Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Social fabric

There is some new discussion ongoing in the blogosphere about an old subject, "social fabric" or group play vs. solo play. Psychochild thinks that soloing is responsible for people treating MMORPGs like they treat single-player games, stopping to play after a few weeks. Green Armadillo thinks that social fabric equals constraints that turn a game into a job. Me I think that Psychochild is right that MMORPGs need social fabric, but that Green Armadillo is right in that current game design does social fabric badly, by linking it to specific content with a higher difficulty and a necessity for military organization.

But believing that MMORPGs *have to* do social fabric that way is like believing that the army is the only possible social organization in real life. If we consider MMORPGs as virtual worlds it becomes obvious that they should be able to do a better simulation of other real world social interactions than just military ones. Instead MMORPGs today are often designed to *remove* social interaction from our virtual lives. We have fully automated and nearly anonymous auction houses, so we don't need to engage in the social interaction of trading. We have instanced housing or no housing at all, so we don't need to engage in social interaction with our neighbors. We don't have politics, we don't have spectator sports, and we only have very little common public transport left. Gone are the times where you waited 20 minutes for the boat in Everquest and then traveled another 20 minutes on it to your destination, giving you time to socially interact with your fellow voyagers.

The proof that more is possible is evident in niche games like A Tale in the Desert, which has a lot more social fabric than a game like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2. For example in ATitD there are resources that can only be mined by a combined effort of several players, instead of the exclusively solo mining in other games. There are buildings that just require so much work that it makes sense to construct them as a team effort. There are laws and politics to vote on. And a lot of these game mechanics would be totally feasible in other games.

I would expand on Psychochild's consideration of the need for social fabric by saying that what is needed for longevity is a virtual world to live in, not just a game to play and progress in. If somebody plays only for virtual progress, at one point he either reached his goal, or gets tired of the treadmill of not reaching it. But if there is a whole virtual life to lead with no linear level- or "Gearscore"-type goals, people wouldn't consider they "finished" the game after 3 months or less.

One of those rare Tobold posts I 100% completely agree on. :)
Amen to that! I totally agree. If we have reason to be in our virtual worlds other than collecting gear, how much better it would be.

From reading your blog for a number of years, it seems to me that games with little social fabric that you can experience to your satisfaction in a 3 month period suit your gaming lifestyle quite well.
I'm not sure I agree that "finishing" a game after 3 months is somehow bad, just because people hold in their heads an idea of what MMORPGs are "supposed to be." If someone declared Borderlands 2 to be an MMORPG, would you suddenly no longer be having fun because "everything is instanced" and "there's no decent social fabric?"
EVE Online has a very rich social fabric, you shouldn't ignore that game.

About military organizations: can it be that they are so popular because most MMO settings are in a place of war? I mean WoW players are at war with the Mogu+Troll+Sha bunch. Isn't it obvious that anyone taking the setting seriously must join the army?

I played ATitD and I play GW2. GW2 have a good social environment, sometimes better than ATitD, because ATitD have some social dramas about who build first the obelisk sometimes.

GW2 have a lot of game features that incentive cohoperation, while ATitD is a social experiment for see if humans will cohoperate. And sometimes humans don't cohoperate.

So, IMHO, it is wrong you put GW2 at same ship that WoW (sadly your text makes it). GW2 have a very diferent community than WoW and GW2 players are a lot more friendly. The reason are GW2 game mechanics, like no competition for nodes or mobs and everyone can rezz other players and gain xp. A good analysis about these game mechanics that promotes cohoperation can be read in Jeromai blog

The setting is tangental. It has more to do with how the goals are designed. WoW raiding and PvP rewards discipline and leadership so military type structures are highly efficient.

In A Tale in the Desert, the goals are more varied and the skill sets tend to be more specialized. Thus the social structures tend to be more decentralized and rather than a more-or-less steady progression you get bursts of activity followed by long lulls.
Like all niche titles I think there's a market for socially dynamic games as you discuss. The MMORPG market is saturated with titles that cater to a more isolated experience and allow players to create the social elements (as witnessing my wife and her RP guild demonstrate, you can make any MMO very, very social if you have a large enough group and motivation to do so). However, it's still a niche to do this, and the problem isn't that there are MMOs that cater to isolationist players (like myself) but that maybe there need to be some other games on the market that cater to other people who find stuff like Tale in the Desert to be interesting rather than laborious and show-stopping.

This is just a case of a certain style of play being ignored, as I see it.Not a case that the current crop are doing it wrong. I wouldn't play those games if they did exist....and no idea if my wife and her guildies would, either, because their dynamic social situations arise entirely through carefully organized RP which needs an entirely different suite of tools unrelated to group crafting and political subsystems...the last of which already exist in some form if you look at guild management in current MMOs. But I'm sure someone out there finds the concept of being forced to find multiple other players to devise mundane objects in the game to be interesting, or having to elect people as officials in the game, or other tasks of related non-militant nature.
I actually liked the way that some of the larger strategy MMO browser based games have worked out. I played in a winning guild/alliance in Lord of Ultima and we had a pretty hardcore military style kind of thing going. But at the same time because it was a strategy game and the pace of play was very slow relatively casual players could still be an important part of the game. The game has issue but the way guilds played out was good.
We have fully automated and nearly anonymous auction houses, so we don't need to engage in the social interaction of trading.

You mean Trade Chat spam? There may be what passes for social iteration in that sort of exchange, but the expense is considerable: you can only ever sell things to the people who are specifically online when you are in town. Personal shop keepers like in UO or SW:G might be a decent compromise, but I'm not sure that its all that good for the actual player economy.

Gone are the times where you waited 20 minutes for the boat in Everquest and then traveled another 20 minutes on it to your destination, giving you time to socially interact with your fellow voyagers.

It boggles my mind the lengths people go to mentally justify 40 minutes of zero gameplay in an actual video game. "Boat rides weren't pointless time sinks, they were features!" As if you could not get people to talk to each other in any other way than forcing them to share an elevator for nearly an hour.

All of these sort of posts really miss the mark, IMO. "Virtual world" is not a term that particularly means anything. The social side of MMOs exists independently from the game itself. You might be able to encourage some chat or cooperation here and there with X feature or Y feature, but the weak links are always the players. If you build it, they don't always come. Conversely, you can get tight-knit communities surrounding even single-player games.
Short boat rides are game features, giving the chance to briefly relax with a bunch of people. Long trips need some sort of group activity (such as Syncaine's recent fishing trip). The only way to get sustained content in MMOs is from other people and while some people will organise that, most will just free-load. Good community development in a mass-market mmo requires an objective for grouped content..
Social interaction is *hard*. Modern MMOs have been removing it because people find interacting with other live humans to be risky and unrewarding when it isn't with friends. Think of all the unpleasant people most of us have to deal with out in the real world.

MMOs are trying to somehow get the best of both worlds by having a game that feels like a real world, but without actually having anything real. What made WoW feel real to me back before Cata was the social interaction. Without that, it no longer feels real.
Recently I've been thinking about market places as drivers of community. Go back a bit and people could get a reputation as the go to guy for a rare item. These days people just go to their AH and buy stuff, no player-to-player communication required.
problem with necessary social interaction is that it forces people to play at the pace and time and whims of others. when you cannot accomplish most anything alone, the freedom to just play at will is lost. huge time sinks full of nothing but waiting cut into what little playtime people have available. the game essentially become a very expensive limited chatroom.
so while this model may be appealing to some, yet for others, it would make any enjoyment of MMO's impossible. so personally I prefer the current more common model where a great deal of content is soloable, but there's still group content and ability to socialize and voluntarily group.
This comment might be a bit out there, but I strongly believe that the only way MMORPGs can achieve building this kind of social fabric is through severe death penalties.

I think people naturally flock together specifically to share the risk, rather than to share the reward. When the risk is low enough, people typically prefer to solo.

You can see this happening in the real life too. Places where poverty and risk of death is huge, people prefer to live in flocks, and vice versa.
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