Social Capital #2 pt2: More on how we build connections in MMOs

One thing that’s clear about the forms of interaction I discussed in the last post is that they all date back to the very earliest days of MMOs. Emotes, buffs, cooperating or competing with other players in game  all go right back to the start of the genre. It was a time when devs would throw some interesting stuff into the game and let players decide what to do with it. Now they’re present because people expect them, even if they don’t know why.

And players now use these social transactions in very different ways. You probably wouldn’t expect other players to wave at you as you were out questing somewhere unless you already knew them. It’s the players who seem to have decided that they prefer to interact less rather than more, and in more controlled, goal oriented ways. That, and the game world is that much smaller, teleports tend to be more freely available, and it’s just not that big of a deal for people to see an actual other player while they are gaming. And as I’m going to say below, I see a trend for less and less communication to take place actually in game and more and more communication to take place outside it.

I suspect part of this is because as MMOs become more game-like and less virtual world-like, the in game ‘magic circle’ which values immersiveness and inclines players to want to get to know each other as characters in game has faded out. People are likely to be more interested in players who are already part of their guild/ raid/ circle of friends and they’ll have other ways to interact with them outside the game anyway.

And the other method of interaction that I forgot to mention while talking about groups earlier is being able to invite other people to your group, or kick them if you’re sick of them. (This seems oddly relevant given that WoW are still tweaking the kick rules for random groups to try to make people think twice about it.) The power to invite someone to be part of your special group or to reject them from it is a very powerful social tool.

Direct text: Talks, Shouts, Whispers

A step up from the emotes in terms of communication is actually talking to the other player. Traditionally this has been via text. In the case of MUDs it’s because text is all that there was, and since then it’s because voice chat to strangers has never really taken off enough for any dev to experiment with flexible chat channels which automatically include anyone within range.

But for all that, text channels have always (if my memory is right) been limited by in game geographic area. A /say has a short range, a /shout (when was the last time anyone heard another player shout in game?) a little longer, and it’s also standard to offer region chat, and some form of worldwide general/ faction chat channel is also fairly common. If you want to talk to other players via text, you can do it.

And yet, how many people do regularly talk to strangers? Fact is, if you have someone chatty and friendly in your guild, they are probably already your best recruiter because if they group with a good player who is looking for a guild, they will already have made friends with them and recommended they apply by the time the group winds up. Some people are that friendly, yes :)

Others will rather queue for 20 minutes for a quest mob rather than talk to the other players in the area and ask if they want to group up. I think there is more resistance to talking to other people now than used to be in MMOs. And I suspect this is because text based conversations can drag on, it’s like an invitation to form a relationship, however brief. And one thing that a lot of modern players do not want in any way shape or form is a relationship with a strange player who they don’t know.

This may be because they’re just chilling out and don’t have any energy to spend in being nice to people, they might be scared of talking to strangers, or it might be because they think all random players are losers. Whatever it is, I think people are shunning forming these relationships in game with people they have actually met in game. It seems rarer and rarer that I read of people in WoW who met up with a random stranger, hit it off, and ended up levelling together. (Partly because you don’t need other people to level with and phasing actually makes it tricky anyway.)

Whispers, as another option, let you have a more or less private conversation with another player. Mischannels, or comments which were meant as private whispers but accidentally broadcast over the guild channel instead have always been a prime source of in game amusement.

Guild chat and other private channels

The beauty of private chat channels is that you can control who else is listening. So if you don’t want to expose your personal thoughts on Garrosh’s hygiene to the wiles of general trade chat, you don’t have to. And you don’t need to be grouped with them or even playing in the same zone.

It’s a way to talk to a group of people anywhere in the game, and the group is free to set its own rules on what they want to talk about and how they want to do it (eg. no swearing, or conversely we have a private raid channel just for trash talk to keep it out of raid chat).

What this also means is that you can never really be sure how many conversations another player is having at the same time. Or in fact if they’re bad talking you to their mates in a private channel you don’t know about. MMOs are a paranoids dream in that respect. In fact, I recall past guilds in which some officers had a private bitching channel alongside the normal officer channel – a recipe for crazy amounts of  guild drama.

Still, a private chat channel goes a long way towards making the game feel like a private space just for you and your guild/ friends. Being invited to someone’s private chat channel means not only that you made it to being part of their group, but also that they want you to be privy to their conversations.

I’d go as far as guessing that as far as relationships between players (and I mean anything from a professional raider/ raid leader relationship, to friends, or anything closer) the majority form after exposure to chats on guild or private channels. I think of guild chat as the equivalent to sitting in a coffee shop, you can get to know the regulars without having to commit yourself.

But the trouble with text based chat is that you can’t actually do it while playing the game (ie. fighting mobs or other players), unless you are a very fast typist, use lots of macros  or are slacking in group. This is one of the reasons why RPers got a reputation as bad players. Too much typing, not enough healing. When there was plenty of downtime or people hung out in groups to camp spawns and had to wait for respawns, there was plenty of time to chat. In the faster paced atmosphere of the modern MMO, a lot of players just want to get on.

Voice chat, on the other hand, doesn’t interfere with keystrokes but does need everyone to have headsets and be careful not to talk over each other.

Economic Transactions

The in game economy definitely follows the general trend of requiring less personal interaction between players. From a time when players had to bark their wares over a general channel and then arrange to meet up in order to exchange goods, now most players will use some variant on an auction house to buy and sell.

But still, there’s no reason players can’t trade directly, give gifts of gold or equipment, or help new guildies out with bags (the traditional gift that keeps on giving!) or money towards mounts. In fact, guilds giving some kind of joining gift to new players used to be more common than it is now, probably because games are getting more accessible so new players are more likely to have all the resources that they need already.

The downside of this is begging, less common than it once was, but still rife in a lot of games. This is where new or low level characters whine pitifully to be given stuff for free. (In WoW they’re probably more likely to beg for powerlevelling, another form of group transaction.)

At the same time, I’ve noticed in my WoW guild that guildies have really enjoyed contributing to some of the achievements that required us to gather various amounts of fish or herbs as a guild. Collecting and gifting items towards a joint goal is clearly something very meaningful as far as feeling part of the group goes.

Helping other members of the group in general is another way in which players seem to enjoy showing their group credentials. In my guild, being a sensible bunch, officers emphasise that people who ask should accept no as an answer, and that no one should feel they are bound to do anything they don’t want. (I think it’s more associated with needy newbies these days to throw themselves into a new guild and want to do everything for everyone even if they really don’t want to, and then burn out and get really upset.)

Information (wants to be free)

Gathering and exchanging information with other players in game is another traditional way for people to both improve their own game skills and to help the rest of their group or guild.

Where this might once have been done through trial and error, or listening to someone other more hardcore player who was in your group and passing their comments on, now most of the best information is easily available via blogs, bboards, and external websites.

But still, not everyone has the same hunger to find all this information and put it into a neatly available form. So the people who do can help their guilds by posting links and summaries to their own private forums.

There is a point at the bleeding hardcore end of the game in which players will prefer not to share their information and tactics. But other than that, the trend is towards more and more accessible information. Guilds are proud of their kill videos which usually now contain full strategies on new bosses.

Providing good information earns the respect of other players, and in many ways this has become the new hardcore currency, even more than downing bosses (since more people care about good strategy sites  on ‘how to play your death knight’ than about who got the world 3rd kill on some boss they may not have heard of yet.)

For this to be a way of community building, there has to be a lot of hidden information inside the MMO (or as part of the mechanics) which are not obvious to players. Players from around the world can then put their heads together and work out any optimal strategies. And information seeking players from servers and guilds (again all over the world) can then disseminate it, building stronger links for their guilds in the process.

And then it continues. Once you have read something on your guild board (eg. a good heroic boss strategy), you can pass it on to people in random groups, and so on.

Unlike the various forms of direct communication, information sharing goes from strength to strength in each new game and patch that is released. Players evidently love this side of MMO gaming, from the theorycrafters and hardcore raiders right down to the guy who passes on to randoms what he heard on his guild channel. It has in many ways become the new currency of MMO status.

Bulletin boards, facebook, battle.net and out of game communication

A lot of players have no interest at all in communicating about the game when they aren’t playing it, probably the majority. They log in, play a bit, maybe try an instance or a battleground, and then log off again.

More than anything, this is what separates the true casuals from the more hardcore players (and I use hardcore in the widest sense of the word). If you regularly read blogs, bboards, gaming news sites, and/or your guild board, then there is a limit to how casual a player you really are.

But also, out of game communications have always been a part of MMOs. Even in DaoC, we had guild boards, unofficial server boards (which were VERY busy and well used), and IRC channels. They’re an important way to schedule discussions with players who are not all logged in at the same time. This asynchronous type of forum has always been sorely lacking in MMOs themselves, aside from the odd message of the day which everyone probably ignores anyway.

And in many ways, the out of game communications cement any relationships which are formed in game. You can chat at length on a bboard, without worrying about how you are going to heal the next pull and omg he just pulled1111!!!1111

Like information sharing in general, I think out of game communications have increased to take up the slack where in game communications has slown down. The rise of the blogosphere and social networking in general is one sign of that. And devs are still uncertain about how to harness this new interconnectedness to try to build better links between players whilst still keeping them stuck to the game. With out of game comms, there’s always a danger that the entire player group will up and move to a new game …

Sharing achievements, showing off gear(score)

The one new form of interactions in games is being able to more easily prove what you have accomplished in game. Players in WoW and LOTRO at least can easily share information about their titles, achievements, and gear with other players.

Interestingly whereas in WoW this has led to the gearscore culture where sassy players refuse to get out of bed in the morning if their team mates don’t yet have kills on the hardest heroic mode raid boss in the expansion, in LOTRO no one ever seemed very bothered, and people were more interested in sharing their cool looking cosmetic gear.

Still, sharing achievements at all is an indication of how achievement based, rather than interaction based, the MMOs have been becoming. In an achievement world, the only reason to bother making connections with other players is so that they can help you get more achievements.

Or is it? Some people certainly are that narcissistic, and yet as I’ve mentioned above, I have seen players in my guild really enjoy cooperating on guild goals. And it wasn’t just so that the guild could get some achievement, it was because they enjoyed cooperating with the rest of the group, with people they’ve come to know via guild chat and guild bboards and guild meets over the years.

Somehow somewhere in there is the secrets of building communities and however much modern game designers try to make this harder by designing around the assumptions that players hate forming relationships and will do anything to avoid it, people are still people, and humans are social animals.

Conclusions

So next week I want to talk more about building long term communities in games, but it should be already clear that this is less and less likely to happen. Already people are preferring to minimise their in game interactions with anyone they don’t feel that they need to know. The game is not so much a meeting place as something to do after you have met people. And yet only wanting to play with people you already know has other gameplay implications, not least that games need to offer ways for players of different skill levels to play together.

I will argue that community building requires people to be invested in the game, and that we’re less invested in general these days. But also that we can’t go back to the days of offering punishing group content, painful death penalties, and forced downtime and expect a community to magically grow. That was then, and this is now.

When good enough is Good Enough

If a PvE challenge is too tough, you can go away and do something else and come back later when you’re tougher and have better gear. In Japanese-style RPGs (which let’s face it, is where most of the quest based play was taken from) you can do this by wandering around and killing random monsters that turn up just for that purpose.

So you can control your own difficulty by deciding just how overpowered you want to be when you take on that fight. Think of how many times you’ve gone back to a lowbie area to one-shot some annoying mob that made your life hell a few months ago. Just because you can.

At end game, this doesn’t work so well any more. There are limits there on how much more powerful it is possible to get. And it also takes a lot more time and effort to pursue end game gearing. So an end game challenge can be genuinely difficult in a way that means it can’t (yet) be beaten by being outgeared.

You  balance how hard you want the fight to be with how long you want to spend preparing for it. Or in other words, you have two resources to balance: your time, and challenge difficulty. The more time you have, the easier it gets.

So what does this have to do with being good enough?

I’ve been reading blog posts recently discussing the concept of ‘good enough’ with respect to raiding. Gevlon argues from a pragmatic point of view that some people are too competitive for their own good and as long as you are good enough to pull your weight and do your job, it’s enough.

This is very much where I stand also. If you’re good at assessing what sort of challenges you can take on at your current level, then you can save a lot of time and effort. Why put in extra work when you don’t need to?

This attitude can be interpreted as being lazy, or being satisfied with being mediocre. It isn’t necessarily either of these. You’re certainly saving some time, but whether or not it’s lazy depends on what you do with the time that you had saved. (This is aside from it being just plain weird to accuse people of playing a game lazily.)

I value my time, and leisure time not spend grinding instances is time that I can spend with my spouse, hanging out with family or friends, time to catch up on BSG DVDs, time to blog, or just time to catch up on housework. All of these things are more important to me than having best in slot gear when I know I’m already good enough to fill my role in the raids we run.

From this perspective, ‘good enough’ is all about balancing out resources. My time, my fun, my in game goals. Fun is an odd quantity, not necessarily at odds to the other two, but it’s worth mentioning because ultimately games are played for fun and if you aren’t having enough fun, you will burn out (or realise that you aren’t getting your money’s worth and go play something else).

As an aside, I do wonder if we’d value our time more if we had to pay by the hour rather than use a subscription model. I’m not sure any RMT games use this model but for any that did, I’d expect the player base to be very focussed on efficiency.

This sense of ‘good enough’ is important to project managers and raid leaders also. Groups (both in game and at work) gain morale from successfully completing tasks. Time is always a limited resource. So is manpower. iRL, budgets are also an issue. And as a leader, you have to make the judgement call, ‘Are we good enough with what we’ve got now?’

And if you get it right, then it’s a success for the whole team. Not a lazy success, not a mediocre success, but a smart and efficient success.

Efficiency, the best efforts from the least time

One of the things that marks out the real hardcore guilds in game is their dedication to efficiency. Not to doing crazy stunts just to prove how hardcore they are, but to achieving the best results in the least time.

It isn’t necessarily the 5 raids a week guys you should be looking to for true hardcore. It’s the guys who keep a disciplined 2-3 raids a week. And are able to clear content with fewer hours invested into the raids.

This is not a blog about being hardcore, since I’m not. But I appreciate the challenge of doing the best you can with the resources that you have. It doesn’t mean that you can’t improve, any good raider will always be striving to do better, and if you aim for efficiency then you want to make every minute count. But at the end of the day you have to ask: Did we succeed in our goal? Was it fun? Did I stick within my time budget? And as a raid leader, you really don’t want to make people stick around while you wait for that last perfect person to log in if there’s someone else around who wants to come who will make the raid possible.

Oh yes, sometimes good enough is absolutely Good Enough.