21 April, 2013
I'm probably not going to shock anyone here by saying that MMOs aren't living up to their potential. I've said before that there's something missing our games. I think that while games are offering a little more of that spirit of adventure I mentioned in the previous blog topic, we developers still have a ways to go to realize the full potential of MMOs.
One of the biggest problems is how we design the game to allow interaction with other people.
A multiplayer foundation
Early online game developers realized that there were some things that online games wouldn't be able to do as well as single player games. Online games usually had worse graphics, less complex gameplay, and less focus on the player as a unique hero. But, most early online game developers realized that being able to play with others is an amazing advantage. Being able to play with (or against) other players, particularly a larger number of other players, was something that single-player games couldn't match.
We see this even beyond MMOs. One reason why DOOM took the world by storm is because you could jump in and shoot at your friends. It was amazing. MMOs came along and upped the ante by allowing more players. But, even playing in a text MUD with a few dozen other people was amazing; as I've said before, the ability for some Midwestern college kid to play a game with people half way around the globe is a big reason why I make online games.
The social fabric
Even though a lot of MUDs let you solo pretty easily, early MMOs focused a lot on the multiplayer aspect. You could fight M59's monsters fairly easily alone, but the PvP elements meant that there was strength in numbers; joining a good guild helped protect you. UO followed the tradition of MUDs in that it didn't force you together, but it also had open PvP, so it was best to stick with some friends lest you become prey. EQ doubled-down on the multiplayer despite largely eschewing PvP; the PvE design made it so you couldn't really progress unless you played in a group (or played a few specific classes extremely well).
The big advantage of multiplayer is what MMO developers call the "social fabric" that bound the players together beyond the game. While playing an MMO, you meet people and get to know them; "Fandalor, the Sorcerer of Light" becomes "Bob, who works IT support and plays the game from work, the lucky bastard." Making a personal connection is part of the "Socializer" motivation Bartle's wrote about. For people who are Socializers, the game stops being just about the gameplay and becomes about hanging out with the cool people you know in the game; similar to how people will go down to the corner bar to hang out, not necessarily because they want to drink, but because that's where the people they know hang out.
For developers, the social fabric is vital. Even if an MMO had the depth of gameplay of a single-player game, and honestly many early MMOs didn't, there are few single-player games that can entertain a player for hundreds if not thousands of hours. The social elements kept players interested past the time when the core game mechanics were no longer fresh. A common refrain in EQ was, "The gameplay doesn't excite me anymore, but I'm still playing because my friends are there."
There were a few problems with the grouping requirement. First, it meant you might have to take a lot of time to find a group. It was common for some EQ players to spend significant playtime just looking for a group then traveling. People who didn't have a whole lot playtime felt this cut into their limited time.
The second, related, problem is that social interaction created social obligations. If someone complains about having spent 2 hours finding a group, you might feel like an ass if you break the group up early. At the higher end of gameplay, raiding created new requirements, structure, and obligations. Especially for people in key roles like main tank, there is a strong sense of obligation to not disappoint the rest of the raid group.
These two problems, which I like to call "social overhead", lead people to complain that social interaction requires too much time.
The attempted solution
WoW was a landmark, where it allowed you to solo the game and reduced social obligation. In fact, the way some game and quest mechanics worked often made it less efficient to play in a group with friends. Given the tremendous success of WoW, this particular lesson was taken to heart. (The lesson that having a decade-strong game and business brand people loved was largely ignored because it wasn't so easily replicated.)
Of course, technology and techniques advance. Today, MMOs are no longer firmly behind the curve. Games like Guild Wars 2 rival the graphical splendor of contemporary single-player games. MMOs don't need to rely on multiplayer, and the focus has shifted to providing solo content. The problem is that this has exacerbated the "content problem", where MMOs have to release a steady stream of content in order to keep players.
But, this brings us to the original problem: MMOs aren't sticky anymore. People have noticed solo play just isn't as engaging. We see people trying out a game for a few months then leaving, a class of people called "MMO Tourists". I think this shows why MMOs are stumbling, because now people are treating them like single-player games: something you play for a few months then set aside in order to find new experiences in another game.
Moving forward, not back
Let me address a common accusation: I'm not merely advocating a return to the "forced grouping" of older games. What I want to do is investigate new ways to encourage grouping in modern MMOs. I think it should be obvious that the current development path of MMOs has failed. I'm not merely trying to recapture the "glory days" of the older games with all their associated flaws, but looking at how modern games can reincorporate a multiplayer focus to bring back some of what people truly enjoyed about games.
In other words, no accusing me of nostalgia here. I want to move things forward in MMOs.
I firmly believe that modern games can support the type of gameplay I'm talking about here. In GW2, I had a glimpse of what could be: I was running the Fractals of the Mist (FotM) dungeon as a beginner with a PUG. One person dropped part way through the first of three dungeons, but the rest of us decided to press on. FotM is pretty brutal, and running it short was going to be tough. We persevered and conquered the three dungeons we needed to get a reward. After that, we added each other to our friends lists. But, I never talked to those people afterwards; I never ran into them again since they were on other servers, and I didn't run FotM all that often.
A possible solution
I firmly believe that MMOs need to focus back to the multiplayer foundation. I'm going to pick on GW2 a bit here since it's a game I've played a lot recently. There are also just a lot of great illustrations in this game about how partial solutions don't quite work.
The first step is to stop punishing grouping, as I've written before. This is a necessary but insufficient step: GW2 has all but eliminated the need for formal groups in the game when playing content in the open world, yet the social fabric doesn't feel stronger than in other modern MMOs.
The next step is to have content that requires a group and encourages that group to stick together. This shouldn't just be small spots of content in a sea of solo content, because these "group events" feel like annoyances rather than opportunities. Also, if you just make groups required for small bits of content, there's little motivation to stick with a group and make friends.
This group content needs to involve a smaller community where people will run into each other often. In the original EQ, you would run into the same people who played at the same time and were about the same level as you, leading to friendships. As I said, my FotM experiences in GW2 didn't result in a stronger social fabric because I never needed to rely on those other people anymore. A positive example from GW2 is the WvW zones. When I tried my hand at some WvW, I got 2 separate guild invites. I began to run into the same people I recognized, particularly other commanders that I recognized from previous forays. The problem with WvW is that it feels separated from the main game, outside gear makes a difference, and scaling a low level character up doesn't quite put you on equal footing.
Finally, I think we need to take the emphasis off of single-player gameplay. Note, this doesn't mean that solo gameplay has to be eliminated. The reality is that sometimes you just want to do something in a game by yourself; maybe you had a bad day and don't want to deal with other players, maybe your friends are getting on later and you don't want to get involved in anything, whatever. But, the solo gameplay must be an alternative rather than the focus. Finding the right mix is going to be one of the most difficult parts of this type of design.
The patient doesn't want the medicine
The biggest challenge here will be to convince players that this is in their best interests. As I said above, the problems of social overhead have lead people to believe that social interaction takes too much time. I think this is backwards, though; the social connections in MMOs meant the players often chose to spend more time in the game because they enjoyed it. As far as I know, the most active players are still playing as many hours per week as before, just that they aren't staying as long in a particular game.
The other issue is that WoW was the first game for a lot of people. These players might not see the advantage that a focus on grouping confers. They got into WoW's social fabric just fine, thanks, not realizing that the elements they loved in WoW can't easily be duplicated in other games. Convincing people who were new to MMOs with WoW might require a different approach.
I think a good way to accomplish this is to purposefully have a more niche focus. For example, I think Camelot Unchained will do eventually very well because it is focused on an team vs. team niche, like GW2's WvW gameplay. It won't attract the breadth of players, but those who do play will find it easier to group together to fight the enemy. A more niche game will mean people will run into the same other people. I predict that the game will not be plagued with "MMO Tourists" like other games have been.
MMOs need to change
I realize the focus on grouping isn't a perfect solution. There are people who really just don't have the time to pour into a game that requires a lot of social activity. The good news is that current MMOs serve those needs fine if this is the case. But, for the rest of us, we want a game that sweeps us off our feet again, where we meet great new people and make real friendships.
What do you think? Do you fear social overhead in a game that strongly encourages grouping? Do you think that fear is unfounded? Do you find yourself wishing for an experience like you might have had in older games? Do you think the social fabric was a big part of those experiences?