We’ve heard the criticisms. Perhaps even made them ourselves. Games seem like they’re not intended for grouping anymore. Grouping ‘isn’t necessary’. The “social” has gone out the window in favor of the “single player” and easily soloed. Games were different years ago, most say. While yes, some of the MMORPGs that have come in the past few years are different than the games we had five, seven, and ten years ago, there are still games that aim to cater to the social aspects. However, these aren’t immune from being put under the microscope of the jaded. What degree of ‘social’ should we expect in our games now? And are games like Guild Wars 2 and Rift more social than games of the past several years?
To get at the question, however, we have to go back. Once upon a time, MMORPGs were limited as far as game choice went. I’m sure many of us vets remember the wide-eyed, caffeinated gamers we were when someone or something introduced us to the concept of whole little worlds out there that we could share and inhabit. Games that could be played with others – no more solo grinding in your RPGs, because now you could share the experience and the load. Or what about your first play session or two? If it was anything like mine, then you walked in and stumbled, fell flat on your face for a bit until things became familiar. Of course, I made the brilliant choice of starting my first ever character, a Druid, on the account of the friend that introduced me to MMOs, leaving me initially without anyone to play with. Attempting to solo got me very quickly taken down by some tiny, innocuous looking river creatures straight off.
Fast forward years and soloing is possible in most games, even with a primary healer build. Many games have also gotten rid of grouping bonuses like XP boosts. In part, we no longer need them due to the shortening of the time it takes to get to cap, but those were some of the early things that helped unite us. With other social features like housing being gone and global chat a shell of a less voice-chat dependent age most of the time, there are some definite barriers. Having a game you can solo much of the time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I know as I’ve gotten older my time has shrunk, but I certainly miss the days when making lots of progress required others to complete more than just raids and dungeons.
Just the interdependence that seemed to be more prevalent was a variable each day, and it was fun to group so that you didn’t get swallowed by a pack of wolves out there and forced to run the treacherous path back to your sorry corpse. And if you did, you often had folks to sit out the penalties with you or even to run back. We can talk about “content locusts” all we want, but that’s a topic for another day. Some of the fondest early MMO memories I have involved other people making the difficult moments more palatable.
Nowadays, we have a crop of games that seek to restore some of that social aspect back to the genre. Collaboration, a degree of interdependence, and more have been stated goals for Warhammer Online, Rift, and most recently, Guild Wars 2. Warhammer was first out of the gate, since public quests were a way for many to participate in large scale group events and earn XP in a convenient way. Public quests were something that the player base came to rely on. And with other games, the concept evolved. Rift’s promised dynamic events represented that evolution. The game itself was a mix of the familiar and a few new things. While for some it was ‘more of the same’, for others, it was a return to some of what they loved, with the addition of new ways to interact and group with others that made that mechanic more important again. With Guild Wars 2, it became even more welcoming to participate. With everyone getting credit for kills, no stealing, loot rewards for all, and a whole series of events to choose from at all levels, this game represented the lowest barrier to entry when it came to grouping in some time.
When I played Rift and GW2 for the first few times, I did feel a sense of the old running through these games, even though they were modern in this one aspect. Times are different now, but community and feeling like you’re part of a world in some form are still important factors. GW2, in part because of the friendly mechanics, was able to bring in some players that were totally new to MMOs. I know someone for whom GW2 is the first MMO she has played, and what she had heard about MMORPGs in the past sort of scared her off, but GW2 really surprised her in a pleasant way. It made for a friendlier atmosphere for her and others.
These games intended to bring group incentives back in some form, so there was XP and other rewards for participating and completing them. These events made it both very easy to join in and participate, but also rewarding to do so. For working with others completing these tasks, maybe it would bridge the gap that had developed over time just a little bit. Naturally, you can’t please everyone.
Criticism included calling these sweeteners out and saying that if not for the rewards, people wouldn’t be inclined to participate. In GW2, the fact that rezzing others grants XP serves as an incentive for many to do so where maybe they might not have in the past. But is that really so terrible? I remember running down through the fields as my Druid, randomly healing those that were in trouble, helping people out. I do that on my minstrel in LOTRO too. But today, sometimes people just haven’t been exposed to those things or they’re pressed for time, or they’re used to going through solo. So if a few mechanics make the world friendlier, I’m all for it. Maybe it won’t please some people, but by letting new players into MMOs and making some of us regulars feel a little more at home, then it works.
However, it would be amiss to think that some of the criticism was invalid. One of the main complaints is that the system is designed so that you never have to actually group with anyone in GW2. You can jump in and participate easily enough, but other elements are elusive. People do sometimes go in and fight alongside one another without actually talking to each other. I’ve done it myself a couple of times. I remember diving in once and meeting someone else under the water also training up weapon skills. The player and I swam along, fighting ever stronger fish until we both died and parted company. We didn’t really say much, but we worked together quite well. The fact people don’t always talk to each other is disappointing (though in that particular situation, it was partly my fault), but were it not so easy to work together, we would’ve never done so in the first place. The fact that direct competition between players has been mostly eliminated makes for relaxed encounters. And it is helpful. But those who say that these are not real social interaction, but hollow systems that pale in comparison to communication, interdependence, and unity in the face of strong challenge, you’re not exactly wrong.
Games like Guild Wars 2 are not necessarily more social, but they’re differently social. They attempt to make things easier to play, accessible, and fun, but also bridge the gap in an age of voice chat and lightning-fast leveling speed. Not perfect, but a good system for themeparks. So while GW2, to me, does feel more social than games have felt in some time, there is a different quality to it. But the mechanics do promote a ‘nicer’ atmosphere in which to game. So, if the trade-off is people doing their own thing and never interacting, or this modern social quality, then this brings back a lot of the spirit that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place.
Read more of Christina's Social Hub columns.