Bits and pieces; and thoughts from 3 years ago about the future of MMOs

Happy Sunday (and Happy Jubilee if you are the queen – seems a bit harsh of people to make two octo/nonogenarians stand around for hours on a cold and windy river, but what do I know?) This isn’t really a links post so much as a quick news roundup, some whining about Diablo, and a moment of insight where I realise that some of the stuff I used to post was pretty smart.

New games to get excited about, current games to get excited about

CD Projekt, best known for their work on The Witcher CRPGs, have announced that their next game will feature a Cyberpunk setting. In fact, it’s THE Cyberpunk setting for RPG players because they’ll be using the setting from R S Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG. So all you glitterboys, slicers, and fixers get your netrunning shoes on. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is super-exciting for any fans of the genre, and Cyberpunk should be a great match for the dark noirish stories that CD Projekt have shown they enjoy tackling in previous outings. It’d be nice if they would also let us play female characters this time around, but let’s not run before we can walk.

Rift announced its first expansion: Storm Legion. It will feature tons of new stuff including huge new continent, 10 more levels, new souls, a woman on the front of their expansion website who isn’t wearing much — yup, it’s all there. New expansions are generally a good sign for MMOs and the Rift devs have been earning their reputation for ploughing plenty of new content into the game all year, so things are looking good for Rifties. They do have a free trial up to level 20 if you want to try the game out.

An excellent new Humble Indie Bundle has gone on sale, featuring Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Psychonauts, LIMBO, and Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery , with Bastion thrown in as a bonus if you pay more than the current average (standing at $7.84 at the moment). It’s a feature of the indie bundles that you decide what you want to pay so if you’re feeling cheap, you could get the four main games for almost no money at all. They are all indie games that have garnered good reviews, especially Psychonauts if you are a fan of platform/adventure games.

In their ongoing crusade to make the always-online experience of Diablo 3 best in breed, Blizzard have now introduced autojoining the General Chat Channel when you log in. This has not been met with universal acclaim. While I find it annoyingly spammy and prone to gold seller chat, occasionally General Chat surprises you. I’ve sometimes heard people offer to help anyone out with hard bosses, which either is quite decent of them or else is a new cunning way to steal accounts – you pay your money and take your choice.

Personally my barbarian has reached an impasse with Izual in Hell Mode. Getting him down would require a serious amount of kiting given my current DPS and … I just don’t enjoy kiting on a melee class that much. So I shall be tooling around on alts instead, no point playing past the point of unfun. One thing Blizzard did get right though is the secret level (don’t click this link unless you want spoilers), which requires a special blacksmithing recipe and ingredients, all of which are rare drops in specific locations and may be farmed. Farming for this stuff with Arb has actually been pretty fun, for Diablo variants of fun. This is exactly what I was talking about when I was wondering why Blizzard hadn’t developed the farming side of the game.

So how DID soloing affect MMOs?

Milady reflects about MMOs evolving into an ‘always alone together’ singleplayer theme park  type of experience, and is nostalgic for a time when singleplayer and multiplayer experiences seemed to sit more comfortably side by side in MMOs. She wonders where players who enjoyed the multiplayer side of things will go if new MMOs tilt so far towards soloers.

The problem is that, although I can think as alone-together MMOs as a valid choice, especially for that demographic that can’t participate in the social part of them, there is no such choice when all are designed this way.

This reminded me of some thoughts I posted a few years ago about what might happen to MMOs if the proportion of soloers continued to increase. It was contentious at the time and attracted more comments than anything I’d ever written. Now I look back and – it seems prescient.

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?

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.

MMOs, and the thrill of live entertainment

It's hard to share the experience of a rock concert via blurry photo ...

Theatre trips or music gigs for me are like busses. You wait for months without going to any at all, and then suddenly three come along at once.

In the last week, I’ve been to a huge stadium gig at Wembley Arena, a small intimate gig at a cool little music venue above a bar in Kilburn, and a Shakespeare play at The Globe in London. Now the point of this is not to say, “Oo, I’m so cultured, me!” It’s just that they all were brilliant, and it made me think about the special thrill of watching live entertainment with a crowd of other people. And how this is also one of the things I really enjoy about playing MMOs.

Being on stage vs being in the audience

Playing a RPG is like being on stage. Admittedly it’s like being on stage in an improvisational experimental drama with heavy side servings of slapstick, out of genre observations, pop culture, and pulp fiction. But in a pen and paper role-playing game, the player is the performer. They are also the audience.

Going to a play (or gig, or comedy show, et al) is more about being part of the audience. And the magic of theatre is that this is a much more exciting and involving experience than it sounds. Even just sitting quietly as one of the 50k crowd in a filled stadium is more exciting than listening to a band on the radio. It’s an event. There’s an energy about being with other people who share your enthusiasm and are there to share the same experience. Actors and musicians will often talk about the energy that they get from a live audience. Live bands often sound quite different from their album tracks.

Playing a single player game is more like watching TV or reading a book. You can interact with the game, but not with the performers or any of the rest of the audience. At least, not unless you reach out to them in some other way. For example, Dragon Age is a single player game, but I’ve had plenty of discussions about that with other players either on blogs, bboards, twitter, or in real life since I have friends who play it. It’s not the same as actually being all there at the same time, but it’s still a deeper way to enjoy a hobby and share it with others.

Other people and the MMO experience

MMOs offer a mixture of these types of experiences.

A raid or instance where you actually play alongside other people, cooperatively is much closer to the role-playing experience than the single player one. You’re still playing against the fixed backdrop of the coded game, but the other players provide much of the entertainment.

A pure PvP game or battleground would be even closer to being on stage. You’re actively providing the gameplay for other people, as well as reacting to anything that they do.

Even soloing isn’t the same as playing a single player game, because you always know that other people are around. You hear them on chat channels. You may see them in the game world. So this is probably closer to theatre than reading a book. Still more fun in many ways than watching the play on TV at home, but you don’t interact hugely with the rest of the audience.

Very large scale events in game can be similar. Everyone turns up (and brings their lag with them) and it’s mostly to see and experience the in game event together rather than to interact. Even just being in the audience can be exciting and life-affirming, like at the theatre.

I’m not sure entirely where I am going with this, except to say that social media can increasingly turn a solo game or event into a shared experience. And shared experiences in games can be far more exciting than playing offline and alone, even when you aren’t actively interacting with other people.

I suspect that for me, this is why offline games have limited appeal these days. Except on portable consoles, which puts them in a similar position to music for me. I think Syp was also thinking along the same lines when he discussed why MMOs had turned him off single player games.

Do you get the audience effect from MMOs? Or from sharing  your gaming experiences via the internet?