Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
 
The dream of community

In response to my previous post on increased interaction with the world of WoW, Gerry Quinn asked whether there was also increased interaction between players, presumably the selling point for a multiplayer game. The answer is clearly that there is less and less interaction between players over the history of multiplayer online role-playing games. Many games go to great lengths to minimize player interaction, and many players think that hell is other players. How did that happen, and why didn't these games live up to their promise of community?

Now many people who were active in the early days of online games in the 90's will tell you that something went wrong over the last 20 years, and will maybe offer one of several different explanations of what it was that went wrong. Personally I believe that it was the original promise that was wrong from the start, and things moved from an unrealistic idea towards reality. The reality is that people don't necessarily want to form a community in an online game.

In the early days of the internet, the population of the internet was unnaturally homogeneous: The only people with access were those who had access to a mainframe in an university. I played LPMUDs on a  green (or amber) text on black background mainframe terminal, or used that terminal to chat on BBS bulletin boards. The people I met online were from different countries, but they were predominantly young, well educated, and not poor, because that is the kind of person going to university. If your experience of the internet is one of a place where everybody you meet is socially compatible to you, it is easy to start dreaming of the type of community you could build. But that dream is built on a bad premise, a false experience with a too narrow and not representative sample size.

Then "AOL ruined the internet", as it was said at the time, by letting in everybody else. Suddenly you had a much wider diversity of ages, education levels, and social classes than before. And the history of mankind is one of constant segregation, often self-segregation. People naturally tend to form communities with others who are like them, and avoid people who are not like them, or even consider people not like them as enemy.

Game companies like their games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, because more possible customers usually results in more money. But trying to force more interaction between people who wouldn't naturally have formed a community tends to fail. The core beliefs of one group of people might well be offensive to another group of people and vice versa. And real world conflicts like the political strife between left-wing and right-wing people can spill over into game communities. And if all ages can be online, there is the eternal worry of "we have to protect the children" from real and imagined dangers. As a result we get games in which chat is at the very least filtered, or even totally disabled. We get game systems in which things like "kill stealing" or "ninja looting" are technically impossible. And we get group content where players need neither talk to each other to set up a group, nor to play together as a group. The player economy is handled with an auction house system, so people do not need to talk to each other to trade. And most of the content of most MMORPGs is best played solo. Playing a multiplayer player game alone is more and more enabled, and direct player interaction isn't encouraged.

As I said, interaction between people online today is now more similar to interaction between people offline, and thus in a way more "natural". That is bad news for the utopians, but I don't see that trend reversing. We simple don't have the same pre-screened population any more that would have made a larger community possible.

Comments:
I agree with the first half of that analysis but the conclusions you draw in the later paragraphs are a bit iffy I think. When we talk about MMOs, those older games that supposedly had the tight-knit communities came well after the AOL period. Vanilla WoW from 2004-2006 or so has one of the strongest reputations for the kind of community whose loss is now so bemoaned by some.

I subscribe more to the theory that MMO communities were an early iteration of social media. They were strong at that time because alternate social media structures were nascent and weak. As social media expanded exponentially in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century and consolidated into a major mainstream, normative mode of behavior and communication in the first half of the second decade, so almost all of the reasons for forming and maintaining communities within MMOs declined.

Even in 2004 it still felt quite humbling to realize you were co-operating in real time to achieve a mutual goal with several strangers scattered across the world. It was easy and attractive to parlay that emotional experience into a sense of community and even friendship. Today that experience is banal and commonplace, about as awe-inspiring as waiting in a queue for a bus.


 
Even on The Realm (almost 20 years ago!!!), Everquest, and Ultima Online, hell was still other players. Anyone who thinks people were necessarily better back then over now is deluding themselves. There were nice players, and there were trolls, same as today.

The only difference is back then you weren't exposed to nearly as many people at once. Games had maybe 2000 - 3000 people on a server, and you had to do all of your grouping manually. Global chat channels didn't much exist outside of heavily GM'd/moderated help channels. Generally you went to cities to get that interaction. No automated PvP/PvE finder tools, so you'd only really encounter people in aforementioned chat channels, or would run into them by happenstance.

The benefit of that is that social consequences could be enforced. As a server you could warn people off the one or two uber-trolls. On the other hand, games like Ultima Online actively encouraged being a jerk, as bounties and infamy would stack up like a badge of dishonour, and even community reputation, bad or good, was prized.

Today with single-server/shard games, or increasing cross-server activities, your chances of ever encountering the same random person are slim, so there's no way to enforce social mores by excommunication or the like. Heck, even the mores themselves are unlikely to be exactly the same from group to group.

Even the fact that server technology has gotten better means individual servers can hold more population today than previously. If you look at realmpop.com, the biggest US servers have over 300,000 characters! If you pretend the average user has 5 characters, that's still 60,000 people on a single server. It's like the difference between living in a small village of 2,000 people where everyone knows pretty much everyone else by reputation/family at least, compared to being in a much bigger city.

It's funny, now that I think of it, the community arguments in MMOs have a lot of parallels to gentrification arguments in Seattle/San Francisco.
 
Something I have mentioned before, this is the point of view of the PC gamer. If you talk to a console developer, they will tell you the exact opposite: solo games are dead, games are all moving to multiplayer.

What I have learned about this over the last decade or so is that there is a massive difference in HOW your players interact. So many games simply shove strangers together hoping they will form bonds on their own, and strangers plus high pressure situation equals highly toxic interactions a good portion of the time.

This is also related to games like WoW and LoL focusing on negative gameplay. A player playing well does not determine the outcome, it is a player who screws up that decides it. This is the focal point of the players and their social interaction, of course this is going to be highly negative.

Because so many of the most popular games have worked this way for so long, players have a very negative view of "forced grouping" style online interactions. It is easy to see how developers see the complaints on forums, and look at customer behavior data, and make the design decision to move away from interactivity.

Hopefully someone will figure out how to make more positive interactions in games.
 
Good comments above. I have drifted from MMOs because there is nobody I'm close to in real life who plays them anymore. I could easily see continuing to play them for years as a weekly nerd softball league equivalent if that were the case. But I have just found that I don't get anything out of restarting and finding a random guild.

The big issue I have is that you as a player can't see any of these people. If I could stroll around an expo floor with all the recruiting guilds on my server and chat with the officers of each one for a bit, there's a good chance I'd find a well-matched group of folks. As is I'm left guessing at personalities from a few paragraphs of recruitment text. Within a few weeks at least a few things always pop up in guild chat that flag some of the members as people I wouldn't voluntarily associate with in my free time in real life. Not good.

@Talarian: "A player playing well does not determine the outcome, it is a player who screws up that decides it." True of virtually all real life team sports I can think of as well. It's a difficult problem.
 
@Samus: "If you talk to a console developer, they will tell you the exact opposite: solo games are dead, games are all moving to multiplayer."

I'm pretty sure this mantra is what's responsible for The Elder Scrolls Online and the resounding 'meh' of its reception.

There's multiplayer... and then there's multiplayer.

People wanted multiplayer Skyrim, but they wanted it with a handful of friend in a world they could - together - shape around them. They didn't want the Elder Scrolls version of Groundhog Day, populated with hundreds of random bunny-hopping chuckleheads.
 
@Cam

Yeah, there is definitely a huge difference between playing with your friends, and being forced to play with strangers. And many of these games actually exclude your friends if they are not at the same level/gear level/raid lockout/etc.

@Nissl

"True of virtually all real life team sports I can think of as well."

If Lebron James walked into your local YMCA pickup game, his team would destroy the other team. If the best DPS from Method joined a fail raid, it would still be a fail raid that did nothing but wipe repeatedly.

Literally everything a tank can do (boss movement, interrupts, aggro swaps, cooldown usage, etc.) he is expected to do, or the raid wipes. A better DPS can do more damage, but he can't undo an idiot stepping on a mine and wiping the whole raid. Healers have a little more influence in covering some mistakes in the lower difficulties, but at higher difficulties, everything they can contribute is required, and if they miss a heal or cleanse or an important cooldown, someone dies and the raid is likely a wipe.

In most sports, you can often identify one player who played really well and won the game for his team. In WoW raiding, that concept is ludicrous.
 
Well I think the player base changes as they play more as well.

When I started in Vanilla WoW I made lots of friends that I thought were actual, genuine friends. After about a year of a friend a month quitting or moving servers or guild hopping or whatever, and then never hearing from them again, I got over the naivety and realized it was better to maintain an emotional distance.

Most MMO games at this point have been around the block a few dozen times, and they know that in six months or a year, two at the most, they mostly won't be playing with the same people anymore (unless they know them in real life.) If you're a guild officer, you experience the churn at a much faster clip.

Eventually you become disinterested in meeting new people, and you maintain emotional distance from your online buddies. This effect cascades, and you end up with a fairly mercenary attitude. You can't have a community when the average player bails in a year.
 
@Samus:

"If Lebron James walked into your local YMCA pickup game, his team would destroy the other team. If the best DPS from Method joined a fail raid, it would still be a fail raid that did nothing but wipe repeatedly."

I'm sure if you took two WoW arena teams comprised entirely of new players and put a top 100 player on one of them, they'd win every game as the good player soloed everyone on the other team.

When you have teams with competitive players, though, it often does come down to trying to exploit the weakest players on the field. Certainly see lots of teams going after a replacement defender in a lot of sports.

But I get your point about putting a Method DPSer on a mediocre PVE squad. So maybe this is a PVP vs. PVE difference? Thinking about tightly tuned large-team real life PVE endeavors (e.g. large public architecture projects, space missions), they do tend to be susceptible to being screwed up by one person.

I'm also trying to picture what a game where a lot more PVE carrying could take place would look like. It seems to me that you would necessarily wind up with bigger gaps between teams of high and low skill players. You would probably need a lot more difficulty modes than WoW's current 4.
 
@Nissl

In sports, it is very common to name a player "MVP." I can't think of any major team sports that don't do this, you can almost always point to a single player's good performance as having a significant impact on his team's victory.

In raiding, the concept of a single "MVP" doesn't work. You could point to a player who did everything perfectly, but of course he did it perfectly, as did every other raid member. Otherwise, the raid would have failed.

On the other hand, most of the time when a raid wipes, you CAN point to one individual as the source of the failure. This is what I mean by raiding being negative gameplay. You will never single out someone for praise, only for criticism. This isn't because raid groups are all just jerks, it is inherent to the structure of raiding.

The problem with raiding is the number of players involved. This is why your Arena example works, because he is one of only a few players on his team, so his performance has a massive impact on the outcome. Raids, on the other hand, can't really present a group of 25 players with any other kind of challenge aside from perfectionism.
 
If I'd be naive, I'd suggest "let servers have a theme and collect people of different interests to them so communities would form".

Of course it wouldn't work, because everyone wanted to be in the server where the most loot is collected. The problem is that no matter what kind of game you design, one type of community thrives and all the other fail. So players naturally join this community, but in the same time consider it toxic. ArthasDKlol wants to be in the fast-running dungeon group, and then gets offended when he is called out for low DPS. Result: developer removes chat and votekick.


 
@Samus

On the other hand, most of the time when a raid wipes, you CAN point to one individual as the source of the failure. This is what I mean by raiding being negative gameplay.

You can do this, yes, but the only raid groups who would resort to this kind of "blamegame" tactic aren't the ones who stick around for very long, as they tend to implode from within. Any raiding guild worth its salt will pour over combat logs, Recount meters and the like in order to see where they "NEED" to make improvements. Is a DPS peforming badly because of gear, or because of class knowledge/skill? And is it something that can be "fixed" with minimal effort so as to be able to maintain focus on the encounters? I've never "/gkicked" anyone for underperformance...but I have removed them from the roster after a sidechat in /w. Underperformers only result in "negative" gameplay in instances where the Guild leadership handled things badly.

In the Vanilla years Guild Leaders would keep white and black lists of players and the servers basically policed themselves - where ninja looters and underperformers were on the blacklist, and players with good class knowledge and skill populated the white lists. During the Vanilla years we had upwards of a dozen or more Raiding Guilds on my server all vying to be at the top in terms of progression, but once the LFD tool entered the picture the social nature of the game began to change. Fast forward to today and we now have 2 maybe 3 fulltime raiding guilds on my server, and that's a shame.

I doubt anyone can refute the notion that having a large number of raiding guild on any given server provides positive benefits to the social structure of said server.

I'm torn between believing that the raid difficulties(LFR,Normal, Heroic/Mythic) provide a net positive effect, or that they are a detriment to the sociability due to guilds not being as relevant anymore.

LFR is where things went "negative". Does the ability to buy BOE epics from the AH, so as to meet a minimum ILevel, ensure a player will be able to perform adequately? Where is it written that a LFR group must spend "X" number of wipes before they /kick someone? I can guarantee you one thing, these types of behavior would NOT occur in Guild groups where there is a dedication towards progression.
 
@Chris

I am going to take a guess and say you are not currently playing in WoD? You comments really do not at all reflect the current state of the game, although perhaps they did in the past.

"You can do this, yes, but the only raid groups who would resort to this kind of "blamegame" tactic aren't the ones who stick around for very long, as they tend to implode from within."

The custom group finder has made this the opposite of the truth. There is a reason Gevlon was able to do 7/7 Heroic at a time when less than 5k guilds in the entire world had done so, doing exactly the tactic you think makes raids "implode from within." Boot the underperformers, you will refill the raid with more competent players within 5 minutes. Try to be nice and hope people will get better, and you will spend your wipe-filled night being disappointed (particularly because the competent people will see where this raid is headed and will quit).

I can commend your approach, I'm sure your guildmates liked you. However, I am talking about the game design, not the attitudes of the raid leaders. YOU were being cool about the situation, but that player WAS holding you back and you DID need to remove them. As long as the game design is one where there IS someone to blame, plenty of people will play that blame game.

"I doubt anyone can refute the notion that having a large number of raiding guild on any given server provides positive benefits to the social structure of said server."

This assumption is comparable to saying larger cities must have more positive social environments because they have more people. Obviously, that is not the case.

I have seen many descriptions of different serious raiding guilds, but they are consistently quite far from any "positive social structure." It is typically run more like a business, with an authoritative head. In most progression raid guilds I have heard of, you are very clearly not friends (you may have friends within that guild, but not as a result of the structure of the guild). You are more akin to a coworker, and you will absolutely be replaced if you do not meet attendance or performance requirements.

I don't blame them for being this way. Most of the difficulty in raids is the organization and coordination. The attitudes of "be cool" and "don't worry about it" will not get you very far in raiding.

Again, we are talking about game design. I'm sure there are plenty of very friendly guilds. But they are not as progressed as the "hardcore" guilds, because the game design rewards NOT forming social bonds and instead booting underperformers.

"LFR is where things went "negative"."

Actually, there is virtually no negativity in LFR now, because it is so faceroll easy. Maybe 1/5 of the raid will literally never move out of any kind of fire, 1 of the 5 healers goes AFK in the middle of about 50% of my LFR fights, and I have still NEVER wiped in LFR.

There is no blaming in LFR because you would literally need more than half the raid to make repeated colossal mistakes, any of which would cause a regular raid to wipe.
 
@Samus

Good point about the MVP designations. I think the issue you're touching on may be a function of team size as much as the tightly tuned PVE nature of the activity.

I think the blame culture also stems from the relative anonymity of these games. I think people would be a lot nicer if they could see the faces of everyone on the team and had to look them in the eye while delivering criticisms. But that idea goes back to my gradual drift from being interested in MMOs.
 
The LeBron James comparison is inaccurate.

A team of max level players is a mix of NBA level players. LeBron at the YMCA is more like like a max level character piping against level 30s.
 
I wonder if MMORPGs have reach a total level of disconnect now between what I'd say the original premise was: "I want to play an elven wizard and live vicariously through his adventures"-- and the current focus (I need max level DPS, epic BOE and a perfect gear-leveled tank for my LFR strike against....Jeebus, I've played WoW since 2005 and I really don't even understand the language let alone the focus of the hardcore endgame.

It's like I've been showing up to the same basketball park to shoot some hoops for years, and the guys in the court next to me are all MBA superstars.

Okay, off to my casual corner to play Elder Scrolls with its cool little stories. I have a feeling my love of TESO is based heavily on the fact that the game still lets me pretend to be the elf wizard with impunity. And its failure among the hardcore MMOers is it clearly didn't support the superstructure necessary at the top level of play to sustain the complex interactions needed for....um...whatever hardcore players do. Raid. and Stuff.
 
@Samus

The custom group finder has made this the opposite of the truth. There is a reason Gevlon was able to do 7/7 Heroic at a time when less than 5k guilds in the entire world had done so, doing exactly the tactic you think makes raids "implode from within." Boot the underperformers, you will refill the raid with more competent players within 5 minutes.


The custom raid finder is a part of the LFR mechanic, with the exception of not being forceably Pug'd, due to sign-ups and screenings. That doesnt mean that it is any less negative than the LFR Pug groups. What Blizzard is doing is telling players that there actually doesnt need to be a name over someone's head saying that they belong to a Guild. Quite the opposite. Gevlon's little experiment is anecdotal at best, but it does prove the point that Guilds are NOT needed to do the same thing that he accomplished, which is exactly why the sociability of the game suffers even now.

Do you wonder why Blizzard recently announced that Mythic level raids would not be a part of the LFR mechanic? If someone like Gevlon can successfully put together a group(not guild) and go 7/7, then the question everyone is asking themselves, is why do I need to belong to a guild in the first place? - a net negative on sociability.

My prior post to you deals solely with Progression Guilds, not "raid groups" formed using the LFR tool. Regardless of the difficulty I see these groups fall apart a whole LOT more than any dedicated progression Guild. It doesnt matter if players can be replaced in 5-minutes, it is still a net negative on sociability.

Some people can live the semi-random life of running LFR, sign-up based raids, but the net effect is a social negative -IMHO-due to the lack of commitment required of players in such an environment. The day it became easier to /kick someone from a group, rather than spend time to help them become better(as is done in progression guilds), is the day that we passed the point of hope for meaningful social commentary.
 
@Chris

Things have changed since whenever you last played. LFR is a difficulty level, the only one available through the raid finder tool. The other 3 difficulty levels (Normal, Heroic and Mythic) are not available through the raid finder.

Gevlon and many others are using the custom group tool to form raids. This tool can be used for anything, from old raids, to achievements, to quests, you name it. EXCEPT Mythic level raiding, Blizzard went out of their way to block that difficulty level.

Gevlon's results are hardly unique, you can look in the custom group finder any night of the week and find a few dozen custom raid groups on both Normal and Heroic, all the way up to Imperator Mar'gok.

There is honestly nothing special about every player in a raid having the same guild tag. Guilds have wipes, guilds have to stop and explain the fight, guilds have players who aren't prepared or simply can't get it. 20 strangers can work together just as well as 20 guild mates, who (if we're honest) are also really just strangers.

"the question everyone is asking themselves, is why do I need to belong to a guild in the first place?"

You mean, why do I need to belong to a RAID guild? Guilds are still highly useful for the perks. But now you can actually be in a guild with your friends!
 
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