Should MMOs encourage grouping? How about helping you make in-game friends?

I’ve been having quite an interesting discussion on google buzz this week with Chris@Levelcapped on his latest post about unsocial MMOs.

Rather than lifting the entire conversation (which is cool and all but a bit rambling, and also I’d want to get permission from everyone before posting it), I thought I’d sum up here, because I do think that devs should be looking to encourage socialisation in MMOs. And if a bunch of hardcore soloers decide to get wound up by this (is it possible to encourage socialisation without making soloing less optimal in comparison?) then it’s unfortunate, but you can’t please everyone.

Here is the problem. MMOs are designed as social games, so a proportion of players will join with the expectation of being able to play with others. But unlike a board game, an MMO box does not say on the side, “You will need to bring 4-6 players.” There is an assumption that you can jump in and find other players in game.

Soloers obviously won’t care about this, so bung them some solo content and let them go. That’s fine. Most people spend a lot of time soloing, it’s standard for more social players too because very few people group 100% of the time. Having lots of solo options is a good thing.

But how should a new player who is social find other people to hang out with? Especially in an older, more stratified game, where a lot of more experienced players already have a circle of friends and aren’t interested in newbies? Joining a random tradechat guild is as likely to be a bad experience as a good one, but these games have thousands (in WoW’s case millions) of players … there must be some people out there who’d be a better fit than random trade chat advertiser guild.

Once you understand that a lot of people view gaming as a hobby and like MMOs for the opportunity to meet and play with fellow gamers online (much as you’d make friends via any other hobby) then you can see how badly game designers have failed this group.

How much help do most games really give you in finding a compatible guild? (It doesn’t have to be perfect, just give a better chance of meeting compatible gamers – and that means compatible gaming styles as much as personalities – than not being in it.)

LFD and being able to quickly find 10 minute instance groups is the tip of the iceberg. Giving players reasons to cooperate and interact with strangers in game is another good starting point. Long term gaming friendships is part of the rest of the picture. And inbetween there is a whole spectrum of people who like to socialise on their own terms, or those who mostly solo but like participating in big public raids (CoH catered quite well to this crowd), and devs have tended to leave the player base to its own devices with catering to any of them, which is why it’s such a pot luck.

And this does affect soloers also. The goal of a social game is that every player who is interested in being social should be able to do that, which means that every player should also be encouraged to pick social content over solo content where possible. Because socialness needs a pool of willing players, the larger the pool the better the chances that any individual can find others with compatible goals/ personalities. We see this with LFD – if you queue at an offpeak time of day, you have to wait longer. If you want fast queues, then you also want as much of the playerbase as possible to be queueing.

But it isn’t because we hate soloers and want to sabotage their game.

Could games do more to help us make friends?

One of my great disappointments with MMOs is that devs don’t do enough to recognise that they are social games with social elements.

But through the long history of gaming, games have primarily had a social function. Often gambling was involved, but equally the game was something that a family could play together. Games were used to teach kids about counting, games were used to break the ice at parties, games were used as hobbies and social intercourse. From the old roman games of chance, through to elaborate board games and today’s multi-player computer games, they have been tools to bring people together.

So why is it that in MMOs, it’s so easy to feel lonely even in a group?

In fact, there are a whole class of mini-games that exist to help people make friends. We call them ice breakers. And I’ve used them myself at parties or in training sessions. Their goal? To get people talking, or laughing, to help people work out their common interests, and to break down the social barriers that keep people in their shells. And they work.

Game devs even know that social bonds and social networking is one of the strongest reasons for people to keep playing MMOs, even after the novelty is gone. So why don’t we have more ice breakers in our games? Why don’t they put in extra content whose purpose is simply to get people talking, bring people of similar interests together, and maybe encourage them to continue hanging out or even to form guilds or alliances?

There was a time when a low level instance acted as those ice breakers. They weren’t designed that way, but players are (mostly) social people who will at least say hello to their group and maybe exchange a few words. Quests that required more than one person to complete acted as ice breakers, again they weren’t really designed that way but they did get people to talk to each other.

But as the player base levels up, newbies are less likely to meet other newbies in those starter instances and quests.

So what if we actually had some content that was designed deliberately as an ice breaker. Why not have ‘social party raids’ where you can guess which NPC the other players are pretending to be, or play some kind of silly IC drinking game that gets people talking and encourages them to tell jokes? I don’t mean we should force every player to be social, but for those who are interested, could this type of feature make our games more fun, more compelling, and more accessible for new playe?

Playing for fun in MMOs

‘Fun’ is one of those words which means different things to different people.

Of course, we’re all playing games for fun. For some that means immersive worlds with great storytelling, for others it’ll mean good competitive games with fair rulesets, a laid back social space with dress-up dolls, hardcore PvP, or some combination of all of those things, depending on their mood.

But when I take part in a game or sports and someone suggests, “Let’s play for fun?” it has a very specific meaning. It means that they don’t want a competitive game. We’ll either ignore any rules to do with scoring, or keep score but not make a big deal of it. eg. playing poker with chocolate buttons instead of cash.

Any time you deliberately ignore some of the rules of a game, it means you are looking for a different experience than the one the game is designed to give you. This is just as true, if not more, for board games or sports which have large books of rules attached to them. I think of this as an anarchic approach to gameplaying. Crypto-Fascist designers (and their playtesting stooges) dictate the way games should be played. Human beings, with our endless ability to be bullish where it comes to rules, can take very different approaches.

So why do people play for fun?

There are lots of reasons to want to avoid competitive situations. Some are situational, some personal, and some to do with society in general and our approach to competition.

1/ You had a rough day in  RL and just want to chill out and relax. For some people, chilling out does mean playing competitive games with their friends, but there are times when you just want to drift  in a friendly environment. Some people have intensely stressful jobs the likes of which most of us will never understand. They don’t want to experience that in game also, even mildly. Or maybe just not in the mood for it tonight.

2/ You’re really just there for the social scene. Your goal is not to play the game, you may not even like it much. But you do want to hang out with the guys, tell silly jokes, and so on. Maybe you wanted to play a beer and pretzels game but got talked into something more hardcore.

You find this with a lot of people who really aren’t interested in the minutae of game rules. It’s simply not why they are there.

3/ You’re playing with people who have a very wide range of skill levels. Saying that  you’ll play for fun is a way to indicate to the pros that you don’t really feel like being massacred in game, so maybe they could take it easy and give you a chance to play too.

4/ You just don’t enjoy competitive games. Society conditions a lot of people (a lot of women, definitely) to have very little exposure to competitive environments. You never got used to the whole win/lose idea and you certainly don’t enjoy it as something to do in your free time. Or maybe you prefer to play cooperative games where everyone is motivated to help each other. So you’ll try to make a cooperative game out of a ruleset that isn’t really set up that way. “Let’s play for fun,” could mean, “Let’s keep things friendly.”

Also some people really don’t enjoy being exposed to aggressive/ competitive players and playstyles. While it may be inevitable as part of life, it’s not inevitable as a way to spend your leisure time.

5/ You’re scared of losing or being mocked for being bad. Socialising can be  hard enough for some people without being hassled for not being as good as they are at some daft game they like. In MMOs this is more complex. You could be a friendly player who loves to socialise and wants to hang out with friends, but your skill at the game gets in the way (or maybe theirs does :) ). And not only can you not easily hang out with them, your place in the social circle is at risk.

One answer could be ‘learn to play,’ but the real problem is that you’re stuck in the wrong kind of game for what you want to do.

/6 You like playing in your own way. This may not be the way a lot of other people play but you’re having fun and that’s the main thing. But when you do play with others, you need to let them know that you don’t really want their advice on how to play their way. Even if it is objectively correct.

Note: One thing that is clear about the non-competitive gamer is that everyone will be happier if they can be chilled about not always playing with their more competitive friends. Sometimes the price of going your own way is that it doesn’t run parallel to your friends.

MMOs as Social Games

It’s largely an accident that MMOs work as social games at all. Certainly they are designed to encourage players to work together, but the idea of players logging on to relax, hang out, and chat was never part of the original MUD setup.

People did, of course. As soon as they could talk to each other they developed social hotspots where people would log in, relax, hang out, and chat. And then the beauty of chat channels and bboards emerged, where people could chat even if they weren’t in the same ‘room’.

But there are a lot of obstacles to people just hanging out with friends if they want to play the game together. Levels get in the way, gear and skill requirements get in the way, wanting to do different things or progress in different ways gets in the way.

It’s actually much easier to make friends in game based on them wanting to do the same things in game as you, than to bring existing friends in and game together.

Social type MMOs have emerged and are emerging to fill this gap. I can’t write about them with much authority because I never took much interest. I’m just too much of a gamer to have bothered with Habbo Hotel and its ilk. One thing is clear though, they are huge and are only going to get bigger. I think this is by far the biggest market in MMOs, or will be very soon.

If I was in the development game, this is the space I’d be aiming it.

Can Social and Competitive Players hang out together?

It’s not necessarily the game I’d want to play but I bet I could design something that would be fun for gamers and socialisers alike.

It would have spectator modes so that non-gamers can watch and interact with their more hardcore friends. It would have a creative crafting style so that people who wanted to chill out by showing off their latest designs could do that.

There are a lot of players, who may not see themselves as gamers at all, who would love a fun virtual environment to hang out in.

How long before we see Guitar Hero World, where you can choose to either be in an up and coming band, own a small venue and try to attract bands to it and run social nights, get into the management/ PR game or just be a fan and buy (virtual) T-Shirts and go cheer on your favourites?

How long before TV creators come up with TV World where you can go watch your favourite shows as they air in virtual lounges with virtual friends, and chat as if you were all in the same living room?

The social side is still important to MMOs, who live or die on the strength of their community. And that means it’s important that people feel they can log on and chill out if they’re just not in the mood to really play anything stressful. It doesn’t mean that every MMO is a good environment for people who never want a competitive side to their gaming, but everyone sometimes wants a change of pace.