Friday, August 14, 2009
Why do we play? - Social interactions
Social interactions, online friendships, have been widely cited as reason why people play an MMORPG, and specifically why they keep playing the same game instead of switching to another. That contrasts with the observation that the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, is the most anti-social. If you wanted to design an online game with the specific purpose of making players hate and despise each other, it would be hard to do better than WoW is already doing. WoW players despise n00bs, the term "pickup group" (PuG) is used as pejorative, and those valuable friendships are quit in the blink of an eye as soon as an opportunity arises to join a more advanced guild.
Social interaction certainly was a major driving force during the times of Everquest. But Everquest was designed in a way that taught you that you'd fail when alone, and succeed when you were in a group. Sure, there always have been problems with other players in any game, but the social cohesion of players in EQ was much stronger than in WoW. In World of Warcraft a player experiences that he will always succeed when soloing, but frequently die when in a group. He will also notice that the WoW experience system, as well as the type of quest to collect X foozle ears, penalizes players for grouping up to do quests. You will gain less xp per hour and need more time to finish your quests in a group in World of Warcraft than solo.
But the major anti-social element of World of Warcraft are raids. Consider your favorite sports team, and ponder the question whether these guys are friends. Obviously being on friendly terms helps team play. But a professional sports team isn't a group of friends who decided to play together, but rather an assembly of people each talented for whatever position he is playing. And WoW raiding guilds are designed around the same principles: Guilds don't recruit nice players, they recruit a "healer with epic gear". There are guilds where you can get kicked out for crimes like taking a three-week holiday. And good luck explaining to your guild that you are retiring your raiding priest, because you'd rather reroll a hunter.
Of course there are also friendly guilds in World of Warcraft, and I'm proud to member of one. But even in the nicest guild there regularly arise conflicts as soon as the guild tries its hand at raiding. If you gather a group of nice people and friends, it is unlikely that they all happen to have the same degree of skill and dedication to raiding. Some people will always feel the others hold them back, and then demand that either the non-performers should be excluded from raiding, or if the guild resists the over-performers end up quitting for a "better" guild. With "better" being purely defined in terms of raid circuit advancement, not social interaction. Many people believe that raid progress is the sole purpose of a guild in WoW, and thus any social interaction which isn't conductive to that raid progress is disregarded.
Now while some people lament about the elitism of gamers, it has to be pointed out that anti-social behavior like that is a consequence of game design. Ironically it is the oft-maligned Asian Free2Play games who show how game design can make players behave nicer to each other. Create a new character in Luminary, and you'll see veteran players lining up to become your mentor. As new player in Atlantica Online you'll often see little gift boxes pop up on your screen, with money and equipment donated by more advanced players. And in many games you'll easily get invited even into powerful guilds at relatively low levels. And no, that isn't because for some strange reason all the nice people play these sort of games. It is a consequence of game design: Veteran players receive special rewards for mentoring in Luminary, get xp for the gifts they give to beginners in AO, and guilds are designed with various systems like guild quests which enable even lower level players to contribute something to the benefit of the guild. In Atlantica Online you will also get bonus xp and special xp book rewards if you are grouped, making grouping advantageous even if your fellow group member is sitting afk somewhere far away from you. Of course not all games that foster social interaction are Asian, for example A Tale in the Desert is probably the most social MMO you can find, with guilds working together to create a successful village, or building a pyramid, tasks that are collaborative without requiring the players to be online at the same time, having a specific character class, level, and equipment. And it is remarkable how much nicer players are to each other in games where such collaborative systems exist.
So games have to be designed to take advantage of the motivating effects of direct social interactions. But fortunately it turns out that many players appreciate even indirect social interactions: Running through virtual cities alive with other players, trading on the auction house, or proudly strutting your epic gear or freshly acquired achievement title in front of strangers. Most players feel that a massively multiplayer online game is offering something extra which a single-player game doesn't have. The very fact that there are other players around is a motivation, even if you don't directly interact with them. Why we play can be as simple as "because other people play it too". But just imagine how much better and more successful MMORPGs could be if they were designed to foster direct social interaction a bit more, instead of making us hate our fellow players! Ultimately humans are social animals and enjoy social relations. But as motivation of why we play, and how we play, game rewards are often stronger. Design the rewards badly, and players will behave anti-social. Design the rewards to encourage social behavior, and the social interaction will improve player's enjoyment of the game, and make them more loyal to the game their friends are playing. If the giant of a game World of Warcraft has one weak spot in its armor, then it is that it isn't social enough.