The Think Tank: Repairing the 'social' in MMORPGs

Our writeup of the Why aren't MMOs more social? panel from PAX South last weekend racked up almost 500 comments, and for good reason: Interaction is at the heart of making MMOs more sticky. But is it going away, and if so, why, and how do we get it back? That's the subject of this week's Think Tank.

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist

@ceruleangrey: A major part of the problem is that the type of content that encourages downtime and social play is so far down on most games' priority lists that it's rarely seen outside sandbox games. It's really hard to talk while you're raiding or doing dungeons, and those have been refined so that it's pretty easy to jump in a group finder and do them with people you have no reason to be social with. Say "Hi" and it's a pleasant surprise if someone else talks. If you do hit it off with a groupmate, chances are good they're on another server and you'll never end up playing with them again. It's like a morning commute: Yeah, you might strike up a conversation with someone on the bus and become great pals, but it probably doesn't happen every day or even every year. We're all alone together.

This is not a plea for a return to the days without group finders, but I think developers need to adapt their games to the fact that combat -- especially with the increasing popularity of action combat -- is no longer viable as a social venue. Give people places to meet. Give them low-impact activities to do together that don't demand so much twitchy attention that they can't type while doing it. And at the risk of cementing my reputation as a broken record, support roleplaying.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief

@nbrianna: I understand why single-player content has invaded MMORPGs, and I don't mind it. I've never been a big fan of group-or-die. But there's so much more to being social than forced grouping, and that's what some developers and players don't seem to get. They think "must add social!" and leap right to combat-centered groups or raids and forget all the other ways that people will be social, willingly, if you'll only let them. Roleplaying, as Toli pointed out. Trading, resting, buffing. Player cities and political systems and houses. PvP is social! Every little piece of an economy -- yes, even buying from an auction hall -- is part of that social web of player interactions. The problem isn't that social is dead; it's that we're digging in the wrong place.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor

@Eliot_Lefebvre: Why aren't MMOs social any more? They still are. Well, that was quick. Who wants lunch?

Oh, you want more. All right. The reason that people are often more willing to equate modern MMOs with being antisocial has a lot to do with big forced social content, ironically. If it helps, get two boxes of donuts and a friend with a firearm. Then, have your friend point said firearm at you and demand that you eat all of those donuts right now or said friend will fire on you. Do you really want to eat the donuts?

In Final Fantasy XIV, players I meet are social. There are lots of options about what you can do. You're not forced into getting into static groups for 90% of the game's rewards; you have options. People chat in parties, form ad-hoc groups, tell jokes, form linkshells, and so forth. There are comfortable social hubs for players to hang around in. The problem that World of Warcraft is facing has nothing to do with whether or not there's enough stuff to do with a group; it's the sheer fact that you are forced to group to get the hard parts of the game done.

Make socializing a chore that you have to go through to play the game and people are going to avoid it. Make it something that can be done or not as much or as little as you desire and people are going to be more inclined to socialize. No one likes doing something when it's forced.

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor

@jefreahard: They aren't social anymore because the audience changed and the games were forced to change with them. MMOs are now by and large single-player RPGs with recurring access fees, which is great for devs and casuals and not so great for people who have the time and inclination to play a full-featured virtual world.

As far as anything being done about it, that would first require the devs to acknowledge it as a problem, which will never happen as long as the money keeps rolling in.

Justin Olivetti, Contributing Editor

@Sypster: I don't like being forced into being social or penalized for not grouping. I think devs are learning the lesson that many players feel this way. And while I'm not against getting together with others or working with others, user-friendly systems need to be in place to encourage that. I also deeply feel that studios should invest more in providing robust roleplaying and socializing tools to let players organize and run events.

Larry Everett, Columnist

@Shaddoe: This question is kind of loaded because it assumes that MMOs aren't as social. I think that they are just as social. But I do believe that the environment has changed, and there is a lot less in the games to be social about. When it takes no communication or thought to complete certain quests or objectives within the world, then it feels less social. When you are afraid that the person you interact with might harass you in some way, it feels less social. When you have players who hop form one game to the next, to the next, to the next, and to the next, then it feels less social. Although I believe that designers can makes a game feel more social by giving us the tools to make contact with other people less difficult, at the end of the day, the reason that a game is social or not falls to the community itself. That, for me, is one of the reasons I believe that community managers are probably one of the most vital parts of an online game's development team.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor

@MikedotFoster: There's a lot of things going on here, but my short answer would be that as MMOs have added features for convenience, they've lost the need for socialization. For example, when I first started playing World of Warcraft, running a dungeon meant sitting in chat trying to put together a group, running to the dungeon, waiting for people to get there, and then actually getting it done. Now you just click a button and teleport. There's a lot of conversation lost there.

The benefit of the old system was that you got to know people. You had a friends list and it mattered: "I need to run this dungeon and oh, this healing guy is on." And when everyone was playing on one server instead of across them, people developed reputations. Guilds had rivalries. You'd go into a battleground and see a specific guild tag and think, "Shit." You knew the ninja looters, the friendly tanks, the elite jerks, and so on, because you had to talk to people to accomplish things. That's how guilds were born; your friends list got so big it needed to be a separate organization.

These relationships can't develop in a 20-minute instance run where you're guaranteed never to see your party members again. I've met awesome players in FFXIV, and we've exchanged Steam IDs, but because we're cross-server, we can't extend our relationship beyond the one dungeon in which we met.

Big solutions? Single-shard worlds would be a start. Providing players with a way to hang out between things is also good (I don't like role-playing, but the tools for RP are very much the tools for socializing). It's a tall order. I'd hate to be on the studio side of this one.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor

@MJ_Guthrie: Why aren't MMOs social anymore? I don't care so much about the excuses; I just want them social again! I got into MMORPGs at a time I became so ill I wasn't able to leave my home often. Top that off with the fact I'd just moved across the country and I had very little social outlet or interaction. Then along came Star Wars Galaxies, and I was able to not just interact casually but build deep and lasting relationships that have spanned more than a decade. I know that doesn't give an answer to fix the problem (other staff do that well); I just had to champion for the fact that it needs to be done. I am tired of the industry moving towards Massively Singleplayer Online games.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.