See, there are things that social games do even better than MMOs tend to. And the hint is right there in the name. No, I'm not implying that these are better games; I'm saying that social games are generally much better about handling the social side of the equation. And the MMO industry as a whole would do well to pick up on the hints.
Not everything, of course. We all have recurring nightmares about that one person on Facebook whose timeline is nothing but a series of dubious achievements in social games. But there are a lot of elements scattered throughout the games as a whole that could be oddly useful if taken as a whole.
No restrictions on helping in some way
Ms. Lady and I both enjoy playing video games. It's part of how we became friends in the first place. Unfortunately, she and I have very different attitudes toward MMORPGs. I tend to jump in at launch or close to it, or I get thrown in by a round of Choose My Adventure. She tends to hang back until I've told her whether the game is worth playing or not. The problem is that by the time she finally jumps in at Level Hopeless, my level is being measured by scientific notation. She can't help me, and I can help her only by removing the actual game and killing everything around her.
But if we played FarmVille, I could go water her crops and she could water mine, no matter what level we both were.
Most social games have some variant on this. FarmVille also lets you send presents to others and rewards you for doing so. Dragon Age Legends allowed you to recruit the characters of your friends for your party, meaning that as you play, you all have an easier time with content. Most games give you some small way that both players can derive a benefit.
Designers of MMOs have realized over the years that it's no fun to join a game for your friends only to find that your friends have passed your level long ago, and as a result, most games have put some system into place to try to fix this issue. The trouble is that most of these fixes have still involved going back and forth with leveling, usually raising or lowering levels as necessary. There's no tasks where two characters can provide equal aid to one another without levels needing to get in the way.
And it doesn't need to be something major. There's a sense in a lot of MMO design that either you're going through an entire dungeon together or you're playing separately, but most social games let you jump in, help someone for five minutes, and then get back to whatever you want.
Guild Wars 2 does a good job of encouraging this behavior. You're not punished for attacking the same target as another player, and it winds up helping both of you out in the long run. It's just a quick chance to help someone else out, and you both get a boon from it.
A mercantile relationship with easy mutual benefit
The healer in your group is fundamentally there because you need him. Sure, you like him. He's a cool guy, you talk out of game, he sent you some nice recipes earlier in the month, and you pointed him to a good job in his area. You are definitely friends. But you met because you needed a healer and he fit the bill, and his function in the game is to keep you alive.
There's nothing shameful about that. When I'm in a group, I'm there to perform a role, not deliver cutting insights about design style. Relationships in games like this are based on mutual benefit at some level, even if in the end you wind up being friends first and MMO buddies second.
Here's the thing: No one likes to admit this. We have this image, encouraged from several sources, that your groups in MMOs are supposed to consist of your friends first and functional allies second or third or possibly never. This is despite the fact that the game is clearly encouraging you to go ahead and play with people who provide you a tangible benefit, since very few games have a system for clearing content based on shared social interests.
Social games engage in no such pretense. You need more friends playing this game to do this, and that's the end of the discussion. Get more friends. Give away these gifts to get a prize. Help others specifically because that helps you in the long run.
Part of why no one cares about this is that by definition, the people you are foisting this upon are already your friends. But another part is because the game just makes it transparent that this is what you're doing. You're helping others to help yourself, and that's not a bad thing. Everyone gets something.
This point and the previous one could easily combine into some useful methods of social interaction without requiring dedicated group content. Imagine a buff that you can receive only if you give it to someone else as well, or an experience boost received for providing a minor service for another player. Imagine if visiting the properties of your in-game friends gave you a quest to clear out nearby animals and doing so gave you experience and boosted some in-game stat for them as well. These are all ways to interact and benefit without requiring a big chunk of time or requiring a formal group together or pretending that you're helping just out of pure altruism.
Sharing the cool
Social games follow an evolutionary path not unlike a virus; they require you to spread and advertise everything you've done therein because their best chance of making money involves a lot of people being aware of the game. So each game floods your status page with updates about what, exactly, you've recently accomplished in the game.
The side effect is that people just see that you're having a lot of fun. And that's something that I think MMOs have frequently missed in the rush of design trends and philosophies and so forth. At the end of the day, the great part of playing an MMORPG is that you can play with someone else on the same virtual playground, even if you're not both physically there at the same time.
Over recent years games have gotten much better about reducing the barriers to entry so that if your buddy wants to join you in Star Wars: The Old Republic or Champions Online or EverQuest, he can do so now instead of when he finally goes to the store. But there's still a persistent sense that everything cool should be restricted to you and you alone for having accomplished some great task in the game. By your dedication, you get to the fun part.
Here's an idea -- why not take a lead from social games? Why not invite your friend and give him something instantly cool, and then have him move up increasing tiers of cool as you enjoy the game? Why not reward his time by telling him cool stuff is here instead of forcing him to slog and grind to catch up with you?
The great weakness of most MMORPGs is that they ask you to suffer through a lot of work before you get to the fun. Social games throw you right into the cool part. That's a lesson worth learning.
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