Jason Wall sent me a note explaining that World of Warcraft (you've heard of it?) is doing even more to encourage the formation of ad hoc raiding groups. Back in the day, he notes, the only way you could get raid-level gear was by being in a raid-level guild and by raiding, a lot. Much was said back then (not least by me) about the way MMORPGs seemed to provide a communal experience for people isolated by contemporary society. If society gave people anomie, then online community, it seemed, was the antidote.
How pollyannish! We (I) also said that online environments were really no different from offline ones in a number of ways. "It's a strange theater, but the players are still human," I would say. I should have followed up and asked myself, if this is so, then why should we expect society to look any different in there than it does out here? How could game designers eliminate an anomie that is so pervasive elsewhere?
I suppose if I had challenged myself that way, I would have responded that game designers have the advantage of consciously designing a place. Or perhaps they have the advantage of vast dictatorial power over both the rules and the physics of interaction. These advantages would surely enable some designers to discover how to generate community among people who (I assumed) desire it.
The assumption that people want to have community, indeed that they would agree to be forced into it, is denied by tale of the suburb. Housing prices are highest in the suburbs, places that often look very village-y but are in fact built to provide each person with solitude. Soft barriers protect suburban residents from too much interaction. Yet unlike residents of rural areas, suburbanites are not completely alone. Suburbanites are alone together.
"Alone together" - we've heard that before. Over the past decade, online game communities have evolved from forced grouping models to alone-together models such as we see in SWTOR and in WoW's new pick-up group mechanisms. We've moved from massively multiplayer online games to massively singleplayer online games. Our virtual worlds are becoming like suburbs - places where most people, most of the time, are doing whatever they please and having no effect or interaction with anyone else. Protected from others, but not separated.
The neo-liberal in me says, 'this is apparently the life people want to lead.' It is striking that game designers have created environments that so perfectly match the isolating ethos of urban development that so many people bemoan. It is striking that the forced-grouping model has fallen away and been replaced by solo play. Both online and off, the villages went away and were replaced by cul-de-sacs. Both were developments - someone developed them to be what they ended up being. And people like it.
The whole thing smells of irresistable social and economic change, of dynamics that are unavoidable. The massively singleplayer outcome is perhaps a very solid equilibrium between the competing tensions freedom and community.
If that is so, and I think it is, it spells doom for all kinds of social engineering projects. The New Urban neighborhood? The Global Village? The online game that purportedly makes people into good citizens? These will all remain as empty as the dead little towns that dot the rural landscape, or as decrepit and bully-plagued as the once-vibrant urban neighborhoods that dot the cities.
In the end, people just want their space. The Buddha was told that the monks were squabbling. He replied, "Like pebbles in a small bag, the monks polish each other." But if they can get out of the bag, Wise One, won't they? And keep their rough edges?
Comments on Life c. 2000: The Massively Single-Player Game:
I have never really understood the appeal of MMOs as single player games, despite Parc's interesting work. (if I recall correctly, the motivation they uncovered is exhibition of skill, while maintaining social distance).
I like the idea of players polishing each other. As you say, we are all humans, and many of the same rules apply. But we still have the cloaks of anonymity that allow people to operate outside of typical RL norms. Some people choose transgression, and others choose progression. Typically these things are mutually exclusive.
Posted Feb 2, 2012 11:41:19 AM | link
Thanks for the nod. Interesting take on the developing social phenomenon that is the community of isolationists. "I want to be by myself, but I want to be around other people that are like that as well."
For me, a gamer, looking at how the social dynamic has changed in WoW is really interesting, especially in the raiding scene since the advent of the Looking-for-Raid (LFR) system. "The Raid" spent some time focused on the "people" aspect of the game, some of the players even remarking that they would probably no longer be playing if not for the personal connections and commitments they made to others in their raid group. Admittedly, I fall into this same category. So with the aforementioned LFR system, what happens to this dynamic?
I could make the excuse that I've become more busy or the content doesn't interest me, but I've spent a great deal less time in the game during this current content patch, and I believe it is due to the "de-centralization" of the guild dynamic. One no longer needs a guild to raid, and that's the crux of the issue. As you posted above, this concept was a governing principle of the game, even as recently as the beginning of this current expansion pack. Now it is no longer the case, and serious raiders have lost interest in the game because of it, including myself.
There's also the reward system - the need to achieve - as you mentioned in "The Raid." The more difficult the challenge, the higher the psychological reward of overcoming it, especially in a group of people with whom you know and relate. Is there a fallacy in the reasoning that if you make loot easier to get, that players will enjoy the content more? I believe there is, and this can be manifested in the social dynamic of the LFR raiding scene. If anything, people have become even more voracious about their desire for loot rewards, and the focus has turned from a psychological reward where you are just simply satisfied with overcoming a challenge, and has become a merely struggle for material rewards. And after receiving the material reward, their loyalty and commitment to the group is expendable - manifested by them dropping out of the group to chase after their next piece of gear.
This attitude and the infrastructure that allows/supports it is not what made WoW the penultimate in raid content amongst its competitors. So, I believe what we have here is a chicken/egg conundrum, circling back to your original thesis: Has Blizzard forcibly and deliberately changed its raid logistical process to account for a changing global social climate, or has the in-game social climate changed due to the desire by Blizzard to change the raiding logistical process?
Frankly, I believe that all decisions made by Blizzard have dollar signs permeating them, but I also feel that they have lost touch with the subscribers and what actually keeps them coming back to the game. At some point, there was a shift in the financial policy at Blizzard that dictated that there was more money to be made with the casual player than the serious player. This happened approximately at the beginning of the Wrath expansion, and has become more exacerbated since that point, so that we are now here, where joining a raid, PVP match, or 5-man group is as easy as a single button push to queue up for a random group. The price for this investment has been the loss of the bulk of the serious players that made up the "return clientele" of the game for many years. The result is seeing huge population swings in the game surrounding new content releases. People renew their subscription to play for a couple of months (maybe) to see the new stuff, then cancel their subscription until the next patch. This has always been SOP for PVP-centric players, but now it's evident in all aspects of the game. It would be hard to believe that Blizzard doesn't see this as a problem.
Sorry for the long post. I get a little loquacious occasionally.
Posted Feb 2, 2012 12:47:35 PM | link
I think it's best not to over-simplify online communities. What we may see in the next decade as the use of virtual worlds matures is a diaspora into different game types. This is particularly true if the inevitable decline of WoW does not see a replacement mega-game but instead several competing and different games. Suppose at the end of 2014 WoW has declined to half its current subs in the West and SWTOR, Rift, Eve, This Secret World, Guild Wars 2 are all healthy but with none of them dominant (300k - 1m subs). At that point it might make more sense to investors to aim for that sort of size market share and obtain it by being different than to see one game with 90% market share and seek to create similar experiences.
It's also probably true that these things follow cycles and that VWs, having started at one extreme (forced grouping) and then progressing to the current state of alone together will swing back from today's style. (Alternatively they might get even more isolating to a game style like that of Cafe World where you're aware that some of what you're seeing is other players but you have no interaction with them other than to make a cake and hope one of them eats it)*.
* Apologies if anyone plays this game socially, I watch it over someone's shoulder from time to time and that's how she plays it.
Posted Feb 2, 2012 2:41:56 PM | link
As a proud and happy urban dweller, I note:
1. It's quite as possible to be "alone together" in a city as it is in a suburb. Maybe more so; I pass people on the street with whom I do not interact, but at least I see people outside cars.
2. Your characterization of cities as "decrepit and bully-plauged" strikes me as nuts. This is not an accurate description of (to name just a few cities I've been to in recent years) New York, San Francisco, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Seattle, Boston, or even Pittsburgh.
I'd suggest that, actually, the pendulum is swaying away from decaying car-culture wastelands in favor of vibrant urban civilization. It's nice to be able to get a quart of milk without driving for miles, not to mention being able to walk down the street and find a half dozen decent-to-excellent restaurants.
Posted Feb 2, 2012 11:25:28 PM | link
"Hardcore" MMOs with desktop client software and baroque game mechanics are a narrow and shrinking segment of the multiplayer game market. Nobody in my family plays MMOs but my brother plays Words With Friends a lot and I have other acquaintances who play casual social games as well.
The requirement of synchronous extended play sessions in a chair at a desk does not match the lifestyle of most people who have a full-time job, family life, and an active social life. When most people socialize, they want to socialize IRL, and when that's not possible they want something that can fit into the interstices of the rest of their lives.
MMOs may be the suburbs. But +1 for Greg's suggestion that the pendulum may simply be swinging away from wastelands and towards something better.
Posted Feb 3, 2012 1:28:04 AM | link
As always with your posts, Ted, there's a lot to talk about. But w/r/t MMORPGs, I think you can see this trend in the big $$$ titles as inevitable. This isn't a comprehensive list but:
1) The PC game industry and the console industry have always been primarily aimed at selling the single player experience. Two-player games have been the exception. Community has been the super-exception. With certain platforms we're seeing social creeping into the mix in various ways, but it is rare to see it in the core game design of a major title.
2) The MMO industry was probably at its most innovative in the early 2000's, when it had no idea what it was doing and was looking at MUDs in an effort to figure out how to understanding gaming in a shared world. UO and EQ were very MUD-like -- the contemporary WoW and WoW-clones are primarily about "alone together" as you say -- providing a semblance of society to achieve a certain psychological boost to play, but steering the main course back to what has been the tradition in PC and console.
3) And, fwiw, don't forget FPS games & that whole segment. If you look at Halo, Call of Duty, etc., what is happening there may be more social, more EQ-like, than some MMOs. But those games aren't MMO culture or shared world so much... it's rare that you see them grouped with MMOs.
4) The games that really prioritize social these days are games on Facebook and other casual games. But they're not doing it like UO or EQ did it, gloriously stumbling into emerging weirdness -- they're all about metrics, growth, stickiness.
Finally, I'm sort of optimistic that the failure of big-budget MMOs to get social is opening a window of opportunity. I've been looking at Minecraft lately, and I'm thinking that someone out there might soon stumble into the right mix.
Remember Ludicorp before it became Flickr? I'm looking for something like that around the corner.
Posted Feb 3, 2012 9:14:39 AM | link
A by-no-means-scientific poll at MMO-Champion caught my attention a few weeks ago. It asks "What keeps you playing WoW?" A plurality of individuals stated that socializing with friends and the guild was still of great importance. I wonder if the proportion has gone down even while the number of individuals who use WoW (and other MMOs) for socialization has remained roughly unchanged. There's also the introduction of team PvP in the form of arenas and battlegrounds that requires some pretty intense social interaction, if a highly militarized form of it. Point being: I don't think Blizzard is destroying WoW's ability to support meaningful social interaction. It's just increasing appeal to the more single-player, casual crowd.
In other news, Blizzard reports the loss of well over a million subscribers for the first three quarters of 2011 (with Q4 reports due out next Thursday). Meanwhile, the next expansion proposes a significant and surprising shift from end-game raiding to world PvP, which will force players on the same server to spend more time communicating with one another. I still think that these are intrinsically social games; or at least they are games around which people socialize.
Posted Feb 3, 2012 12:02:59 PM | link
This post sums up my concern with current trends in the MMO industry. Truly insightful!
I've been thinking about why do we, as players, tend to go on our own, and seem to prefer so. Yes, I think we do not actually want to be alone, I believe it is a cultural thing.
Humans are social creatures, that is true, but we also are very hierarchic, rule-abiding animals, and our society mores prevent us from approaching strangers in the streets, among other things. MMOs used to challenge our social customs, by forcing us to group in order to obtain something. This was not for everybody, as to be obliged to do something can be enough for some people to keep away from the genre. But it was necessary, because otherwise our cultural baggage would hamper our efforts of being social among strangers. Now those "constraints" have been lifted, and we go back to the model that prevails in RL, that of "alone together" community life.
I don't want my MMOs to be like that. It's not nostalgia what drives me to say that I miss the old days of certain games, it is this objective fact that you have recounted here (and every decision taken that has led to the current state of MMO gaming).
Also, I've been inspired to write a blog post using your idea of "alone communities" at http://hypercriticism.net/2012/singleplayer-mmos-alone-together/
Posted Feb 6, 2012 9:12:58 AM | link
I teach, do public speaking, have been involved in drama and music performance almost all my life. I have no fear of crowds or being on stage. And yet, in my private time, I like to do things either alone or with a small group of family/friends. On the Myers-Briggs thingy, I'm right between E/I.
As a friend of mine put it, "You're good with people, you just don't like to be around them all the time." Or, as I've come to understand it, I'm a closet introvert.
Our jobs and family lives, culture, religion, community, etc. often require us to be highly social for long periods of time. One of the reasons I quit WoW was that the social/guild aspects of play were using the same skills that I have to be on top of at work all day; project management, leadership, planning, time allocation, etc. That's very much a busman's holiday for somebody like me. On the other hand, I have friends whose jobs are very solitary, and they enjoyed the social/management aspects of WoW a lot more than I did/do.
Posted Feb 6, 2012 10:19:41 AM | link
Interesting points of discussion. I find it troubling even as one who finds myself struggling between the drive for community and the wish to be left alone both online and offline. I suppose I will offer my own experience of this problem. I replied to your previous post mentioning how friendly people on my server were and how easy grouping was. Just the other night a group of us (strangers) got together for 2-3 hours to do all the heroics on a planet, and they even waited for me after my computer crashed so we could have the last turn-in conversation together. However, despite these encounters often ending by adding people to out "friends" list, I must concede that no contact has been made with these people since. There is a curious and awkward dance even at the end of grouping sessions, as people try to find excuses to leave the group and go do their own thing now that the missions that require groups are done.
What to make of this? As someone who keeps playing to explore and see what will happen next (Explorer/Achiever) I am hesitant to say this is inherently bad except perhaps in that it hinders people who continue to play primarily because of the community. The closest I've come to playing games for community has never been with videogames as such but rather Magic: The Gathering and play-by-post D&D. However, I don't want to deny this element of games.
I think greglas may be right to look in the direction of Minecraft here, and some of the interesting building communities in the multiplayer side of that game. I just unfortunately don't have the patience. I must admit I'm a bit of a casual player, but as someone in cultural studies it seems that an awful lot of the hardcore game rhetoric smacks of elitism--the few non "cultural dupes" fighting the masses who are dragging the culture down. Your post, Ted, straddles the line nicely though. It is a calling to question that should be made, and you've given me a lot to think about. I just don't know what to make of it yet.
Posted Feb 7, 2012 8:41:59 AM | link
We should keep in mind that current MMORPGs were designed before the social networking era and present a VERTICAL progression which can't be live-patched. I've said it here already, this core VERTICAL design became unsocial and not sustainable any more in the era we are living now.
Yesterday when I stated this someone aksed me "If you are going to go down that road, can you not at lease suggest what you are looking for? "
I replied this:
No significant health bar increase.
It is time MMO developers evaluate the social cost of their game design decisions.
If not, Zynga/Facebook will continue to define what online gaming is with hundreds of millions of active players per game while MMO struggle at merely few millions at best, on its way to become an online niche in a potential 2 billions internauts market. All this while most of us believed MMOs had so much potential to expand both in term of players base and possibilities. In the social networking era, Massively Multiplayer Online games became dwarfs...
MMO developers should look at FPS developers who mashed-up recently lots of RPG elements and will strongly enter the MMO space (PlanetSide2, FireFall, ...). These developers don't have the luxuary to design unfair games and fall in the "No significant health bar increase" category. In DICE BattleField Bad Company 2 for example - multiplayer game - the progression is horizontal. A level 1 character can still kill a level cap 50. The more we play the more we unlock new weapons (plus stats, minus stats) and abilities and the possibility to play the way we like depending on our playstyle preferences. The game design decisions in term of progression in BFBC2 have a very low social cost.
MMO developers should also embrace modern software development methodologies (Agile developement, Software as a Service/Cloud ...). A five year development cycle before evaluating it's impact on users is not the way software - whatever their size - should be developed any more. This means that most MMOs will begin their commercial life much quicker, cost way less to produce, will establish a strong relationship at a very early stage with users who will be considered co-creators. Red5 Studio is already engaging in this way:https://plus.google.com/u/0/110873640795387924972/posts/HpoZa87Hujm
Finally, MMO developers must tap way more into User Generated content (PvP, areas conquests, politics...) and User Created content for some MMO (community based filtered like Steamworks, STO Foundry, EQ2 Dungeon Maker, Minecraft/Voxels world creation/modifications?...).
The wind of change is already coming, in 2012 I plan to play/explore/test:
- The Secret World (April release, for its class-less, levels-less approach)
- Tera (May release, for it's skill action based combat)
- Mist of Pandaria (mainly for the skill/teamwork requirement of the gear-less Challenge Dungeons and arts)
- Planet Side 2 (for it's MMO/FPS mashup)
- FireFall (for it's Agile development approach)
- Guild Wars 2 (for it's absence of stats based gear grind at level cap, WorldVsWorldVsWorld and way more...)
- Arch Age Korean beta (for it's sandpark approach)
It's only the beginning.
There will still be a public for vertical stats progression/dice based/ Skinner boxed MMOs. It just doesn't need to define the whole genre who still have so much untapped potential.
Posted Feb 11, 2012 11:08:52 AM | link
Manhattan is still one of the most covetted addresses even by (especially by?) those that have the means and or career flexiblity to live wherever they want.
A fair segment of surburanites moved there for the ease and safety of child rearing... to give children community with other children and ablity for the children to have more atonomy in association,
I'm not arguing against your point but more making a point that there is a market for people other than those in the majority. When you're talking tens of millions of potential purchasers, catering to a less served niche desire is still a big potential niche market.
The less that serve that niche, the greater the opportunity for those that do.
Posted Apr 18, 2012 3:27:33 PM | link
i get enjoy depending on the games. thanks for sharing. I have now lot of things to be considered after reading this.
Posted Apr 30, 2012 8:09:56 PM | link