Tuesday, March 29, 2011
On the difficulty of intelligent discussion about MMORPG features
This is a blog about massively multiplayer online role-playing games. In general. With some posts about games in general, technology, and blogging thrown into the mix. This is *not* a "WoW blog" or a blog about any other specific MMORPG. Unfortunately it has become evident over the years that most people are simply unable to discuss MMORPG features in general, without attaching themselves to specific implementations of those features. So I usually discuss features of specific games, so people know what I'm talking about. And of course quite often the example chosen is from WoW, because that is one of the games I know best, and where I can assume that most of my readers know it as well.
The disadvantage of discussing features of specific games is that MMORPG players are so bloody tribal. Thus exactly the same feature will be described as the greatest thing ever in somebody's favorite game, while simultaneously being condemned as being utter shit in another game the writer happens to hate. That makes it pretty much impossible to hold any sort of intelligent discussion on the merits of a a features by itself.
I was thinking about that while pondering the feature of automated group formation, that is groups forming by means other than one player inviting another player. There are a lot of possibilities how that could be implemented in a game: People could flag themselves as willing to group and be automatically grouped with players in the same area. Or people could sign up to group for a specific purpose or target, and then be automatically grouped with others going for the same target.
Such a feature has some inherent advantages: By making forming a group easier, it is more likely that people end up playing in a group than playing solo; which in turn makes it more likely for them to meet new friends. Furthermore with MMORPG endgames often being dominated by group content, automated group formation makes it more likely that a player arriving at the endgame already has some basic group combat experience, and you don't run into the problem of the tank not knowing where his taunt button is.
On the other hand the automated grouping feature has some inherent disadvantages: If you only need to press a button to get invited into a group, there is no need to politely ask for an invite. Getting into groups easily means that some people don't feel the need to display any sort of even basic politeness or decency. Thus automatically formed groups can end up being either just totally silent, or worse they can become a platform for absolute jerks.
What is important to notice is that these advantages and disadvantages are inherent to the feature, and not all that much influenced by any specific implementation of it. The harder it is to form a group, the more effort players will exert to keep to group together, which means being nicer to other players. So the convenience of easy group formation goes hand in hand with the risk of anti-social behavior. A strict invitation-only system forms groups less often, and has people waiting for groups more often, but if players need to be social to get into a group they will be, and thus groups formed on invitation only are on average "nicer".
When people notice this, they usually notice it in a specific game they are playing. For example Melmoth wrote a rather brilliant piece on Rift's default-to-open group system feeling sometimes a bit impersonal and antisocial. Others blame Blizzard for having made World of Warcraft more antisocial with the Dungeon Finder. And the frustrating thing is that the WoW fans will find the Dungeon Finder great and hate the public groups of Rift, while the Rift fans will praise the Rift open groups and blast the WoW Dungeon Finder. Thus the discussion quickly breaks down to petty bickering between fanbois, and yet another intelligent discussion about a MMORPG feature, and the greater balance between convenience and social gameplay is avoided.