer titles like Outriders and Destiny 2.

“The idea of a social space is well-intentioned. Video games are at their best when they foster a sense of community. Seeing other Guardians bunny-hop around the Tower builds an unmistakable cozy camaraderie. But it’s still a midway point between loading the game and playing the game. For those saddled with packed schedules, slow internet, or bones-deep impatience, an option to access the essentials via a menu, rather than a social space, would be more than welcome.”

In other words, in spite of its bold introduction, the Kotaku piece isn’t really arguing for the end of social spaces or community, just the end of social spaces that don’t really support that community anyway. So for this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about the concept of social hubs from our point of view as people who play social MMOs very much on purpose and seek out games that support communities. Are you a fan of the social hub construct in MMOs? What about in other multiplayer games? Which games are doing it best, and which one would be better off with a menu?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I actually want to start off with something Chris (below) said about making social spaces are a roleplayer. I think the fact that MMOs in particular feel like they’ve become more about measurable progress than massively multiplayer immersive experiences says a lot about the genre. The fact that RPers are the vast minority is troubling.

So with that in mind, yes, I’m a fan of social hub constructs in MMOs, but I also feel like many social hubs tend to be quite limited in their use. As Ari from Kotaku noted, many towns are basically quest hubs. You buy, sell, grab your quests, and go. Some people may look for a guild, or check out different outfits. All of those things are possible in Splatoon 2’s “social hub,” and that’s completely single-player; it’s just populated by people you’ve recently played with. In addition, much as Ari suggests, everything can also be accessed via menus, so I can see how this might work.

But the thing I dislike about this is that I know it’s a fake social hub. There’s no people randomly dancing or dueling, and quests are solo (but let’s face it, 95+% of MMO quests are solo or doable with a group finder tool). It works for what Splatoon is, but also keeps it locked in that position. If a game wants to create political systems such as TERA had, in-game spaces can be used for debates. When trade is allowed, towns can work for that. If players actually get to shape lore, social hubs work as places to discuss things in-game in ways that can include casual fans as well. The problem is it often feels like MMOs are loot grinders first and multiplayer experiences second.

So yes, while I like social hubs in multiplayer games, I can see how ones that really don’t have a lot of social/fun non-combat activities might be willing to either cut out the hub or give a menu as an option. RPers can turn any location into an RP situation (I won’t get into that here), so I’d vastly prefer if social spaces weren’t totally eliminated. I do wish, though, that those with social hubs would include more social game features than just a few emotes and a chat system.

Andy McAdams: I’m a big fan of social hubs in MMOs. I agree with Chris (below) that there’s nothing quite like walking into a city or other social hub and just seeing a ton of people everywhere. I’ve said before that one of my favorite aspects of Anarchy Online was the bars in the game that served no other purpose other than to just be a social space. More recently, I always have a ton of fun doing the Kirin Tor bar crawls, which is literally just following portals around with a bunch of players at the same time.

But I also think that those spaces have to be crafted. For example, I loved Wildstar, and I despised the Exiles’ city. It didn’t have a “hub” anywhere and never felt full of people (even when the game was doing well). It was a zone with a nonsensical smattering of services and places decentralized that just absolutely didn’t work for me as a social space.

Somewhat ironically, I think the other thing that makes these social spaces successful for me is having the “hidden” places to go. The random tavern that’s in the social hub but off the main beaten path, so it has this special “I’m in on a secret” kind of vibe — like the dive bar you love to go to that no one knows about until you introduce them. I think that’s exceptionally hard to do, but I love it when someone pulls it off.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I get what Kotaku was trying to say by the end of the piece: Some games really didn’t need “games as a service” or MMO trappings like hubs. If they don’t have all the other spaces that support socializing, they’re just trying to fake it with hubs. People see right through this. Why bother.

For MMORPGs, though, and even for a lot of MMOs that aren’t core MMORPGs, I’m all about the hubs. Yes, sometimes MMOs have too many hubs, and that can become its own sort of problem when people are too spread apart and aren’t given an obvious central gathering spot. And nobody wants to see dead hubs, like dead player cities. But for the most part, I think a game has an obligation to create and then push people toward gathering spots. Creating space for opportunity is the key for actually letting people find their own immersion. Nobody gets immersed by a menu.

OK, wait, though, I can get immersed in menus. Never mind.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Sometimes it’s the simple things players enjoy. There’s no reason for taking it away, even if it makes things more efficient. The article feels a little clickbaity, and the take is so hot I just took fire damage.

They’re not wrong, making a town into a menu will make things more efficient. I find this mindset problematic- this obsession with stripping down systems to their most simple for the sake of saving a couple of seconds. As someone who’s played a metric ton of mobile MMOs, I am very familiar with what an overly streamlined game looks and plays like. Last time I checked, people loath how games of that caliber overly streamline their systems like that. Taking away the social hub itself is just one less thing for players to enjoy, and one less thing every player visits at one point. Oh, it’s also one less place to flex that sweet, sweet, gear.

It honestly sounds like a criticism for the sake of standing out and an annoyance towards playing the game/genre itself.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Since I’m a big fan of the idea of ambient multiplayer, I absolutely think social spaces are vital if for no other reason than simple optics. Arriving into a busy hub city or other point of player gathering usually males me feel really good.

This goes for multiplayer titles too, for that matter. Having that little mental reset in between hunts in Dauntless is a good thing, even if my time spent at Ramsgate can sometimes be measured in seconds.

Finally, speaking as a roleplayer, I assure you that folks like me will make a location social no matter what someone thinks or wants. We’re like coral reefs that way.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I always love the idea of social hubs and definitely think they have a place in any and all online spaces. The only problem is making them engaging, useful, and attractive to players who are often eager to run out the door and “go play” in adventure zones or dungeons. I don’t like forcing players to hang out just to regen whatever stat or resource they need; that feels to me heavy-handed restraint by developers. Rather, social spaces should offer services, entertainment, and activities that players can’t get elsewhere. They should be alluring all on their own.

Additionally, social hubs really should do a much better job putting tools in the hands of players to put on concerts, contests, and various activities. People congregate where the fun is at, and that fun can indeed be led by players.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Sounds to me like the issue isn’t with social hubs so much as it is with bad social hubs. The hubs Kotaku is describing are certainly quite dull and probably would be better off being replaced with menus, but it doesn’t need to be that way. A good hub has memorable NPCs, beautiful environments, enjoyable music, useful services, mini-games… All these things pile up and come together to create a sense of place, of home, that transcends mere game mechanics.

Honestly, some of my favorite MMO memories are of wandering aimlessly through cities. I still remember being struck by the scale of Divinity’s Reach in Guild Wars 2 when I came to it for the first time, to say nothing of finding all the secrets and Easter eggs hidden within World of Warcraft cities like Silvermoon and Dalaran.

This is also one area where roleplay is really important. Even if you’re not a roleplayer yourself, watching over people mingle and converse as you stroll the virtual streets does absolute wonders to make a game come alive.

Social hubs are an indirect way robust fashion systems can really pay off, too. If a game has lots of good cosmetic options, you can lose hours just checking out cool costumes in the main hubs. I spent no small amount of time doing just that in The Secret World’s Agartha. The creativity and variety of outfits in that game never ceased to amaze me.

So yeah, there are probably some games that don’t need hubs and could do away with them, but let’s not lose sight of what a joy they can be when a game does justice to the idea.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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