Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Have we grown bored of talking to strangers?

The MMORPG blogosphere has recently been full again of nostalgia for the good old days of games like the original Everquest, including attempts to "make games like that" again. It is generally acknowledged that the community was better in the olden days. So the thinking goes that if we had like back then again, we could get the community of back then again as well. But what if it isn't the games that have changed? What if it is us, and our environment? What if we have grown bored of talking to strangers in our games?

I played my first "multiplayer online" game in the early 90's on a university mainframe computer with a text-only, green or amber letters on black background screen. It was games like LPMUD, and "social network sites" were called bulletin board systems (BBS) at the time. I chatted online with Americans who had never spoken to a European in their life before, and were rather fascinated by the concept. A decade later, when I made my first steps in a 3D virtual world in Everquest and was kinda lost, I met a stranger in the game who not only gave me directions but also a magical necklace which helped a lot. Meeting people online was still a fascinating idea.

Fast forward to today, and meeting somebody in a MMORPG is an "oh crap" moment, because you instantly fear that the guy you see before you is after the same mobs or resources as you are. I've seen a website that offered me to share my experience on 284 different social networks. And every game, including Solitaire is now online multiplayer. Meeting strangers online, in a game or socially, has gone from being fascinating to being an everyday experience. It isn't new and exciting any more.

Besides having gotten boring, our technological capacity to meet strangers from all over the world might also have grown much larger than our capacity to handle social relationships. Science tells us that the capacity of beings to connect socially with others depends on the size of their neocortex region of their brain. And while humans beat everybody else on the planet in that respect, our so-called Dunbar's Number is thought to be around 150 stable social relationships. The 18 to 24 year old Facebook users with an average number of friends of 510 are only making a mockery of the word "friend", they aren't actually capable of maintaining such numbers of social relationships.

All that suggests to me that there is little hope for getting the old game communities back. That is not to say that there couldn't be improvements: There are a lot of possible approaches where veteran players are rewarded for helping new players, and that can do a lot of good for game communities. But the time where meeting strangers from half-way around the world was a fascinating idea and automatically caused us to be nice to them is over. At best we have grown bored of those strangers, at worst we now consider them as victims we'd like to beat in the game to get some reward or e-peen. The next Brad McQuaid game will be as unsuccessful as his previous attempt to bring the old Everquest back: Vanguard. Times have changed, and the dinosaurs aren't going to come back.

I feel sociopathy is a large contributor. Sociopathy is much more prevelant in today's MMOs and gaming in general, whether due to gaming being more popular and/or gaming adopting more sociopathic tendencies.

Speaking directly to your title, I feel that's a large contributing factor to people forming more personal, smaller cliques and the "wide open floodgates" of MMO interaction being reigned in.
I think the key is "accessible gaming".

Back then the other person you met online was likely a fellow gamer you could cooperate with and talk with, due to similar interests.

Now if you chat with a randomly selected person in game, chances are that he is a drooling moron and his communication will be "OMG lol it was aws0me XXXD"
I think the truth of the matter is that we've changed, as you imply.

In EQ and SWG there were deliberate mechanisms put in to force people to wait around for travel. The idea was that people would start chatting as occasionally happens in a bus queue.

They weren't terrifically successful then and now that kind of enforced downtime is almost unthinkable. We no longer live in an age where people are ok with just "doing nothing." A modern person if made to queue starts surfing the net on their phone or reading their kindle, we certainly don't start chatting up random strangers.
I am weary of talking to people in many of the current MMO since the chances are a randomly selected person is “drooling moron” (as Gevlon so eloquently put it) rather than I am bored of talking to strangers.

How can I be bored of talking to strangers since all the good MMO memories I have always involved another player(s).

If you want communities like the "Good Ol Days" then you have to “filter” people so that people with similar interest play your game and can't let anyone play your game. However not many game companies are not willing to do this any more hence why you have bad communities in newer games.
Talk about selective memory. Yes, back in 1999 just being in a shared virtual environment with people from across the world was mind-blowing and no, that's not amazing any more. Yes, back then the in-game opportunities to start conversations were higher and the options to do other online activities while waiting around were lower. And yes, there has been huge social and cultural change in the last decade and a half.

All that is true.

What isn't true is that the kind of people one met back then and the quality of conversation and social interaction one could have with them was radically different, let alone better. The /ooc and /shout channels in Everquest c2000 routinely fizzed with bitter arguments over whether it was acceptable to type "ur" for "your" or "sum1! for "someone". When you grouped up with a few strangers for a Chardok run then your chances of meeting one of Gevlon's "drooling morons" were probably about the same as they are if you join a Fractal group in GW2 today.

The potential quality of the interactions you can have and the relationships you can form while playing these games is no different than it ever was. What's changed are two things: the need to make such contacts in order to progress in these games and the need to play these games in order to make such social contacts.

As for Brad and his new project, if he aims it at the correct niche market and avoids the mistakes he made last time, of course there's potential for him to succeed. The world is stuffed full of people making good livings from getting niche groups to pay good money to do things most of the world would pay good money to avoid ever having to do.
I think it's both.

The average MMO player has been trained and conditioned by newer MMOs to race to max level and compete with others for gear with the best stats and looks.

Other people are merely interchangeable tools that help them on their way toward that goal, and it's unlikely they'll ever see them again so there is no incentive to cooperate in a non iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.

They're used to bringing their own friends with them to a game, and making friends only via a third-party voice chat program - where hearing someone's voice makes them feel "more real." That brings into play real life prejudices like race, country and gender, which aren't present in text typing, and also removes some of projection/wishful thinking that is a part and parcel of text chat.

Still, we shouldn't absolve the design of games from all responsibility.

Design plays a subtle part in influencing player behavior.

Remove competing for nodes, remove mob tapping, bring in the ability to rez others with any class, and suddenly you have GW2 where >50% of players will approach someone in trouble, join in combat and help them up again.

Newer MMOs face the problem of active combat and no downtime for chatting. If your fingers are constantly on WASD and mouselook or face the prospect of certain death, fewer people are going to type and make friends while furiously struggling to survive.

Yet, simply introducing waiting and downtime is not the answer. People may simply go AFK instead of bothering to make friends with the stranger next to them, due to the many diverse interests and playstyles that play in MMOs these days.

I think some of the issue is recurrence of player names. If you simply don't see the same names over time, there's very little point trying to forge a longer lasting relationship beyond casual acquaintance.

To that extent, I've only managed to recreate some of that oldschool community feeling in games that are small and only have a few hundreds of players (eg. A Tale in the Desert, which also uses mouse click more and frees up the keyboard for chatting) or in games that break up players into smaller interest groups (eg. an individual server's WvW community in GW2 usually only has several hundred stalwarts and the same names around.)

I think we both only have anecdotal evidence but in my *personal* experience the chance of meeting a "drooling morons" is much higher than ever before.

There were lot of morons and very nasty people back then too however I found say 3 good people for every 5 moron back then. Now days I am lucky to find 1 good person for every 5 moron.

Leaving the morons aside, do you think we have better communities in MMO now?
I've read some interesting things here, such as Gevlon's "accessible gaming" theory, but I also think this goes beyond MMO gaming.

For those online in the early days of the internet: remember how it was cool to connect to random chatboxes, meet random strangers on MSN or Skype (and add these to your contact lists!), or build your own website? The internet (and with that, connecting to other people in whatever way using this medium, like an MMO, also using internet and the computer) was experienced more exploratory, some might even say 'innocently'. Nowadays the whole domain of the internet has been 'claimed' in a way by daily life (you could use the words commercialized or commoditized) and has a different cognitive place in our conscience.

I think both virtual (internet-connected) reality and people have gradually changed through interactions both ways towards a point at which we now look back, notice the difference and say: what happened?
Maybe over time some inaccessible niche games will start to grow. But the problem there is that you exclude the 'good' non-hardcore types as well as the bad ones.
I do think that there is certainly a problem that communities have grown less homogeneous. In the early days of the internet, everybody online was a university student, so roughly the same age and education. When AOL spread the internet to a wider population, we got exactly the same sort of complaints.

Personally I think it is foolish to talk about that in terms of quality. If you have a student party, of course it is annoying if your grandmother and some children are there as well, but that doesn't mean those people are morons or otherwise bad. I am pretty sure that there are gamer circles in which all of us would be considered as drooling morons, simply because we didn't play that game or not much.
" If you have a student party, of course it is annoying if your grandmother and some children are there as well, but that doesn't mean those people are morons or otherwise bad"

I think you are taking the "morons" bit too literally but from the student point of view the grandmother and the children are annoying hence the off hand term "morons" to describe them.

Anyway all the current MMO are the student party and us old MMO gamers are the grandmothers. So we are the "morons" for gate crashing the student party. We have no business going to student party and we need to find our own party but no one is willing to organise one right now for us grandmothers!
Random thoughts...

1) I've been poking around the data on gamer demographics recently. One idea you come across is that the stereotype of the socially inept teenage male gamer was in the past a lot truer than it is now. Which is somewhat at odds with the idea that people used to behave so much better in the old days.

2) I have a book by Dunbar, and looked into the Dunbar Number concept a fair bit once. As is the way with pop science, the general public's idea of the concept is pretty simplistic and matters aren't as certain as all that. What seems to be true is that if you want a group of people who all know and trust each other reasonably well so that any few are able to work closely together as the need arises, it's good to keep the size of that group to 150 at the absolute max. So for example, a project team, a military unit, a church congregation, a college class, a hunter-gatherer tribe, a game guild. It doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be in several such communities at once.

3) Another idea to throw into the mix.... early adopters of a tech or product are always different to what ends up being the mainstream user. Typically they are people who value that thing exceptionally highly, so are prepared to pay a lot for it, and also willing to put up with a lot of hassles and inconveniences. (e.g. People lugging around brick-sized mobile phones once upon a time.) As time goes by and the tech matures, there are cheaper and slicker options available, and even those early adopters won't stand for the original prices and annoyances any more.

4) FWIW I've met plenty of nice people in the last couple of years, and had good times with them.
I'm with Bhagpuss here. Selective memory indeed. I ran into plenty or annoyotrons back when I played The Realm.

My theory is that with more people online, and games now have more accessible features than they ever did (LFR, WvWvW in Guild Wars 2, so on) that automatically put disparate groups of people together, the sheer number of people you meet means the absolute number of jerks you meet goes up. If 5% f the population are dicks! then if you only meet 100 people over your gaming career, you only meet ~5 douchecanoes. If you end up meeting hundreds over the span of a week (a single 4 wing run of LFR would have you meet up to 96 people assuming no repeats but no replacements), then you meet way more negative people in an a sole sense.

It's purely a numbers game, IMHO.
I am not sure communities are any better or worse, but there has certainly been a diffusion of what I might call "like minded gamers" over the years.

In 1999 if you wanted to play a 3D open world PvE MMORPG, you were playing EverQuest. If you played in the 1999 to 2002 time frame that I did, think about how many of your fellow bloggers and regular readers you were probably playing with.

Roll forward to 2013 and the surprise now comes when you are actually playing the same game. I think between us Bhagpuss and I play half a dozen or more fantasy MMORPGs on a regular or semi-regular basis, yet the overlap between us is almost nil. Of course, maybe we aren't like minded enough.

Meanwhile, the community has grown and the mix of motivations has changed. I don't think there is any new group, but the ratios have changed some. Certainly the casual, solo-focused demographic was much less well represented in EQ.

And over time we ourselves have migrated this way and that. I miss a number of aspects of old EQ, but there is a lot there I am not sure I would put up with again as well. I thought that the time locked progression servers, when they launched, gave me just about as much EQ nostalgia as I was ready for; old zones were populated, people were grouping up to camp mobs, old locations... at least around Qeynos... looked like they did back in the day. But there were no corpse runs, the UI was up to date (by EQ standards anyway), and I never once got slaughtered because accidently auto-attacked an NPC.

I suppose the question is whether, if somebody builds a true "old school" MMORPG, those "like minded gamers" will migrate in the same direction. I suspect if the developer kept their plans modest, it could happen. If they built a game that could profit on, say, 20K subscribers, they might be able to meet goals and such. But the days of a mass audiance for that sort of thing... like half a million people playing EQ... are long gone.
While it isn't novel anymore to meet strangers online, one can certainly improve behaviour by "training" players to be nice to each other and giving them a matching environment (carrot and stick, basically).

It is also possible to create artificially small communities (i.e. small server size). That might make grouping more difficult, but I'd rather have one nice group than 10 bad ones. It would also be possible to improve the pool of grouping players by segregating it less.

Right now, if I am Level x and want to go into Dungeon y, I only group with players who are in my level bracket and want into the exactly same dungeon. Find a way to tear down that artifical border and a smaller total community will still feel larger than before, while still staying more personal. Bluntly put, If you mess up, people will remember.. that thought alone will keep quite some people in check.

Imho most people aren't bad.. they are just like puppies: Chewing at the sofa and peeing all over the place. And the aggravating thing is: Blizzard seems to do its best to make sure there are no tools left to teach them. Just like the crazy catlady being all like "let the kitties do what they want, its an expression of their personality. If you would get to know it you would know how sweet it is!"

A game seeking to fix this has to do two things:
1: Give us back the tools to train the youngsters. Yes, that involves the stick of "behave or be a social outcast".
2: By now there's too little of us and too many of them. So the game has to aid in the teaching. The game environment itself has to be the assistant teacher.

In the end (nearly) everyone wins: I believe even many of those who misbehave would prefer a game where people are nice to each other. They just don't want to be the one nice guy in a world of assholes.
I don't know about having got bored talking to strangers, but I bet a lot of people got bored of talking to strangers, making some friends to game with, joining a guild and contributing to that .... and then people leave or outlevel you or there is guild drama or a new game comes out and you have to do it all over again.

So I think some people never liked talking to strangers and always preferred to game with people they knew. Other people did like it but got a bit burned out. And games tended to keep making you do it, over and over.
ie. imagine if as a kid, you had to change schools every year. (I did this for awhile.) At first you are enthusiastic about making new friends. Later on, you know these friendships will be temporary and you just go through the motions.
Would this be much different talking about non-games? A few decades ago people read the morning newspapers, watched the same six o'clock news and at six o'clock and met friends in person. Can't you find non-gaming articles complaining about the new facebook/twitter/sms/snapchat world?


I don't think the issue is how to make a good MMO community. The question is, can you make a "good community" AAA MMO that has enough customers to be profitable? I.e., there were a lot of ideas from EQ1 that make for better communities that IMO are completely not viable in a commercial game in 2014. So why do people act like the "good community" is a good thing? It seems to me it dooms a game in 2014. ( AAA PC game that is - if it take 30 to 100+ million dollars to make a mainstream MMO then you can't do that with ATITD or Darkfall numbers. ) I am not saying a "good community" is not desirable; rather it is like local bookstores and self-service gas stations - no longer viable.

In the 50s, a TV show did not have to be that great to get a lot of viewers. In 2014, with the number of broadcast, cable, satellite and net alternatives, it is tougher.

IMO, it is now difficult to achieve the desirable "better community" just with 2005 constraints and limitations. A discussion of the better community should also mention how many customers it would cost.

People changed, but Gevlon is not wrong assuming that "accessible gaming" is a large factor in the process you describe.

Games of the past were not as social , they were created for geeky people who would bathe in the sheer happinness of learning 184 spell names and their effects and ranges. Because it mattered for them.

The game does not really matter to people nowadays. And when they don't care for the game, they don't care for the people in the game as well. And that is when the 'Oh crap' moment happens.
You don't go out in the street and start talking to random people do you?

Gaming has shifted from something geekish to mainstream entertainment, and because of that, the exclusive subculture feeling is gone. It's a hobby now.

Little anecdote:

I recently grouped with a fellow player in SWTOR. Out in the world. For fun. He invited, I accepted. We killed stuff together. Started talking. This that. Friendly talk, funny guy. Can't spell words though. Weird I think. Maybe dyslexia? I have a real life friend with dyslexia, yeah dyslexia sucks.

Suddenly he asks me where I'm from and my age. Have I been playing long he asks?

Euhm, what?

Dofus little me types 37, Europe.

He laughs. Whow, you're old he says.
Lol, why. How old are you then I ask.


Badabing. I was having a conversation with a 14 year old, and I didn't have a clue.

Yeah, we're not going to get back the old glory mystifying days of mmo's, but it's not because we're bored.

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