Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Making MMORPGs more social

Syncaine has two posts complaining about the new LFG tool in World of Warcraft, saying that it is not the kind of multiplayer he is looking for, and listing it as just another benefit for solo players. The really funny thing here is that Syncaine and me basically want the same thing, MMORPGs to be places in which people play together instead of alone, but we have extremely different opinions on how to get there.

Syncaine's main complaint is that "random grouping does not lead to any sort of social interaction", which I believe isn't true in the first place, and not a problem in the second place. Syncaine prefers what is commonly called "forced grouping", that is players should be given the choice of either to cooperate or leave the game. I think that MMORPG history has proven that this approach condemns the genre to a niche existence. That appears to be okay for Syncaine, who doesn't believe we will ever get another MMORPG with a million players anyhow, and obviously prefers to just kick out everybody who doesn't want to play his way. Me, with my interest in economics, I see that this approach isn't going to fly with game companies, who would obviously prefer a larger customer base to a more select one, especially given the fact that the niche players aren't willing to pay any more than the casual players.

So I would say that the problem is how to make MMORPGs more social *while accepting* both the reluctance and the time constraints of the casual player. Instead of forcing the casual player out, or forcing him to group, we need to create an environment in which he still maximizes his social interaction with other players, even if he is only online for an hour or so.

Now if we look back at WoW 1.0, with 40-man raids to Molten Core and BWL, it is easy to see how that sort of gameplay and guild structure that followed from it were not exactly fostering social interaction for the more casual player. This created an environment where people got kicked out of guilds for not turning up frequently enough for raids. Guilds did cooperate towards a common goal, but that goal was very narrow in scope, and not social at all. Even the nicer guilds, and I am in one of the nicest, had regular guild drama about which raid dungeons to go to ("progression" or "gear up"?), who to give raid spots to, and how to distribute the loot. Those ended invariably with the people who wanted to progress faster than the rest simply quitting the guild and joining the next more advanced guild. The whole raid and guild system promoted anti-social behavior more than it promoted friendship and guild loyalty.

Now compare this to WoW 3.3, and with some imagination to WoW 4.0. The direct link between gear progression and guilds has been broken. And yes, as Syncaine complains, there are now people who feel they don't really need guilds any more at all. But if I look at my guild, I'd say we are in a better state than ever. People who quit are rejoining us. We are using the Dungeon Finder to run guild groups, leading to more guild groups than ever before. And we are a lot more inclusive, with people switching freely between alts instead of being forced to stick to one raiding main. We are all having fun, and more importantly, we are having fun together. Now add the future guild features of WoW 4.0 to the mix, with guild achievements, and guilds having common goals outside of just raiding, and the future is looking even brighter. Those who want can still organize 4 to 6-hour raid nights several times per week, but it isn't mandatory any more to participate in those to be of any use to the guild. Everybody can contribute at his own pace and abilities. And I think that is a much better approach than kicking everyone who isn't "pulling his weight", and turning MMORPGs into ivory towers for a self-proclaimed elite.

And economically it makes sense too, both for the game companies and for the players. Having a more inclusive social system instead of a more elite one means that the game company is making far more money, a part of which is then reinvested into more and better content for the players, or into the next big MMORPG. The only way an elitist MMORPG can compete with that is by either spending a lot less money on creating content (which is what we see now) or by creating elite luxury MMORPGs with much higher cost (which most elitist players simply couldn't afford or would be unwilling to pay for).

I'm quite happy about the new and improved World of Warcraft, and the expansion next year certainly won't hurt either. I think the game is on a good way to become more social, not by kicking out solo players, but by offering them alternatives of cooperation that don't require everybody to be hardcore. Random grouping *does* lead to social interaction, it just takes longer, and it works in more indirect ways. In any case, the new WoW is a huge improvement over one with a small elite cooperating in raids, and a large majority of players in "forced soloing".
What I'd like to see is a game that brings players together in a realm challenge.

Everyone doing their bit for the cause and everyone having an interest in supporting other people's activities.
I've used this new system for a week now and I don't see how it improves socialization. Firstly, you group with players from other servers : you can't join their guild, you can't create a cross server chat channel, you can't add them to your friend list. They are just random strangers and will disappear as soon as the last boss is dead.

Secondly, groups outgear heroics, which means that they rush through instances at full speed. There is no time to chat or socialize. People just say “Hello” and “Good bye” and that’s it. The few times people actually take time to chat is when there is a forced downtime e.g. after a boss kill in Violet Hold or because someone is AFK. The game is too fast paced to allow for socialization.
Now we can boost even more M&S.
All that is fine and dandy and I somewhat agree with you. But facilitating grouping is one thing, turning dungeons into a brainless AoE fest, as friends that still play the game tell me, is another.

I'm all for eliminating stupid gate keeper atunements, I'm all for easy-modes for raids and instances but i still think that you need at least a couple of those Ivory towers that everybody can have a shot at but only the best of the best manage to complete. And I mean more than just "Achievement for killing boss X blindfolded and with the hands tied behind your back."

As I've said before, I'm less tolerant of inequality in Real Life than in a game.
I think I am correct in saying that you did not have a very good experience in the early raiding environment in WoW (and please correct me if I am wrong about that), and certainly have a jaundiced view of raiding guilds. But for others of us, myself included, the early raids in MC, BWL and AQ40 were great days of camaraderie with a large and dedicated group of friends. That atmosphere largely left the game, in my limited experience, with the expansions. This is of course no kind of 'fact' about the situation, just an alternate subjective experience of the same time period.

That said, I think it might be interesting to do some kind of sociological study of the people who, like Syncaine and myself, prefer a 'forced grouping' model, and people like yourself Tobold who do not like that model to determine if there is a correlation between our opinions regarding WoW 1.x.
Tobold, you are right on this.. if you call what happens now "grouping".
For me to call it grouping there would be some social interaction needed. Sure, you gave examples of your guildies getting together and using the Tool to fill up missing spots but thats not really normal. The usual group consists of five people of which nobody knows anyone else. The better behaving ones say "hi" at the beginning and "bb" at the end. Other than that the run commences in complete silence and - even more sad - without acutally playing together. The duty of the tank is to keep aggro from the mobs. Does he survive? Does the Healer have trouble healing him? Is some Mage out of Mana? Most Random-Tanks don't care. Its the same with DDs: Is there some target that needs to be burned down fast? Should I help the healer by stepping out of the fire? Most of the only care about a good position on Recount.

I got to know all my ingame-friends and guildies at the moment via PUGs at some time, but I don't see this happening anymore. If the standard interaction of a group over the course of half an hour breaks down to four letters per person and a playstyle that you could describe as "socially detached", how could you ever find out if someone is a nice guy? And even if a miracle happens and someone accidently lets slip a hint of personality you can bet that he is from another server and you will never see him again.

Sure, the new situation has some advantages: Grouping on lowlevel is infinitely more fun now. But being a healer who always plays together with the same tank I don't even see an improvement in the time it takes to assemble a group on 80. And in the rare case that my healer plays without his tank I have seen DDs who refuse to go together with me because "it increases wait time".

And one last thing: The first guilds in WoW pretty much came down to some people meeting each other in some dungeon, liking each other and deciding to stay together more permanent. What later broke them was the requirements of raiding. So if grouping creates guilds and raiding breaks guilds, why is it grouping that had to be changed to help sustain guilds?
Newsflash: people in 2009 don't look for socialization in MMOs. Social aspects were important, when gameplay was flawed (e.g. EverQuest-era). In 2009 people want to actually play their MMOs and socialize on different platforms {social networks). Paying a monthly fee for an illustrated chat is so 1999.
Tobold, you fell for "gevion" my regular troll (I guess he is the bigger man and working on getting to heaven).

It's rare but I agree Syncaine despite everything you wrote is right. What you don't notice is that your guild doesn't play TOGETHER, they just play the same game. It's like two people playing the same single player game. They can talk about the game, they can show each other their characters/savegames but they are not playing together.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. This way a "guild" will be "a group I like to chat with while I'm playing WoW".
I think I am correct in saying that you did not have a very good experience in the early raiding environment in WoW (and please correct me if I am wrong about that)

Depends on what you call a not very good experience. I had a very good experience insofar as I raided rather successfully, got to beat MC, ZG, AQ20, and even got until the final boss of BWL. And I did like the raid game at the time, which was slower and more tactical, more than I like the current Super Mario version.

But the reason I was in a hardcore raiding guild at the time was that the more social guild I had joined on day one of the server, and am still in now, had temporarily fallen apart in a huge conflict between progression raiders and "slackers". So I experienced the negative effect of the raid game on the social life of a guild first hand, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
I absolutely agree with Kiseran.

Although I've only run 3-4 groups since the patch, they've all been mad races to the finish. No conversations, no boss tips for those of us who don't play hours/day, and people logging off the instant their item doesn't drop (even if it's not the final boss). No goodbyes, no thanks for the group -- nothing.

Whereas before, frequently dropping from a group could mean a tarnished reputation on your own server; it simply doesn't matter anymore. With social repercutions out of the way, politness and human morality is the only thing keeping people friendly. (And if we're relying on that alone, be prepared to grow thick skin and an overall depreciation of human expectations.)

@Coldheat - No one is suggesting WoW be a 1999 chatroom. But without the social interaction, why bother paying $15/mo and just get a single player game that you can grind and gear to your hearts content.
Even from an economics perspective you're giving Syncaine's position short shrift. Niche players could also subscribe for longer than casual players, which would also lead to more money for the company. This would also mean that your game would have less month-on-month turnover and thus you wouldn't need to spend as much on advertising and marketing to sustain a certain number of subscribers.
Blizzard is slowly changing WoW to a style game, so it can keep running at minimum cost the next 10+ years (like diablo 2) after replacing it with their next mmorpg. Hop in a group, blast mobs to pieces for 30 minutes, and hop into the next group. And if you're lucky you may win a Need (default) roll for a nice item. ;)
Cute that you are trying to paint me into the 'forced grouping' corner, when I hope you don't actually read what I write and get that view. Perhaps another case of too much skimming? I solo far more in DF than I ever could in WoW, with greater success. That DF launched with better group content than WoW is another matter, but 'forced grouping' exists far more in WoW than it does in DF, so who exactly is asking for what?

Also two problems with your post here. One:

"who would obviously prefer a larger customer base to a more select one, especially given the fact that the niche players aren't willing to pay any more than the casual players."

Ask any F2P MMO operator who pays the bills, the casual or the niche. Then ask them how much that niche pays monthly. If DF went up to $20 a month, do you really think people would quit over the $5 and go play the other impact PvP virtual world MMO? Right.


"the game company is making far more money, a part of which is then reinvested into more and better content for the players, or into the next big MMORPG. The only way an elitist MMORPG can compete with that is by either spending a lot less money on creating content (which is what we see now) or by creating elite luxury MMORPGs with much higher cost (which most elitist players simply couldn't afford or would be unwilling to pay for)."

By that logic, WoW should outpace everyone in terms of content by miles, so how is it that Aventurine has already released more content for DF in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5? How is it that CCP is miles ahead in server tech when they have a fraction of the sub base? Because what you wrote above is simply not true, unless you really are happy getting one update every 6 months because your $15 is going to fund the NEXT great MMO, whatever that may be. If so, that makes you a complete fool.

Ever consider that Blizzard is morphing WoW away from an MMO in order to make room for their next product? Why not convert WoW to farm-ville, let it cater to a different audience, and pass those interested in what an MMO offers on to the next game.
Ask any F2P MMO operator who pays the bills, the casual or the niche.

How is that even relevant? None of the games we are discussing here are F2P. In a monthly subscription game like WoW or DF the casual pay the bill, not the niche.

By that logic, WoW should outpace everyone in terms of content by miles, so how is it that Aventurine has already released more content for DF in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5?

WoW *does* outpace everyone in termn of content by miles. You are confusing square miles of randomly created landscape with "content". In square miles even Star Wars Galaxies or Anarchy Online have far more content than WoW. Only that its all just empty landscape with nothing happening, just like in Darkfall. It is the handcrafted content with every corner of a zone being unique and contributing to the lore, and handcrafted encounters in dungeons, which cost so much money to make.

Tobold, you fell for "gevion" my regular troll

Define "fell for". Should "gev i on" with a capital "i" not be allowed to post on my blog? Me punishing gevion for "Gevlon identity theft" would be ironic, after all I committed the same crime.

What you don't notice is that your guild doesn't play TOGETHER, they just play the same game.

I can assure you that my guild IS playing together. We run the random dungeons in guild groups mostly, taking advantage of the extra rewards and easier teleportation. My point is that this is nice as a POSSIBILITY, not that everybody does it. Guild groups and partial guild groups sure happen more often now than before.
I don't think the Dungeon Finder is the huge social or anti-social revolution everyone thinks it is. It merely facilitates what was very much possible before. If people wanted to run dungeons they did that in 3.2. If people are not interested in running dungeons they won't be doing that in 3.3 either. Sure, it cuts some dead time out of the equation and that's great, but it's neither the salvation nor the damnation of the game. Bloggers seem to blow this way out of proportion, just my 2 cents.

That being said, I really liked your post today Tobold. The whole change from elitist "Raid or DIE" mentality of vanilla WoW to today's multiple progression paths available is the main reason why today's WoW is many times better than 4-5 years ago. Despite the colored glasses people like Syncaine or Gevlon seem to be using when looking back.
Players like playing, but they don't like things that are annoying or grindy. The real solution for the 'casual friendly social interaction' would be something along the lines of WAR's public quests.

What you need is to make grouping as user-friendly as possible. That means:

1. You must be able to enter and leave whenever you want.
2. You minimize the amount of discomfort you place on the players currently in the group, which includes travel time to and from it.
3. As a corollary to 1, people will try to abuse this by avoiding the less fun parts of the activity unless you incentivize them. This means that you should incentivize everything, but some parts moreso than others, e.g. you get a bigger reward and a larger part of the spoils if you help kill the trash and the boss than just killing the boss.

It is a little anti social at the moment because you cant make contact again with friendly players from other servers that you may have been grouped with. If you can ignore players from other servers, we should be able to prioritize them as well.
Hopefully Blizzard's 'steam' client will make all this possible.
"especially given the fact that the niche players aren't willing to pay any more than the casual players"

Counter-example: the anecdotally high proportion of players with multiple accounts in EVE.
Just because a game happens to be an MMO does not mean that players have to play with others at all times. Through the marvelous modern wonder of game design and mechanics we can have both! And by that I mean a game that allows people who wish to pursue certain aspects of the game in a less social manner to do so, as well as allowing people who wish to pursue people who wish to pursue the game in a more social manner to do so as well.

The problem is that WoW was never a very "social" game to begin with. Not in the way that I think a lot of people seem to be talking about it now. The "social" aspect that I think most people seem to be referring to has another name -- "forced grouping", meaning you couldn't participate in the game solo to much of an extent because the content was created to require the efforts of more than one person to "complete". Thats fine when we're talking about dungeons, or perhaps some quests, but does it also have to mean farming, or other routine activities? In some games it does. But it hasn't in WoW since the beginning.

In Vanilla wow, before we had Daily quests, all you could really do solo was farm or quest (unless it involved most elite creatures). Dungeons and raiding required groups, as did all but world PVP. Do you not recall the many posts on the official forums about the lack of content?

Blizzard answered in BC with making raids more accessible, but answered further later in BC by removing attunements, creating daily quests, and beginning the process that enables players who liked solo play to have a piece of the pie. That process is only continueing and I see no problem with it.

The real social aspect of WoW comes through Guilds, which are not impacted in the least by the new LFG system. People can still form social contacts outside their guild irrespective of the LFG system.

The new LFG system does not stop anyone from continueing to run instances with friends, yet it has a real, definate positive impact on those players who didn't do that for what ever reason. It changes nothing on the social front in any real form. Yet it does have another positive impact. It further shows that Blizzard is capable of creating content that is capable of cater to multiple playstyles.
"WoW *does* outpace everyone in termn of content by miles. You are confusing square miles of randomly created landscape with "content"."

Agon is a breathing, living, evolving world.
It's going to take 6 years of making billions for Blizzard to change anything instead of piling up.
Besides, "content" is much more than just scenery and When the latest expansion in WoW took about 2 months before people went back to doing dailies I would revise that statement. :)
The game is simply about gear, 5 mans and raids now. It has reached some base common denominator and has lost something special along the way.

Why I think forced grouping is a must and also a crying shame.

I see nothing in WoW anymore that isn't about getting better items to rush through content faster and faster.

An organic approach to group finding no longer works due to the need to eat content faster.

I thought the new LFG tool was way overdue. I think now that I was a little hasty in that.

Cross Realm Dungeon running with players you'll not likely see again. How do you create a solid social cohesion like that?

WoW is just like McDonald's in many respects. It's the fast food MMORPG where you're forced through the service area as fast as possible to satisfy that thirst for 'Carbon Retaining Aggregate Particles'.

Maccas may be a quality product in some respects, as is WoW, but in others areas it desperately fails.

Bottom line, outside of raiding guilds, WoW has zero need for social cohesion any more.
"If people wanted to run dungeons they did that in 3.2. If people are not interested in running dungeons they won't be doing that in 3.3 either."

In my case, the new dungeon finder is getting me to run dungeons. I never liked trying to find PUGs before. You stand around and do a lot of waiting. This new tool lets me pick a dungeon I haven't been in and I can go on questing while I wait for it to pop. It's great.

There are many of us who are interested in seeing this content but were never interested enough to do the guild thing or got frustrated by PUGs. Now these dungeons are more accessible and getting into a group is simple and painless and doesn't require me waiting around for us to get a tank or a healer.
I think people are overreacting and not viewing things in perspective regarding the LFG tool. Right now heroics are easy because almost all mains outgear the content. It's just to get caught up in the old ilvl of content so you can catch up to Icecrown Citadel rather than grind all the old tiers (which just didn't happen very well in old-WoW).

In Cataclysm the gear grind shifts again, and heroics will go back to being somewhat tricky in places (by no means hard, but not the faceroll either). When that happens, people won't be as prone to just randomly queue, and will prefer to pick their teammates for 5-mans. Communication and coordination will increase too, which will increase socialization.

Honestly, this change is only dramatic for people still playing on low-pop servers. I'm on a fairly high-pop server, and before 3.3 you could find daily heroic groups all day long. This just broadens that experience to everyone. I've been stuck on a low pop server due to friends before too, so for those people (I can haz group now??) this must be a shocking game changer.

Heroics were absurdly easy at the end of TBC too, it's just the nature of the expac cycle. Don't judge the feature by the end of the cycle, but the whole thing.
The dungeon finder is one tiny step towards getting rid of antisocial instanced worlds, aka servers/realms/shards.
"It merely facilitates what was very much possible before."

No it doesn't. Before, I abandoned a character on a low pop server with friends because I couldn't find groups for anything. The few that were there had already divided up into their cliques and wouldn't play with outsiders, killing any appeal for RandomPlayer to roll there.

"Sure, it cuts some dead time out of the equation and that's great, but it's neither the salvation nor the damnation of the game."

If five players from five realms all want to run the same dungeon, that was five players with a subpar gaming experience in 3.2. Five players who might have quit given no change can now enjoy the game the way they want to enjoy it.

For me personally, it IS the salvation of the game. I dig instances, but only when I don't have to boost random M&S. As a healer, I can find a group for anything I want, any time. If the dps is low then before the first boss, I stick the triple digit dps 71/0/0 on my ignore list, then ask to have him kicked. If the vote doesn't pass... drop group, and find another one with decent players.

Before 3.3, I had to take whatever my server dished up. I can still remember my RP guild (who complimented my RP style and purpose very well) pretty much sucked at raiding did not desire heroic achievements. In order to find those things before I would have had to hop and burrow into another clique, abandoning my RP. Now I get to have my cake AND eat it.

You say it kills dead time, but for me, I still wait around the same amount of time for a group as I used to, the only difference is that once I get a group I stick with, I KNOW it's going to be good. Time spent = same; reward = greater. If that's not the equation for a happier player, nothing is.
In WoW there are 2 groups of players.

One that just want to get gear and experience the game, another to only play with friends.

I believe the situation now is that the first group of people are having more power to PUG. As a result, the second group will probably lose some friends.

Have we forgotten the fact that some players are so hardcore and they play multi-boxing?

Can we then say WoW is to be blammed as players can buy 5 copies of it to get things done alone instead of socialising?

It is all up to player's preference, and we can all see that the majourity of players falls into the first group. WoW, of course, can force everyone to stop pugging by removing the LFG. But on the other hand, there will be another blog which says "This WoW is not what we want anymore"

In my humble opinion, players who wish to focus on socialising in WoW have to see the bigger picture - they are generally a smaller group. They always could guild themselves up and play with each other instead of Pugging. As a reward, their playing co-ordination and skills will definately be much stronger than random pugs.

Frankly, I myself don't mind to join the best #1 guild to down the hardest boss for a week, even if I don't know any of their players. Maybe those who complain about socialise or Pugs are actually those who were left out. No offence.
I deal with people all day, forced to be sociable when I don't necessarily feel like it. Game time is "me" time, when my friends are in the guildchat channel but I don't have to worry about anything anyone wants to do but me.

Any changes a game makes to convert the old binary choice of grouped/ungrouped into a sliding scale of choices regarding how social you want or need to be is a good thing.
@Mark Asher & Katsuya

I wholeheartedly agree with you guys that it's a good move that adds benefit to players. In some cases it might even make a huge difference - really low pop servers, non prime time players, etc. However, my point was that in the overall scheme of things the impact of this specific change is rather minor. To me, this doesn't look like the thing that makes or breaks the game for a significant part of the population.

Does it make life easier for most people? Absolutely and it's a great addition to the game from that point of view, but as I said it's neither the salvation nor the damnation of the game. Especially not from the perspective of Tobold's original post, which was that of social interaction (or lack of) derived from the change.
Someone in the comments mentioned this, but I think it bears repeating. Many guilds are formed from people meeting each other while instancing. pre-3.3, there were three things that forced you out of the solo-hero mentality: (1) group quests, (2) dungeons, (3) raids. (1) have always been too few and far between, so you rarely ever met people that way. (3) has always been the domain of the hardcore raiding guild. (2) was really the only way you reliably would meet people you could play with on a regular basis. I know many guilds who have been formed from friends who met each other running heroics or other level 80 dungeons. That source of "meeting people" is gone now.

Torvald, you mention lots of your old guildies are rejoining. Here's a question for you: How will new people find your guild? How will new people meet your guildies and become friends with them? What opportunities will new people have to interact with your guildies?

Here's a question for all the wow players reading this: How many of your current wow friends are (a) RL friends, (b) friends you met in dungeons, or (c) friends you met from raiding, or (d) friends you met in your current guild. For those of you who have a large number of friends in (d), then ask yourself how you joined the guild, and who recruited you in, and how you met them.

I think the results will show that a large chunk of past interaction has to do with the forced grouping of dungeons which Blizzard has just eliminated.

PS> For myself, every single current friend I have in the game came as a result of forced grouping in the game when I hit 70 in TBC. Many of them indirectly from the Guild leader of my second serious raiding guild recruiting me into the guild. He met me doing heroics. I now count some of these as my best friends IRL or in game, and it saddens me to think that 3.3 deprives future wow players of that kind of social interaction.
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