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There And Back Again?

I came across a thread on Reddit which was a pining for the “old days” of MMOs when you either grouped up or didn’t get to actually play the game. Which, now that I think about it, is a scenario not all that different from empty FPS servers. Anyway, the top-rated comment concluded with this:

The truth of the matter is, those of us that grew up on the hardcore MMOs, we’ve already done it. Most of us just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap. I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play. I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours. I’ve already done that; I don’t want to do it again. The novelty of the MMO is gone. There are better ways to enjoy my time.

There is a nuance to this argument that I don’t see all that often, and I’d be interested in what other veteran MMO players have to say about it. It’s one thing to say that once some auto-grouping functions are released, like LFD or LFR, that there is no removing them. But put those aside for a moment and ask yourself: how many times do I feel like I could start over in a “pure” MMO (whatever you define that as)?

Maybe the question is nonsensical, considering we technically “start over” each time we play a new game. On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced another MMO could bribe me enough to get back into raiding as a full-time job again. Even if your game of choice was EVE, how willing would you be to starting over in a completely new game with similar time-investment requirements? Still willing to spend 1-2 years of real-time building up a skill set? Or do these sort of investment mechanics have diminishing returns regardless of “dumbing down” or other streamlining that might go on?

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.

LFR is a Better LFD

A few days after my friend ran me through some of the MoP heroics, he asked what I thought about them. To be honest, I did not think about them much at all. They are much easier than Cataclysm heroics, of course, which should be a reason to like them as much as I did the Wrath heroics; I am solidly in the “random pug content should be easy” category. At the same time… something felt off about them. It was not until I queued for LFR that I realized what it was.

LFR is everything that LFD strives to be. It is the final evolution of the LFD process, if you will.

Like many people, I was annoyed to find out that Blizzard backslid on reputation gains with MoP, removing the two-expansion precedent of running heroics with tabards. On one level, their argument makes sense: daily quest hubs are one guaranteed way to get people back out into the world. And while Blizzard has a long way to go with their stubborn “strangers are competition” design – Guild Wars 2 fixed it so thoroughly that anything less feels archaic – the daily quests became a quasi-guild event for my group for at least two weeks.

But there is a longer con going on here, and Blizzard is being a bit more clever than I thought. Put simply: Blizzard is intentionally marginalizing heroic dungeon content. The decreased difficulty is irrelevant compared to the fact that there isn’t really ever a reason to run heroics anymore. When tabards gave reputation, you always had a reason to run X number of dungeons far beyond the possibility of upgrades. When (BoP) Chaos Orbs only dropped from bosses, crafters had a reason to run dungeons. When Valor was only easily capped from heroics, you had a reason to run them every day (or at least 7x/week). None of those things are true or relevant anymore.

Raid Finder as a solution to the endgame problem is goddamn genius. The biggest problem with the raid scene in WoW was with how low participation has been; no matter how awesome raids like Ulduar are, it gets hard to justify the expense when less than 25% of your players see the first boss. Solution: LFR. No matter how much they bribe tanks to queue for heroics, I do not think I have seen a DPS queue less than 40 minutes long. Solution: LFR. Seriously, I had an 8 minute DPS queue for LFR the other day to possibly get gear 20 ilevels higher than heroics. Random jerks that you can’t kick harshing your vibes in heroics? Solution: LFR. People Need-whoring your drops? Solution: LFR. If there was ever a clearer indication that LFR is in and LFD is out, it would be how LFR has the new looting system and LFD is stuck with “mage won the healer trinket.” Once they start letting you win off-spec gear in LFR, there won’t be a reason to do anything else.

Oh, and how many new 5-mans are coming out in 5.2? Exactly.

So if you are wondering what I think about the Raid Finder system, I think it is fantastic. LFR is not perfect by any means, but it is probably the biggest improvement in WoW’s endgame structure since LFD. It provides practice for the “real” raids; it provides complexity in a somewhat more forgiving environment; it provides something more substantial than endless heroic runs; there are/will be enough of them to take up a good chunk of your playtime if you wish it; better loot with less grinding; and, finally, LFR offers an elegant solution to DPS over-representation.

I sometimes question the decisions they make over in Blizzard HQ, but whoever designed the integration of LFR into the game proper deserves a raise.

Raid Finder: Day One

I used the Raid Finder for the very first time on Monday night. It was an… instructive experience.

Dogpile.

Dogpile.

One thing that I learned about myself is the fact that I felt compelled to seek out raid videos/strategies even for LFR difficulty. It is not (just) about insulating myself from group embarrassment, it is about mitigating that awful feeling of not knowing what I am doing. I hate that feeling. At first I believed the feeling to be unique to multiplayer games, as I certainly do not hit up GameFAQs or Wikis the moment I get to a boss fight in a single-player game. Indeed, wouldn’t that be cheating? Or, at least, cheating myself from the actual game.

But you know what? I hate that feeling even in single-player games. If I am dying to a boss repeatedly and have no idea why, or there does not seem to be any clues as to different strategies I could try, I most certainly hit up Wikis. I enjoy logic puzzles as much as (or more than) the next guy, but I must feel certain that logic is applicable to the situation. With videogames, that is not always a given: quests that you cannot turn in because you didn’t trip a programming “flag” by walking down a certain alleyway or whatever. There was a Borderlands 2 quest that I simply looked up on Youtube because I’ll be damned if I walk across every inch of a cell-shaded junkyard for an “X” mark after already spending 10 minutes looking it over. Playing “Where’s Waldo” can be entertaining, but not when you have to hold the book sideways and upside down before Waldo spawns… assuming you are even looking at the right page.

I digress.

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Things got off to a nice start in LFR when the dog fight consisted of just tanking all three dogs in a cleave pile the entire time. The second boss seemed to have an inordinate amount of health, but he too dropped without doing much of note. I died twice to some insidious trash on the way to the troll boss; those bombs are simply stupid in a 25m setting, as I found it difficult to even see them among all the clashing colors and spell effects. Final boss dropped pretty quickly as well, although I almost died a few times towards the end once people stopped coming into the spirit world with me.

By the way, the queue for the 1st raid finder was 15 minutes for DPS. Might have been a “Monday before the reset” thing.

I joined a guild healer for the 2nd raid finder immediately afterwards, although the average wait time of 43 seconds was a bit off. Was killed by a combination of friendly fire and damage reflection during the first boss, but he otherwise went down quickly. I managed to avoid falling to my death during Elegon (thanks Icy-Veins!), but was killed by an add the 2nd tank never picked up; that will teach me to do something other than tunnel the boss. The third boss… made little sense. I spent a lot of time killing adds, as I could not quite understand what was up with the Devastating Combo thing other than I must have been doing it wrong. Eons later, the bosses died.

It is becoming somewhat of a running joke for my guildies since coming back on how much random loot I pull in. The prior week I got ~8 drops from my first 5 random dungeons, for example. This time around I got three epics from my first two LFR forays, all three of which came from the bonus rolls. I was not around for the Cata LFR days, but suffice it to say, I would not have likely came away with that much loot in a more traditional PuG.

Overall, LFR was a pleasant experience. While I can certainly empathize with the criticism of LFR – it was pretty ridiculously easy – I can definitely see the logic behind Blizzard’s moves here. Some raid is better than no raid, low-pop realms like Auchindoun-US wouldn’t support a robust raid PuG community, and to an extent even the “nothing ever drops!” LFR sentiment encourages organized guild raiding in a roundabout manner. Whether this remains satisfying in any sort of long-term manner remains to be seen, but honestly, it is better than the alternative of… what else, exactly? Running dungeons ad infinitum?

Things Are Looking Grim

Yeah… I’m not sure about this whole WoW thing anymore. Again.

I have not really bothered logging in since the last time I wrote about it, which means I am less than 10 quests into the expansion on any character. On Tuesday, I had an extra long length of time available to play, so I buckled down for the long-haul. Before heading out of Stormwind again though, I decided to continue feeding Auctionator some additional data and perhaps looking into pimping my 85s a bit with some blue gear. Or, hey! I have alts with professions that need leveled, so why not kill half a dozen birds with some AH stones in the form of buying some crafting mats?

Let’s see here… wait a minute…

Wait, that's TOTAL?

Wait, that’s TOTAL?

I thought Auctionator was bugging out on me when it completed the AH scan in literally two seconds, while also stating there are 52 epic items scanned. “That can’t possibly be correct… can it?” Yes, in fact, it can. A generic search for epic items in all categories reveals a total of 137 auctions (presumably 52 unique items). Now, it is certainly possible that I have missed a major announcement when it comes to scaling back BoE epic items, and Wowhead is telling me there are are only 134 epic non-BoP, non-heroic raid items in this expansion.

But what is being presented to me here is truly ridiculous. Aunchindoun-US was always a low-pop server, but as my early posts under PVsAH demonstrated, there was at least a functioning marketplace where you could be a big fish in a little pond. What I am seeing is not a little pond, it is moist patch of earth. Checking even the expansion staples like Ghost Iron and Green Tea Leaves only confirmed my suspicions. My faction’s AH officially qualifies as a failed state.

This discovery completely killed the mood, and I logged off. It is obviously possible to level up and even raid without a functioning economy, but why would you? I have mentioned before that I want to play games I can invest in, or at least feel the simulation of investment. Knowing the economy is dead, knowing the server is dead, and knowing that Blizzard isn’t ever going to bite the goddamn bullet and put realms like Auchindoun out of its misery means my incentive to push forward is dead. Server transfer, I hear you ask? Literally $250. Otherwise, if I have to abandon all my alts with all their professions (and pay $25 on top of it all) just for opportunity to have fun playing your game on one character… well, I politely decline.

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has been solving all the problem elements of low-pop servers except the one that matters: the server itself. Play BGs with everyone else, run dungeons with everyone else, raid with everyone else, and now even quest with everyone else. Isn’t it about time you let us be with everyone else?

Chicken & Eggs, PlanetSide Edition

I have been playing around with PlanetSide 2 (Ps2) for the past couple of days.

As far as initial impressions go, the “introduction” to Ps2 is uniformly awful. Oh, hey, they lifted the character creation head presets from Fallout. Pick a faction and server without knowing anything about either. And before you even get a chance to check out character/class settings and such, you are launched via drop pod into the heaviest fighting on the map and, in all likelihood, killed immediately. Now that you have some free time, go ahead and look over the thoroughly unhelpful menus while trying to ascertain to what degree SOE is set to gouge your wallet (spoiler: the Nth degree).

Not that it really matters, but hey.

Once you finally respawn, things do not get much better that first day. Coming from Battlefield 3 and even Tribes, killing people seems to take 1-2 seconds of full-auto fire more than it should. It is also difficult to tell who the enemy actually is – while you get a No Smoking sign on your crosshairs when aiming at a friendly, everyone has the same profile and even colors at first glance. Character animations look stiff, and the models seem lifted from Natural Selection, that Half-Life mod from a decade ago.

I respawned time and time again, courageously throwing myself in front of bullets intended for players actually capable of accomplishing something, while I returned fire with my Nerf Gun that shoots wads of wet tissue paper. In a lull in the dying action, I tried deciphering the stone tablet hieroglyphics that was my minimap. “Generator destroyed.” “Generator repaired.” Was that a good or bad thing? Whose generator? When the the vehicle I was spawning at finally got destroyed, I found myself literal miles away from any discernible action, with no way of knowing where to go, what to do, or why I was doing this instead of finishing packing.

I was lost and alone in the blinding snow.

Forever Alone…

The second and third days, by contrast, were infinitely better.

It took a lot of outside research, but I started understanding the pros and cons of the various classes. I learned enough about Certs (i.e. upgrade points) to know what they are, how to get more, and good places to spend them. I used Reddit to find a Google Doc that explained what the symbols on the map are, how to properly assault a Bio Dome, and some tricks for getting around. I learned enough about the weapon shop to know how badly SOE is gouging me (way worse than Tribes: Ascend, by the way)… but also the cool bit where you take a new weapon out for a 30 minute test-drive without paying anything.¹

On the third day, I found one of the best features in almost any game I have ever played:

Please make this the future.

I called this post Chicken & Eggs because games like PlanetSide 2 (and nearly all MMOs) require you to have social structures in place before you can really start having fun. Social structures which, incidentally, seem like a waste of time to seek out/develop when you aren’t having fun. “Join a guild to have a good time.” Why would I, if I’m not having fun currently? Which is supposed to come first? I am not necessarily suggesting that fun should occur without effort, but let’s be serious for minute: there are a hundred different games you could be playing right now that are fun from the word Go.

While I still believe the First Day experience in PlanetSide 2 is pretty awful, I absolutely love this grouping system with descriptions they have in-game and hope this sort of idea is lifted wholesale by every MMO multiplayer game. Why can’t there be some sort of in-game bulletin-board-esque system that allows like-minded individuals find each other in every game? Why do socially-oriented games basically require out-of-game social structures to work at all? I have always enjoyed the no-obligation/instant grouping of LFD, but I still recognize the existence of a social hole it cannot fill. Yet here, in a single simple feature, I can differentiate between the friendly strangers, the SRS BSNS folks, jokers wanting to recreate that helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, and more.

So come on, social game designers, this is not that hard a concept. If the game is made better by playing with people we know, make it easier to get to know people in your own goddamn game. Nearly 99% of everyone I know online I originally met through WoW or blogging about WoW. Make your game a foundation for new friendships (by making it easier to do so) and people will continue coming back. We get the opportunity to express ourselves and meet new people, and you (likely) get a pair or more of multi-year customers.

¹ This feature is cool, but it has a 30-day cooldown on that specific weapon, and starts up an 8-hour cooldown on every other item. Apparently this cooldown is per character though, so you can cheese the limitation by rolling a new toon, trying it out, and then deleting it later.

Counter-Intuitive Insights

While providing a very similar experience, what Rift has going for it is a smaller community.

Keen

At first, I could not help but laugh. There is context for the quote, sure, but it struck me as funny regardless to take what would normally be a negative quality (few people are playing your game) and spin it as a positive. Especially when it is an MMO one is talking about, where the whole idea is the “a lot of people” part.

But… hmm.

It is undoubtedly true that an MMO “community,” such as it is, has an impact on one’s enjoyment of a game. I read threads like these on the Guild Wars 2 forums, and the sort of hyper-competitiveness inherent to the dungeon-running culture presented there makes me not want to bother at all. The people running these dungeons are getting them done in 20 minutes, whereas it will take me hours to get a similar level of competency all while I slow them down (assuming I am not kicked to begin with).

Incidentally, this is why you have LFD tools: there will always be abrasive social encounters when grouping with strangers, but at least with LFD you are not dependent on their goodwill to zone in at all. As long as you have reasonable expectations (i.e. not expect four strangers to wait while you soak up the atmosphere), you will be fine.

I believe that Keen is probably correct that Rift’s smaller community is a positive, assuming you are into that sort of thing. Fewer people means less of an audience for trolling, more reliance on social contacts to get things done, which probably all contributes to a Cheers-esque atmosphere. Or at least a “we’re in this foxhole together” atmosphere. So… yeah. The fewer people that like your MMO, the more you will like it. And the converse – the more popular your MMO gets, the less you enjoy it – is probably true for many as well.

All of which means you can never say bad things about hipsters ever again.

Collective Individualists, or Individual Collectivists

I usually do not participate in theme weeks, but Stubborn’s recent Individualist vs Collectivist post struck a chord. A discordant one.

But first, as always, we have to define the terms of the debate. Throughout Stubborn’s post, for example, he seems to be using “grouping” as interchangeable with Collectivism. While grouping is certainly something Collectivists do, that is like calling me a Landscape Artist when I mow the lawn. The intention matters.

But rather than get too philosophical about it, I have an easy quiz you can take to determine whether you are a Collectivist, or at least have Collectivist tendencies. Have you ever felt:

  1. Shame, or
  2. Guilt, or
  3. A sense of obligation

…to do or refrain from doing some action in an MMO? If you answered “yes,” congratulations comrade, you are a Collectivist!

I knew the precise moment my WoW days became numbered: six weeks after having killed the Lich King in ICC. There I was, logging on at 9pm sharp, trying to drum up support for yet another ICC run that I did not want participate in, let alone tank and raid lead. So why did I do it? Because I knew that 4-5 of my guild mates wanted to do it, that if I did not personally pull the group together the raid would not form, and that each raid which failed to form would drive said guild mates further and further away (into other guilds, or simply away period). Collectivism is about putting the needs of the Collective ahead of your own. You sacrifice your own enjoyment for the benefit of the whole, because the guild/group/corp/etc is intrinsically linked to your own enjoyment.

Contrast the above with Stubborn’s assertion that Diablo 3 ranks highly on the (arbitrary) Collectivist scale:

D3 gets the most collectivist score because it has no add-ons, heavily emphasizes grouping at harder difficulties, and has individual loot.  I’d give it a 5, but I have hopes for more collectivist MMOs to come around, and besides, it stinks.

Do you care about the other people you group with in Diablo 3 beyond their potential function as loot efficiency creators? Do you feel guilt for leaving such a group, or a sense of obligation to stay, or shame when you “fail” them? Probably not.

But… maybe you do. In which case, this debate becomes even more abstract as we are awkwardly forced into quantifying how much a game may or may not encourage Collectivist tendencies in players. Is the game anti-Collectivist, or are the players simply pro-Individualists (read: rational entertainment consumers)?

Here is how I see it: Collectivism is something you bring into the game from the outside.

A game can force you to group with other people in order to play, but whether you identify with that group is 100% up to you. Everyone readily agrees that WoW’s random LFD groups are five individuals looking for loot, but Trade Chat groups were not the opposite by default. Did I have a higher tolerance for failure back in TBC? Yes… because if I did not carry that terrible player through heroic Shadow Labs, it meant I was playing zero dungeons tonight. Walking that player through detailed text explanations of each boss encounter was necessary like wearing a shield and pressing Consecration was necessary - in both cases I was simply pressing buttons, not connecting to another human being.

Perhaps I should just quote Samus, who needs nominated for Best Metaphor of the Year:

Any social element is IN SPITE OF the design of these games. You are sitting in a room with all the chairs facing the wall, praising the room for the great conversation you still managed to have.

Having said all that, I can still agree with Syl vis-a-vis being glad that MMOs like Guild Wars 2 are moving towards “bonus instead of malus” incentives for grouping. If I wanted to be social (the most important step!), many MMOs would make being social difficult; simple things like penalizing group XP, throwing quest barriers up, and placing people in awkward Mineral Rights scenarios (“You take the Copper node.” “No, you!”). These days, I would also include general looting rights, even in raiding. While loot system is traditionally the backbone of a raiding guild’s identity – Loot Council vs DKP vs Main spec > Off spec rolls, etc – it can also be divisive. I might like playing with Bob, but if he is in a guild with Loot Council… well, we can no longer be friends raid together.

Ironically, in a certain light, relaxing these grouping barriers actually seems to make games more Individualistic. And it does. Everyone says LFD is the most Individualistic, community-destroying feature ever… and then praise GW2′s auto-grouping, auto-scaling, individual looting, no-words-necessary Dynamic Events in the same breath¹. And the multiple guilds thing, which is great, but sort of undermines the whole guild loyalty/identity thing though, right? Maybe, maybe not.

I feel like this is one of those rare situations in which the otherwise terrible relationship cliche of “set the bird free, and if it comes back, it was meant to be” is applicable. After all, even a sociopath can fake relationships long enough to get the loot, so to speak. A Collectivist cares about the Collective, and will return even if they are not penalized for leaving. A closet Individualist on the other hand… well, they need the handcuffs in spite of themselves.

Of course, the thoroughly legitimate fear is that there ain’t that many Collectivists after all. And I am inclined to agree. So it is simply up to you to decide whether or not the chance of fake becoming real via going through the motions is worth all the cognitive dissonance and hand-waving.

I say open up that cage and let’s see what happens.

¹ LFD might be worse for basically never grouping the same people together again, but simply seeing the same few dudes in Events multiple times is not all that more social by itself. It is the difference between paying for gas at the pump and paying the cashier inside.

More Blizzard Heart to Heart

Remember last time when WoW lost a bunch of folks? It appears that we have another data point on the graph indicating that subscription totals and surprisingly frank design discussion are inversely related, at least as far as Ghostcrawler is concerned.

Spinks already pointed out this gem, but I will do so again for mine own posterity:

No developer wants to hear “I want to play your game, but there’s nothing to do.” For Mists, we are going out of our way to give players lots to do. We don’t want it to be overwhelming, but we do want it to be engaging. We want you to have the option of sitting down to an evening of World of Warcraft rather than running your daily dungeon in 30 minutes and then logging out. We understand we have many players (certainly the majority in fact) who can’t or aren’t interested in making huge commitments to the game every week and we hope we have structured things so that you don’t fall very far behind. The trick is to let players who want to play make some progress without leaving everyone else in the dust. (source)

Now, actually, I found an earlier line item from the list preceding the above paragraph to be more interesting:

– In Mists, we want to provide players alternative content to running dungeons. The dungeons are still there, but even with 6 new and 3 redone dungeons, you’re ready for something else after a while.

That is… kind of a big deal. I could maybe see an argument that things were different in TBC, but dungeons being default endgame for the majority of the playerbase (i.e. the 80% non-raiders) has been Blizzard’s modus operandi for the last two expansions. For, by all appearances, good reasons! How else do you get someone to log on every day? Dailies alone were not that compelling, precisely due to the factors Ghostcrawler points out: reputation grinds were undermined by tabard’d dungeon runs, as were Exalted faction rewards by dungeon loot.

De-emphasizing dungeons is a paradigm shift and Grand Social Experiment all rolled into one. Think about it. Who are the individuals most likely to exhibit anti-social, anti-noob behavior in a dungeon setting? The people who don’t want to be there, but feel they have to be there. Well, now they don’t. Go run Scenarios with your two dickish DPS cohorts and never haunt the halls of LFD again. Alternatively, just as Children’s Week floods BGs with players who never cared for PvP, perhaps allowing normal daily quests to adequately satisfy one’s need for gear progression means there will be less noobs looking to be carried by raider alts through LFD.

Most people would agree that the friendliest LFD “community” is generally in endgame normal dungeons. Why? Because it is filled with players who actually want to be there. They could be getting better gear in heroics, but choose not to. Maybe not at first, but over time do you think we could gradually see LFD populated only with people who enjoy that experience?

Of course, I can see this whole thing going down in the flames too. Although LFD and LFR has minimized the necessity of forming social relationships in the endgame, this sort of re-emphasis on flying solo could not come at a worse time, e.g. as 2+ million players snap social ties. Or maybe this is a catering to the audience as it exists now, instead of the hypothetical historical. Or perhaps I should believe what I said before vis-a-vis seeing all the new opportunities to be social via running dailies/Scenarios in small groups with people I actually care about.

I mean… this is Guild Wars 2′s entire model, right?

Population vs Community

Population is the antithesis to community.

In other words, the bigger a community grows, the more it ceases to be a community at all.

com·mu·ni·ty [kuh-myoo-ni-tee]
noun, plural com·mu·ni·ties.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

A lot of words have been said regarding the degradation of the “MMO community” or a community specific to an MMO, typically in the context of developer mistakes decisions. While my argument technically supports those who claim that, for example, WoW devs killed the WoW community by pooling the population together via LFD and the like, the actual mechanism of community destruction was simply the existence of more warm bodies.

The more people you get together in one place…

  1. The lower the chances you have of seeing any individual again.
  2. The easier it is for good players to get lost in the crowd.
  3. The easier it is for extremely bad behavior to get noticed.
  4. The more incentive someone has to behave even worse (for attention, or other gain).

You may have heard about Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. I suggest the “Anonymity” component is redundant with Crowd. In sufficient numbers, even one’s real name becomes irrelevant, assuming it isn’t duplicated to begin with, i.e. John Smith. Think back to the cliques that formed in high school. Chances are that the negative behavior of the members of the clique did not persist on the individual level when they were split up (beyond, perhaps, a catalyst). For myself, I distinctly remember the dichotomy between how much the football team could be assholes during lunch, but how well behaved (and friendly!) they were in Art class, including the ringleader (so to speak). Even if we assume that such a clique required X amount of sadism in order to remain a member, the fact that it was apparently modulated on the basis of number of witnesses is telling.

I bring all this up as a means of arguing against Milday’s mourning of the loss of “community activism,” for lack of a better term. To her, things were better when people behaved out of fear of Scarlet Letters and social ostracization, rather than behaving well simply for lack of griefing tools. It is impossible to steal a resource node or ninja a dungeon drop in Guild Wars 2, for example, and that is apparently a bad thing. Better that someone could behave badly and such behavior be punished, than a world with no wrong to be done.¹

And, hey, perhaps Milady is even right. Maybe that is better.

The problem is that social ostracization only works on a community level. Could a ninja get blacklisted in the “glory days” of vanilla and TBC? On smaller servers, sure. Or maybe even on larger servers in the “community” of people running dungeons at 3am. But then again… were they really blacklisted? Paid name changes were rolled out in October 2007; server transfers existed since mid-2006. Alts existed since Day 1. And, let us be serious here, social ostracization only works anyway when both A) the entire community acts as one unit, and B) the target even cares. Your “xxIllidanxx is a ninja” spam might have inconvenienced xxIllidanxx for the 30 minutes you posted in Trade Chat², but what about the rest of the time? Chances are that he still got a group eventually, either because someone was really that desperate or they simply did not know. Or perhaps enough of his ninja friends logged on today.

The flood of LFD strangers circa end of Wrath makes social ostracization in WoW dungeons moot, of course. But I would say it was moot to begin with, given the size of WoW as a whole and the underlying level of persistent churn. There will always be more people. Even if you stopped xxIllidanxx in his ninja-looting guild-hopping TBC tracks, such that he reformed or quit the game entirely… xxArthasxx is right behind him. And xxDethwingxx. And xxlegolasxx. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. Not necessarily because there are infinite jerks/morons in the world (there is), but because the underlying incentive to behave badly still exists.

In the land of law-abiding citizens, the one criminal is king, to bastardize a phrase.

Should we simply throw up our hands and endure bad behavior? Of course not. But with games of sufficient size, the only solution that works is a systemic one. Guild hopping a problem? GW2 lets you join multiple guilds. Ninja looting and/or Need Whoring getting you down? Individual loot has rolled out in Diablo 3, GW2, and is coming to a LFR near you. Even Copper Ore nodes cannot be stolen in GW2, only shared.

The only downside to systemic solutions is what Milady refers to as the Automatization of the Social. In other words, if you provide in-game incentives to positive social actions – such as getting XP for helping resurrect dead players – one can no longer tell whether the action was performed for altruistic reasons, or selfish ones. I might suggest there is no difference between the two (altruism typically feels good), but I also recognize the potential pitfalls – I hardly ever thanked a stranger for rezzing me in GW2, whereas it would have been a bigger deal in WoW.

The key though, is simply recognizing all the new opportunities be sociable. Ever do Diablo 3 co-op and then stop and ask if your wizard partner needed the rare staff you picked up? Would Need vs Greed been better there? I say that voluntarily giving up a “secret” item is more social than simply not hitting Need. I have mentioned GW2′s resource node sharing several times now. In WoW, maybe there was social interaction is letting the other Miner grab the ore when you both show up. Or maybe you ganked them/stole it while they were in combat. In GW2, since you both can take the same node, you have an incentive to work together to kill the spider guarding it. That’s more social than what came before, IMO, because even if you gave the stranger the node in WoW, it allowed you to get to the next node faster, or the knowledge to move to a less-farmed area to maximize your own gains.

In Conclusion…

Any non-static community will “degrade” over time as the benefits of bad behavior naturally escalates with each additional member. The only real solution is changing the fundamental interaction between members, such that the more odious bad behavior becomes more than disincentivized, but impossible. With each additional participant in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the more likely the worst possible outcome comes to pass. Ergo, it is best to never present the Prisoner’s Dilemma at all, if you can help it.

Out of all of the social engineering experiments we have seen in the MMO space, the results of individual looting/resource nodes is the one I am looking forward to seeing the most. It is a fundamental shift away from zero-sum – I win the item, you don’t – to win-win. At least in theory. Maybe it will turn us all into asocial solipsists playing our single-player MMOs.

In which case… well, I still consider that a win-win compared to the current paradigm.

¹ Which should make one question one’s assumptions about the desirability of Heaven, eh?
² Ironically, xxIllidanxx would have a good case against you for in-game harassment.