I love the social aspect of MMO games. I think being able to build a community within the community is an amazing and glorious thing. I love the whole idea of banding with guild mates and taking on challenges, working together, exploring, crafting, and even roleplaying together are what make MMO games so Much better than single player games or typical shooter games.
So where is it all?
I've been noticing a distinct decline in socialization in MMO games for some time. Game developers are making people playing together easier and easier; but playing together with random strangers on a dungeon or a raid is not the same as socializing. There's nothing that is making it worthwhile to make new lasting contacts with other players outside your limited social circle. Guilds are made up of large, sterile organizations that cannot name every guildie without a written list in front of them, or of small groups of close friends that have known each other for years and don't want to make the group bigger.
The game developers are doing their best, I have little doubt. Trying to balance the need for grouping to be worthwhile and preventing exploits through grouping is a tough balance to find. Most games out today have a nice boost when in a party with other players, but that does not encourage people to group specifically with each other regularly. EDIT: How about a slight boost to XP and drop rates when grouped with people in your friend list, and perhaps additional rest bonuses when grouped with people from your friends list in social zones fore more than a certain length of time? There's only so much developers can do, though. In the end, it comes down to the community. It's up to us to be open to making new friends, not just getting the next level or taking out that next boss. A lot of the problem is caused by anti-social behaviours we learn from society that we end up carrying over from real life, and assumed expectations of what we should share or ask people to share. These need to change, not just in-game but in ourselves as gamers. And just like everyone else, I have to start with me.
Guild Wars 2 introduced a few mechanics that make it much easier in some ways. For example, being able to revive downed players without needing to be on a team or use a specific skill; you just have to be close enough for interaction, and you automatically get the option to revive them for free. One afternoon, I took an hour and simply ran around reviving anyone I came across. In fact, today I was in the Iron Citadel and stupidly took a leap off the 3rd floor when I was only level 6. Of course, I died; but a nice player who happened to be right there anyway revived me. I, of course, said "Thank you" somewhat embarrassed at my foolishness. They said "no problem" and ran off.
Did you catch that? That's the problem right there. He just ran off. The art of sporadic conversation with random strangers is kind of lost these days on most people. People aren't too chatty with strangers (outside the general chat channel, and don't get me started on the issues with that. 2 words: Barrens Chat. 'Nuff said.) which is just as true in real life. And, frankly, most of the general chat doesn't make sense to me. The conversations are too broken and incoherent and overlapping... It's like being in a room full of couples, each having their own conversations, and trying to listen for something worth adding your own comment to. IF they decide to be cool with someone butting into their conversation.
Most people don't strike up sudden unsolicited conversations with random people they pass on the street, either; not in-game or in real life, and that's just sad to me. There was a time when people at a bus stop or some equivalent would politely strike up conversations; not so much any more. "Don't talk to strangers" has become ingrained in most people, and I feel it's a sad thing. It's expanded into the online gaming world; now, the most common conversing I've found people do in games is explaining in excruciating detail to your online PvP opponent how many different ways you fuck his mom.
Star Trek Online is another good example of this. The game is built with "open grouping" which, supposedly, lets players entering a specific mission map that other people are entering as well get automatically grouped together into a team. I've tried this back before STO went F2P and it worked well. But I found that few people I ended up grouped with ever bothered to talk at all; they just went off and completed the next mission objective, oblivious to other players in the map. I got tired of it. I was getting as much social interaction as I would running the maps solo. Sometimes, they'd just leave half-way through, as if annoyed someone else was there.
I've even gone in from the perspective of someone entering a new game for the first time without their friends, by actually doing that. In WoW, for example, I tried a new server that I knew no one on. Any time I did that (which happens a lot more often than I'd like), It felt like I'd moved to a new town without a job or friends. Anyone who's done that kind of thing knows how hard it is to do, and it's just as tough in an MMO to start making new friends. I find that people in MMO games generally are becoming more and more clique-y every year. They'll play with their friends but then generally ignore most people, with maybe at best giving some casual platitudes when helped or when giving help. PUGs, even the one's I've seen that work well, are less and less often staying in touch. My STO friends list is filled with at least a couple dozen people I just don't even see online any more, or when they are online, they don't really say much. I am hoping GW2 is going to turn out different, but I'm not holding my breath.
I just feel people need to be more active in attempting to make and maintain new online gaming friends beyond recruiting for your guild, and be more receptive to other players doing just that. When you revive someone you randomly pass, maybe ask if they're needing help with a task. Be willing to come to the aid of newer players. When you're running a mission that involves random other players, be friendly and chat them up; compliment them honestly when they get a good attack in, offer positive encouragement to those around you. This is all no-brain-er and easy stuff. How about simply saying hi and chatting up people randomly as you wander? Not in whispers, of course, that might be creepy, but in general or local chat, for sure. And when someone starts chatting you up randomly, take it as an opportunity to make a new friend to adventure with. You don't need to get overly personal to get familiar with another player; ask them things like what they like best about their class or why they chose the crafting skills they did.
My point is that making new friends in an MMO is vitally important, and it's a 2 way street. The answer to the problems I face, and the problems many others share with me, aren't simply because everyone else are assholes, and it's not simply because I'm anti-social. Not only do we all need to be more active in trying to make those new friends in-game, but we need to be more receptive to others who might be looking to make new friends as well.
This is a re-post from my main blog, located at http://mmoartificer.wordpress.com/