Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Not enough social engineering

I'm looking at the various features patched into older games or promised for the upcoming games, and I'm asking myself whether all these game developers are working on the wrong set of features. I see all sorts of variations of game content, different sorts of combat systems, crafting systems, quest systems. I see new classes, new zones, new dungeons. But what I don't see is innovation in chat systems, looking for group systems, guild functionality, and all the other social aspects of MMORPGs. If anything modern games are less social than the first generation games, as they now allow you to play solo and to avoid all player interaction including PvP if you want to.

It is well known that you can get players to stay in your game beyond the point where the game itself bores them, if only they have friends in the game which they don't want to leave. Thus if game developers introduce some social engineering into their games and promote people making friends, they ultimately help the longevity and profitability of their games. Problem with that is that social engineering isn't easy, and if it is overdone it can easily backfire. "The Vision" is social engineering gone wrong, and has been thoroughly discredited by the failing on Vanguard. Yesterday's news about that Chinese game company demanding proof of being female before being allowed to play a female character is another example of bad social engineering.

But that doesn't mean that social engineering in itself is wrong or can't work. You simply need to go from trying to enforce social ties to trying to promote social ties. And as the players of a MMORPG mostly communicate with each other using the systems of the game, there is a huge opportunity here. You can easily foster social ties by simply improving the social features of your game: the chat system, the looking-for-group system, the guild system, and whatever more you can think of.

Except for the introduction of voice chat into MMORPGs, I haven't seen much innovation here. And voice chat isn't actually the best way to meet new people and make friends, although it is useful for friends to cooperate better. If you look at MMORPG chat system, the overwhelming majority is downright primitive, and hasn't evolved at all since Everquest. Many still work with command line /commands to operate them, and are way too complicated for most people. A developer would just need to spend a week using various internet chat systems to come up with hundreds of ideas how to improve in-game chat and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. SOE is ahead of the curve here, offering options like being able to join guild chat from a web browser, or being able to chat to people playing on a different server, or even different game. But even they would really need to invest some time into improving their chat interface.

While facilitating chat is important, you then still need to give people a reason to talk to each other. This is where looking-for-group and guild systems kick in. There is a lot of room for improvement here, even in the market leader World of Warcraft. It is not that some games don't have good ideas in LFG systems, but somebody needs to go and gather all these good ideas and combine them into one coherent and working system. And guilds need much more than a dedicated guild chat channel: A guild should have common projects and goals beyond raiding, and systems that enable guild members to contribute to these goals as well as record their contribution. Knowing what others contributed to the greater good of the guild helps a lot to build trust, and could go a long way to overcome the paranoia and guild hopping going on in WoW for example.

Social engineering in MMORPGs needs to bring people together, enable them to communicate, and give them common goals towards which they can work together. Partial solutions to all that already exist, but developers don't spend enough time on these features. Creating new content is important, but not sufficient for the longevity of a MMORPG.
I don't think much truer could ever be stated about the current state of MMO's today. It seems that much of the next breed of these games coming out is heading on the direction of Massively Multiplayer Online Single Player Game (MMOSPG) and relying on flashy graphics and novel combat mechanics and relying less of what actually makes this genre unique and interesting, social interaction.

I was recently allowed access into Tabular Rasa and became deeply disappointed. Not in the graphic or the game play but more the feel that I was merely playing a single player came surrounded by many others and I could only hope and crave the attention of needing one or two more people to group but failing miserably to find one. I can’t help but to think to myself, you are set into a war, which you would think would make you join a squad or platoon, and I can’t find one quest that feels like I need to get a group to advance. This isn't uncommon for games now, I've checked and may of the selling points people bring up is "Solo-able" until max rank. If I wanted to play solo I could easily play any single player game, something like Diablo 2 or even perhaps more recent (upcoming) Hellsgate: London and utilize the free online features that they give if I felt so incline to be online while playing.

As for your examples with WoW, there seems to be at least an initial attempt to make features which required grouping/community. The main downfalls of these feature were an expanded server listings (i.e. relatively small server sizes in comparison number of actual servers available and still growing despite a noticeable lack in demand for new serves), a free-range of transfer (no limitation on making sure the server balances were made and not just one large server getting larger) and a lack of emphasis on the server community. The one major problem I have ever seen in most MMO is the lack luster attention that guilds get in terms of the games content.

Over all there are two major factors which make MMO’s different from any other genre; guild and their progression through game content, whatever that be, and server community. Until a game developer can make a game in which these two basic features are nurtured I don’t think we will find a game which can live up to the honor of being called a MMORPG. But here is to hoping that someone will pick up on the idea to utilize the social feature.
One of the best things I like in my 2+ years of playing WOW, was when they introduced the 'Global LFG Channel'

Simply because i could play any of my 4-5 charc, and do anything from leveling, to grinding, AHing, to leveling a profession. And if I was in the mood to do a instance or a run or a hard quest, and the channel running and find a group easy.

Yes there was alot of spam and endless moronic talk, but when i wasn't interested or didn't time to do a run. I just turned it off.

When it was taken, was the beginning of the end of my enjoyment of the game. It had some faults yes, but for a player like me in a very small guild, it was the greatest thing for finding groups!!!
Sometimes it seems that the game developers add and make these features as an afterthought, while it should be some of the core features.

SOE is ahead of the curve here, offering options like being able to join guild chat from a web browser, or being able to chat to people playing on a different server, or even different game

Anarchy Online was the first one that I recall that provided such features - one could join chat channels from outside and people also developed software modules that took advantage of this interface to provide some add-on functionality (help bots etc).

City of Heroes/Villains also offers global channels and friend lists, with the additinal advantage of also having global handles tied to an account, rather than a particular character.

It would have been nice if that would have extended to other games published by NCSoft, including Tabula Rasa. The TR tools in this area are quite rudimentary to put it kindly.

NCSoft is working on some common online gaming platform which supposedly should contain chat, mail functionality etc - one can only hope that the lack of decent functionality in some non-superhero games is because they will include that when this platform is ready. But I would not count on it..:(
The sign of a great blog post is one that resonates with you, provokes an emotional response and makes you want to jump into the conversation. This was one of those posts.

I couldn't agree more with your comments. The current chat/communication systems are barely above what they are in MUDs - and all the new 'innovations' in this area are focused on voice chat... which is great for me when I'm playing with my friends - they know me we laugh and joke and talk about going out for drinks on Friday night, but put me into a pickup group and it becomes a terse exchange of directives or heated complaints when someone steps 'out of line' - spare me. I'm interested to see what these 'voice fonts' things can do in terms of changing how your voice sounds... but it doesn't really help you find a group of like minded players or even ones that will help you complete that quest.

EQII made an attempt with their Guild list window that shows the guilds with a brief description... but to be honest I can't be bothered scrolling through all of them to find the ones that appeal. I don't know whether you can filter the list based on what you're looking for or whether you can select posts to 'short list' which is what I'd like to do. Then compare the short list guilds to make a final choice.

I'd also like to be able to open a LFG window and see (or at least filter for) groups/players doing the same quests as me or having the same play style/goals. It might be taking it a bit too far but having the ability to complete a survey (or myers briggs type gamer type questionnaire) to indentify who your most compatible with as a first step (that gets modified as you play the game and the system seeing how you play). Or is this too 'big brotherish'?
You really hit the nail on the head this this post. There's so many cool things you could be doing with this sort of stuff. It's amazing that we're still stuck with a guild system that it little more than a membership list and a chat interface. Why is it left to third party addons to add basic functionality like guild event calendars? Why in WoW is the LFG system so stupidly brain-dead when it's such a critical feature of the game?
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