As more and more gamers are trying out the MMORPG genre and our number of possible games continues to expand day by day, most of us are dawning upon a strange realization– MMORPGs are becoming less social, overall. It’s an odd realization to come to, especially in games that revolve around instanced group content such as World of Warcraft, RIFT, Final Fantasy XIV, and other similar games. Sure, if you’re in an awesome guild/FC and come into a game knowing a whole lot of people, you’re essentially set as far as socialization is concerned, but what if you’re not? What if you’re stuck trying to make new friends and stuck using LFR/LFD/Duty Finder?
The automated grouping experience is, well, hit or miss. You’ll sometimes find yourself in a good group of friendly folk, but more times than not, you’re forced to contend with people who may not speak at all, don’t follow instructions, and who may even be pretty hostile. If you’re lucky, the run will complete without a hitch, no one will be put on ignore, and everyone can go about their separate ways merrily. But here’s the kicker– was that smooth, quiet dungeon run social at all if no one utters a word?
Years ago, back when MMORPG gamers were busy camping spawns in EverQuest, spending hours getting lost in Blackrock Depths in World of Warcraft (okay, maybe that was just me getting lost), or readying their allies for the next WoE fight in Ragnarok Online, the games we enjoyed seemed… more social somehow. We laughed and joked during dungeon runs and while waiting for mobs to respawn. We chatted while our healer regained mana or while that dangerous patrol waddled past.
If we wanted a solid chance of succeeding during a dungeon run, we’d need to call on guildies. If we wanted the best changes of scoring the rare kill or that MVP kill, we’d have to wait for some friends to pop online. And if we didn’t have those friends to call on, well, let’s just say that it was time to do a little talkin’ and get to know a friendly face. Friends helped friends succeed in early MMORPGs.
Now? Not so much. Success is more of a personal journey in MMORPGs these days, it seems. Yes, friends can be extremely helpful and socialization is usually required at the top end of raiding in order to collect best-in-slot shinies, but during the leveling/gearing process, socializing seems optional. It’s almost entirely similar to the scope of large cities around the world and the people who live among the thrum of city life. When we walk down a busy street, we won’t stop and chat to random strangers like our ancestors did many moons ago. We’re polite when we absolutely need to be, but for the most part, most of us don’t talk to random people while waiting in line at the grocery store or at the bank. We’re there for what we came there for, and that’s really about it.
Are MMORPGs shifting into a supermarket line? Is it the games themselves that are generating players toward this somewhat anti-social behavior, or is it a natural shift that’s happening simply because we’re evolving as gamers and have less time on our hands than we used to? These are excellent questions with difficult-to-obtain answers, but let’s take a crack at seeing if we can unravel any.
The WoW Problem = The World Problem
A large portion of the MMORPG community likes to point fingers at World of Warcraft when it comes to finding a cause for the fact that our favorite games are becoming less social overall. Blizzard added the LFG tool, and we all know what happened then. Every other game had to follow suit. Dungeon runs eventually became easier and quicker as Blizzard realized that placing people together randomly can often result in not-quite-optimal group and skill level makeups. Players had different ideas of how much time should be spent in a dungeon. Runs became even quicker as shortcuts were introduced. Tanking became ridiculously easy, and healers never, ever ran out of mana with a decent group.
Dungeon runs became even quicker, and soon, folks even stopped talking due to the need to finish ASAP and not cause any unneeded drama. We’re to the point where it’s often advised to disable chat if one wishes to avoid drama in LFR. That’s turning a once-social experience into something non-social completely.
Was all of that Blizzard’s fault though, really? The term “Mcdungeon” is often tossed around due to the quick and simple nature of dungeon/Heroic runs in WoW currently. Is there anything wrong with wanting something quick, cheap, and still filling as opposed to wanting something that takes more time to grab yet might be a little more satisfying and inherently more social? Not at all. There’s a time and place for quick and cheap, especially in today’s world where everything moves so quickly. We simply don’t always have the time to sit down for long dinners, conversations, or 3-hour dungeon runs.
Had a long day at work? Pop on and kill shit in a 30-minute dungeon. It can be extremely relaxing to blow through a dungeon without the stress of needing to worry about ideal group makeups, gear levels, explaining fights over and over again, or who has to go AFK and when. We live in a stressful world. Part of the reason folks don’t socialize as much as they used to in MMOs is simply due to the fact that we don’t have as much time as all did when we were younger. We’re also better gamers now.
Times change. As does the world we live in. My father used to talk about the good ol’ days when he was a kid every chance he got. It’s not quite unlike those of us who are older gamers and remember the good ol’ days of socializing in MMORPGs while climbing uphill in the snow and waiting for mobs to respawn.
A Brave New World Should Offer Options
Because MMOs have become inherently more accessible and offer ways for gamers with varying expectations to dive in and feel accomplished, the number of online gamers has risen exponentially. More players equals more developers who are willing to make new games– which is awesome– but on the flip side, more players means even more varying expectations, which means developers have to appease to a larger audience. It’s much like the large city analogy. The larger the city, the more restaurants that city needs to have. As the city grows, the type of restaurants available and the prices at each will begin to broaden considerably. Look down any busy street and there will be 17 fast food joints. On the street two blocks over, there’s a row of pricey restaurants and bars. Choice in a bustling city is vital.
And that’s where the analogy starts to weaken. The problem seems to be when game developers– and gamers– think quick and cheap is all there is to an MMORPG. It all comes down to balance. We can eat fast food day in and day out, but most of us won’t be very satisfied (or healthy). We need options. We sometimes need that noisy bar or restaurant where we can chat with our friends for hours. When MMORPGs go the route of quick, efficient, and automated, sure, we get things done quick, but we don’t always feel satisfied. We need more than that. It all comes down to options.
In an ideal MMORPG, the game world would be large enough to offer plenty of exploration and solo activities, plenty of social tools, plenty of instanced and non-instanced group combat, and plenty of options for how to level, how to proceed in endgame progression, and how to group with others. Automated LFG tools are a must, but so are tools players can utilize to dial back the social settings a bit and change everything up. This setup could include multiple reward paths and progression paths, kind of similar to WoW‘s attempt with challenge modes, but with unique content, rewards that are worth pursuing, and rules that don’t hinge on timers.
It’d be ideal to offer players quick and simple instanced content, but also offer content that’s challenging, encourages communication, and has extremely random components that shy away from the words “on farm status” completely. Optional paths, twisting tunnels, dangerous patrols, and long dungeons– maybe a level scaling system that takes the edge off gear requirements. This is where developers could take some real risks. Sure, not all players will be able to take part successfully, but if they want to, the option’s there. That’s what choice is all about.
Daring to Offer Choices Yet Also Specialize
With this increased amount of choices and content, game developers will need to make some careful choices of their own. The latest trend in MMORPG development seems to be “develop all the things!” in order to grab the attention of as many players as possible, but there’s a simple fact that comes with the ever-expanding MMO population– a new game doesn’t have to grab the attention of everyone in order to succeed. Games don’t have to aim to be the next World of Warcraft to earn a profit. There’s nothing wrong in creating a game that’s aimed specifically toward a certain group of players and is 100% focused on producing quality content for that group of players. There’s a large portion of gamers who are hungry for quality MMORPGs and dive into new games only to leave empty-handed.
As an example, if a developer dared to create an MMORPG that avoided standard leveling and questing altogether and instead focused on group-based dungeons, solo “practice” combat, multiple means of gear progression, and a wide variety of dungeons that covers all the points mentioned above and gave players options for difficulty and the ability to join groups, that game might be a pretty big hit. Sure, solo levelers and quest junkies might look elsewhere, but choosing to focus on one particular element of a game (dungeons in this case), enables developers to create a better quality game with more options that encourages players to seek out a more social experience.
We’re at the point and time in gaming where we need more specialization and less Walmart-type gaming experiences. We need games that offer more ways for us to socialize if we so choose, and to do that, the game first needs to be deep enough in order to for us to want to broaden our socialization skills. WildStar is trying to go a more specialized route with raiding, which is one reason why a lot of raiders are paying very close to its development. The MOBA genre is another perfect example of a niche type of game that’s drawing a huge crowd. Niche isn’t necessarily bad. Niche yet awesome is a fantastic mix that’s often overlooked.
It’s a simple fact– if players really love what they’re playing, they’ll want to socialize. If they see a goal as somewhat challenging yet obtainable and also fun, they’ll go the extra mile to join a guild, make new friends, and communicate during a dungeon. The lack of socialization really boils down to four elements– a simple increase of players as well as overall player skill, a lack of innovation, and a lack of quality options for players to become engaged in. If game developers really want to take a serious look at solving the socialization issue, the last two elements are completely within their power.