Where’d the Social Go?

I’m not a social MMO player. I prefer to play solo, and perhaps get together with a few friends to take on particularly challenging adventures. That said, where the hell did the social go in MMOs? Why do I feel like I’m playing a solo game among anonymous (N)PCs, no longer the intentional outsider within a community?

The social must have gone somewhere. Let’s investigate…

Old massively multiplayer games required cooperation. Man did I hate that! Most characters had to play with other characters most of the time. In Ultima Online, if you weren’t working with others, you were a ghost spouting “OOoo ooOo OoOos” at your killer. In EverQuest, if you weren’t working with others, you were looking at “Loading, please wait…” after dying. You had to work with other people, or you were screwed. What a drag.

Oh, and the death penalties. Losing skills in UO, losing levels in EQ. If that jerkwad you were forced to group with got you killed, man were you angry. You’d remember who that dummy was and never group with them again, jotting his name down on your pad of paper under “Bad Player.” If that kind person you were forced to group with saved your ass, man were you happy. You’d remember who that saint was and always group with them again, jotting her name down on your pad of paper under “Good Player” (and “Female”).

In many old games, you either had a crude map or no map at all. You’d have a binder full of poorly-scrawled maps just so you could get around. You’d be forced to shout out-of-character, asking how to get to where you wanted to go. Someone would reply, “hug the left wall and hang right when you reach the second bridge.” What a nice person. But what a pain in the butt having to navigate that way! Where were all the cartographers in this fantasy land?

If you wanted to go on a quest, you didn’t just scour the nearest quest hub and click on every lifeless NPC with a punctuation mark over his head. No, you had to WORK for it. You had to explore and find the quests on your own or, dare I say, ask other players where to find a good quest to do, and often how to do it (there wasn’t even a quest journal!).

When you wanted to buy or sell an item, you’d spam your carefully-crafted message to the world every couple minutes, or watch the chat scroll by until someone was selling what you wanted at the price you wanted. Then you had to haggle with them. Man, they didn’t even have auction houses?! No one-stop shopping, no-haggle prices?

Man, those silly games made you rely on people for every little thing you did, didn’t they?

And there’s the answer. While making MMOs more accessible, we have intentionally reduced the need to rely on others. Now, all you need is a decent guild to experience all of the content, and you don’t have to talk to a soul outside of that guild.

You can find all your quests easily. In fact, you’re actively discouraged from exploring and discovering them on your own (think about it: when was the last time you explored a cool looking area only to be sent back there to do something you already did?). Now, you don’t have to haggle with other players to get a good price on an item. You can kill anything you could possibly need with no problems, because you’re powerful enough to do it on your own.

By removing the need to deal with other players, we’ve also done a lot of damage to the social communities that used to exist in MMOs of old. Can we get social communities back without making an inaccessible game? Yes, I believe we can. How? Well, I’m not revealing any of Copernicus’ secret sauce, thank you very much. ;-)

Clarification: No, I’m not advocating harsh death penalties, no maps, forced grouping, and the removal of auction houses. What I’m saying is that the it is possible to facilitate truly social communities in MMOs while still keeping them accessible by designing with opportunities for positive socialization in mind.

45 Responses to "Where’d the Social Go?"

  1. Some of us said this in advance of it happening. Oh well. :)

  2. Loved it. Im opposite I loved all that, man just reading that made me want to go hit up eq again. I am REALLY looking forward to copernicus (also I can’t wait for the real name, I cant type that any more my hands hurt haha)

  3. 38 Studios’ Ryan Shwayder Asks “Where Did the Social Go?”…

    In a post today Ryan Shwayder, a game designer for 38 studios‘ Copernicus project, posted in his blog asking where the social side of MMOGs have gone.

    Oh, and the death penalties. Losing skills in UO, losing levels in EQ. If that jerkwad you wer…

  4. JuJutsu

    If you can pull it off, great. I’m somewhat sceptical, but I’m not betting my livelihood on it, you are. Personally, guilds/corporations/etc are quite sufficient to meet my needs for in-game socialization. As long as there are games that don’t require me to rely on random others to have fun I’ll play those and skip ones that want to recreate some idealized notion of the ‘good old days’.

  5. I look forwards to seeing how you guys bring the social back. I’ve been talking about the lack of it quite a bit lately and I really do miss it. Everyone is so concerned about doing everything solo they see any encouragement to group as “forced.”

    I do miss having team players and chatting with others while we played. The reduction of downtime is great but that is one of the prime times to talk. If everything is action, action, action (like Michael Bay), who has time to chat or share a story (like Michael Bay. EXPLOSIONS!).

  6. Good luck with that. Even folks (like me) that used to love the randomness of what unknown others brought to the game isn’t comfortable adding some random, unknown person to the group who may ruin my fun for that session.

    Of course, that’s a big part of the problem – that mentality right there. So unless your secret sauce involves subliminal messages changing the mentality of the masses… I don’t see it happening. :sad:

  7. Raph pretty much summed it up for me. “Some of us said this in advance of it happening.”

    It’s been a steady decline since the initial introduction of insta-travel. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’d pay a premium in subscription to the the developer who can recapture this. Not everyone needs to gun for WoW.

  8. JuJutsu

    ‘It’s been a steady decline since the initial introduction of insta-travel.’ Yup People with limited playtime just LOVE to spend half of it getting from point A to point B. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

  9. Draegan

    Did I wander on to Brad McQuaid’s blog full of retarded ideas and nostalgic rosy glasses?

    I’m assuming you’re just trolling me.

  10. [...] it even possible?  According to Ryan Shwayder (Nerfbat author, 38 Studios employee, game designer, cool guy) it is, but only if it can be done [...]

  11. wallishall

    I have to admit that a game like this would pull me into it.

    Heck, for a while, Vanguard was this way, then they made it easier to solo to the top, and people stopped grouping. Even at the top they don’t want to group.

    Please make a great game like the old UO, EQ and Vanguard vision (yeah, I said Vanguard!!!)

    I’ll not only buy it, I’ll convince all of my friends to as well.

    Note though, make sure to create a way that the low level game can continue with less people. Some way for the NPCs of the world to fill in as people progress, not just leave an ugly void. Specifically on items for sale. Keep the information and as less things go up for sale, have NPCs sell stuff, but don’t let people know they are buying from NPCs… Thinking of auction houses here.

    Just remember the people that come later have to have fun too, not only the starting people, or the game will never continue beyond it’s initial hit phase.

  12. Is it doable? Yes, but it’s not going to be the way it used to be. People have moved past needing to sketch our own maps and memorize the run to the wizard teleporter in NK from Qeynos. People don’t have to sit down for five-ten minutes to recoup mana/skills/etc. You need a real, valid reason for strangers to work together. World events is certainly one way to do it, especially if the efforts of the players can cause a permanent change to the game world.

    I d’no… It’s something that would require a lot of thought.

  13. Draegan

    wallishall ‘s vision of a perfect game is his own opinion, but your idea of a game to me is retarded.

  14. [...] Shwayder talks about how it *is* possible for modern MMOs to bring social interaction back without losing accessibility [...]

  15. Back in the good old days, the audience was much, much smaller. Why? Because the number of people who have the kind of time required to play like that was pretty small. I was there, and I loved it at the time. But playing UO almost cost me my job and my relationship because it was so much of a ‘virtual world’ that I just got lost in it.

    MMOs today are games, not virtual worlds, and so there are a lot more people who can find the time to play them.

    Secondary issue: There weren’t a lot of options back then. If we had the choice of playing a ‘modern’ MMO back then, would we have? I think many of us would have. Which makes me wonder how economically viable such a game would be today.

    Isn’t Darkfall pretty close to the ‘old-school’ model?

    PS Looks like your commentTwitter plug in is killing your site when Twitter is struggling.

  16. zentr

    I know that I didn’t always care for grouping, and I know I had more time back then, but you did make me nostalgic for EQ.

    I am still hoping for that ultimate sandbox game in a fantasy setting where there are little to no NPCs and the players provide the quests, open their own shops, deliver mail, etc. It should be a game where the only mechanics are those that put the creative power/tools in the hands of the players. I can envision it and I think it can be done, but the popularity of such a game these days is uncertain.

  17. I used to spend innumerable days hanging out in the EC tunnel spamming my wares. In fact, I often contend that my multitude of low level toons was a direct result of my need to simply trade with anyone I could find. Let’s not even talk about logging on during off peak hours and jacking up prices. :D

  18. Cynic that I am, I have to admit that reading a “we can fix all of this but I’m not telling you how” post puts me in a “put up or shut up” state of mind. Not that it is your fault Ryan, but as an industry a lot of people have written checks with their mouths that their games couldn’t cash. If you guys can do it, that will be great, but it is a hell of an expectation to set.

  19. Grimjakk

    I sure hope 38 can pull it off. I want to play in a virtual world that doesn’t feel like I’m riding through a theme park on rails, killing 10 rats at a time as I go. But as an time-limited adult, “accessible” is still important. It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive… even in a DIKU-style game.

    Of course I have no idea how to do it. That’s why Shwayder is making the big money, right? ;)

  20. Clarification: No, I’m not advocating harsh death penalties, no maps, forced grouping, and the removal of auction houses. What I’m saying is that the it is possible to facilitate truly social communities in MMOs while still keeping them accessible by designing with opportunities for positive socialization in mind.

  21. Socialization has been pretty much marginalized because developers like Blizzard decided that their need to tell stories was more important then your need to socialize. Socialization via grouping and raiding be damned because of the egos and arrogance of a few developers who fancy themselves as the next Disney, Spielberg and Coppola.

    We are building virtual amusement parks where no effort is required of players other then the willingness to jump into the car and enjoy the ride on rails. We are no longer participants, we are spectators to the grand spectacle. We’ve been seduced by the brilliant artwork and polish. We are told when we should feel “scared” and when we should feel “elated”. Every twist and turn in the amusement park ride is carefully crafted.

    We are cardboard instant heroes living in safe, cuddly, predictable virtual worlds where the slightest inconvenience has been removed. It’s always a sunny day in today’s virtual worlds.

    Welcome to MMOs in the year 2009!

  22. rulez

    I don’t want to play with others because I rely on them getting something done. I want to play with others cause it’s fun to play with others! Social should not be the workaround for bad game design.

  23. Drawme

    See, I tend not to play with others because I just don’t enjoy it that much, outside of exceptional circumstances (high end play which I have consciously chosen to enter).

    I’ve heard people go off on “I want multiplayer in my massively multiplayer online game!” tangents, and it always seemed to miss the point to me. Yes, some people want that. Are they a majority? That’s an unanswerable question at this point in time. It’s certainly close…

    Take WoW. It’s probably the biggest example of the single player MMO, outside of the endgame. You have a huge percentage of players actually preferring not to play with others; some of those players it’s because they feel that they are punished for grouping, some not, whatever. Let’s just be concerned with the ones who prefer not having to play with others because they genuinely don’t like grouping and will resent games that force them to do it. For a player like that, imagine that we cut WoW down to a single player experience. They’re playing offline. Is it the same game?

    The answer is of course not. Being surrounded by players and having some indirect interactions through things like an auction house make WoW a vastly different experience from an offline version of the same game.

    Clearly some games should be aimed at people who want the multiplayer in their MMORPG. There is a significant market segment that wants the game to throw content at them which requires them to go get friends. They’re not right, and the other side isn’t wrong. They’re just preferences. What’s right for an individual game amounts to the question of what demographic the developer wants to target (of course you want soloing to be *possible* and grouping to be *possible*, but you really can only target one, imo).

  24. [...] former EverQuest II guy, Ryan Shwayder, wants to know where all the “social” went in our MMOs.  He has a laundry list of things that have made us solo-nauts in these games and then [...]

  25. Can we get social communities back without making an inaccessible game?

    The quick answer is no. Unless of course you’re talking about superficial social communities that don’t have the strength that the old ones did. You know, the ones that follow the cause or game de jour.

    Thoughout life, people bond together in order to face adversity or in order to overcome a barrier. Remove that adversity and the only thing left is superficial causes that change faster than the national medias attention.

  26. “‘It’s been a steady decline since the initial introduction of insta-travel.’ Yup People with limited playtime just LOVE to spend half of it getting from point A to point B. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”

    The problem here is the assumption that in order to have fun, meaningful, or progressive gameplay, you have to leave point A to get to point B. This is a result of the WoW-ification of gameplay today. Obviously, the only way to play a game today is with instanced battlegrounds, instanced scalable dungeons with difficulty settings, and tons and tons of microquests – all of which should be instantly accessible from virtually anywhere in the game through a multitude of fast travel options.

    Nothing says “our world is HUGE” like “can get anywhere within 2 minutes…tops!”

    Look, I get it. No one likes to waste time. I don’t. I put in 60+ hour weeks at workd. When I get to game, I want to make the most of it. I don’t necessarily want to spend a ton of time trying to get from point A to point B. I’d rather there be more for me to do at point A to begin with. I’d love to know that my guild was with me at point A. I’d love to have more motivation to stay near point A – because it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s rewarding- you name it!

    Too many people think that because we have Facebook and Peggle and iPhone and onDemand that our MMOs should likewise be filled with quick time events, minigames, and chunks of gameplay that can only be consumed in 5 minute nuggets of time between feeding the kids and laundry loads downstairs.

    Take a breath and smell the roses.

    Want to truly shift paradigms? Stop sending players to the mountain. Bring the mountain to the players. Instead of creating the same old DIKU inspired social “hubs” for players to go find their content (this never works as intended, mind you), start centering more content around players.

  27. “What I’m saying is that the it is possible to facilitate truly social communities in MMOs while still keeping them accessible by designing with opportunities for positive socialization in mind.”

    Exactly!

    I hate it when people want to reinvoke the old days but making games super harsh or time consuming. I think socialising and grouping can easily be encouraged by provided proper mechanics and rewards, not by creating penalities which just alienate the player base.

  28. Just to clarify my previous statement, I don’t think my playstyle should be forced on the masses. I’m just saying that a company with an appropriate business model that is not chasing the WoW golden ring (we need more of these by the way) has a reasonable demographic base to which to cater.

    It doesn’t need to be a huge world requiring millions of dollars in assets- just a solid gaming engine with true risk and reward content. I’m paying a premium to play a MUD now because the current crop isn’t social enough and is lackluster in “fun.”

  29. Drawme

    I sort of agree with Garthilk. I do think there’s stuff that can be done to make games more social, but the old community stuff is probably gone forever in mass market games (which is part of the reason why these games are truly becoming mass market now).

    There are strong communities within WoW. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. There are guilds that form which last years, which provide a strong community experience for the people playing within them. They are *not* the norm, but they are there.

    The problem is they are swamped by the amount of “noise” – players who have no interest in a community-oriented experience whatsoever. There are a lot of players in WoW who simply don’t want to group. It’s not even a question of being rewarded for grouping – grouping and hitting instances is far and away the fastest way to level until the late 60s, yet most people just won’t do it. It’s reliance on others which is the problem for these players. They don’t want to depend on someone else to pull their wait.

    You can choose to cut that demographic out of your game by heavily encouraging group content, but that’s not going to sound like an appealing option to devs of a premium game for the obvious reasons. You can accept them in, but the extent to which you’re providing a harbor for players who don’t really want to interact with others beyond occasionally running into them in the field and maybe trading with them is the extent to which you’re accepting in players who are going to weaken your community-building efforts.

    The right answer is obvious, in my opinion. Figure out if you’re a niche game or a mass market game. If you’re a niche game, questions answered (even if the niche is several hundred thousand players). If you’re going for the mass market, you support community as much as you can, you get players playing nice as much as you can, and you accept that you’re not going to have the community that the MMOs of yore had.

  30. Drawme

    “They don’t want to depend on someone else to pull their wait. ”

    This is why blogging and internet messaging is terrible for grammar and spelling. Let me rephrase that sentence to “They don’t want to rely on someone else to be able to pull their own weight.”

  31. I think it is even worse than those various social aspects being minimalized. Players are viewed as downright morons in a lot of cases for asking simple questions in games nowadays.

    The other problem facing today’s games are “tell all” fan sites and database sites. Why interact with players in games when you can open a database and have all your questions answered fairly easily?

  32. WallisHall

    “Draegan
    July 10th, 2009 at 12:53

    wallishall ’s vision of a perfect game is his own opinion, but your idea of a game to me is retarded.”

    Huh? He only said that he has ideas to pull back in some of the fun stuff… You’re just being a troll making no sense…

    /em shakes head sadly ad Draegan…

    “makkaio
    July 13th, 2009 at 09:03

    I think it is even worse than those various social aspects being minimalized. Players are viewed as downright morons in a lot of cases for asking simple questions in games nowadays.

    The other problem facing today’s games are “tell all” fan sites and database sites. Why interact with players in games when you can open a database and have all your questions answered fairly easily?”

    Hence I keep hoping that someone will come up with a game that creates different quests on the fly with a shifting world. That really is the direction that games must go in. Where one day is a quest hub, if nobody goes there maybe it gets deserted and the NPCs leave and in a month it’s a wilderness, or a band of Orcs move in and it’s somewhere to fight…

    Just my thoughts all.

  33. Drawme

    “I think it is even worse than those various social aspects being minimalized. Players are viewed as downright morons in a lot of cases for asking simple questions in games nowadays.”

    No offense, but if you’re suggesting that a–hattery is an even remotely new phenomenon in MMOs, I’d suggest you’re viewing the old games through the lens of nostalgia. EQ1, AC, DAoC, UO etc. were LOADED with jerks just waiting to pounce on you and ream you out for nothing at all.

  34. sam

    I find it interesting that most gamers and developers seem to think that building a community ingame would be any different than building it out of game.

    We have communities because of self interest. We work together because it makes our lives better. Thats the only way it will ever work in a game community as well. If soloing is just as productive as grouping them grouping fails because soloing is just as productive and easier. No disagreements no sharing just all mine.

    I think if the developers would look to the world around them and pay attention to the complex layers of reward for certain behaviors and punishments for certain behaviors they might start to get it. If they want a “community” they have to build an environment in which people are rewarded for social behaviors and punished for antisocial behaviors. I know the idea of any kind of punishment sends most of my fellow gamers into orbit but I honestly believe an all rewards system will never work well. There are just some people whose fun is ruining other peoples fun and they need to be run off.

    The simple fact is a good community is fun. Building that said community is hard work and not fun for most. You can’t rely on the players to do it for you.

  35. JuJutsu

    “We have communities because of self interest. We work together because it makes our lives better.” The fiction of ‘Homo Economicus’ is just that, a fiction. Homo Sapiens is a pack animal by genetic heritage.

    “There are just some people whose fun is ruining other peoples fun and they need to be run off.” If only it were possible. The only thing that seems to work is to systematically remove their ability to ruin other peoples fun through the design of the game. Punishment? Like what? Fines or jail time? Riiight. Capital punishment? Works a bit in EVE but suicide ganking still occurs.

    “Building that said community is hard work and not fun for most. You can’t rely on the players to do it for you.”

    ONLY the players can do it. All the designers can do is to make it easier and not fuck it up.

  36. sam

    The fiction of ‘Homo Economicus’ is just that, a fiction. Homo Sapiens is a pack animal by genetic heritage.

    Simply silly. Yes by genetic we are group animals . But well run groups are enjoyable and profitable to the individuals involved. Poorly run groups aren’t. And long term it applies to any group of humans you talk about. US, Europe, Japan well designed and carefully thought out systems that were applied, and constantly undergoe tweaking. Thus those societies for the most part work well.

    Other models, Russia, Afghanistan, most of Africa, South America where there are for the most part no real attempts to put into place systems that benefit everyone are complete and utter messes.

    Communities are communities real or online. The rules, design, behavior that is enforced in positive and negative ways all contribute to that. I’ll admit its as much art as science but I honestly believe the thought that the designers can only make it easier and not fuck it up is a complete cop out. Of course in the real world if you fuck it up you have anarchy in the streets . In a game community you just get another job. so a cop out onlne is far easier to cope with.

    Its just like real life. The government can’t do everything, the people can’t do everything you have to find that magical synergy where the government can get the people behind its policies and make them work. Just change government with developer and my opinion for the nickel it’s worth is that its just as applicable.

  37. JuJutsu

    “But well run groups are enjoyable and profitable to the individuals involved. Poorly run groups aren’t.” That may be but it’s irrelevant. People, on the whole, are social entities. They don’t need to be incentivized to be social, they don’t need to have game designers as ‘social engineers’ to make them social.

    Of course my guess is that there as many definitions of ‘social’, ‘socializing’, and ‘community’ in this thread as there are posters.
    Probably just as many theories about why the ‘good old days’ are gone and how to bring them back…except for me. I didn’t think the good old days were that great then and the passage of time hasn’t made me nostalgic. I’ll be happy if Copernicus is an accessible game and they don’t build in barriers to being social.

  38. Errant

    Personally I think the present form of level-based advancement is a key factor that can stratify any mmo. Even if present day mmo’s had not been adjusted to make it more accessible to the casual gamer, with the leveling system the average mmo player has the incentive to ignore and abandon past content once they cleared it by level. With no true incentive, there is no reason to go back to out leveled content, even less reason to play with an newer player. I think FFXI tried to address early on by the introduction of quests and dungeons that would roll back a character’s level to a specific level cap, in order to generate a level of challenge and reliance on other people. The drawback then was that a geared out character would be forced to un-equip his gear, leaving him to challenge a difficult dungeon in his skivvies with only one skill ability.

    If mmo developers still seek to develop a level based game in this day and age there are certain things that should be included. First would be a mentor system, or something similar to CoH’s sidekick system. Conceptually they are good ideas, which allow for players divided by the level gap to play with each other, but they have both lacked the incentive to lead to grouping up. The next thing required would be a form of intelligent system that can adjust dungeons to match the difficulty to the group’s makeup. This could be in the form of having inaccessible portions the dungeons open up at some point, or matching rewards to the player level.

    Another possible tactic might be to eliminate quest hubs and instead have the character pick up the quests by proximity to an area, event or landmark. Then, combine that by creating high risk areas that are know to have significant rewards, but require a group to survive. Other incentives to go into such, or to revisit them, areas might include unlocking other areas, or the completion of end level quests. I think that Warhammer’s public quest system was a step in the right direction, but failed in its execution.

  39. WoW has no barriers on being social (aside from Horde not being able to talk to Alliance), and yet the game is so accessible that there is no benefit to being social until after you’ve gotten to the top level and decide you want to raid. Some people like that, but in my experience it builds weaker communities. People really do need a reason to need each other in order to maintain social ties.

  40. JuJutsu

    “People really do need a reason to need each other in order to maintain social ties.”

    Yup, that’s why all those social networking things are doing so poorly. :rolleyes:

    I suspect it’s another case of people-not-doing-what-I-want = weak-community.

  41. The big issue with pre-endgame WoW is not that they don’t require grouping (or player interaction in general), it’s that they don’t reward it. You’re actually at a tangible disadvantage doing quests in normal zones with other players in terms of advancement and quest completion speed, which is terrible. If only they made it slightly beneficial to cooperate with others, or at least not disadvantageous, it would encourage a better community among strangers.

  42. JuJutsu

    So social equates to small groups engaged in a cooperative task.

  43. No, but it’s certainly one of the most important aspects of it. Without that, communities don’t form as well as they should within a game. They become groups of RL friends or guildmates, and people don’t have social bonds with nearly as many others.

  44. Can we hear about that secret sauce now that the check has bounced?

  45. I don’t believe so; as far as I know, I’m still under NDA even though the company went bankrupt.

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