Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 20, 2009
Hanging-out games

So I visited Ulduar for the first time last night, trying Razorscale and XT-002 for the first time. We didn't succeed killing either, but we did have fun, laughing about the childish antics of the killer robot, and trying to figure out strategy. We couldn't play very long, because after a bit over 2 hours we got struck by some strange bug, where after a wipe we all found ourselves in front of Ulduar, unable to reenter because "encounter still in progress". But I was happy enough to have had the opportunity to hang out with the guys, and see some new places together.

I think that World of Warcraft isn't really a good game to hang out with friends. It is too achievement- and progress-oriented. Your character is at a certain level of power, determined by his level and gear, and that seriously limits the places he can play at. Too easy and the rewards that drop aren't useful for you, too hard and you don't succeed and there aren't any rewards at all. So hanging out with people who aren't at exactly the same level of power than you are is a problem. The other problem is that once you are doing something together, everybody is kept very busy by the game mechanics. There isn't all that much chatting going on during a raid.

Some games, especially Asian ones, have deliberately low-input grinding activities, where a group can hang out and grind together, using the time for social interaction. EVE mining with a guild fleet works in a similar way. The big downside is that if you are trying to solo these games, you have nobody to chat with during the grind, and it quickly becomes incredibly boring.

I think the best games for hanging out offer a mix of interesting activities and opportunities to do nothing much in a group. Features like player / guild housing obviously helps. And of course you need to find people with a similar mindset. I always found it amazing how different the same game plays if you are on a "roleplaying" server, where people invest more time in social interaction, and less time in character advancement. One of the best hang-out events I've been at was a hobbit farmer's market my guild organized on a LOTRO roleplaying server. Great mix of doing something at least minimally useful, selling my crafted goods, and just hanging out and having fun.

If you see the tremendous success various "social spaces" like Facebook or Twitter have on the internet, I do think that more social interaction will be a big feature of the multi-million player MMORPGs of the future. Not everybody is an achiever Bartle type, and happy with a game where you select your friends by their class, level, and gear. The new kind of hanging-out game will most probably have a different business model than monthly fees, but being more social helps there: Buying a pink sofa for your virtual house with real money only makes sense if you have people to show it to. Sometimes I think Blizzard knows what they were doing when they didn't introduce player housing into World of Warcraft. It just might work better in a game like Free Realms.

[EDIT: Great minds think alike! It was only after posting this that I found a post from Spinks on MMO hang-out places.]
Hrm, this is interesting. I actually think that people hang out constantly in WoW, but that it usually takes disembodied forms such as Ventrillo, the trade channel, guild chat, and tells.

This never surprised me at all, since by playing MMOs we've already all decided that it's not important to be standing next to someone to interact with them. Disembodied forms of communication are only an extension of that. If World of Warcraft is cyberspace, then WoW's trade or guild chat happens in cyber-cyberspace (or something?) where not only your bodies are seperated, but so are your virtual bodies.

What particularly do you think is missing from that kind of communication? It seems the same to me. Spinks suggests that you'd want to show off your gear or something, but even that's not a requirement, since WoW lets you link gear to anybody in any chat window to see.

1. Designers need to get away giving players too many incentives for loot lust and farming. Otherwise people will felt "punished" for "socializing" and not "working" the game. This is sad.

2. The whole virtual world needs to be more of a world, less a game. This is why I despise achievements as to-do-lists and daily quests als daily chores.

3. WoW's inns and pubs in Dalaran are pretty to look at, but too smallish. It does not need a Tauren sitting on a chair there to make me feel claustrophobia and the place look odd. Just think of the super tiny Scryer and Aldor inns in Shattrath. Even the bigger tavern with the teleporter to the Caves of Time is too small. No wonder people prefer to chat between bank and auction house in Ironforge or on the streets between bank and auction house in Orgrimmar.
If you want to play WoW with a friend (who doesn't have a level 80 character), you have to both start a new character and only play together. The second one guy starts playing a bit more, it's gonna be hard to play together. Not much fun to boost a newbie.
When your RL friends play the game and you're all really good... then it becomes a blast! Especially in arenas :D

Seriously though, most people continue to play this game because of the people next to them, not necessarily for love of the game.
Darkfall is a good 'hang out' game, it just needs a better chat interface! Player controlled cities provide a good focal point for hanging out with a group. They need to add floating text to /public like /say in Shadowbane or the old messaging system in UO! Right now Darkfall's in-game chat system is a bit lacking...
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I think that is why I loved EverQuest so much. The game had a very casual pace when in combat, so that you could chat. VoIP programs were few and far between so we didn't have massive voice servers talking to the entire guild at once. At most we would have a small group in a RogerWilco server. I always kept coming back to EQ because of the social attachment. If I quit WoW it doesn't matter because we only ever talk in Ventrillo anyways so I don't need to be logged onto WoW. Furthermore when I do play WoW we are either in a raid where we need to be quiet or we are off solo farming. Nothing is really socially orienated.
"I think that World of Warcraft isn't really a good game to hang out with friends. It is too achievement- and progress-oriented."

I completely agree with you Tobold.

Massively multi-player online games have historically had very active and robust socialization component. Socialization ended up being a reward in itself even though it was a by-product of older MUD conventions such as grouping (...remember grouping?). WoW changed everything with it's focus on turbo-charged achievement gameplay.

For socialization to work and not feel *forced* it has to be designed into the game/world from the outset. You can't make a MMO and expect people to socialize on their own. Players need pretense and a context to socialize.

Look at any hobby or pastime. People who get together to swap antique automobiles or motorcycle enthusiasts are all initially drawn by the hobby itself; eventually the camaraderie and socialization that follow help to make the pastime a more cohesive experience which transcends the original pastime. WoW would have much better retention and "stickiness" in between expansions if they had the foresight to build in more opportunities and mechanics that encourage socialization.

Many factors are responsible for the decline in socialization as previously mentioned (the achievement nature of WoW) and I think a big one is the poor caliber of the community which seems attracted to WoW like a fly is attracted to a bug zapper. I suppose you could ask the question which came first: the achievement oriented game or the poor community. Both seem to breed each other.

The lack of socialization in current MMOs has been a common theme in at my blog in the past few years. It's refreshing that the mainstream blogosphere is finally starting to take notice that the social nature of these games/worlds is very important and part of the reason why we become choose to be involved in MMOs rather then play single-player games.
Hey, i've heard that the game mabinogi should be a really nice hang out game, but since i live in europe it ain't avaiable for me. so it would be cool if someone here could test it out for me and tell if it was a good hang out game :P
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