Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 26, 2010
 
Social engineering in MMORPGs

Imagine a tiny change to the code of World of Warcraft: When in a group, players would get twice as many xp per kill as they get now. That tiny addition of "x2" to the code would completely change the face of WoW. It would suddenly be far more advantageous to level up while grouping, instead of soloing. The forums would explode with some people calling this "forced grouping", some people would continue to solo, but a large number of players would simply adapt to the new situation and group a lot more on the way to the level cap. The dungeon finder would get used more, because, hey, if you already group, you might as well tackle the content with the good reward. But even when just questing and killing 10 foozles, you'd throw an invite to the other guy you come across killing the same foozles.

Chris Smith from Levelcapped this week responded to Syp's question of "If we are lazy and resistant to being social in MMOs (the path of least effort, etc.), is it the game’s/devs’ responsibility to encourage — or even force — us to do so?", by wishing for an Unsocial MMO. That resulted in an intense debate with Spinks on Google Buzz, who wants developers to encourage people to make friends.

Although some people tend to respond to this sort of question with polemic, like "if you don't want to play with others, play a single-player game", the problem is actually deeper than many people imagine. There is a sharp disconnect between short-term and long-term motivation to play MMORPGs. While in the short term players tend to react strongly to rewards, many surveys have proven that social connections are one of the major reasons for long-term motivation. The question of "should a game encourage/force people to be social" thus isn't just a philosophical question, but also fundamental to the perenity of a game.

After 6 years of World of Warcraft, the activities that occupy the player's minds are mostly social. There is far more discussion about raids and pickup groups than about solo gameplay. Solo gameplay is considered "not important", and dismissed as the tedious obstacle you have to play through with new characters before you can get to "the real game", which is social.

But while you might keep playing because of your friends, and your best memories of the game are about moments shared with other people, your worst memories probably also involve human interaction. Obviously the biggest idiots and jerks you meet in the game make for the best stories afterwards, thus what one reads isn't necessarily representative of the average pickup group. But grouping with complete strangers admittedly has its pitfalls; and a combination of the "barrier to entry" of forming a group in the first place, and the risk of that group failing to reach its objectives, makes grouping often less attractive than soloing, especially for short play sessions.

Using rewards in a clever way can overcome these obstacles. As I repeatedly wrote on this blog, World of Warcraft is failing to do so for groups outside dungeons, which explains why leveling has been nearly synonymous with soloing before the dungeon finder lowered the barrier to entry into high-reward group content during leveling. Many quests get actually *harder* to do when you group up for them, and the xp per hour in a group is lower than soloing the same content. Furthermore most leveling content is easy enough to be soloed. While changing the rewards could turn leveling in WoW into a more social affair, some players resent such social engineering. The term "forced grouping" is often applied for situations where in fact nobody is forced to group, but grouping is just the more efficient way to gain rewards.

Blizzard is currently introducing a system of rewards that encourages players to guild, by handing out guild rewards. It isn't quite clear yet whether that will work in a positive way, we will have to watch the system in action. There is a certain fear that the system inadvertedly favors huge guilds over smaller ones, which might actually end up counterproductively destroying social interaction, and lead people into huge, impersonal guilds instead. On the other hand the reputation you gain for your guild should prevent some of the worst excesses of guild hopping.

In summary I think it is a good idea for developers to use rewards for social engineering players into groups and guilds, because this can improve the long-term stability of the game. But as social engineering is difficult, care has to be taken not to inadvertedly do more harm than good. It is okay to offer better rewards for players to play together, but not to a point where solo players would feel punished, or where impersonal mega-guilds have huge advantages over closer knit small guilds.
Comments:
The best MMO ever created, DAoC, had such a mechanism! (well, ok maybe not, but it was bloody great.)

It worked incredibly well, and ensured that the leveling experience was a social as well as class learning time. You had ample opportunities to support your other realm mates with direct feedback on their actions instead of remote support from top level guildies attacking the latest raid boss. You yourself could begin a bond with people out side of your guild that would last from level 10 through to top level realm verses realm combat that encouraged people to work together on more than a superficial level.

Oh, yeah on top of that DAoC had/has 3 realms (vital for balance) and a good range of classes. Unfortunately something that has yet to be replicated.
 
This reminds me a bit of SWG and when the "CURB" hit. People went from being able to run around alone to do missions if they wanted to, to now pretty much being forced into groups because, although mobs of the same level were manageable [the profitable missions, anyway], they were typically found among others that weren't... like Rancors.

Sure, the aim was to kill the "solo groups" that had invaded the servers, but it went too far.

For me, it was the final nail in the coffin caused by that patch. I jumped ship to WoW and have been here since. [Killing the crafting game for me was also a major point]
 
Blizzard seems pretty content to instance any worthwhile group content. If they wanted to encourage group content in the actual world of warcraft, they'de have to merge realms, like they already do via BGs and DF. I don't see them adding any bonuses to world based group content until there's a cross-server quest finder.
 
Thanks for yet another well-put post.

One thing I never understood though, is the "xp effectiveness" measure. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd say it's reasonable to assume that most people who strive for maximum xp efficiency are people who seek to get to the "goal" in the shortest amount of time. I don't think it's too far-fetched to assume that they are therefore not actively seeking to socialise while getting there: their coal, after all, is to get to the level cap fast, not hang around and chat with dudes.

Similarly, a person looking for a "social questing" experience wouldn't be much availed by those level-hunters. Sure, if grouping got you to the goal fastest they'd group with you. But their aim would be entirely different than yours. They'd be the ones who invite without asking, kill without talking and leave with, at best, a "ty".

On the other hand, why would I as a social quester care about xp efficiency? For me, doing the quests is all the fun I need. In fact, I'd rather have a slower xp gain so that I didn't have to jump to the next zone so quickly.

Perhaps Blizzard actually struck a good balance?
 
funny that you write of "forced social engagement" - here's a very, very interesting article (by a game developer) on how Farmville compels engagement and ties its rewards to the social aspect.

"What I Learned From FarmVille – So You Don’t Have To Play It"

http://meidell.dk/archives/2010/11/25/what-i-learned-from-farmville-so-you-don%E2%80%99t-have-to-play-it/
 
Excellent points, Oscar.

As often as not I am trying to slow the rate that my characters gain experience down not speed it up, so bonus xp for grouping is a potential disincentive.

I like grouping a lot, but I have to be in the mood for it. If the game mechanics began to seriously favor grouping over other activities in a game I played I'd be quite likely to look around for another game. That sort of thing was all very well ten years ago, but those days are gone.
 
@Oscar: But then you are fighting a social norm to interact with 'society'. Besides, if you're there for the social experience, does it matter what zone you're in?

You could do an extra couple quests with your quest partner/group, or they move on to the next zone with you a bit early, to retain the XP bonus, allowing you a longer chance to be social.

Besides, one of the pillars of relationships is shared experiences; if you never group (or are discouraged from grouping), there will still be fewer shared experiences as a whole. Maybe the first time that guy doesn't say much, but the second or third or fourth time you quest with him, he actually starts conversing. Whereas now, you get nothing except the plainstriders and boars and the blood elves to talk to.
 
My take on this, which I guess is similar to Oscar's, is that if you want to encourage people to socialise in a game, you have to bring them together for their downtime. People won't form social bonds while questing if questing is all "go-go-go".

UO (post-rep) and SWG (while I was playing at least) were great games for socialisers and both made it perfectly easy and efficient to go out hunting alone but they also did a great job of bringing people together to stand and sit around in player housing and in towns. I never played EQ but if what I've read is correct the designers there took the reverse approach of forcing people to stick together in the wilderness then making them sit down there.
 
Groups in WoW do get an experience bonus as it is, sort of.

Check out: http://www.wowpedia.org/Formulas:Mob_XP

Basically, if you're in a group of 3 or more players, the experience gained from a monster is boosted somewhat before getting divvied up. Granted, the end number would still be less than a solo kill, because the solo kill is not getting divided at all. I think you're trying to get at is the raw solo number getting doubled.

But when you think about it, that's why instances in WoW are dramatically faster leveling than solo questing. All those elite mobs, and having a group to efficiently down them, nets you far more XP/hour than questing, even without that x2 multiplier. With the LFD tool making it easier than ever, you see tanks and healers skyrocket their way to 80 with nothing but instances.

What you want is already in the game. Maybe not precisely how you imagine it, but the rewards exist.
 
Basically I agree. But this proposal has at least two problems within WoW:

- You already level much too fast. Doing grey quests/mobs is very unfun gameplay. Double leveling speed were a penalthy for many players.

- WoW is simply not made for questing together. Not with all the phasing going on. The leveling game nowadays is simply a separate game. I'm certainly not a supporter of that, but that's the way it is.
 
Anyone complaining about forced grouping in a game like WoW obviously didn't play FFXI, in which it was literally impossible to solo (in most cases). Incentivized grouping does not equal forced grouping.
 
Groups in WoW do get an experience bonus as it is, sort of.

I know, you can even see that in game if you turn on xp display in chat. But for any mob you kill in a 5-man group, the xp is first divided by 5, then multiplied with the modifier of 1.4. So a mob normally giving 1,000 xp solo, now gives 280 xp in a group. You need to kill 4 mobs in a group in the time it would take to kill 1 solo to make that "bonus" result in you actually getting more xp per hour than before. Most groups aren't that efficient, or run out of spawns in an open world situation.
 
I agree with Yazel, you need downtime to let the players interact with each other and create social bonds. The WoW LFD is a living proof that simply throwing players together isn't enough. WoW needs low intensity group activities where players are together but without spamming a spell every second. ATITD has a lot of such activities (digs, acro for instance) where you just need to click on a button every once in a while letting you chat with other players.
 
I am on the other side of the argument.

Personally, I do not like "forced grouping." The thing that first came to mind was the horrible realid. I get on to go level an alt on another realm explicitly to be away from the group. But now people can track me down with the "can you heal? do you want to pvp? are you busy?...." For me, there is a huge, massive difference between a game where some or even most of the content is group and *all* is grouped. I.e., there is no way to get on and quietly do stuff without the issues and demands and schedules of others. And the 20 minutes before dinner/bed/leaving would tend not to work as well with anything more than an abbreviated LFD group, which is certainly not a social situation. . As someone who keeps up with the spec and AH theorycraft, I can't see me being able to enjoy playing knowing that I was arbitrarily getting half the XP of an alternative.

I have raiders in two guilds (one late night). Due to Cataclysm, I don't see either surviving the spring. With cata using guild progression and rewards to effectively push people into a guild, and in particular a larger more active/advanced guild, I do not see how many of the most social of guilds, the smaller ones, will be able to deal with recruitment and retention.

In the same way that Blizzard could not force me to pay $45 per month, they could not force me to nearly always play socially. They could get me to increase my forced grouping time.
 
I'd like to see Blizzard create incentives for players to help each other improve, rather than incentives to kick bad players from groups (as the current system does).
 
It wouldn't work tobold. You have to make soloing impossible, 2x exp in group isn't enough.

You see, while you are sitting on your butt LFG, or waiting for your tank to come back from afk, I'm out soloing at a constant pace. I'm also responsible for my own self, so that means I'm not wasting time because my tank cant hold aggro and gets the healer killed, or the puller pulls too many mobs. Any deaths are my fault alone.

There are also matters of comfort: solo I can always play at my own pace, and no one gives a rats ass about my gearscore.

The only way to encourage grouping is to force it.
 
The 5-man group that AoE the instance without a word can hardly be called "social". Just because a human drives the other character and not a bot, the interaction does not become social. That would need the human to act like a human and not just a grinding bot.
 
The Shattering is a prime example of how social engineering can payoff for Blizzard. Sure, all the new quests are lower level for anyone already at max level, but even my early observance and anecdotal evidence proves that players are going back for the thrill of exploring the newly reworked zones and quests. The Rambo questline in Redridge is a prime example of this.

I'm in the corner that believes that the social component of a game like WoW is affected moreso by the actual "social dynamics" that evolve in the game itself(over time), as in what is considered "acceptable" or "worthy" for players to actually work together in achieving. Questing in Vanilla was a double edged sword, as players could benefit each other with the social dynamics of grouping due to everyone being on an even keel, so to speak, but once the level cap was reached by the majority of players, the pool of level-available players shrank drastically. Add in TBC, WOTLK, and now Cata, and the number of those level-available players is even less.

Somewhere along the line the "zerg" became the social dynamic of the day, but as we have seen - even this lost its appeal as the level gap increased along with other mitigating factors such as the LFD tool. I would love to be able to queue with guild mates using the LFD tool at level 80 for lower level dungeons, but for some reason Blizzard just doesnt allow this.

As far as the guild perks are concerned; I think that it is still a toss up as to what will happen. Right now I'm seeing players return to the guild that I belong to in decent numbers. These same players left to go raid in bigger raiding guilds, but are now coming home in preparation for the Cata release. It's a good thing too, as many of these players have the Legendaries, Insane titles, and other rewards that will make our guild perks come rather quickly. Time will tell what happens as they once again hit the level cap and get the raid "itch" yet again.

I'm hopeful - yet fearful at the same time. We'll see, I guess.
 
/signed.
I just hope they invite people towards interaction beyond the "ty" mentioned by
@Oscar. Social engineering really is extremely difficult to implement.

@Yazel: I think this downtime idea is still true.

@sandeep: interesting article indeed.

@Hagu: I share your doubts about the effects of the guild advancement feature on smaller guilds.

@changed: encouriging helping other players seems like an excellent idea (and much-needed, if you look at your average server's trade chat).
 
There already are rewards for grouping, faster kills and quest progression in the world, and better gear and xp in dungeons. It wouldn't make people more social and i don't even think the end game is close to social, it's purely about gear/dps/heals needed to take down boss and get shiny gear. I'm more social while soloing, talking in chat, with people than i am in groups. Most groups just want to get the dungeon done as fast as possible with the least difficulty. Why should that be rewarded, and at 2x xp at that?
 
Many MMO players and devs greatly underestimate how important solo play is to an MMO.

Games are much more demanding when playing in a social group. You can't get up whenever you feel like it, check your email, answer your phone etc. Therefore group play is not something that most gamers want to be doing 20 hours per week!

Furthermore, organizing groups can be a quiet a hassle, and frequently we just want to relax after work. When I get home from a hectic day at work, I often times don't want to "be all that i can be" in WoW. I'd much rather just do a couple dailies and then watch TV. If WoW didn't have laid back solo play options, I'd be playing xbox instead.

Group play is fine for raiding a couple times per week, but otherwise you shouldn't be forced to group if you don't want to. Nor should players be punished for not grouping all the time.

Meaningful solo content is critical for the success of an MMO and it's one of the reasons WoW is still crushing all of it's competition.
 
Interesting topic. I'm all for choice, and I find the changes to WoW worrying. Blizzard does indeed have a brand of 'forced grouping', i.e. the DungeonFinder for seasonal content. I have always played WoW in my small guild, they were responsible for bringing me into the game. We levelled, dungeoned, even raided in guild with invites on occasion to friends in-game we know.

Now the DungeonFinder has stampeded into the games social hierarchy making the mindless and silent zerg the norm. Of course in theory we could continue with our heroics and gear runs as we always have, in guild, often undermanned (which is a way of upping the challenge when waiting on new content of course). However the DungeonFinder is being used now for all 'seasonal' special boss encounters - set in a customised version of an old dungeon but *only* accessible via a DungeonFinder group of exactly 5 - no more, no less. Maybe Blizzard doesn't want people to solo farm these bosses, which would be easy enough with the rampant gear inflation, but really is it necessary that we have to fill up to 5 everytime?
 
I am very interested to see how guild leveling and rewards affect game play.

Our guild is social yet raiding guild who struggled to fill 25s during the WotLK expansino. With Cataclysm changes, it looks as if smaller guilds are going to get just as many benefits as those who easily have 25s covered. I would hate to see it where there is need to 'people collect' to grow a guild to force a 25 when the culture and mindset really is a 10s guild.
 
It's a rare occation when I find that I agree with Gevlon.
But in this case I do.

Being in the same space/time as someone else, does not equate to a meaningful social interaction.

Added bonuses for grouping would certainly give stronger incentives for socializing, however - the instrumental approach that the WoW community have cultivated would not dissapear over night.
 
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