Social Capital #2: How we make connections in MMOs

Last week I was writing about communities in games, different types of communities, and why strong social capital is a good thing for both games and players.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the challenge of building strong, long term communities.

This post is more focussed on the nuts and bolts of player interaction. The different ways by which we can make connections with other players. If you like, these are the building blocks that make social networks happen.

Buffs: the gift that keeps on giving

Abilities which temporarily make other players stronger are very specific to computer games. Pen and paper RPGs didn’t typically time combat closely enough to allow for a variety of short or long term buffs.

But mechanically, buffing is a brilliant mechanism for allowing players to spontaneously help each other. I’ve known many players who enjoyed being able to carry out drive-by-buffing when meeting another player ‘in the wild.’ Usually the convention is that if someone else buffs you, you return the favour if you have any buffing abilities handy and they hang around for long enough.

Buffs in MMOs are one of the many ways in which players can do favours for each other. You can compare this with how virtual gifts are passed around in Facebook games. A buff is something quick and simple that you can do for another player, and it doesn’t cost you anything, require spamming your friends list, or ask you  to making pointed suggestions that they should give you something back in return.

It has always puzzled me why some games are so down on out of group buffing. Limiting buffs to situations where the entire group benefits, including the buffer, means that the buffing character can’t just get to go around freely handing out buffs and feeling generous and altruistic. I don’t mean that all buffers should do this, but some people really enjoy it. By contrast if buffing only happens passively or in groups, all that happens is people whine like crazy in a group if the buff isn’t there. In my opinion, something is lost.

And you can see how a game in which it’s very common for people to happily buff/ assist other strangers could feel friendlier and more welcoming than a game where they don’t. If your first contact with a strange player is that they wave, buff you, and move on, it shapes your expectations for the game and its community.

Emotes: Is there really an emote for that?

Emotes, like buffs, are very very old school. MUDs had plenty of them, and even in a text only game where people could just chat to each other anyway, people did still use the canned emotes (they functioned like macros).

The great thing about emotes in MMOs is that they are so immersive. Seeing another character wave at you in game and being able to wave back is pretty cool. I’m now sure how many people would actually be watching the emote rather than the chat window, especially if you are in a crowded location, but it is a way to exchange greetings and simple interactions without having to get into a complex discussion.

Amazingly, given the amount of animation work required, there are way way more emotes in games than most people would ever need. And yet, when some of them catch on in the community, they take off like wildfire.

In WoW specifically, dancing has been vastly popular. This is partly because Blizzard put so much effort into the special racial dances when the game first went live, I remember everyone being blown away by the dance videos. However awful people find the WoW community, when a group of bear druids start dancing in one of the major cities, expect EVERYONE to join in.

Emoting also can be a type of minigame. You can play it with enemy players as well as friends, or with players who don’t speak much English. Occasionally you will see people communicating mainly via emotes, either for one of these reasons or just because it amuses them to try to act out their responses and try out some of the less familiar emotes.

Emotes are also great for nervous players who aren’t sure about chatting yet or are cautious of the community. You don’t really have to worry about saying the wrong thing with an emote. It can be an ice breaker. And emotes are also great for games targetted at children where there is a desire to not allow unedited chat channels. It’s a more controlled way to communicate (although players can usually find a way to simulate some sort of sex via emotes if they really want.)

Given how old school the emotes are, I’m always surprised when they make it into new games. And yet, being able to wave at that guy who you always see in the auction house at 6am and get a wave back does engender a sort of feeling of recognition and community. You don’t always want to have long conversations with people, and text based conversations do tend to take awhile.

Grouping for quests and PvE

Joining a PvE group is a step above waving at someone in a city or buffing someone as you run past. This is a form of mechanic where players have to work as a team in some way to beat a mutual challenge and reach a mutual goal.

Closed groups involve a fixed number of people. Whoever creates the group will recruit people, either from anyone in the vicinity who is interested, to members of their guild/ friends list, or directly contacting other players of the right class and level to invite them. I have memories in DaoC of paging people across two zones to ask if they wanted to group, it was how we used to do things.

The way in which groups were traditionally formed was blown apart by WoW’s random dungeon finder tool which forms groups based on role and level and dumps them into appropriate dungeons together. Being able to skip the harrowing group forming step has definitely made group content a lot more accessible. But it is having an effect on how players view the rest of the LFD community. Rather than being able to negotiate with each new player individually and decide who you wanted to group with, there’s a good chance you’ll be thrown in with players who you would never ever have come into contact with otherwise.

And unfortunately, people now view it as the equivalent to jumping into a shark tank. Maybe you’ll be lucky (in actual fact, the vast majority of runs I have done have been fine, they might not have been smooth but the actual players were OK) or maybe you’ll meet Jaws and have to bail.

The other issue with LFD is that it has become so accessible that dungeons are no longer really seen as special content that you have to really focus on because it might have taken so long to arrange. So a lot of people take a really half arsed approach, bail as soon as anything doesn’t go their way and generally act as though everyone else was an NPC with bad AI.

It’s hard to blame Blizzard for this entirely. It was a shame when so few people had access to their nicely designed dungeons and they must have been thrilled at how many more can play through them now.  How to fix LFD is a subject for another day, but it may well be that different types of instance is the answer and recognising that there is a hunger in players to play with other people and get the group rewards, but also to chill out after work, not be tied up for hours and not have everyone feel forced to play at hardcore levels.

What grouping also does is require people to play with a team at a similar level to beat PvE based puzzles/ mobs at a fixed difficulty (games like CoH allow you to vary the difficulty a bit which I always thought was an interesting idea). This team play is one of the more addictive qualities of MMOs from a gameplay point of view. It shows off how the different classes and roles can fit together and should ideally give everyone the chance to both help other players and help themselves. I am personally a fan of the class model where everyone has some buffs, heals and crowd control but not enough to solo buff, heal, or CC an instance.

Ever since Warhammer Online, we have seen a lot of interest from designers in the idea of open public groups, most recently demonstrated in Rift. In this model, when you see a group of players out in the wild fighting a group encounter, you can easily run up and join in. Having more people involved should always be a good thing in this design (this has not always been the case), and in fact EQ2 is making this specific in their next patch with better rewards given for having more players in the public group.

A great alternative to instancing for the casual players, open groups let everyone pile in on an encounter with rewards for everyone and very little chance of being shouted at for not being an expert in your class or in that particular encounter.

I’m not touching here on raiding, because in WoW and similar games it has more of a long term approach so will be talking about that next week. There are also large scale casual PvE raids which are just another form of public quest. In my experience, players always enjoyed them and I certainly enjoyed organising big public master level zergs in DaoC.

Group and solo  PvP

One way in which we communicate with other players is by ganking them in PvP. If you think this doesn’t communicate anything worthwhile, it’s worth noting that some of the strongest communities I have ever seen in games involved hardcore PvP players of several factions chatting outside the game. They had a good competitive atmosphere.

Having a competitive encounter with another player of similar skill isn’t really any different from playing chess with them, in the sense that you’re playing a game.

Battlegrounds have become the PvP equivalent of instances. They are mini zones into which fixed groups from both sides zone in and have to battle over specific objectives. To me they always feel very sterile, I prefer open world PvP or large PvP zones where you can really make use of the terrain and make good use of scouting and area knowledge to lay out ambushes. However, they do encourage tactical play and if they feel more like pocket games than actual PvP, that’s because they are. The team with the best communication usually wins, a fact that you kind of hope would not be lost on players.

One of the trademarks of MMOs is also the big open world PvP battles involving 10s of players on each side. There is a strong sense of community that you can get from fighting alongside others in your faction for your faction goals.

Other games allow economic routes to help your faction in PvP also. In Pirates for example, you can create “unrest bundles” to help either stabilise or destabilise ports that are under attack. Again I think this is a great way for allowing different types of players with different strengths to aid their faction in a meaningful way.

((Ugh, out of time here. Will finish this post tomorrow when I want to talk about economic transfers in game, in game chat, guild chat, sharing information, and out of game communications. Sorry everyone, this almost never happens.))

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Improving Roleplaying: Props, emotes, Titles, Class Design, and Dressing the Set

This is the fourth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts are:

We’re really getting somewhere with roleplay now. You’ve created a character, worked out some kind of backstory, found other roleplayers and maybe tried a scene or two in a pub or shop. But you’re still limited to just typing out what your character says. How can you bring your character to life other than just by reams of typing?

If you walk into a room with roleplayers, how can you indicate that something about your character has changed? How can you ACT the part instead of just typing text? Fluff is what makes roleplaying in an MMO different from roleplaying in a chatroom.

If roleplay is like improvisational theatre, then fluff in MMOs is all of the props. It’s the costumes, the pets, the emotes, the titles, the mounts, the house decorations – anything you can use to express who your character is and show what it does. An MMO is a visual environment, that’s one of the big draws. So our roleplaying should be able to involve visual elements.

A lot of these things are also fun for collectors. People love collecting pets, mounts, and titles, for example. But a roleplayer will be looking for items that they can use to act their character’s role. Sometimes the fluff will even inspire a character. If a roleplayer likes a cute pet or a silly hat, then RP can spring up around it and the story of how the character acquired it.

Some groups of roleplayers are more focussed than others on the dressing up side of the game. Many will happily let you emote what your character is wearing, rather than forcing all pirate characters to go farm for pirate hats (for example). So there is some confusion in the player base as to what fluff is really for and when or where to use it. You could imagine a strict RP game where people were always assumed to be whatever their costume would imply.

This is a good example of how rewarding achievers with fluff also nudges the RPers to chase the achievements whether they want to or not. From a roleplaying point of view, the ideal would be to have an in game wardrobe mistress who just handed out props and costumes as needed, the way actors would do it in a theatre. Devs think that fluff is pure entertainment, and that it doesn’t affect gameplay. But for roleplayers, a chef’s costume could be more important than a vorpal sword of dragonslaying – without it, no one can convincingly RP being a chef.

Instead, current MMOs require that every players has to also be their own stage manager and source their own props. I’m not knocking this entirely because working out what props you need and figuring out how to get them can be fun. But still, if MMOs were designed for roleplayers then they wouldn’t send us halfway around the world to get outfits that should be purchasable in any major city.

Variety is the spice of life

So what sorts of props do people want? The key is in the variety. Lots of different gear pieces means lots of ways to mix and match. Once you imagine gear as the wardrobe department in a theatre, or the old dressing up chest you might have had as a child rather than a bunch of stats, things come into better perspective.

But at a basic level, costumes should be available for lots of ‘normal’ professions, uniforms for in game organisations that might be accessible to players (town guard, for example), formal wear for formal events, and peasant/ normal townsfolk costumes for dressing down.

I’m a big fan of cosmetic costume slots too. In games like EQ2 and LOTRO, you can display a set of gear that’s just for show, as well as whatever your character is actually wearing for stats. So if you wanted to dress up as a pirate but actually be in your full raid gear, you can do it.

Emotes and non-verbal communication

The beauty of roleplaying via text is that you can type anything. Anything that you can imagine. You’re in the game world but not limited by it. But as soon as you want to perform any non-verbal gestures or movements, then you are limited by whatever emotes have been provided to you.

It’s a challenge, rather than just a limitation. I’ve played games where some players worked the emotes amazingly well to tell their stories and portray their character’s feelings. But it could go further.

I mentioned the chef’s outfit earlier. Imagine if there were a set of good chef-type emotes that players could use. /stir, /boil. /chop, /knead, /burncake … all would be props that chef players could happily use in among the text to portray their characters more vividly to others.

We could go further than this. What if your character had been injured and had an arm in plaster, or a limp, or an eyepatch? How about extra costume pieces or emotes to cover those? It would be easy to imagine a jacket that made your character’s arm look as though it was in a sling, for example. Wouldn’t that be a great way to show your RP partners that you’d been in an accident?

There is one other type of non-verbal communication about which MMOs have been wisely silent. And that is to do with interacting with other characters. You don’t generally emote actually giving something to someone. Or hugging. Or shaking hands. Unless you’re playing Second Life, you don’t emote cybering either. This is probably smart because it raises all kinds of permission issues. I remember in Castle Marrach (a text based game) they had a careful system of permissions which came into effect if someone approached you and wanted to stand next to you – which was a prerequisite for being able to touch another person in game.

But not being able to shake hands on a deal, or knight someone by touching their shoulder with a sword, or stroke a cat, or hand someone the salt across a table … these do hamper our ability to use emotes to communicate in game the way we would in real life. Maybe the system of permissions (so when you try to shake hands with someone, they get a box up on their screen asking if they agree) would be better than not having it at all.

Class design and roleplaying

One good thing about the holy triad (tanks, healers, dps) is that these roles are very effective for immersion. When you are tanking, you will feel like a big damn hero who is standing between the monster and the rest of the group. When you are healing, you will feel that your role is to support. When you are dps, you will feel a visceral thrill at the big numbers, and you will feel that you are a bit fragile and have to rely on the other classes to help you do your job. Playing your class actually helps you to get into the mindset of that role.

And from the point of view of roleplaying, that’s a mark of good class design. As soon as people are unsure of their roles, it becomes harder to roleplay being a member of that class. Again, this is a place where the demands of roleplaying may not gel with the demands of PvP balance or other game design goals.

Instead, we can make up the difference with fluff. (My examples here are for fantasy games, but there’s no real limit.) Support classes can buff people, and that’s something that can be used in RP, especially if the buffing spells have colourful emotes attached to them. Heavy armour wearers can clank as they move, and slam mailed fists down onto wooden tables, or tote around heavy shields that no one else can pick up. Casters may have access to cantrips (little cosmetic spells, the equivalent of fireworks or small illusions) and familiars. Healers can actually apply bandages to people or hold up a glowing holy symbol.

I would love to see more class specific emotes in games. It is a lot of work producing animations for such a small audience, which is why we probably won’t get them, but I think they’d be well liked by non-roleplayers as well as the RP crowd.

Set Dressing

One of the great things about in game housing is that a character can decorate her house however she wishes. The house itself could play the role of a theatre, dungeon, brewery, or zoo assuming that the fluff to decorate it appropriately is available.

But it’s a shame that more of the social areas don’t allow for players to change their ‘sets’. Why not let players rearrange the pub seating from time to time, or set out the town hall for a player meeting with rows of chairs? Maybe even give the more noted RPers special privileges to flick the in game switch that allowed for a set change in a building?

In conclusion, the big leap forwards that MMOs made over text based roleplaying was to let people experience the game world on a very visceral level. But to tell our stories, that means we need better visual tools. And we need to learn how to use them.