Vague Patch Notes: Unpacking the Riot MMO’s group-centric philosophy

Let's talk about social friction

I hate everything about you.

Well! It has been a week, that’s for darn sure. And amidst everything else going on this particular week, it would’ve been easy to miss the time when Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street decided to make some comments about Riot’s still as-yet-not-actually-titled MMO project that some people are already disproportionately excited about. Because we all know that a company best known for yoinking a Warcraft III map and copying Hearthstone and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive combined with Overwatch is going to make a game with a remarkably forward-looking and innovative cocktail, right?

Sorry, folks, this week has killed my usual snark filters.

Anyhow, if you missed that, there was a little aside in which Street stated, essentially, that the game Riot is making will definitely expect people to come together and work together in order to progress in the game. Which is an interesting statement to unpack because on one level it says a lot about what the game is going to be like, but on another level it really says virtually nothing. So let’s talk about that!

For starters, let’s just reproduce the quote here so that we’re all on the same page about the exact wording used:

“This will be vague, but our philosophy is if you want to play a single player game, there are great ones out there. Horizon! GoW! Persona! Shout out to Pathfinder WotR! If you want to play a game with a community, with friends, then play our MMO.”

Here’s the thing: Taken at face value, that statement doesn’t mean anything. It implies that there will need to be some interplay between players in order to enjoy the game. Put it another way, “you will need to work with other people” could just as easily be used to describe the philosophy of all of the big five games and most of the other ones, and I don’t think I need to explain to anyone reading this that World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and The Elder Scrolls Online all have wildly different standards for what it means to need other people and come together as a community.

I'm your new loathed grind!

In fact, as a statement in and of itself, it’s so banal as to be halfway to a tautology. A good MMO should involve interaction with other people in a shared space is like saying that a good shooting game should involve some form of projectile. That’s part of the concept. It says nothing about the actual philosophy under consideration. If this were some random person on the internet, it’d be easy to just kind of write this off.

However, Street is not just some random person; he’s someone with a specific history in the industry that ties back directly to WoW. This means that the statement isn’t going to just be taken in the context of broad philosophical approaches; it’s being taken in the spirit of “this is what someone who was responsible for a specific game with a specific philosophy.” And it’s the sort of thing that’s going to turn someone off from the game right away because… well, look at WoW now.

Actually, no, don’t do that. Let’s back up. What we need to do is talk about social friction because that’s really the key of what’s going on here, and it raises the question of what an average night of play is meant to look like for you.

See, for a lot of people, social friction is basically the antithesis of a fun time. As soon as you run into a quest that’s going to require you to shout for a group and desperately try to find someone willing to help you out, you’re likely going to clock out. The more a game requires that level of social friction, the more players are going to lose touch with the game. This was, in short, what WildStar’s endgame was entirely built around.

You know how that story ends.

The thing about this sort of social friction is that it is, at the heart, a hierarchical system. Consider the age-old construct of static parties, when you would do everything with the same group of people at a reliable schedule. If you had that reliable group of people and could expect to clear things in a reliable fashion, that set you up for further success and clearing more difficult content… which, in turn, made you more invested in the game because it became your shared social space with people who expected you to be there.

By contrast, most of the big five games outside of WoW at this point have a much-reduced approach to that kind of friction. It’s not that they’re devoid of group content or group-based activities, but the goal and emphasis is on making it easy to form a group, do the stuff you want to do, and then go about your day. If you’re spending two hours on group content in Guild Wars 2, it’s not because it takes you that long to find a group; it’s because you’re having fun and don’t want to stop, at least in theory.

I'm so tired.

So therein lies the disconnect. Whether he meant it or not, what Street implied with Riot’s oncoming game is that it’s going to have the same kind of social friction as WoW that’s going to turn a lot of people off (as has been consistently happening with WoW for years now, this is an old discussion, it’s not even a discussion so much as a statement of fact, move on). And for a lot of people, that’s the sort of thing that immediately turns people off from the very concept of the game.

But is that what he actually meant?

The short answer is that I don’t know. I do not exist within the temple of Greg Street’s mind, and I don’t know what secret thoughts he has in his heart, nor do I want to. I do not that the question he was replying to creates the impression that he’s definitely angling for that because the question under discussion was angling for lacking group finders and other tools that make for, well, a properly functioning game with a minimum of social friction.

At the same time, he also didn’t really answer the question directly; he responded with vagueness that can really be taken almost any way you want depending on your personal proclivities. (It occurs to me that I’ve never actually talked directly about this myth of group finders preventing community formation; another time.) It’s the sort of PR speak that can easily be taken to reinforce whatever your existing beliefs are because it’s also cutting back to the heart of what MMOs are as a concept without literally saying anything.

So I think that ultimately that’s the big thing. This comment, in and of itself, is only saying as much as you want it to say. If you were already somewhat reluctant or apprehensive about the nature of whatever Riot is doing with its MMO, this gives you more reason to be apprehensive. If you were excited for whatever reason, you can still be excited. But it avoids coming down in any sort of definitive way, leaving it as an amorphous blob.

That having been said, the hints of social friction there are definitely not something that I would describe as encouraging. It’s very easy to feel that as a throwback to an era of MMO design that we’ve largely moved on from and consistently trips up games trying to lean into it.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
Previous articleSony believes Microsoft will ‘continue to ensure Activision games are multiplatform’
Next articleActivision-Blizzard’s Raven Software is formally unionizing

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments