Long dark winter of the MMO

It isn’t inevitable that MMO blogging dries up if a new AAA MMO hasn’t been released in the last 6 months; people will happily find things to say about their current game of choice as long as they are playing it, having fun, invested, and finding new angles. Also there is no shortage of F2P MMOs out there for people to try, as well as offshoots from the genre like Glitch and some of the Facebook games. But it is true that new players or new games give a shot in the arm to the whole debate — and when the whole debate starts to look tired and moribund, that would be a nice thing to have.

One of the RPGs I used to play was called Ars Magica (AM), and it’s a cult classic of the tabletop world. A game all about playing mages and their sidekicks in a ‘realistic’ fantasy version of medieval europe. One of the cool ideas that AM brought to the table was that for any covenant of magi (it’s their word for a group, including the building they live in and surrounding area) there is a cycle over the lifespan, which they base on seasons.

  • Spring: everything is new, the covenant is likely to be weak, it has few resources but lots of potential
  • Summer: covenant comes to its full strength, everything is going well, the future looks rosy
  • Autumn: covenant may be even stronger than in summer, but there are signs of stagnation, some of the people are getting older (maybe also a bit nuttier and more set in their ways), less open to new ideas and some of the younger magi will go their own way
  • Winter: the glory days are in the past. the covenant is slowly dying. the group has to try to store as much of the old knowledge as they can, in the hope that one day spring will come and it will be useful again

I always found this a very powerful metaphor (our group was a Spring covenant and although we were kind of useless, we were endlessly optimistic and up for challenging our elders – with predictable results, but it was what people expected from a spring covenant, so often got away with it.)

And as Winter is coming in real life (in the UK at any rate), it feels as though MMOs are drawing into a long Winter too. SWTOR and GW2 may be the last ever AAA MMOs as we would know them, and now more than ever it seems to me that we could be remembering lessons from the past.

Gevlon has been wondering a lot recently about raiding, today pondering why it was ever popular. He immediately discounts social explanations, but I have a longer memory than WoW and I do think the social aspect was important to a lot of people at the beginning. There were other aspects too, and there were also always hardcore groups who valued the idea of the group/ social challenge. I think that as the emphasis moves more to the individual challenge than the group challenges, it’s inevitable that hardcore raiding becomes a very minority pursuit — this also means that they really can’t assume an endless pit of new recruits to replace anyone burned out (I don’t think this was ever true except for some of the top guilds but lots of people bought into the conceit).

So actually the social challenge of top end raiding becomes greater, because keeping the raid together and avoiding burnout is absolutely key to a raid’s longevity if it can’t recruit easily to fill gaps. It will be interesting to see how raid leaders try to manage this, or whether people give up trying and shift to a more single player type of MMO.

I also think that while players do enjoy being able to do stuff without having to depend on others, it’s ultimately a fools’ game to pretend that a game based on soloing is going to be much of a virtual world simulation. iRL, we have to accept that everyone needs to both give and receive support at some point in their life and that even goblins need to realise that there are some things people will do for love or loyalty that they will not do just for money.

Do you feel that we’re entering the winter season for MMOs? Will there be a spring?

[Rift] Raid rifts and social raiding

So it turns out that being max level in Rift is quite fun after all, if you don’t mind working at it a bit.

Since the last time I wrote about the Rift endgame, I’ve gotten a new rank in PvP, tried some tier 1 (second level of difficulty) instances, run amok with guild, tried some crafting and expert rifts, maxed out two of my tradeskills (mining still eludes me), run several zone incursions and –- yes – hung out with some rift raids.

Rift raids are single rift encounters that are scaled to require a raid. These are open world uninstanced encounters but in order to start them you need a special item (raid lure) and a dynamically spawned raid rift. It would also help if you had a raid of players along with you but if you want to commit raid-suicide that part isn’t necessary.

So imagine that after some of the various PvP and instance shenanigans I had gotten some nicer looking gear for my mage. Some of it even had ‘focus’ – the radiance stat required for running raids if you are a mage. You can roughly compare this to +hit in WoW in that you can get into a raid without it, but you’ll be a waste of space because you won’t be able to hit anything.

Hanging out in Meridian, I saw someone calling for more players in the level 50 general channel to do a rift raid. So I whispered to them to check the gear requirements. They said 150+ focus. I checked my gear. Hurrah, 154 it said! I whispered them again and up popped the invite, someone in the raid said knowledgeably, “Port to Stillmoor” and then we were off.

I’d like to say that I remember the encounter in detail but it wouldn’t be true. It was in several stages and we had around 20 or so players in the raid. Some stages required raiders to spread out. Others had adds that needed to be killed in order. We wiped on our first try, apparently due to not enough healers, so I offered to switch to my Chloromancer spec for the next attempt. The next time was successful and some loot was doled out – an epic piece, some tokens, some blue loot. And then since we were in a raid anyway, we went off to done a zone incursion that had popped up in Shimmersand.

My take away points about rift raiding:

  • The level 50 general chat channel is awesome. On my server at least, people are actively using it to recruit for these types of PUG raid, they are also broadcasting info about zone incursions and some general chat. Global channels can be so awesome when muppets don’t fill them full of [dirge] spam and random racism.
  • I do find it pleasantly sociable to spend an hour or so running around in a virtual world with a bunch of other people killing mobs in a not-overly-challenging manner. It’s nice to be able to whisper a PUG raid leader politely to check whether your gear is appropriate and get a polite reply.
  • Cosmetic clothing means it’s always quite interesting to check out the other players in your raid.
  • Being able to switch role on the fly is great.
  • The other players were very chilled out about bringing newbies as long as they had reached the minimal gear levels. I’m figuring that most of the level 50s in Rift are fairly seasoned MMO players.
  • No one had a damage meter. This will change since Rift is allowing addons, but it definitely makes people more chilled out.
  • Rift is a very pretty game. I don’t think people really appreciate this enough.
I really do find that the rift raids hit the mark of offering a fun, social raiding experience which don’t require hours of commitment in advance. I hope to see them expand more on this type of content in future, it’s a much more interesting sell than regular raids IMO.

What if we had a more social endgame?

One of the things I’ve been reading this week is Too Damn Epic’s discussion of different types of MMO endgame, where he wonders why things have gotten so repetitive.

He discusses raiding (PvE) endgame, PvP endgames and territory wars, and having the game actually end (eg. Tale in the Desert). Go check it out.

Aside from giving props to anyone who can quote Spinoza in a gaming blog post, I have played games with social endgames and whilst they had their ups and downs (and probably created more drama than any AAA MMO put together), there was definitely a powerful emotional connection between players and the game world, of the type which is bleeding away from the current crop of endgame design.

Links, and the last word on tank numbers in WoW

First off, good luck to Kadomi (of Tank like a Girl renown) with her new blog, Live like a Nerd which is going to have a broader base than the WoW-centred blog. I’m a big fan, and welcome to life after WoW!

Pete at Dragonchasers ponders how he feels about challenge in games. I’m firmly in this camp where feeling overly threatened by a game just makes me turn it off. When I see a hard mode, I automatically think, “Oh it’ll be too hard for me,” and switch it to normal (or easier)  even though I’m a fairly experienced gamer. For people like me they should label the modes, “Beginner”, “Don’t worry, it’s a bit harder but you can do it,” and “Think before you rush in.” In any case, it’s perfectly legitimate to want your challenge doled out in a careful curve so as not to frighten the less macho amongst us.

Moon Over Endor posts about his experience with the extended SWTOR demo that was held recently in London. SWTOR announced on Friday that they’ve retooled class roles somewhat so that now Smuggler/ Agent is the only class that cannot tank, dps, or heal (they can’t tank!) — all the others can. (edited to add: Nope, my bad. What changed is that trooper/ bounty hunter and inquisitor/ consular both get the option of all three roles — smuggler/ agent can’t tank and jedi knight/ sith warrior can’t heal. Thanks expostninja for the correction.) I am amused at the notion of a trooper as a ranged healer, I hope they get a healing gun :)

Nick Dinicola at PopMatters explains why the whole point of Dragon Age 2 is that your character is limited in their ability to change things. He also puts his finger on one of the things I like about the setup which is that I’m a bit tired of the hero’s journey and like the idea of playing a character who is a bit less special.

Eurogamer reports that EA is planning its own version of realID (or at least a persistent identity across all EA games).

And finally, Bashiok (a Blizzard community manager) posts about making WoW easier:

Overcoming all of the obstacles (I CHOOSE NOT TO SHOOT HER WITH THE SILVER ARROW… NOOOOO) was a big part of what gaming (I HAVE 1 LIFE!?), and especially PC gaming (HOW DO I LOAD MOUSE DRIVERS?), <used to be> about. But, I feel we’re lucky to now be in an age where those ideals (intended or not) are giving way to actual fun, actual challenge, and not fabricating it through high-reach requirements

Clearly he hasn’t tried to play Mass Effect 2 on a PC recently, if the amount of hassle I have had in trying to persuade it to locate its own saved games are any indication.

And on that note, Bioware are giving a free copy of ME2 on PC to anyone who buys DA2 before 30th April (including people who already own it). Astoundingly, some people are complaining about this. When I started it up, I commented on twitter that I wondered if the Illusive Man was a love interest and got this:

Cdr_Shepard Commander J. Shepard

@copperbird What the hell… ?
Got to love twitter.

LFD and tank/ healer numbers

I wonder if the LFD tool itself has contributed to having fewer tanks and healers in the queues.

Why? Well, when forming groups was difficult, players who really wanted to socialise in games tended to roll tanks or (more commonly) healers. It was well known that doing this would automatically make you popular without all the hassle of actually having to make friends with people. (Note: this is not to say that no tanks/ healers have social skills since most of them do, it’s just that it was a shortcut to being quite popular in groups in game when you were new and didn’t know anyone.) For example, I always felt well loved in vanilla when I played a holy priest.

But now, with LFD, groups are more accessible to everyone. Playing a tank/ healer just offers shorter queues. So people who mostly wanted to tank/ heal to get groups now have a choice — wait longer or take the grouping roles. And if the instances or the random groups are sufficiently annoying when tanking/ healing then they may well be deciding to just suck up the longer queues as dps.

Predictions for MMOs/ Gaming in 2011

It is that time when we look ahead and try to predict what the year ahead may bring. Arbitrary and I have put our heads together to see what we can come up with…

In general, it’s going to be another huge year for both social gaming and mobile gaming. There will be more massive hits along the lines of Angry Birds, and both iPhones and Android will continue to be strong platforms. We’ll see the trend for Android to increase in popularity continue as more and more models come onto the market.

The debate as to what does or doesn’t constitute an MMO will continue. Facebook will continue as the platform of choice for social games, particularly on handsets, since it actually is handset agnostic.

The iPad will not really live up to the potential that the industry had hoped. Already we’re seeing that magazine subscriptions on the iPad are below predictions. There will be popular games, yes, but they will never come close to the popularity of the phone-based versions. So iPad owners had best get used to continuing to receive iPhone conversions.

I predict something big with Zynga this year. They’re huge, but they’ve not had much success in breaking away from Facebook. The desire to do so is still there … maybe they’ll even try to take over FB or merge the companies in some way. Whatever it is, it’ll be crazy.

E-sports will be a big trend this year in some form or other, as publishers try to find more ways to draw in the ‘core audience’ into more social, F2P type games. Expect at least one hugely successful multiplayer game, possibly on a console or on Facebook, with this kind of worldwide e-sports competitive ethos at its core.

One of the other big trends this year was for breakout indie games. This is nothing new, but Minecraft in particular has been a stunning hit. In addition, the various Steam indie bundles, more attention from PC journalists and blogs, and ‘pay what you want’ weekend offers have gotten more people to try them out than ever before. This trend continues, and we’ll see at least one successful indie MMO launch this year.

Interactive/ internet TV is going to be another big trend this year. Look for gaming on Google TV in particular (one area where Zynga may have their eye). And this is a platform that favours simple social games.

This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade. However nice the graphics, there’s unlikely to be a killer game that really uses the 3D. (If it played films, however …) This won’t be a good year for handhelds, losing more ground to the ubiquitous smartphones.

WoW/ Blizzard

This year Blizzard plays it safe with WoW. There won’t be any big features analogous to the dungeon finder. Patches will be more of the raid instance, dailies, extra minigames type of content.

Whilst some players will get bored quickly of Cataclysm, the strategy to draw in more casual players will work, by and large.

The balance of ranged vs melee is going to continue to be a big feature of this expansion.

The leaked expansion plans date the next expansion for 2010. I predict this is correct and we’ll hear more about the next expansion and about Blizzard’s plans to offer more frequent, smaller expansions. Wrath will soon be perceived as the golden age of WoW in much the same way that TBC was by the old guard for most of Wrath.

The big change for the next expansion will be a crafting revamp.

Blizzcon will be held in Europe.

Blizzard will announce their next game, currently codenamed Titan. It will, as expected, be a different genre from WoW. (Please take a moment to imagine what the WoW community might be like if Blizzard’s next game is a FPS. Heck, imagine what the Blizzard community for a FPS MMO might be like? Scared yet? This is why they will come back with a more player friendly version of realID.)

Other games

Guild Wars 2 will not release in 2011.

Neither will World of Darkness (Vampire).

Neither will The Secret World

The walking in stations expansion for EVE will release and will generate a flurry of ‘look at this amazing character creator’ posts. It will not substantially expand the player base, though and will largely be seen by existing players as watering down the current game.

Star Wars: the Old Republic will release and will fail to either gain a million subscribers or to be a game people want to play for 10 years (both predictions made by EA). It may even fail completely within 6 months. (I will still play it.)

Mark Jacobs will announce a new project, DaoC 2.

There will be more discussion about the F2P model as it applies to MMOs, focussing more on practical details of ‘what works’. People will pick their games at least as much based on payment models as anything else, to the point of having preferences for very specific flavours of F2P.

There will also be extended discussions in the blogosphere about how trustworthy various publishers are viewed as being. This is partly connected with games that failed in 2010 (do you trust this game to still be going in 6 months before you invest too much time into it?) but also with the way the F2P model has been implemented by companies such as SOE.

LOTRO will release their Isengard expansion which will be comparable in size to Mirkwood. ie. a couple of levelling zones, new instances, and a raid. They will increasingly be spread thin trying to keep both the lifetime endgame player base happy and the new F2P players who are more interested in lower level revamps.

2011 is a big year for RPGs. In fact, it will probably also be the biggest year ever for computer games in general.

Diablo III will release, will be a massive success. It will contain various features borrowed from WoW, and so the cycle comes full circle.

Dragon Age II will release, will be a massive success.

Mass Effect III will release, will be a massive success.

The Witcher II will release, will be a massive success (but possibly not on the scale of the previous three games, which is a shame.)

And not a RPG, but yes, Portal II will release, will be a massive success.

Whatever Infinity Ward does for EA will release, will be a massive success.

There will be at least one film tie in game that is actually good, and will be a massive success.

Microsoft attempt to clean up the Xbox Live community in some way, possibly involving an element of realID.

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.

Sociopaths r us! Is a social game a polite game?

I read a great article this week (courtesy of RPS), and it was by a gaming journalist who was explaining how playing Halo tipped him over the edge. He’s describing here how he got ganked by a random stranger, became mindbogglingly furious, and spent the entire rest of the evening tracking and corpse camping the guy to get revenge.

Not unusual behaviour for someone in a shooter, you might think. It also shows signs of classical sociopathy (A pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others) and I think he was right to recognise that the game was bad for him and quit.  Here’s an example:

Who was he to take my stuff? He respawned, this time I was off to the side of the base and tossed a ‘nade. It was beautiful, curved delicately and landed right between his shoulder blades. Pow!
I wrote: “2-1″.
In truth, I was sort of hoping for an apology. He could have just given me what I wanted.

The italics above are mine.

I’d spent time tracking this guy down, I was /right/. I killed him and he quit. I tracked him down again and again and again. An evening lost to bloodying up some jerk, feeling like a vigilante.

So when someone ganked him, he felt owed an apology, but no notion of apologising to the guy whose entire evening he had ruined. FPS shooter players just don’t do that. PvP has a similar dynamic. Why would you ever apologise or expect an apology for killing someone in a PvP game? They chose to play, they knew the rules. They can log off and do something else any time they like.

By comparison, look at an article that Matticus penned this week on his blog. It’s called How to Apologize. This is about a very different type of online game, and very different types of relationships between players. He’s talking with respect to running a raiding guild, although it could just as easily apply to any player in a guild or online community.

Still, the contrast between how the writers expect other players to behave is very marked indeed. FPS online chat is known to be vicious, hostile, sexist, homophobic, racist – in fact you can name the unpleasant behaviour of your choice and it’s probably rife on Xbox Live. Trade chat on WoW isn’t all that much better, depending on your server. But guild chat is usually more polite (or at least everyone is equally accepting of the level of rudeness.)

So why do players act like sociopaths online?

Freedom to unleash your inner sociopath!

If people are acting like sociopaths, it is because they enjoy it. A lot of players have stressful factors in their jobs, relationships, study. or just generally in their lives. Logging on and being randomly horrible to a random player may be a source of stress relief. Obviously, it’s not so fun to be on the receiving end of the insults. But the sociopath player is able to ignore that; they’re either a sociopath, or roleplaying it well online, or else it’s the local game culture that everyone is randomly horrible to each other equally. Griefers even find it fun.

So people who find it great stress relief to gank people and vent at randoms enjoy the general xbox live and trade chat atmosphere. It’s perfect for them. Just as long as everyone else plays the same way too. And if anyone dares to get upset or doesn’t want to play the sociopath game then it’s their fault for being different and not trying to fit in.

I am reminded of a guild officer in my old DaoC guild (which was, in retrospect, home to some of the worst officers I’ve ever encountered.) He saw himself as an in game sergeant major and regularly used to bitch people out in public if they annoyed him.

One day, he did this to a player who became very upset. They hated being yelled at, felt insulted and belittled, and made sure he understood exactly how upset they were. At the time, his reponse to this puzzled me greatly. The officer became furious with the upset player. How dare they ruin his good shouting session by bringing stupid emotions into this? Didn’t they know that when he yelled at them, they should accept it politely and change their behaviour to exactly what he demanded?

I don’t think he was really a sociopath, just an idiot who wanted the virtual world to reflect his self image. I think he knew that he’d gone too far, but what he actually did was to yell more at the upset player for being such a delicate flower. Unsurprisingly, this did not help and resulted in a gquit. i.e. the person who did not fit into the sociopath’s guild left.

Because you can!

The internet is anarchy. And without anyone to moderate the chat channels, bboards, or live chat then sociopaths roam widely, free to force the other web denizens to conform to their mould. And if we can’t boot or report the perpetrators, then everyone else is stuck with them.

So where do people go if they hate sociopaths online? Well, not to xbox live or open FPS chatrooms, that’s for sure. They have to collect in communities which will allow them to moderate other people’s behaviour. So guilds, private servers, social networks, moderated forums/ newsgroups and anywhere else where they can keep the riff-raff out to let their frustrations out on each other somewhere in the internet back of beyond.

And then people wonder why women don’t feature much in online gaming.

Social games force people to be more polite

So if a social game is one that forces players to communicate with each other, and to cooperate, then there is a limit to how sociopathic a successful player can be. If you want to win, then you have to work with others. That’s the bottom line in this type of game. A whole guild of sociopath players can be functional, as long as no one expects anyone else to care about what they think ( if you are the type who expects apologies when someone else insults your mother, then it’s obviously not the guild for you.)

But if a player who might be a sociopath in FPS is also an achiever, they’ll probably have to modify their behaviour in a social game. So social games will tend to be more friendly — whether they’re raid based like WoW or gift based like Farmville. Their communities will tend to be more supportive and functional.

We see this even more on roleplaying servers, because RP is all about socialising (you cannot RP on your own). So these servers hold a special attraction to the most social players.

More solo friendly games will breed more sociopathic gamers

As matticus’ post shows, players who make long term commitments to their online communities do need to foster and care about their relationships with other players. You don’t need to become best friends, but you also can’t treat them as abusively as a perfect stranger who you will never meet again.

And I wonder what this means with the ongoing trend to solo-friendliness in MMOs. Although the majority of players in the random dungeon finder are fine, it’s easy enough for the sociopathic ones to sneak in these days. And the less players need to communicate and cooperate with each other in game, the easier it is to treat the others as random objects of abuse.

But MMO culture isn’t the same as FPS culture. Many more women and older players play MMOs, for a start (and yes it does make a difference.) They won’t all suddenly become randomly abusive just because they can. But other people will. And especially if game companies keep chasing the hardcore male 18-30 year old player and putting out more solo friendly games, the prospects for better communities online are poor.

So driving away from that hardcore market and more towards the mainstream is a good trend, in my opinion. Casual gamers who won’t accept that they need to put up with all that shit as the price of entry may yet keep us all honest.

In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

Thought for the Day: How social are ‘social’ games?

Historically, a social game is one that you played with friends so that you could socialise while you were playing. Board games, card games, RPGs all involve having a group of people in the same room and even if you took your gaming extremely seriously, there would be time to chat between rounds.

The social part of MMOs is grouping. Again, you’re tackling the game with a bunch of other people and if they are also friends then you can chat while you kill mobs together. Even if you aren’t grouped up, an evening in the MMO for a social player means chatting to your mates via various text channels while you pursue other goals in game. But in a facebook-type social game, you interact with people without talking to them at all. Just send someone a virtual cow along with a virtual poke and maybe they’ll respond later.

So I wonder, how social can any game really be if you don’t talk to anyone? Are we heading towards the ironic situation where Bartle-type social players dislike ‘social games’ because they aren’t social enough and you can’t really get to know the people you are playing with?

The headset is my ears, the monitor is my eyes

I have seen it with my own eyes ….

It’s amazing how easy it is when we’re deep in a game for our brains to convince us that we are seeing the virtual world directly through our own eyes, and hearing it with our own ears. I’ve had times when I wasn’t aware of the headphones or the monitor. Immersion will do that to a person, and the human brain is smart but can be trained to substitute one metaphor for another – after all, I don’t much notice my glasses when I’m wearing those either.

But all it takes to break the illusion is one little hardware problem. The monitor blows? You’re (virtually) blind. Broken sound card? You’re (virtually) deaf. It’s tricky to talk about this without being disrespectful to people who have sensory disabilities in real life, but being without a peripheral can feel absolutely crippling in game.

I’ve had an ongoing problem for a few months with my microphone, in that it’s way too quiet. This week, we sorted it out (turns out it was something stupid that I’d done which was easily fixed, once we’d found it), and it’s astounding to me how much difference that made in my gameplay.

I could speak on voice chat before, but it was very hard for people to hear me. They would keep asking me to speak up, or complain that they couldn’t hear, and there wasn’t anything that I could do about it. It was frustrating because it broke the metaphor, in real life I can speak up by just raising my voice. But that didn’t work with a malfunctioning mike. It was so frustrating in fact that I mostly stopped even trying to talk, and along with that came a feeling of distance, of unintentional exclusion, and of being less involved in both the game and the community.

Of course I could still type wittily (and quickly), but as anyone knows who has played with voice chat, a lot of people don’t bother looking at the text on the screen. But my disability was relatively easily fixed. I have my voice back. This week I noticed that  every time I am to say something in game, I  hesitate more than I used to do. I still think ‘Oh, no one will hear’, even though they can now.

I’m happy to have my virtual voice back, and it will be nice to feel back in the loop and get used to it again. But that was a very powerful emotional experience, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.