The Pro-Social Problem

There have been a number of posts lately about making MMOs more pro-social. As you might imagine, nearly every suggestion was a dusting-off of mechanics of the past. “Remember the good old days when you spent 30 minutes of your free time waiting for a boat?” The overall logic seems to be that if you stuff players into an elevator for long enough, eventually they will become friends.

Among the suggestions, what is left unstated is the only truly relevant factor: as a player, do you want to make friends?

To be charitable, let’s assume that that fundamental question has been left unvoiced simply because there isn’t much a designer can do about it. But that’s the thing. If a player of your game isn’t interested in developing life-long friendships, then a lot of your pro-social mechanics are likely to be annoying. For example, Rohan suggested a game in which you have to be in a guild in order to do anything. As someone with zero interest in (more) virtual obligation, that would prevent me from playing such a game at all.

I am not convinced that the “lack” (however that’s measured) of pro-social mechanics in modern MMOs is, in fact, a problem. It is true that I made some friends back in the TBC era of WoW, and that we still interact with one another 5+ years later. It is also true that I could not care less about making more friends; I’m full-up, thanks. How many of us are actively looking for new people to add to our lives?

Now, it is an open question as to whether I would have made the friends I did in TBC had the WoW environment instead been, say, Panderia. It might be easy to suggest I would not have, given we originally met as low-level Alliance players slogging our way through Horde zones to do a Scarlet Monastery dungeon. Between LFD and LFR, it’s quite possible I would not have met any of them even on my no-pop server. Of course, I almost didn’t meet any of them anyway, considering I could have decline doing a dungeon that day, they could have not needed a tank, not wanted another acquaintance, logged on an hour later, etc etc etc. I don’t find “what if?” scenarios especially convincing.

I keep coming back to the main question – do you want to make new friends? – because it doesn’t really matter how the game is structured if you do want to meet people. Communities exist for even single-player games, and so I doubt even a strictly anti-social MMO would stop friendships from forming. So who exactly are these pro-social/anti-solo mechanics even for? As long as the game is structured so that it’s fun to play with the friends that you have (i.e. grouping isn’t punished), I do not see what possible benefit there is to alienating the introverted portion of your audience with arbitrary and forced grouping.

I dunno, maybe I’m just not seeing it. I do not befriend someone because they are a good tank, or good healer, or are always doing the same dailies as I am at 8pm on Thursday evenings. That would make you, at most, a coworker, an acquaintance, a resource, a tool for my own edification. Friendship is something that endures past logging off, which means friendship exists outside of the game itself, which makes the entire pro-social movement seem silly. You can’t “trick” someone into making that leap of interest with some clever programming.

If game designers want to encourage more friendships – in an ironically cynical desire to drive long-term engagement – they need to make more tools for self-expression and other means of broaching out-of-game interaction. World-class rogue DPS? Sure, I’ll use you to ensure my own dungeon run is a success. Oh, your favorite game is Xenogears too? Now I’m interested.

Maybe the assumption is that if we do enough dungeons together, that this friend-making moment will naturally occur. If so, it all seems so hopelessly passive for as disruptive it ends up being for the solo player.

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Posted on May 2, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Psychochild did actually address this question – see his heading “the patient doesn’t want the medicine”.

    I’m more inclined to side with you that this problem may not be within the realm of things that can be fixed with game design. As I often put it, incentives can be good at changing player behavior but have not shown much success in changing player preference. If the player’s preference is for accessibility and convenience and they are indifferent to the game as a source of “friends” then I suspect that your reaction is inevitable.

  2. I don’t want to make friends. I want to have encounters with civil, pleasant, good-natured people now and then through my MMO journey and quest for fun.

    Game design can help by reducing or eliminating the places where cutthroat over-competitiveness, conflicting priorities or exclusive, elitist attitudes pits player against player. It can encourage and make attractive the -option- to get together to achieve something.

    But forcing me to do anything I don’t want to do, is not going to accomplish anything but produce a disgruntled player.

  3. Eh, I reckon that most people don’t actively go “I want to make friends now!” (or conversely “I don’t want to make any new friends!”) most of the time. It’s just something that happens as we interact with other people.

    Also, relationships exist on a continuum. It’s not a matter of only ever being best friends forever or having acquaintances about whom you don’t give a damn. If you decide to stay online longer because hey, that guy with whom you ran a dungeon yesterday is online and he was kinda funny so let’s do it again, it might not be the start of a friendship for life but it’s still win for the developer in terms of retaining you as a player.

    • I’m with Shintar on this. We don’t set out to make friends in anything we do in life. We end up making friends, almost by accident, by the fact of coming across each other often enough to see what we like in them, and they in us; and then by having the opportunity to meet again, whether in a guild or in a team, or just hanging out in chat – the same as we make opportunities IRL to hang out with our friends.

      And if I stay on a little longer, like Shintar suggested, because the funny guy I met online yesterday is back on today, then that’s not just a win for the developer. It’s a win for me, too.

    • That’s a fair point. Even if I did meet someone with the same interests as me, and I was inclined to learn more, it would all be moot if there wasn’t actually a method to stay in contact in-game. And it’s hard to learn anything about anyone when you never see the same person twice.

      But I would definitely say that someone’s attitude going into the play experience dictates how many friendship opportunities arise. If I’m not interested, I’m not chatting, or at least typing more than the socially acceptable minimum. I may be open to new friendships, and I’d like to say I am, but at the same time the other person is going to have to do more than meet me halfway; that may not be “fair,” but it’s not as if I’m expecting something happen. It’s like the difference between being single and actively looking for a date. If a lady walked into my life, that’d be great. But if she doesn’t, that’d fine too, because I’m not particularly trying.

    • Exactly, Shintar. I think there are some people who aren’t going out of their way to avoid social activity, but they’re not necessarily going out of their way to find social activity. I think there are a fair number of people who would like the opportunity to make connections like some of us did in the “bad old days” of MMOs, but when you can play the whole game solo and it’s noticeably LESS efficient to group due to social overhead (as it was in some parts of WoW), or if you just don’t sit still long enough to have a meaningful interaction with people (like GW2), then there just isn’t any opportunity for these social connections to happen.

      Anyway, as I explicitly said in my blog post, “I’m not merely advocating a return to the “forced grouping” of older games.” I’m trying to look forward and identify problems in our games. And, it’s not merely “an ironically cynical desire to drive long-term engagement” but a desire to create compelling experiences like the ones I remember when I first got into online games.

      • To add another voice to this – I DO actually make friends in MMOs almost exclusively because someone is a good player / made for a good party experience. that has always been a per-requisite for me; I can only play regularly with people I respect as players / that I consider to be at least my par. everything else is major frustration.

        and that made for some very good friends longterm in WoW, but friendship is something that blossoms later for me and the social aspect is the addition to a good gameplay experience.

  4. I stay away from the social aspects of MMOs. Which may seem like I’m missing the point, but I play MMOs to have fun in a persistent world that is populated by real people that I don’t have to talk to. Much like real life. I don’t have to chit chat with people in line at the grocery store but I do have to be civil toward them much like i’m civil to people in-game.

    I asked a question in Gen chat a few days ago, and the person who answered wanted to group up and “help” me level. When I stopped making small talk he asked me why I stopped talking, this is the kind of stuff I don’t want to deal with. I want to play and explore and adventure and I can’t do that if my hands are busy typing about how my day went.

    • Indeed. This is a big reason why I don’t even bother inviting someone to group up to kill a quest mob. It is more efficient for us to share the quest credit, but now I’m in a more personal “setting” and they’re talking to me and now I’d look like an ass for just leaving and… yeah. I’ll wait the 2 minutes for the respawn. The sort of non-grouping of GW2 is a much-needed improvement, but it’s mainly a tool for me to be less social, not more.

  5. “as a player, do you want to make friends?”

    Yes! I mean, I’m not running up to everyone demanding that we be BFFs, but I play MMOs to be social. In my experience, the actual mechanics of MMOs thus far are easily exceeded by single player games. Skyrim is a better “persistent world” (as much as any MMO is). Dragon Age Origins has better hotbar combat, Bioshock Infinite has a better story, Baldur’s Gate has better lore. (I’m just saying the first title that comes into my head .. there are probably better examples.)

    What the MMO genre can do better than any other single player game is facilitate social interaction. While I don’t think social stickiness is the sole reason for the current “3 month MMO” trend, the current lack of it sure doesn’t help.

    And as much as you would not play a pro-social MMO, I am not playing GW2 (for example) because I find it quite anti-social. There is room for both in the current game marketplace, and some of us would love a more socially-oriented game. :)

  6. I agree with the sentiment of the original post and with the majority of comments above. Of course I’m not averse to meeting new people while I play MMOs or to forming a variety of relationships with them, from nodding acquaintance to years-long friendship. That, however, is NOT what I’m playing MMOs for.

    I’m playing to explore strange worlds, meet imaginary creatures and have adventures. I can do that with or without other people. Either is fine but if anything, such as enforced or necessary grouping, gets in the way of those goals it’s inevitably going to be seen as a negative not a positive.

    I used to LOVE waiting 20 minutes for the boat in Everquest. I was one who complained bitterly when the need to do so was removed. That’s not because I relished the chance the wait gave me to meet other people – it’s because I found the act of waiting for an “actual” boat to appear over the horizon that I “actually” boarded and which “actually” sailed across the Ocean of Tears to be an amazingly absorbing, immersive and enjoyable experience. Even when I was there alone.

    People who want to make friends in MMOs will make friends in MMOs. Don’t put barriers in the way of those people but don’t try to prod the loners into socializing. We’re adults. Let us behave that way and choose our own friends.

  7. Psychochild’s original post makes very few references to guilds, which seems weird to me, as joining a guild is a no-brainer if you are looking to have a social experience in an MMO.

    The singleplayer MMOers that quit after a few weeks have made the explicit decision not to join a guild or to participate in group content (Raiding/PvP). Developers have introduced sufficient incentives over the years but some players simply do not have the time/interest to commit to a group of people and be part of the social fabric.

    Personally I have up to 2-3 hours a week to play MMOs and need to be able to stop what I’m doing at a moment’s notice. Creating disincentives for me to play at my own pace is going to kill your game for me.

  8. I found you again, or simply returned, and isn’t that what blogs are for anyway? I might even call them a pro social way to do things, rather than, you know, writing in a notebook privately…?

    That just came to me. Honestly, i was going to disagree with you, but that does make a strange amount of sense does it not?

    It’s not always about making friends in MMO’s, but working together for a greater good. You say you are not interested in looking at the “what if’s” but you readily look at the other possibilities of how easily you could have avoided becoming friends, but inevitably did. So the whole point is moot.

    I think you are a smart dude, but you are thinking too hard on these certain issues, and picking out rather narrow and extreme views of certain people to back up your points. For instance, how you say “forced” grouping…I played the original EQ, where grouping was a very important part of the game, and i actually met some dude playing it that i am currently chatting with online a disturbingly long time after the fact (10+ years, time flies). That being said, i played a necromancer, which was a class where i could get away from grouping a lot of the time, and i did. In fact, many different classes were able to solo in the game, albeit with more limited success than when you played with a group…which logically makes sense.

    Problem is, almost every game nowadays eschews (big word..+10 points) grouping to the point of making it the fact that it’s an MMO a waste of time. If you want to just have fun on a game, why not play a single player RPG? There’s much less annoyance, and far less mind numbing general chat nonsense (zone wide chat is a problem!).

    I don’t think that people really want to sit there waiting for 30 minutes on the end of a dock waiting for a boat, but i don’t necessarily see the harm in it either if the developers create a way to make it fun. There are tradeskills, and there could be quests that lead you to the docks, and perhaps you can help stop some bandits from raiding some NPCs that are waiting there with you (i’m thinking off the top of my head, and its late)–surely a talented writer could come up with something to make the task fun.

    I hate when people think that just because they aren’t being spoon fed things right NOW NOW NOW, that a game isn’t exciting or fun. If that is the case, then developers are not working hard enough at creating engaging content.

    In any case, i was never really setting out to make friends, as you said you were not when you played WoW either, but it happened. For some reason you seem to be second guessing that fact, and its impact on your life. Social game or not, it happened. EQ, or vanilla WoW were pretty social in relation to mmo’s that have come out recently, and it shows in their popularity over time.

    As i said, i think you’re a bright dude, and hope you get around to play Red Dead Redemption, but i don’t see why having certain avenues for creating experiences with people are necessarily a bad thing.

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