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".