Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 17, 2011
Social cost

Friday I mentioned that while I didn't think Facebook games per se were bad, I wasn't willing to pay the social cost of spamming my real life friends or getting my real name associated with my gamer identity. Over the weekend I realized that social cost might not just be an issue with Facebook, but could have an impact on every multiplayer game. Basically in any social structure, including guilds, the benefits are balanced with some form of social cost. For example loyalty is a social cost to the loyal person, and a benefit to the other members of the organization he is loyal to. And just like I am unwilling to pay the social cost of Facebook games, there are certainly people out there unwilling to pay the social cost of let's say a raiding guild.

It is social cost that makes people in a MMORPG play alone together, or as that source says: "joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game. WoW’s subscribers, instead of playing with other people, rely on them as an audience for their in-game performances, as an entertaining spectacle, and as a diffuse and easily accessible source of information and chitchat. For most, playing the game is therefore like being “alone together” – surrounded by others, but not necessarily actively interacting with them". By limiting yourself to social interactions which are indirect, you minimize your social cost: You don't owe anybody anything, you have no obligations, no need for loyalty. And as long as you consider the MMORPG to be "just a game", that is actually a very rational thing to do. The so-called "virtual worlds" are massively inferior to the real world in most aspects, and reserving your social capital for the real world makes total sense for most people.

But for the game this has negative consequences, both for the game company and the players. The less players are socially integrated in a game community, the easier they stop playing. And for the player who refuses to pay the social cost of belonging to a guild, large parts of the game remain out of reach, further reducing his desire to keep playing (and paying). Blizzard appears to be very much aware of this, which is why we will get the looking for raid functionality in patch 4.3. This basically lowers the social cost of raiding, and thus opens up raiding to those who were unwilling to pay that social cost before. The change of difficulty is more or less a secondary effect of trying to implement pickup raids: The current raid system simply requires a degree of organization a pickup group can't hope to achieve. If LFR succeeds it isn't because pickup raiding is "easy" (because for the individual player that isn't necessarily the case), but because the barrier to entry, the social cost is now low enough for people to be willing to try to participate in this form of end game.

So you think this means that the social benefits of being in a guild just aren't high enough?

And this is where you see the balance issue. Games are deliberately killing the social benefits of being in a guild. Frex, it used to be that being in a guild made it much easier to get a heroic instance group together, much easier to get hold of crafters, etc etc. But the /game/ brought in random dungeons, auction house, easy gold, and that has eroded the social benefits of guilding.
I'm not really sure it's the social cost which is the deciding factor. I think the whole organization thing is more the culprit.
LFR didn't end up filling instances (new and old) because it lets you skip the "social cost" of a guild, but because it makes it possible to log-in and play RIGHT NOW, instead of organizing/planning for the future. I think that the success of WoT clearly indicates this: WoT is very good for click'n'play'fun without delays.

The reason I find the "social cost" thing to be scondary comes also from the fact that I look at my gameplay: both in WoW and LotRO I'm part of a big guild (even if in LotRO they probably don't even remember me :), but when you log-in, just because I'm part of a guild, it does not mean that there will be people available to run instances, simply because they may already doing something else. A guild simplifies te organization, but it does not solve the click'n'play'n'fun.
Taking what you've said as a given, do you think the average person's willingness to pay the social cost is fairly stable, or do you think it changes over time?

I ask because so many people honestly believe that Blizzard sets out to intentionally make their game worse, rather than subscribe to the notion that Blizzard is reacting to player trends that only they can see (via internal numbers, activity logs, etc). In other words, Blizzard might not be "dumbing down the game" at all, but merely designing a game around the audience that shows up.
BTW I went on and read the entire article.

Unfortunately it's old, so, for example, the leveling process is very much dominant in their report. But I still find it VERY strange to conclude that people "play alone surrounded by others" when the graph in page four indicates a group time % raising steadly with level, to reach 50+% at level cap. 50% time spent grouped seems a lot to me, expecially since forming a group takes a lot of time!

It'd be interesting to see it how it has evolved with the changes in the game, in particular speeded-up leveling and LFR, but I would say that Blizzard is working to make sure that the group time % approaches 100% as much as possible.
If you think about it, real life is another "cost" to be considered for any MMO. As soon as the game asks you to get into a guild, schedule your gaming time and organize events (raiding, meetings, ...) you *must* check your real life spare time to see if you actually can fit in the scheme.

I've been playing Wow for 4 years but at the end of the day I found myself just doing the same thing over and over. Endless grinding and a lot of time wasted in Stormwind. That works when you're a kid and have a lot of free time. Not when you're a father/mother, have a job, a house, etc.

Facebook games are not like this, in my opinion. Just gather a bunch of random players (using the ADD ME! tools) and play alone, no one will ever ask who you are and what you do. No schedules, no races, nothing.

As mentioned in a previous post, you can kill any Facebook "social cost" by excluding your real-life friends from any Zynga spam. Create a group, put your random "ADD ME" gaming friends inside it and set the game to spam that group. Problem solved.
I began MMOs as a low-social-cost player. I graduated for several years to moderate-social-cost. I then equally gradually drifted back down to low-social-cost. Currently I am trending very slowly back towards more social.

I don't see any reason to take a fixed position, either across the genre or even within specific games. From personal experience I'd also refute the received wisdom that it's social ties that keep players paying.

I've subscribed to more MMOs, for longer, and paid more in micro-transactions since I lowered my social-cost gaming than I ever did when it was at its highest. At that time I didn't need to subscribe to or even play more than one MMO, or buy anything from within the game other than necessary expansions because I was gaining bonus entertainment for free from my social circle. If you log in every night and spend four hours chatting, which was pretty much what I did for about two or three years, you don't need to spend much money.
I think the most important consequence of being socially invested is much higher tolerance of failures and repetition and generally effort (like typing). Wiping 20 times with my friends on a boss is not a problem to me. Wiping once with a random group is already too much. I'll leave at the second wipe.

If developers think that suddenly players consume content faster, they aren’t wrong. The reason, however, is this: players have no tolerance for failure and repetition when not socially invested in a community.
I'm not sure that RL socialization is much better than MMOs. I think the latter reflects the former.

In MMOs you join a raiding guild. In RL you join a softball league. For more serious leagues, you practice often. Like doing 10mans when not doing 25 mans.

A casual weekly arena session to get your minimum matches isn't much different than a weekly poker game.

In my household, I watch TV the way I play MMOs: Some shows which only I watch, I do at the computer. Like doing dailies. Thursdays I have standing TV night with my wife and 2 stepkids. Friday I have a standing WoW group. Both are casual and neither happen 100% regularly.

Of course there are differences between these activities. But I do see parallels. Activities get stale, groups change. The face to face time probably creates stronger social bonds. But they do break apart at some point. You quit the league (possibly a rage quit), hang out with a different group of friends, etc.

The world of ipods, cells phones, having close to 1 TV per person, cheap consoles and PCs, e-mail and Facebook has created a culture that is reflected on and offline.

Neighborhoods and server communities have both become less cohesive because everyone be by themselves when they want, do something casual when they want and find an organized activity when they want. There are SO many more optionals and virtual communties.

Its the world we live in.
It's a slightly weird perspective to see interaction as a cost rather than a mutually beneficial process.

It's possibly not wrong for games but thinking about it outside of games makes it really weird. It costs me 80p and a "fine, thanks" to buy a newspaper from a shop but it's only 80p to buy it online.
Most people start playing WoW because it's great fun. And most people keep on playing long after they'd otherwise be bored because of their guilds. You want to log in and have a chat with them, you can't let them down by not raiding and it's the main reason you log in.

I used to be like that. Now, I buy the new expansions and I play them for a few months, alone. Sure I'll group to do some instances but nothing deeper as I don't want to spend every evening playing the same game anymore.
The other side of the argument of course is that if you model an end-game around raiding, many players will be excluded due to social selection or other reasons and quit playing. So Blizzard is trying to coddle the casuals who only really want to raid, not because they like or are good at it, but because it is the only way in the game to get better pve gear. Once people en mass start using the LFR, it will be followed by endless complaints that raiding is too hard. So the nerfs will come to raiding too to keep everyone happy.

Wouldn't it just be easier to have a something else to do in the end-game besides raiding? They are ruining their game.
Apologies for the delays in moderating comments this week. Extremely busy with work, and limited internet access.
You're onto a good idea here Tobold, but your conclusion is a bit off. Take the idea one step further and start considering "social investments" instead of "social costs."

Making online friends, joining a guild, and maintaining a good reputation on your server (by acting nicely and not dropping group every two seconds) isn't just a cost, it's an investment. The investment used to be very worthwhile because you needed friends or a guild to do most dungeons before the dungeon finder. LFD greatly decreased any returns on "social invesments." It literally made any non-guild friends worthless because everyone started using the dungeon finder. Likewise, maintaining a good rep on your server by being polite and mature became worthless as well. LFR will further decrease any reason to make social investments.

The problem is that without the social investments, the game becomes much more boring. Of course there are many other reasons that the game became boring and started hemorrhaging players, but the loss of community is a big reason.
WoW is bleeding people not because of hard content... there is another silent killer destroying the very thing that actually made it the success it was.

Guild Reward System: J'accuse!

After five plus years as a loyal, and avid fan of WoW I've un-subscribed.

I had no difficulties with the "difficulties" of the dungeons when first released. I don't raid - but I've been a PuG tank for a long time and actually enjoyed the challenge of jumping into "difficult" dungeons and leading a random group of strangers. I like the revamped world. The new zones, great. The worgen/goblin races? Brilliant?

The real ****silent killer**** of the WoW community is the GUILD REWARDS SYSTEM (GRS).

The GRS destroyed the small, social guilds of which I was an officer for one for five years and a member of another.

It become impossible to both retain and recruit people because the we couldn't compete with the larger level capped guild and the XP bonus/heirlooms/mounts etc.

We watched everyone rush to the larger guilds and the shiny rewards on offer.

And thus my - and many other - social guilds fell apart, and myself and the survivors went to one of the larger ones.

And I loathed it. It was impersonal and lacked a sense of real community.

It was a community of "Goblins" with self interest the primary motivator for joining...

"What level is the guild?"
"When can I get access to the guild bank?"
"Why can't I have gold for repairs the instant I join?"

Ironically the GRS is having the opposite effect on guild retention.

I noted the very high turnover in these large guilds.

Players cycle in and out of these mega-guilds, dissatisfied with the social experience.

The GRS is intended to be the glue that keeps the WoW community together...

But was that fix really needed? For six years, the players organised themselves from the "bottom up".

We built our communities through hard work, friendship networks etc. It was organic.

Two of my closest friends I met through WoW. We're still friends after five years, even with me not in the game.

Planned communities always fail - and this is what the GRS attempts to do.

Sure, I played alone. But the chit chat, the showing off of mounts and dancing on mailboxes is what made the game feel alive. It gave it an organic quality.

GRS has destroy that by rewarding greed and self interest.

We're social beings. We need to know there are other people around us, even in a virtual world.

If Blizzard wanted to save WoW, they should nerf the GRS, not the content.

For the love of the gods Blizzard, stop throwing stuff at the player base. Get rid of XP bonuses, mounts, heirlooms and all the items that promote sheer naked greed.

Peole come to MMOs to play with other people, and feel part of a living world with a thriving community.

Poor play Blizzard, poor play.

I think you are mistaken to believe that "dumbing down the game" is equivalent to blizzard intentionally ruining the game for players.

Id say it's commonly believed and hard to dispute that blizzard makes decisions based not the trends you speak of.

The problem for the people you see complaining about "dumbing down the game" is that they are in the minority that isn't part of that trend, and hence sees it as ruining their fun.

They also might consider themselves more important and valuable than the "lowest common denominator" whom the game is dumbed down for, which of course is inherently wrong.

Fortunately for blizzard and other companies, they base their decisions on proven metrics, statistics, activity logs, etc, rather then reading forums consisting of a fraction of a fraction of their player base, the infamous "vocal minority".

Heaven help us if devs listened to a forum poll where 85% of their 10,000 forum members wanted something, in a game with 6 mil players. (made up numbers, but you get the gist)
Can we really compare RL activities like committing to a softball league to joining a raiding guild?

While of course there are certain parallels...they are so vastly different. You join the team because are already become friends in the guild because you are raiding. When the team dissolves you stay friends, and if you have something more important that requires you not attend, people will understand without a problem. When youu miss a raid you are ostracized if not kicked, and as soon as you lose the guild tag your "friendship" ends,

I could go on, but the underlying difference is that in a game you interact with people for personal gain/achievements/etc. In real life you get personal gain as a direct effect of interacting, as it is the benefit in and of itself.
@Oz Mike
If guild rewards can so easily destroy small guilds, then what are small guilds for?

If people join a guild for the perks, they aren't looking for the tight knit group of people to hang out with. It seems more to me like a filter.

Not that you have to be a megaguild to level up. If smaller guilds maxed out their weekly dungeon exp (that's 7 normal dungeon runs) they'd level pretty reasonably. It becomes a goal that a small guild can accomplish together. Unless the members just want "theirs". And again, what's the point of a guild if all people care about perks.

I don't think the game changed people. The people who just want stuff, go to the place where the st uff is. People who want to get more out of the game than stuff can do their own thing.
@ Bill,

Yes you have a point.

But I think Blizzard changed people's behaviour by creating a "market" that encourages greed/self interest at the expense of social structures and community.

Blizz has been a bit like the banks flooding the market with cheap and easy credit - easy to get rewards via GRS, heirlooms etc.

Why work with others when it just falls from the sky?

Why work within the confines of a small guild that goes slower on guild profession (even if a few months/weeks slower) when people can join a mega guild and GET DA LOOT/REWARDS NOW!

You say "What's the point of a guild" if its all about perks?

That is *my* point - what is the point of a guild beyond that?

No social structure? No community?

I was an officer in a mid sized guild of 40+ people for five years. I built the website, recruited and helped lead it.

My proudest moments in WoW had nothing to do with downing a boss or getting some shiny.

I was classic "casual". Lot's of alts, some raiding and PvP.

But as a member of the vast silent majority, I don't think Blizzard understood that for most of us it was about community.
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