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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.