Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Direct and indirect social interaction
When I recently mentioned Tortage, a reader reminded me that this part of Age of Conan was originally planned to be single-player, with the player entering the MMO part of the game only on completing Tortage. And when a while ago I asked whether people would play a single-player version of World of Warcraft without monthly fees, many commenters said yes. While it sounds strange that people would want to avoid direct social interaction with other players in a massively multiplayer online game, that is in fact the case. Players being able to solo the game is now an indispensible part of MMORPGs.
Obviously soloing is limited to certain activities. If you were the only person on your WoW server, you could quest and solo your way up all the way to the level cap. But you couldn't visit level-appropriate dungeons, you couldn't raid, and of course you couldn't PvP. A surprisingly large number of players already isn't participating in this direct social interaction part of the game anyway, so for them the single-player version of WoW would play just the same.
Direct social interaction with other players can be great fun, but it also has obvious disadvantages. That starts with you having to be online and at the same place in the virtual world at the same time. How many hours of your life did you waste waiting at some meeting stone? Personally my main problem with pickup groups is not that the other players are playing badly, it is that the other players are likely to turn up with a lot of delay, or leave half way through the dungeon. The other big problem of direct social interaction online is that people tend to be less inhibited online than in real life. Feeling shielded by internet anonymity, some people behave like jerks, or use language they wouldn't dare to say to your face.
So if direct social interaction is so horrible, why are we playing online games? I think a big part of the answer lies in the indirect social interactions these games offer. Because in a persistent virtual world, you don't have to directly interact with somebody else to influence his game experience. One major part of indirect social interactions are achievements. Whether that is "the Explorer" title over your head, or the "server first" boss kill, or parading between bank and auction house in glorious epic gear, all this would be pretty meaningless in a single-player game. Of course you could argue that it is pretty meaningless in a multi-player game too, but obviously it has a big attraction to some people.
Another big part of indirect social interaction, and one that is especially important to me, is the player-run economy. Hilarious as it sounds, but the one person who could not possibly play World of Warcraft like he is used to as a single-player game is Greedy Goblin "social interactions are an ape-subroutine" Gevlon. Playing the auction house requires other players, and making a profit requires those other players to value gold, time, and items in a different manner than you do. One reason I'm having fun in Luminary right now is that the economy is so much better than that of World of Warcraft, with everybody participating. Luminary would *not* be possible as a single-player game, and that is something I appreciate.
I do think that indirect social interactions are a big part of the future of MMORPGs. Because if you turn your MMO into an online single-player game for soloers, sooner or later your customers will start to wonder why they should pay you a monthly fee for that. But forcing direct social interaction, like the forced grouping of Everquest, is also not going to work. Indirect social interactions on the other hand could still grow a lot larger. Not just player economy and achievements, but also in all sorts of political and cooperative gameplay that doesn't require everybody to be online at the same time. Already there are games where guilds can build bases out of materials that have been gathered by various guild members at different times. Politics can be done with votes, with elections running a whole day or even several days. And I'm certain that new ways for players to interact without them requiring to meet in game can and will be developed. There is a whole genre of browser games based on that sort of indirect social interaction. It is just a matter of time for this to become more predominant in MMORPGs.