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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Brazen Bondar

I am primarily a solo player but I love a social hub. Even if I’m playing by myself I want to see that there are other players in the world who are also enjoying the space. Sometimes I just want to watch and laugh while other players are being silly and maybe I just need to be hit by some snowballs during the holidays. And maybe I’ll just hang around the rails at the Fleet and eavesdrop on the RP’ers. Really miss hanging out in Agartha in TSW, doing nothing but participating in goofy spontaneous group activities, for no other reason than that they were fun.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

You reminded me of my early days in EVE Online, floating in a cheap ship – to the reduce the risk of getting ganked- outside the major trade station in Jita system. I’d watch the ceaseless parade of myriad ship types coming and going. The enormous freighters were especially impressive, ponderously maneuvering their bulk into warp alignment to a jump gate.

Knowing that most of these ships had other players controlling them filled me with a sense of amazement.

My trips to Jita now have me focused on the overview, looking to see who is establishing target lock on me.

Demon of Razgriz
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Demon of Razgriz

I only play two MMO’s (CoX and STO) yet I’m only sociable in CoX. In CoX, there’s almost a “need” for some form of social interaction with others (team finding, questions, etc.). Between Atlas Park and Peregrine Island, being social is almost as normal as talking to my neighbors. In STO, I don’t talk or interact with anyone. In both games it works for me because of the community. CoX has always had one of the more better community interactions not in game and on the forums. STO, on the other hand, I’d just rather stay away from. It’s a great game to simply que up for a few TF runs because it requires zero communication and interactivity between players. Hell, I don’t even talk to Fleet members because it’s not necessary. There are two many “I know more than anyone else” lore-ologists running around as if they’re Gene Roddenberry reincarnated and it sucks the life out of the game experience if you dive in to it.

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Gordi_the_mighti

Meh. I can take them or leave them. I usually login with something in mind to do, so I do not stick around in hubs for long. If there was a menu that listed the Auction House, transmog/glamour, venders etc. I would probably use it to save time. As for the social aspect. Ill be honest I have global channels off by default so I am not really paying attention to what other people are saying. Unless some one whispers me directly iam not gonna notice them.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

I like social spaces in mmos. Rpers like me can go to see others performative RP. I was in Pocket D one morning waaaaay long time ago in LIVE and someone had programmed their robots to do the Whose on First Abbott and Costello routine. I was gloriously fun! Wouldn’t see that with just a menu.

Second, I still remember the old Asherons Call days when the hubs were the strangest places. There was a tunnel through a mountain which separated the two continents. People lined up all along side it like they were selling goods…it just became a thing. Then there were the frequent calls of “PORTAL TO HUB.”

The HUB was a room at the bottom of a undead dungeon which had portals to all over the realm..People would wait there to sell, chat, or look for groups to go dungeoning…. not something the devs had designed to be that way but the players decided where the best place to hang out was.

So the thing that I see a lot is Devs who PLAN out a social space sometimes don’t know what is going to BE a social space based on the players needs and desires.

kajidourden
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kajidourden

Honestly they are pretty pointless. I can’t tell you the last time I actually had an interaction with someone in Orgrimmar or Gridania or any other hub in an MMO.

People just pass through or sit there in queue making your FPS miserable.

If a game would actually utilize this in some way then sure….but literally none of them have any sort of purpose to the hubs other than to conveniently locate vendors and quest NPCs

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Y’know, if not for someone turning to me after I /say’d something in Gridania during my free trial asking a noob question that turned into about a half hour long conversation with two people that were friends but random strangers to me, I wouldn’t have played FFXIV for a full year. I was able to ask a few questions I had about it to some actual players (They gave me their info in case I stuck around..but I ended up on another server once I became a paid player)…I still have their names written down here and I don’t even play still. (Thank you Soren Mailand and Aru K)

Yeah some of those people aren’t very friendly/make things annoying, but a lot of them are actual people doing their own thing/roaming around/in a menu reading something/etc. I know I missed a couple messages a few times when people nearby would say stuff, and I usually tried to message them when I’d see it to offer the same type of help others gave me.

(They lock your account from speaking anywhere else but /say as a free trial…many games do this, as a way to deprive you from being a spam-bot/spamming…but it’s actually a deterrent to keeping players in their games.)

Now, I will mention that this was years back by this point, and maybe things have gone downhill in the world lately somewhat, but there’s still people around in games that are worth investing the time into, if one bothers to.

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Michael18

The Kotaku article wasn’t about MMOs, rather about co-op lobby games that consist of nothing else than a bunch of instanced “dungeons” and some sort of “dungeon finder” tool to teleport people into the action. For such games, I imagine, it makes sense to ask if the benefit of implementing the lobby as a small instanced level shared with a bunch of random strangers that have no significance to you and your game experience is worth the increased tedium of running between NPCs. Personally, I do not have an opinion on that, because I do not play lobby games.

For MMORPGs, on the other hand, social hubs are of course an essential feature.

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David Goodman

I think when a developer tries to deliberately create a “hub”, it tends to fail; a social hub is more than just a collection of vendors and quest givers, but that’s really what we’re being given — that’s what is replaceable by a menu.

SOme of the best social hubs i’ve ever run across were places in games where people… just gathered at. They didn’t have any in-game mechanical significance, they were just very suitable areas for people to talk at.

Games that design towns to be “towns” tend to create this organically, because they’re trying to lay out things in a way that makes logical sense to a city planner or someone actually making a town. This creates pockets of social potential.

A developer that says “Okay, we have a large open circular area here, and we’re going to put all the vendors in a ring around that area, and oh, hey, here’s a vendor that links to our microtransaction store… and this means that everyone is getting funneled and grouped up here – INSTANT SOCIAL HUB! HIGH FIVE, CHAD!” …. I don’t know where I was going with this, but this isn’t good; this isn’t a social hub. This is a visual menu.

Thing is, I like being social with people in MMOs, but not with “EVERY FRIGGIN BODY IN THE GAME” social. Just throwing a roleplayer into a glob of goddamn-everything isn’t going to make it a meaningful experience for me. I don’t speak for anyone but myself, but I feel like i’m probably not alone in that too.

Let me find the out-of-the-way areas. The taverns that don’t have any special vendors in it, but are lovingly crafted by someone who wanted to make a TAVERN even if it isn’t the place everyone is funneled into by mechanics. Let me find the red light districts. The gnome-punting arenas.

Y’know. Social stuff. Not “glob of vendors” stuff.

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IronSalamander8 .

An interesting idea, and one that I’ve seen in the opposite order; the PvZ shooters.

GW1 has a standard menu system; select and click what you want; multiplayer, Ops, sticker book, sticker shop, etc. like most other online games of the type. Nothing amazing, nothing bad. It works fine for what it is.

GW2 added the Backyard Battleground which has most of these menu items (barring settings), as objects in the 2 bases and you can open your backyard to up to 3 people (invite only, friends only, public), and explore, fight, and mess about. Want a multiplayer game? Go to the portal and jump in. Want to buy sticker packs? Go to a vending machine. The same kind of interactive spots in your backyard exist for changing characters, changing side, customizing your characters, and so on. It has puzzles to solve and quests to do as well. I LOVE this idea, as it gives you a living world that you can explore with friends or on your own. When I had a friend that played tons of the game with me, we hung out there a lot and tried to get as many bosses fighting as we could (our record is 8, 4 zombie and 4 plant bosses at once).

BfN has Giddy Park which is better and worse. It defaults to public and you’ll see up to 23 other players at random and you can fight down at the park itself in between the 2 bases and meet people to play with, but otherwise is much like the Backyard Battleground from GW2, but the AI enemies sorely lack variety and too many spawncampers at the player landing areas for the park. You can set your option to private with or without bots, but the idea of having a social hub where you can meet people, battle, and just hang out, is a good one, they just could have handled it better.

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Neurotic

“We’re like coral reefs that way.” Perfect! :D

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Yes, let’s take away socialization and turn it into a menu where you just ‘insert your credit card here’. In fact, let’s just forget the aspect of you gaining anything at all from the endeavor, and you just give us your money because you want to, and we have to provide you nothing for it. Why even bother making a game in the first place, you should just provide us with money!

/sarcasm

Most of us socialize and HAVE FUN WHILE DOING IT and that’s why we’re often distracted enough to give you money for it. Not the other way around…hubs themselves aren’t necessarily the way to do it, but trying to remove socialization and therefore the people behind the games, and just making you an avatar that interacts with other avatars but only in the way they allow, isn’t fun.