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(Virtual) Friends

Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).

The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.

But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.

All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.

So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.

In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.

Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.

As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.

All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.

The Cart and the Horse

Why would someone start playing a game that was only fun with the friends you made after playing the game?

One of the criticisms of my Darkfall series of posts was that I never even tried to join a clan. This is true, and I said up-front that I was not going to try; it is why I labeled the series “Unfair Impressions” in the first place. Part of the reason I made such a decision was that I am not particularly feeling sociable at the moment. Another part is that, ironically, it didn’t seem fair to whomever’s social fabric I would be using like a dish rag; I don’t fully subscribe to Gevlon’s worldview, but getting a social benefit without returning the favor does feel like leeching to me.

The biggest reason though, is that I fundamentally believe that games (even MMOs) should be fun in of themselves first.

Think about your first MMO experience. Did you start playing alone? I walked into Azeroth with nothing, and left six years later with a half-dozen friends from across the country who still ask me to join them at the next New England meet-up. That is the sort of MMO and “virtual world” dream scenario, right? But just like any relationship, it did not develop overnight. It took time. Time spent playing the game without said friends. And at any time, that window of opportunity to convert me to long-term guild player could have closed if I didn’t feel engaged or entertained enough compared to my gaming alternatives.

I am not against a game requiring investment to play, or even a game in which the most enriching experiences are to be found in grouping. I am against a game requiring a priori buy-in to justify itself. It is not reasonable, to me, to suggest clan play makes the sort of new player experience I wrote about irrelevant. Maybe Darkfall doesn’t care about catering to new players or “hand-holding,” and that’s fine. But I feel that it is a tiny bit ridiculous to then claim the game is good (or another game is bad) when you have already committed to that position before even downloading the client.

Any game is better with friends. Requiring friends in order to have fun playing a game at all is not a strength, it’s a weakness. A deficiency. There will be thousands of players playing your game for the first time, alone. Does the game then facilitate friendships? Good. Does the game present a whole bunch of impenetrable nonsense? Bad. All your 30-minute boat rides and clever grouping schemes won’t work if the players never even make it out of what passes for a tutorial.

The longer I play something like Planetside 2, the greater the opportunity for me to get hooked into somebody’s social fabric, even if I’m kicking and screaming against it the whole way. In fact, joining an Outfit would be a sort of natural evolution to someone’s daily gameplay. But that evolution is only possible because the underlying game is fun to play, e.g. I’m playing it a lot right now, solo. With Darkfall, the consensus seems to be that the opposite is true: you have fun playing a lot only after being integrated into a social fabric woven before you actually start playing.

To me, that just sounds like putting the cart before the horse.

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.