Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Direct and indirect social interaction

When I recently mentioned Tortage, a reader reminded me that this part of Age of Conan was originally planned to be single-player, with the player entering the MMO part of the game only on completing Tortage. And when a while ago I asked whether people would play a single-player version of World of Warcraft without monthly fees, many commenters said yes. While it sounds strange that people would want to avoid direct social interaction with other players in a massively multiplayer online game, that is in fact the case. Players being able to solo the game is now an indispensible part of MMORPGs.

Obviously soloing is limited to certain activities. If you were the only person on your WoW server, you could quest and solo your way up all the way to the level cap. But you couldn't visit level-appropriate dungeons, you couldn't raid, and of course you couldn't PvP. A surprisingly large number of players already isn't participating in this direct social interaction part of the game anyway, so for them the single-player version of WoW would play just the same.

Direct social interaction with other players can be great fun, but it also has obvious disadvantages. That starts with you having to be online and at the same place in the virtual world at the same time. How many hours of your life did you waste waiting at some meeting stone? Personally my main problem with pickup groups is not that the other players are playing badly, it is that the other players are likely to turn up with a lot of delay, or leave half way through the dungeon. The other big problem of direct social interaction online is that people tend to be less inhibited online than in real life. Feeling shielded by internet anonymity, some people behave like jerks, or use language they wouldn't dare to say to your face.

So if direct social interaction is so horrible, why are we playing online games? I think a big part of the answer lies in the indirect social interactions these games offer. Because in a persistent virtual world, you don't have to directly interact with somebody else to influence his game experience. One major part of indirect social interactions are achievements. Whether that is "the Explorer" title over your head, or the "server first" boss kill, or parading between bank and auction house in glorious epic gear, all this would be pretty meaningless in a single-player game. Of course you could argue that it is pretty meaningless in a multi-player game too, but obviously it has a big attraction to some people.

Another big part of indirect social interaction, and one that is especially important to me, is the player-run economy. Hilarious as it sounds, but the one person who could not possibly play World of Warcraft like he is used to as a single-player game is Greedy Goblin "social interactions are an ape-subroutine" Gevlon. Playing the auction house requires other players, and making a profit requires those other players to value gold, time, and items in a different manner than you do. One reason I'm having fun in Luminary right now is that the economy is so much better than that of World of Warcraft, with everybody participating. Luminary would *not* be possible as a single-player game, and that is something I appreciate.

I do think that indirect social interactions are a big part of the future of MMORPGs. Because if you turn your MMO into an online single-player game for soloers, sooner or later your customers will start to wonder why they should pay you a monthly fee for that. But forcing direct social interaction, like the forced grouping of Everquest, is also not going to work. Indirect social interactions on the other hand could still grow a lot larger. Not just player economy and achievements, but also in all sorts of political and cooperative gameplay that doesn't require everybody to be online at the same time. Already there are games where guilds can build bases out of materials that have been gathered by various guild members at different times. Politics can be done with votes, with elections running a whole day or even several days. And I'm certain that new ways for players to interact without them requiring to meet in game can and will be developed. There is a whole genre of browser games based on that sort of indirect social interaction. It is just a matter of time for this to become more predominant in MMORPGs.
One of the problems with indirect social interaction is that it cannot be controlled, enforced or facilitated with any degree of certainty. The moment you start relying on indirect social interaction, is the moment you begin to rely on the whims of the player base.

As with any MMO, there is going to be a hierarchy that establishes itself among the playerbase almost immediately, and this is what Guilds encompass within its own group of players. Much of what you describe are the "meta" activities of the game that have become popular among those players who tend to solo their way through a game like WoW when they arent participating in the "direct interaction" components of play.

Taking the above into consideration, I think that "real time" interaction and subscription numbers might be a point of contention in what you are promoting here. I never had a problem finding groups in WoW until after this last expansion, when everyone on my friends list just werent online anymore. It's not an issue of people avoiding the direct interaction aspects of the game so much as it is with player retention on a nightly basis.

Indirect social activity will only get you so far if there arent any other players online.
"So if direct social interaction is so horrible, why are we playing online games?"

Because some of us really enjoy it? I can see other ways forwards than just designing it out of games completely.

Larger servers would make it more likely that people could find PUGs for whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it.

Tools spreading to mobile devices could help people arrange to meet up online at specified times. I think a lot of direct interaction gets easier if you can do activities at set times.

More ways to involve external networks in the game could make it easier for people to play with RL friends or family (one of the big appeals of direct interaction IMO).
But I think we'll see more experimenting with how people can interact even if they aren't all online at the same time.

But I do agree that I think we'll see a surge in indirect interaction, voting, players influencing the game world through mass interaction other than actually killing stuff and running instances.
For a change, I agree with you 100% ;)
I wonder how many of us (who actually like to deal with other people in games) exist. Looking at Free Realms, I hope that no other games copy the "100% soloable and, by the way, there's no global chat channel" design.

In Shards of Dalaya, I had a lot of trouble finding a group recently, but once I found one it was a blast. This happened twice already. If the game is designed around groups, playing with people makes it a lot of fun.

If we have games designed around politics, then taking part in those politics would be a lot of fun (for people who like that thing). I don't see a problem with that, and I think the different designs (politics and indirect vs. "solo me plenty") can coexist in the market.

Look at various MUDs. Those have done the politics thing years ago. Look at the commercial MUDs from Iron Realms, for example, where you can rule whole cities and take part in politics. It has been tried before, so if we want to see how it works on a player base, we only have to analyze MUDs.
"Because if you turn your MMO into an online single-player game for soloers, sooner or later your customers will start to wonder why they should pay you a monthly fee for that."

Hopefully they are wondering why they're paying such a hefty monthly fee currently. If they're paying for the social interaction, maybe they should be giving the money to the other players they interact with instead of Blizzard? :p

(Obviously it costs money to run servers, but not anywhere near *that* much money, seriously)
I cannot explain it fully, but achievements in an online game seem more "valid" than in a single player RPG, even the solo achievements. It feels like the difference between shooting the ball around in your backyard and scoring baskets in a real game.
/agree too.

I think that the main problem with direct social interaction is that usually it becomes mandatory for progress.

I'm mostly an achiever. I think most of us -males, oldschool gamers- are quite focused on character development and that's one of the key reasons for playing MMOs.

I love playing with a group of friends, but even among real life friends, there are a few sub-groups of friends that can play together, but not mixed, because of different schedules, playstyles, whatever.

Since large groups becomes, sooner or later, a need for progression, it becomes quite frustrating. You need to find a quite large bunch of maybe previously unknown people to play with. Same problems as the friends' groups, but on a greater scale. It's annoying since the solo + indirect social interaction gaming was soooo nice...

I think that's the reason why I love small fellowships on LOTRO, and scalating instances like in City of Heroes: those mechanics help the player with direct social interaction, to an extent, since they can choose to interact just with friends, with (usually) lower risk of a bad social experience.
"For a change, I agree with you 100% ;)"

omg me too
Achievements aren't useless in a singleplayer game. Most games these days have some kind of achievements. Pretty much every new game on Steam has it. And of course you can show off to everyone that you played throughthe entire half life episode 2 carrying a gnome. It's enough to keep some people going.

As for single playing an mmorpg. It has its charms. Some days you just want to be kept alone and enjoy playing. Or just "solo" and enjoy chatting in your guild channel.
Nice analogy. Well put :)

I think WoW is leaning towards a larger distinction between the direct and indirect social interaction and that it is closely linked to game design.

Several aspects of the game has gone from beeing dominated by direct to beeing marked as mainly indirect social interaction. Lvling is one example. Why? Addons that helps me locate questitems/mobs (as well as doing it before ofc), so no need to ask in general. Further more, the game itself is leaning towards a single player - level - up game as the content gets nerfed and classes buffed. Once upon a time meeting 3 yellow mobs solo was a challenge, now its "just another pull". Lvling used to be about direct interaction: grouping up, asking about directions - now its just people running around in the same world, making them a part of the background rather then someone to interact with.
Another is forming groups. It used to be a lot of chatter and fuzz to advertise and put groups together, the LFG tool gives you the opportunity of ignoring that. You still have an interaction with them when grouping, but its a interaction based on gameplay not sociability.
A third I would hang on is the interaction between PvP players. Standing outside Gulch in Ashenvale used to be a big chatfest as there was nothing else to do. Now we can sign up where we want and no need to be located in the same place.

Not saying that the changes weren for the better, but there is a trend here.

How such tools reduces direct social interaction was also visible in WAR, where groupquest only required you to be in the same area, quests were marked on the map, join BGs from anywhere at any level etc.
It was no need for much direct social interaction, and imho that was one of its failings. When you can rely on people just hanging in the background, and committing to a group only give minor benefits - then its unlikly that you will. We are no longer impressed by the simple things of the net such as "OMG YOU ARE FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY TALKING TO ME ON THE INTERNETS?!?!?" and have several control mechanism to weed out unwanted people (apps for guilds, friends/ignore lists etc).

In WoW you are still rewarded heavily by having reliable social interactions with other players (from good trade to good raids). If it keeps it up, the MMO aspect will still be a defining feature of the game.
Introducing "indirect social interactions" is a smart move!

However they are NOT social interactions. Not every interaction with a human being is social. To be social, the interaction has to be with the person of that human.

Simple example: if a suicide jumper fall to your head, you are interacting with another human, but not socially, as the result of the interaction is only determined by his speed and weight.

When you trade in AH or kill in a BG, the person of the other player is not an issue. If he would be replaced by a bot, no one would notice. As a matter of fact both farmers and Alterac Valley players are often replaced by bots.

But you are right: the future will be impersonal MMO, where the other player is just a very intelligent bot (even the M&S are capable of not running into objects, unlike bots).
Other changes to make WoW more "casual friendly" are hurting social interactions. I.E. lack of communication needed in 5 mans and lack of downtime.

Why plan out a pull and actually talk to your group? Just pull and kill as fast as you can. Lack of downtime and near infinite healer mana pools means that you only have to stop and rest to full before bosses. Therefore less time to chat to your group.

All classes are now able to spam their abilities so anyone who slows down their button mashing to chat is just bringing the rest of the group down. You see this more and more with newer games.

I remember playing FFXI, which was much slower paced and usually involved camping in one spot and pulling monsters to you. Usually you got to know the players in your group fairly well. ~Centuri
When you trade in AH or kill in a BG, the person of the other player is not an issue.

I disagree. Especially trade is always related to the wants and needs of the person you are trading with, even if it is indirectly via the auction house. You couldn't replace the other players by a bunch of AI bots and get a similar result in AH trading. You need the player who is making an irrational decision based on his preference of convenience over cash, otherwise you don't have anyone selling underpriced goods or buying overpriced ones.
The problem Gevlon is you are basing that statement around WoW, which has gone out of it's way to making everything as solo-friendly (and anon) as possible.

Play the market in EVE (or any other MMO where making money is an actual challenge and not the cakewalk it is in WoW) and then tell me it's not a personal interaction. PvP in DarkFall and tell me the opponent could be a bot.
A thing a lot of people do not mention is that the online MMO as an RPG can be fun as well.

When you play a single player RPG, the time limits can be a constraint.
For example, Neverwinter Nights can be long winded in the conversations and adventuring, that for someone with a limited amount of time, it becomes tedious.

I prefer instant action.

I can hop into my MMO of choice though and play for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour and complete something...I make progress in a little time or make massive progress in a lot of time.
Newer games are getting better at this (for example Deadspace on the 360 has a multitude of save spots, and you can go from point A to point B in a minimum of 15 minutes to a max of 30).
Then there was the Witcher which had that style of gameplay similar to an MMO, but with a great story to boot.

But, so far, I find very few RPG's that offer the style of gameplay (combat style) and feeling of progression and accomplishment that MMO's offer.
If I meet someone else there, and we adventure together...that's cool.
But, I play these games because I actually like the gameplay...go figure.
One suggestion with regards to semantics. Perhaps instead of "indirect" a better term would be asynchronous interaction. I think players cooperating together towards a crafting project or political endeavor would like to think they are directly contributing to the end goal even if they do so asynchronously. A bit like real life, no?
Part of creating a service is to provide your service to many people in an efficient way. "Indirect" social interaction is the goal for some folks. Here's what I mean:

Some people who like MMOGs enjoy and participate in other large-scale group activities such as a softball team, bowling league, hiking club, or other intramural sports. These are the types who tend to enjoy organized group activity.

Some people who like MMOGs enjoy the virtual world aspect of it. They see a MMOG as more of a mall-like experience - a place where they go to get something they want, and there happens to be lots of people around. They don't necessarily have to interact with all of them (or even most of them), but the option is there. A shopping mall is designed to be a massive thing, they should be able to service hundreds to thousands of customers on a daily basis.

The discrepancy comes when one side tries to impose its viewpoint on the other. If people can't see it from another viewpoint, things get hazy. I tend to believe that there are more people in the second camp than the first, simply because of the relatively low barrier to entry in the second compared to first.

"So if direct social interaction is so horrible, why are we playing online games?"

I would argue that it's not direct social interaction that is horrible. Rather "mandatory direct social interaction, all the time" is. Playing with people is great, being forced to play with people sucks.

I'm baffled why designers are trapped in this strange polar world: at one end solo gameplay with bots, at the other 40 man raids. Surely the largest consumer group you can get to pay a subscription is made of those people who enjoy having a living breathing world around them that only real players can help evolve, without having to experience all the logistical nightmare forced grouping entails.
I was a big fan of single-player RPGs when I was growing up, and I see WoW as much the same. In games where my character looked different with different armor, I enjoyed getting really awesome-looking gear, even if nobody else was ever going to see it.

The difference for me is the amount of content. A single-player RPG keeps me entertained for a few weeks at best before I get to a point where further leveling isn't going to help since I've beaten the final boss, and there aren't any more upgrades left. On the other hand, I've been with WoW for 4 years, over 300 days /played, and there's always more to do.

If a single-player game afforded me that much content, I would play it, hands down. I find it frustrating that the solo game I enjoy in WoW basically ends soon after reaching the level cap, and I'm forced into larger and larger groups in order to continue experiencing the game. 5-man dungeons with a couple of friends can be fun, but what happens when none of us need to run them anymore? The raid content that Blizzard works so hard for might as well not exist. I wish they had more higher-tier solo and 5-man content instead of exclusively focusing on raids past that point.

But hey, that's why I canceled my subscription when I ran out of things to do.
I have had the same experience.

I played WoW casually (two nice a week for example) when I got to end game and specifically Cavern of time instances it was such a pain to find people even within a good guild. Having to do instances in certain order really killed my WoW enjoyment and I left for several months.

Having content adapt to the number of players in an actual party is brilliant. No more do you need to have a full group to do an instance, just 2 or 3 real life buddies who are playing is enough.

People play MMORPGs as single player games for HUGE amount of content (mechanics, quests, options, etc.) available vs. most single player games. This amount of content is made possible by the economic model of MMOs. It's wrong to think that players pay subs for direct player interactions, first and foremost we pay for content to enjoy either solo or socially. Facebook exists for socializing purposes...

With digital downloading of games and anti-piracy techniques like Steam (which is allot like login into a MMO), we'll be seeing more single player games with frequent content upgrades. Fallout 3 is a good example with its 10$ packages.

Maybe one we'll see a AAA single player game that's online with a sub and without any player interactions. Then again why would a company limit itself to a single player niche when clearly the current trend is to cater to both types of players.

Single player and large group content is well represented in games, I hope small party (2-4) content shall also receive some love.
Its the direct interactions that make or break an mmo, the ability to work with people or help people in a group setting. Achievements suck, there's no point doing repetitive actions solely for a tick on a checklist.

Forced grouping is still the best experience in my opinion, because it forces you to play with others and deal with them. Thats how you form meaningful memories and relationships.

The problems with forced grouping are not in the concept, but in something like group build (does it rely too much on single jobs like a tank or healer class? DO you need too many people to function in an event?) job build (did you make sure to make all jobs equally balanced or as close to as possible?) and the time it takes to accomplish actions. (can you do things in 2 to 3 hours?)

I think if developers look hard at grouping paradigms and rework them, forced grouping would be a lot more attractive.

The option is meh though, I don't think weak ties built indirectly work well for a game in the long run.
what I could imagine might happen instead or in addition, would be alternative private servers for people/guilds who want less interaction. Like the infamous Lineage 2 hosts, or rented Battlefield / TF2 servers. That would then create a medium multiplayer online game or for short MMO.

And I for sure can see subscription based single player games coming. If you pay 15$/month for solo-WoW, you could reason the same rate for a single player game. Would also help to finance patches and "for-free" expansions ... and add the raids as multi-player campaign/mode (might want to tune them down to 4-8 people or scale them dynamically).
It's my opinion that the solution to this is to make a 1 player game with the option to jump in and out of multi-player situations at the players discretion.

WoW was designed as a 1-player game, from day one.
Nei, now I'm idly curious if you have children. Force is never a good way to teach. It can work to *condition*, but *teaching* requires giving people options, and letting them choose.

The appeal of an MMO for me is almost wholly in the indirect interaction, the economy foremost. I don't spend a lot of time with real people in the real world, but I interact with plenty via email, blogs, forums, and even old fashioned stuff like letters in the mail. There are times I want to play volleyball or something, which requires other people, but by and large, most of my interpersonal interaction is indirect, and what is direct is quiet and small scale.
Tesh, no I don't have kids. But you have to "force" them many times to do things, because if you let them choose, they will cheerfully play videogames all summer, eat mcdonalds every day, skip school, and not take showers. You force them because sometimes the best things are counter to their immediate interests. Kids aren't rational actors to consider and learn things, which is why we force them to go to school and do their homework, or brush their teeth.

I don't know though how teaching works in the sense of an MMO. If you enable soloing, people will solo because they dont want to wait on people. This is true and good in the short term, but in the long term they go through the game wondering what is the point.

I've done so. My most unhappiest time in game was soloing a job to cap. Without others, you see how repetitive and unfun much MMO core gameplay is. But with others its a blast.
neispace: That's a very interesting notion. I think you are probably right. We do know already that you have to force players to have some downtime if they're going to chat/ form communities.
I think people need social interaction but that it can be fulfilled by indirect social interaction. I read a study recently that showed elderly people who spend time gambling as casinos are more healthy than those who don't. How could this be? I believe it is because of the indirect social interaction that they are getting there. Just seeing people run by, or spam trade channel is better than being alone. That's my opinion, anyways.
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