During the past year, I've spent significant time with two MMORPGs: City of Heroes and World of Warcraft. By "significant time" I mean something far less than the typical author here would mean: my top avatars in each are under level 20 (aka ub3r I am not). But since these two particular games were designated by Computer Gaming World this month as top games of the year (WoW winning best game and CoH, oddly, winning best MMORPG), I though I'd offer a casual gamer's comparison and some thoughts. My main reaction is that unless you're a power gamer, World of Warcraft is a comparatively solitary place--especially for an undead warlock.
My /played value for both games amounts to a handful of evenings every month -- far far less than the oft-quoted 20 hour per week average for MMORPG players. So joining a serious guild or some other virtual clique in either game is out of the question. But with City of Heroes, this is no impediment to social interaction -- casual grouping is the norm and nobody turns down an extra tanker for a quick mission. And when you group in City of Heroes, the social aspects seem deeper than most MMOGs, in part because the customization features mean that just looking at costumes tells you something about your fellow players. Also, in CoH, the virtual spaces seemed designed to encourage a sense of social activity -- going back to level up with Ms. Liberty in Atlas Park feels like going back to the living room in LambdaMOO. There are always a bunch of people there hanging out in public -- it's a real community space.
World of Warcraft is different. I'm playing a Forsaken warlock and I have yet to be invited to join a casual group. I also have no choice but to look very similar to every other undead player. And I have yet to see anything approaching the social space that is Atlas Park. Sure, there have been interesting places and moments--e.g., co-defending Brill from some random Night Elves or sharing a Goblin dirigible ride with some l33t d00dz--but they have been brief and far between. Which makes me think that Computer Gaming World is right--while World of Warcraft is certainly a great computer game (the graphics are fantastic, the grind is so slight it's negligible, the creativity is amazing), City of Heroes is the better MMORPG. And part of this goes back to what Nate and Damion have been talking about, I think, along the lines of worldy v. gamey MMOGs. City of Heroes feels and plays more like a society, whereas World of Warcraft feels and plays more like a movie with high production values that just happens to involve other visible people.
There's probably something else going on, though, that deserves a mention. I wonder if at least some of the sounds of silence emanating from Brill might have to do with the undead "race" I'm playing? The Forsaken certainly are not the most popular "race" to play. I've dabbled with the highly-popular Night Elves, and it seems to me that the people who play Night Elves are, on the average, actually a little more chatty than the undead. Doesn't this naturally follow? People are going to self-select the "race" that matches their personality type, because (as Richard has said backstage here) "it's a train ticket to self-actualization central." If you're a Bartle-type "socializer," you'd prefer an avatar and society that meets your needs. The Night Elf has the sought-after visual appeal. They even hang out in a meditative, wind-chimey, new-agey picnic land with Pottery Barn furnishings that you just know would smell of sandalwood and/or potpourri. Perhaps this explains in part why, when I tried a night elf out, my first impulse was to escape back to the mainland. On the other hand, if you're, say, somewhat anti-social, you'd naturally gravitate toward the Forsaken. See, e.g., penchant for black, elitist disdain for the living, constant gloom and gallows humor. When you make that first "race" choice, whatever it is, you're then tossed into a starting realm filled almost exclusively with other people who made the same choice.
Any thoughts about the "racial" subcultures in WoW? There are probably similar identity dynamics in Dark of Camelot -- I've met rather rabid DAoC Hibernians, for instance, who think that their allegiance to that realm has something to do with being Irish. I should note that, for what it's worth, it seems there are a statistically disproportionate number of undead and warlocks in the game studies crowd. But I won't name names.