Fixing MMOs: The Social Solutions

Last time, I talked about the problem surrounding traditional MMO social structures, or the lack thereof. Today, let’s come up with some solutions.

Increase Mobility

One of the most radical ideas (or so I thought) turned out to be top suggestion from multiple people in the comments of the prior post: reduce or eliminate the tyranny of the server. I believed this to be radical because on the surface of things, de-emphazing servers necessarily destroys server communities; something that LFD is almost universally recognized as accomplishing, right? Yes… and no. The problem is Blizzard only went halfway. If a friend plays on Maeiv and I am on Auchindoun, why can’t we play together? RealID is making baby-steps in this direction, but the hemorrhaging community does not have time for that baby to grow up into a paramedic and stop the bleeding.

Here are some methods that could work:

  • Free, unlimited character transfers, aka the nuclear option.

Not particularly practical (Blizzard would lose a lot of money besides), but it is technically an option. It may encourage mass migration, give shelter to ninja-looters and the like, and other such social upheavals. Ultimately though, it may be better than to simply allow people to fade into account cancellation when they feel trapped in a server “community” they no longer enjoy (and don’t feel like gambling $25 escaping).

  • Free, limited character transfers.

Say, 1 character move a month with the option of purchasing more if desired. This would prevent mass exoduses, while still allowing friends to follow each other around in a measured way. It would also allow someone to “test the waters” of a server in a more meaningful way than making a level 1 toon and observing Trade chat.

  • Eliminate named, permanent servers entirely.

Essentially, set up the servers like an ice-cube tray and as each server fills up, it spills over into the next server, and divide it all into game regions. One huge benefit of this would be to allow there to always be a steady population of people leveling in every zone for group questing, etc.

Example: if I went to Borean Tundra right now, there may be 1 person questing there on Auchindoun, and maybe 5 on Maeiv, and 50 on Tichondrius. Under this methodology, there would be 56, up until an arbitrary cut-off. And if the cut-off is 100, I would have it start transferring people to a second zone instance at around ~70 so the 101st guy isn’t off by himself. The key would be to make it subtle, with no load-screen or anything. With phasing technology it should not be a problem.

Of course, if you find you enjoy spending time with someone, how will you ever find them again if there are no specific servers? This brings me to my next overarching social solution:

Introduce an informal ranking system in LFD (and elsewhere).

This suggestion needs its own entire section. Ranking people in the LFD system is frequently suggested on the forums, but the point of my ranking system is different, and it isn’t even technically a “ranking.” On the forums, people believe that being helpful/geared/experienced should be rewarded with faster queues and being grouped with similarly good people. That is actually self-defeating. It is in the community’s best holistic interest for there to be 1 experienced/helpful player in every group – letting all the cream rise to the top simply makes the bottom groups congeal into a hardened lump of terribleness. I believe players need to know what they can aspire towards before they understand what social behavior the designers want to encourage.

So, essentially, my informal ranking system would be the equivalent to a Facebook Like or Google +1. This feature is something that a player will have to initiate themselves (there is no post-dungeon survey), possibly through right-clicking a player’s portrait. What the +1 does is make it more likely that they are grouped with that person in LFD, and/or otherwise present on that player’s server (under a fluid server dynamic) in the future.

That’s it. There are no rewards for having the most Likes, nor any visible indication of how many you have. Giving this +1 to someone does not notify them, nor does it add them to a Friends List (although it will let you easily do so on your own). I briefly imagined something like a title or special effect to occur if you get 100+ Likes or whatever, but it is important that there be no incentive to game the system. It’s not a democracy, it’s not a popularity contest; it is a more generalized form of self-selection.

More Show & Tell

Under the traditional MMO social model, you are frequently limited to appearance, actions, and incidental text to communicate your personality. “Err… but Az,” I hear you say, “isn’t that basically everything?” No, sir or madam! In an MMO, your appearance is limited to the gear you happen to be wearing (or a costume, if you are lucky); your actions are entirely limited to the location and time in which they are performed (typically dungeons or raids); and incidental text just happens to be whatever you have said in a particular channel, on a particular topic, at a particular time.

While you can certainly develop impressions of a stranger, especially if you encounter them in an unique or extreme circumstance, kinship generally requires time precisely because it’s difficult to give an accurate representation of one’s character in a single sitting. Traditionally, the “solution” was enforced grouping and the pre-LFD dungeon situation in which placing voluntary strangers in close proximity for long durations was supposed to spontaneously generate communities. This “worked,” just like placing soiled rags in the the 17th century lab’s corner “worked” at spontaneously generated rats.

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. Some MMO methods include:

  • Player Housing

Blizzard has strongly resisted the demand for player housing because they are afraid of players sequestering themselves away in instanced communities. Which, of course, makes sense in the 17th century spontaneous generation sort of way. How can players envy each other if they aren’t AFK outside banks and auction houses on the Flavor of the Patch mount?

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Player housing is something that can easily be half-assed and end up making the game worse, yes. It will take development time and resources to make work right. If I cannot put that Light of Elune potion I’ve held onto since level ~20, four years ago, under a glass with a little plaque explanation, then I would consider player housing a failure, for example. But if you ever walked into a house with something like prominently displayed, you would see a facet of my personality that you likely never would have unless the topic somehow came up.

  • Character/Guild Bios

To an extent, Blizzard already has this in the crippled form of the Guild Finder. Which, incidentally, you cannot even use unless you happen to be guildless.

The idea behind the Bio screen is to have a sort of poor-man’s player housing without the instancing. A simple whiteboard allowing curious passerby the ability to see what you are all about. Beyond the obvious player ramifications on RP servers, I also imagine it as a way to perhaps allow you to highlight which of your in-game achievements are your favorite, or other demonstrations of skill, perseverance, or luck. Or, hell, as a way of passively advertising your WoW blog. Unsavory characters may use it to transmit keyloggers and such, but it really is not so different than what happens in text form already. And besides, Bios would require you to be actively inspecting/looking someone up, rather than getting it forced upon you Trade Chat style.

Conclusion

This is running pretty long already, and about to be buried in BlizzCon news besides. The sort of bottom line here is that most MMOs are woefully stuck in the Dark Ages, and need to catch up to the emerging trends and zeitgeist of the day – specifically in the realm of social tools. For as much as I despise Facebook and “social media” in general (for their nefarious ways), it is worlds easier being able to locate and interact with new people from multiple locations with similar interests as yourself, while flexing your Show & Tell muscles all the while.

The sort of subscriber revolt going on in Cataclysm had many causes, but I strongly believe the #1 reason had nothing particular to do with LFD or difficulty or boring grinds per se, but with the sort of cascade effect that happens when the underlying social structure has been weakened by those (and other) things. In other words, I think LFD and hard heroics and boring grinds can be fine as long as you have the social tools to keep people together in the midst of it. A return to the vanilla/TBC model without a LFD would have been equally disastrous IMO, unless social tools were added too.

If you have critiques or alternative ideas, let me know in the comments below.

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Posted on October 21, 2011, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Something I forgot in my last answer: when you meet someone who plays an MMO, there’s a high probability he plays WoW…. and certainty that he’s on another server :)

    Player housing: the best idea I’ve seen comes from Wakfu (open beta, if you want to test). In your inventory you have a “Haven bag”, which when clicked is placed on the floor and becomes your housing. The inside is much bigger than the outside and it can be customized with areas with different functions. Ah, you can let other people in, of course, and there are “decoration” areas. Compare to my LotRO house, which is lost in the middle of nowhere in a deserted instanced district and you see which the Wakfu approach is a winner :)

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  2. Which, incidentally, you cannot even use unless you happen to be guildless.

    Just a side note, this has never been true. If you’re already in a guild it just doesn’t show up as a button, but you’ve always been able to access it by typing /gf.

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