Fixing MMOs: The Social Problem

If the cornerstone of MMOs are the social aspects, then I have a question:

Why do game designers make it so absurdly complicated to find like-minded individuals?

I started playing WoW like I imagine a lot of people did: alone. And much like I imagine happens with guildless new players, I was ninja-recruited in one of the starting zones. From there, some elder player took me under their wing, helping me with that difficult final Ghostlands quest, getting me into a BG for the first time, and so on. I had a really great time.

Then… the guild imploded while I was questing in the Hinterlands. The game was no longer fun, and I abandoned my Blood Elf warlock. Since I had already paid for the WoW box and TBC at the same time, I decided I would at least try to get my money’s worth and roll a draenei on a new ‘Recommended” server. Leveled alone, twinked out a bit at levels 18-19 and 28-29 (I thought the AB boots were godly, even if you had to lose 30 games to get them). And then I ran that fateful Scarlet Monastery as a paladin tank, with three people who were friends IRL. I must have made some kind of impression because they invited me to the leveling guild they were in, named Invictus.

When I quit WoW a few months ago, I had been the GM of Invictus for over two and a half years. I saved the guild from abject destruction twice before taking the reins myself, and we graduated from leveling guild to Kara-clearing to eventually the #1 progression 10m-strict guild on the server in Wrath. For a time we had an absolutely brilliant raid roster of people that got along with each other, had similar interests, and otherwise had an ineffable chemistry which peaked in Ulduar, something that absolutely could not have happened at a better time in the game. Seriously, I still get misty-eyed looking back on the Ulduar montage I filmed (and seeing the Guild chat spam in the video after those kills almost makes me want to re-sub).

Thing is, it was completely goddamn random that any of us met at all.

To be clear, I am not referring to the general sort of Destiny vs Coincidence of my original guild imploding, my “choosing” Auchindoun over another server, or even my decision to tank Scarlet Monastery that night (and remember, this was back in TBC so Alliance characters had to be pretty damn serious about making the 15+ minute trek across three Horde-heavy zones). Anyone can talk about “what if?” until they begin to question the very nature of existence itself.

No, I talking about how Blizzard and most other MMO developers seem to rely on emergent social groups in their social MMOs.

e·mer·gent
adjective
Arising casually or unexpectedly.

When I met Sproll, Ariyal, and Duerim (now Boryenka) that night in Scarlet Monastery, none of us really knew how much we had in common. I wish I remembered what it was that led them to invite me to Invictus, although it was probably something dumb like my being guildless at the time. All three of those guys ended up being core officers of my benevolent Invictus dictatorship over the years, and I still talk with Bor to this day outside the game – we played the new Portal 2 co-op DLC a few days ago, for example.

If LFD existed back in those days, would I have met them in Scarlet Monastery? No. Would I have met them somewhere else on Auchindoun (it’s a low-pop server after all)? Maybe. But I still cannot get over the ridiculousness of the design insofar that this sort of emergent social behavior is encouraged in the most asinine way possible: randomly throwing people together and seeing what sticks. That is why you will never see me agree with the notion that LFD destroys communities. A lot of us bloggers lucked out in the Wild West fashion, but how many untold millions failed to get that pug moving and quit from boredom before the endgame? Is that really a “community” worth saving?

What I will agree with is that the current system is also dumb. The genre seems so stuck in the goddamn Dark Ages when it comes to social networking that I am genuinely surprised anyone makes something more than superficial “friends of convenience” at all. Players need to be given the tools to find like-minded individuals. There is a danger to creating insular cliques, of course, but if everyone agrees that MMOs are better with friends, this antiquated grouping design of blind coincidence needs revision.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion featuring concrete suggestions, coming (to) In An Age near you.

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Posted on October 20, 2011, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. That is why you will never see me agree with the notion that LFD destroys communities. A lot of us bloggers lucked out in the Wild West fashion, but how many untold millions failed to get that pug moving and quit from boredom before the endgame? Is that really a “community” worth saving?

    I totally get your point, and I agree that it was a rather dumb way to create online communities. The thing to me is that at least it was something. I don’t doubt that a lot of people didn’t have the positive experiences that you or I had, and their WoW experience was the worse for it, and they probably quit. But the previous method was better than the current one, of what is essentially no community at all, outside of the group of people you raid with (and if you don’t raid, well…). That’s been the common complaint in these last couple threads. The old way wasn’t perfect, but at least it was something, and if you actually tried a little bit, you could have some extremely positive experiences with it. The current method isn’t “something”, it’s nothing. That’s the reason why we’re sticking up for what was a pretty poor method of building communities.

    We went from riding a horse back to walking, and you’re saying they both suck, while you wait for a Model T that hasn’t been invented yet, while we’re saying our feet hurt and we miss our horses.

  2. dammit, i didn’t close my italics tag after “something”

  3. What would help is to remove server barriers, i.e. for a start to be to be able to put other-realm CHARACTERS on your friend list, and being able to /w and group them and LFD with them as a group. I think that right now this is possible by real-ID, but I cannot really test, since I insta-disabled it when they introduced it in the game (I don’t like to be forced to mix RL and IG, I’m perfectly able to give my name to online friends when I want to). Then you’d need to provide free server transfers (maybe not unlimited, say once/week/account).

    • It’s kind of strange that you can put people from other servers on your ignore list but not on your friend list. That tells a lot what Blizzard expects from their community.

  4. I completely agree with Helistar and welcome your concession that the current solution is (also) dumb. I agree with IAmJoe. Spamming trade chat wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the current implementation.

  5. I’m in agreement with all of the above, as well. LFD wouldn’t be so bad if you could find and group with the folks you do like without the RealID implementation as Helistar suggests. You might even have people speak up in a PuG if that was the case rather than the silent runs or “gogogo” runs I seem to recall dominating the LFD landscape when I played.

  6. The reason all MMO developers rely on emergent social grouping forming the core of the guilds and groupings in their games is because there is no widely known or accepted solution to the problem you are articulating. Ever seen those ads for eHarmony or any other online dating site? It’s the 21st century and the state of the art in forming like minded couples (or larger groups) is still to get everyone together in one big ice cream social and see what happens.

    Twitter, blogs, forums, etc…. its all a way to get large enough groups together that the inherent tendencies in our nature will group us up.

    The overall problem with LFD isn’t that it fails to bring people together it does — the major flaw of LFD is that you can’t friend an awesome tank/healer/dps you ran with and see them again … the randomness is good … it forces exposure that you normally wouldn’t have … the part about those possible relationships not sticking is the part where Blizzard has failed.

    It’s clear that the overall plan Blizzard had was for everyone to have a Real-ID, and that in LFD (or soon LFR) situations you would connect with someone through the use of it… and in the process pay Blizzard for the privilege.

  7. There’s several things that kill the LFD in WoW and some have been mentioned already here: no ability to friend players cross server, no choice in who you group with unless it’s to leave or vote someone out, and the socially arbitrary way it groups you (it randomly groups you strictly on the needs of the system to have 1 tank, 1 healer, and 3 dps).

    The world may be ending though, so this is small beans. I’ve found something I agree with Azuriel on!

  8. I could have sworn I posted a long comment on this yesterday. *shrug*

    In short: Finding people in random meetings (i.e. school) and communities of interest (i.e. a games store) is how real life works. It’s far from perfect, but it is how most people find their friends. The “old” method is exactly that – it’s random and imperfect but it does work.

    • It “works,” but people don’t generally care whether they meet someone in a school or a game store specifically. If Blizzard is the game store and I make all my friends at school, then Blizzard goes out of business. Indeed, I am the only person I know that even played WoW for the last four years – all my other IRL friends did not. Ergo, since the entire draw of MMOs is the (usually temporary) social aspect, relying on the normal method is exceedingly dumb.

      It is in Blizzard’s best interests in developing a scenario in which you are more likely to make friends, rather than less. Relying on real-world randomness is exceedingly lazy, and not likely to work anymore.

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