16 February, 2017
I’m a big believer in the social fabric of MMOs. The internet was a tremendous communication platform; I was a geeky introverted kid in the Midwest U.S. on a computer talking to people half way around the world when I was in university. As someone who barely traveled, this was mind-expanding. To think I could talk to people all across the world was simply astounding.
MMOs built upon that. People we’d never meet can become close friends. This includes people who might not have a lot of social opportunities offline: people who suffer from anxiety and depression, people who are just massive introverts who can’t handle a lot of in-person interaction, or people who are physically ill can make connections that would have been impossible a few decades ago.
Yet, online designers often overlook this element. In the rush to cater to the established Achiever crowd, or the rush to optimize key performance indicators, we can lose sight that there are people behind the names and dollars we collect. We ignore their emotional well-being and consider relationships as a side-effect of our design. But, let’s take a closer look.
Good ol’ Socializers
While the trend for many years has been to focus on MMOs as Achiever-driven games, I’ve been a big fan of focusing on the social fabric of these games. One early truism that MMO designers shared was, “people come for the game, but stay for the community.” We saw plenty of people playing games that they weren’t as passionate about as in the past, but the game was where their social connections were. This isn’t a bad thing; think about places like restaurants or bars you might regularly visit your friends at. At one time the place was exciting and new, but eventually it felt more like a comfortable place. Maybe the pasta was never cooked right or the whiskey selection was poor, but you had fond memories of the place and kept patronizing it.
But, most designers have seen Bartle-type Socializers as a side effect. This makes sense, as encouraging achievement and limiting killing in modern MMOs has lead to an increase in socializers in our games. There are plenty of socializers in games, and we’ve started to see more social features being added.
Further, I’d say that socializers have started to take on a different role, too. With the rise of social media, Socializers can become a potent force for marketing the game. Socializers connected to other games can help get the word out about your game, so focusing on socializers makes some sense. FFXIV in particular has some incentives for people to recruit friends and now to invite friends back to the game. Using social connections to get people into the game and to draw lapsed players back into the game is very smart. Also notice that a lot of the rewards for these incentives are mostly social/appearance based.
Intentionally designing for friendship
Dan Cook over at Lost Garden posted a report from the game design think-tank retreat Project Horseshoe entitled, Game design patterns for building friendships. Reading that, I really wish I had gone last year to participate in that discussion give what I’ve already written on the topic.
The summary is that there are four elements to building friendships: Proximity, Similarity, Reciprocity, and Disclosure. As these things increase, the chance for people to make friends increases as well. The paper focuses on the style of games that include MMOs, so a lot of the lessons are directly applicable. I think this is an amazing piece of work, and something every online game designer should read and understand by heart.
Let’s take a look in more detail at each of these areas and how they apply to MMOs.
Some of these areas are easier to design for than others. For example, game designers have a lot of control over proximity based on layout design of the game. Things like capital cities, quest hubs, and high-level hangout locations help people to run into each other more. I even proposed a system to allow people to run into people they liked running with in instanced content. This proximity and repeated interaction helps to form those bonds that are important to the game.
I think it’s important to highlight the use of “identity” in this area. In MMOs, the trend has been to allow players to have more individuality and customization for their characters. This helps with proximity because people become more recognizable. I said before that my distinctive armor appearance gets me noticed easier, even though it’s not an entirely uncommon set of gear. I choose to wear that because it’s more noticeable, particularly on my already pretty large character.
I think there’s also a careful balance between encouraging structure and allowing more fluid associations. In most MMOs, the primary social unit is the “guild”, a group of people who you share some sort of bond with. Yet, not every person is going to be a good fit for you. You might find some people to be great, other people to be grating. By allowing people to pick who they associate with, you can let people find the friends they want rather than hanging around with people who happen to be conveniently located.
While we might think of this as people trusting others who look and act like them more, we can also see this as how well people adopt the culture of the game. A game with a strong role-playing focus, for example, means that players will look for others who share this focus. Being a good role-player makes you similar to the others in the game.
I also like the idea of slightly manipulating things in-game to enhance similarity. But, again, you want to carefully balance this need for people to be similar to fit within the group with the ability for people to have a unique identity that others will notice.
I think there’s another element that could fit into this category: people who join a game who already have shared experience and friendships. It’s increasingly common for people who play one game to try out another game together. People will bring in existing social connections into a game. Not everyone stays, however, but having a group of friends ready to go when starting a game can make it feel better. On the other hand, people may rely on these imported bonds too much to the point they exclude other people in the game, and don’t make any useful social bonds within the game itself; this can mean that their ties to the social fabric of the game are weaker than you might otherwise assume from their in-game activity.
This is another very vital thing in our games, as this is one of the main things we can control to help build or reinforce friendships. In fact, this was one of the first driving design elements of the social network games. A game would let you “gift” an item to a friend on Facebook, for example, and that friend would likely feel obligate to reciprocate; but to do that, they had to sign up for the game and start playing a bit. So, people got into games because they wanted to do what friends do.
You see this in MMOs a lot as well. People who you run content with become people you ask to run content with you later. As you reciprocate and run more content together, you get along better. Maybe you don’t always become best friends, but you have someone you can rely on in the game to do content. Although these people aren’t truly “friends” in the traditional sense, almost more like friendly co-workers.
I think the issue of “freeloaders” is another very vital issue. Many early games were very careful to make sure that players couldn’t just “leech” off of others. XP was carefully split between the group to make sure that multiple people attacking the same enemy only got proportional rewards. This lead to awkward situations where healing a player low on health would potentially “steal” experience from the person fighting, short-circuiting the reciprocation mechanism. Eventually games started including group bonuses to encourage grouping, but the current fashion is to just let players have the full experience for killing a monster; this allows for two people to easily help each other out, starting the reciprocity loop that can lead to better social interaction.
This is one area fraught with peril. I think the most important thing to understand is that disclosure is hard to measure and may not happen entirely in game. Several friends I’ve met in FFXIV have become people I chat with outside of the game, mostly on Discord. In fact, some of them I may talk to exclusively out-of-game for several days in a row if one or the other is busy or not logging on. Trying to measure our friendship via disclosure would result in incomplete information!
But, this is also a very particular area to be careful about. As the paper says, premature disclosure, particularly unwilling disclosure, can hurt a building friendship.
It’s also important to realize that not all relationships are beneficial. Sometimes people lie and build false friendships; this might be because of selfish needs, because of psychological pain, or because of dishonest motives. A player might find themselves becoming close friends with someone, but never really knowing if they are being honest. In this age of people being careful about what they reveal, players can run into someone who uses seemingly reasonable excuses to avoid disclosure one of these reasons.
And, sometimes people simply lack emotional maturity to disclose things properly. You might have a friendship with someone who does not value the friendship as much as you do, despite the signaling. Relationships change over time, and sometimes a friend starts to drift away while still seemingly putting in the right amount of disclosure, reciprocity, etc. Until one day something sets them off and you lose a friend (and potentially other friends) in the fallout. That destruction of the friendship can hurt the player’s connection to the social fabric if there are not other connections to compensate.
Designing for friends
As I said, I think this is one of the most important papers to come out in a while about game design. I hope that people will read it and start to consider how to design ways for people to interact with each other in the game. By building up the social fabric, we can help make these games last longer and be more fulfilling to the people who play them. I’d like to see more game design on the side of helping people in addition to all the other business elements.
What do you think? The fashion has been more toward solo-focused content, but the social fabric is useful as well. I would love to hear your thoughts.
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