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The Digital Continuum: Social failings of all MMOs

Kyle Horner

With all the changes and additions in MMORPGs over the years, you'd think there would've been more improvements to how people interact with one another. It's strange to look at arguably the cornerstone of this genre and see the least advancements in relation to other features, but that's seemingly the case.

The visibility of other people who you want to hang out with in a game is of the utmost importance -- even more so is the ability to converse with them. Why even bother playing an MMO for more than a few weeks if you can't grasp the feeling of being around, and interacting with, at least several people on a consistent basis?

It always strikes me as surprising when any new game doesn't feature a robust, flexible and slick chat window. Something as simple as a great chat window can play a very large role in the success of an MMO, because it's the primary means of communication between all players. A chat window needs to epitomize a responsive, useful and meaningful tool of exchanging information. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but so many games get it wrong that it amazes me. Warhammer Online is the perfect example of a chat window that needs a lot of attention. So much of that game is done right, but this is one of its biggest failings and while it's not debilitating it does hurt the game's community.

Even with a good chat interface, there's much more that could be done. Besides, everyone knows a chat window is only as good as the people chatting within it. Community needs to become more prominent, it needs to become more visible earlier on. MMO developers need to take a harder, longer look at social networks. They're immensely popular for a reason: people love to find other people with the same interests as them. Create a system within a game that's somewhere between a guild and a Facebook group and I guarantee something special will happen.

Let's imagine that you log in to World of Warcraft for the first time ever. You usually begin by selecting your server, but which server do you select and why? Normally people pick by type: PvE, PvP or RP. But if you could preview each server by looking at its active groups of say, people who're hugely into heavy roleplaying, then you'd have a way for people to find each other much more easily. Link that to an online social networking website prior to a game's launch and an early community will most definitely form. And if the Silverhand server has nearly five-hundred players absolutely into immersing themselves into their character -- and you are too -- then you'll probably pick that server and never look back. This could apply to all sorts of things: family friendly groups, hardcore raiders, girl gamers or even things like republicans and democrats if you really wanted to do that. Taking the guessing game out of server selection would severely increase the chance of players finding and sticking with a guild that's perfect for them.

Of course some developers are already working on websites that are essentially Facebook for their games. That's a great start, but the smart choice would be to integrate Web 2.0 concepts directly into a game's infrastructure from the ground up. And why not? It's not as though it couldn't be done and people are absolutely waiting for a great (or even simply good) game that does the social thing extremely well. MySpace is a testament to how much people will put up with sloppy design and code for a strong sense of community, if I ever saw one. The sooner someone figures it out, the bigger their splash is going to become.

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