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Social Hooks & MMOs

Column By Ryahl Smith on July 02, 2014

How many people do you interact with reasonably often in your current MMO?  How many of those people are outside of your guild?  Assuming you have played MMO’s for awhile, is your pattern of socialization today similar to that back when you started? 

If you are like me, your socialization time (now) is nearly entirely within your guild.  However,  back when I started MMO’s, it was pretty common to also maintain a lot of out of guild ties.  In many ways, my first MMO server (Brell-Serilis in Everquest) was a close neighborhood where “hey I know you,” was a pretty common phenomenon with passerby's.  Now I’m sure it’s largely that I’ve become a grumpy old man, but it seems to me that there are fewer reasons today to maintain social connections within MMO’s.  I’m not talking lifelong friends, or even drinking buddies, here.  I’m talking about people that you regularly interact with, within the game, to advance your goals within the game.

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I am spending quite a bit of time reading material pertaining to the upcoming World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor expansion.  It’s been nearly ten years since I played WoW (patch 1.3 if anyone is counting) and the game has grown and changed dramatically in that time.  In my last article, I discussed the Flex Raiding feature and indicated how it joins a host of other MMO’s seeking to bring socialization back to gaming.

In the process of my reading, I came across the Blizzard’s Social Philosophy that is driving their WoD development.  Pictured below is a slide from the Raids, Gameplay, Question and More panel at Blizzcon 2013.  The slide puts it succinctly, playing with friends and building new friends is better.  Random queues should be a last resort.  I think the idea here is that social embeddedness is good for customer retention.

An interest in socialization within MMO’s is near and dear to my heart for at least two reasons.  First, as an MMO player, I find the MM part of the genre is best when its about building and sustaining communities.  Second, the importance of strong social ties is one that’s very much an element of my work in the not so virtual world. 

This article is about social hooks in MMO’s.  While it will be grounded in WoW and their upcoming expansion, I draw on ideas across the history of MMO’s.  My premise is that social hooks are critical to the longevity of MMO’s and that games which built them have generally performed better over longer periods of time than those who don’t.  I address the certain responses of “but SOLOING” and “ugg, nostalgia,” as well to hopefully facilitate a discussion of what people like to see in social hooks.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

The idea that strong social ties has an impact on community durability isn’t unique to MMO’s.  It’s the property of a field of research called Social Network Analysis (SNA).  This is a multi-disciplinary field, with a body of research in business, sociology, political science and other social sciences.  This section is going to, very briefly, articulate the importance of “small worlds.” 

SNA is very technical material and I’m going to abstract and simplify it as much as possible.  If this is an area you work in (or are familiar with), I’m doing an exceptionally brief, mainstream review of the work of Steve Borgatti, Dan Brass, Ron Burt, James Coleman, Mark Granovetter, Martin Kilduff, and Dave Krackhardt.  My aim in this abstraction is to simplify the idea enough to be digestible for this column, I hold their work in tremendous respect and any oversight or shortcuts in the explanation are merely intended to help the reader of this article.

If you have ever played the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you have touched on a form of social network analysis.  If you haven’t, the premise of the game is that you can link the actor Kevin Bacon to just about anyone else in Hollywood through no more than six social links.  A social link represented as a past working relationship between Kevin Bacon and one other person.  The social network phenomenon at play is one of network closeness, the idea essentially is that two people who are otherwise very disconnected from each other can actually be traversed in surprisingly few social links. 

One example of research in this area tasks a person on one coast of the United States to try to send a message to a specific person on the far coast.  The catch is that they can’t mail it directly, rather they have to send it to someone who they think might know that person and then ask their post-recipient to do the same if he or she doesn’t know the target person.  Repetitions of this study find that the typical number of links is somewhere in the 3-5 person range.  In other words you can reach someone you don’t personally know, on the farthest side of the country from you no less, in typically no more than 3 or 4 social steps. 

This idea that we’re all much closer to each other than we often realize is tied to a social network concept called a small-world phenomenon.  Large communities (servers in the MMO sense) are comprised of small, very close sub-communities (your typical MMO guild).  In a poorly optimized system, the small communities are generally disconnected from each other.  But, in a better optimized community, each of these sub-communities is typically tied, loosely, to other sub-communities.  These looser ties are still friendly ties, based on less frequent acquaintances (but more durable than simply wandering by each other).  The more optimized a large community is, the better it idealizes this small world concept.

This is more than just a weird social game, though.  It turns out that there are real system wide benefits to having a more optimized small world than a less optimized small world.  Whether it’s creativity, productivity, innovation, or just good old fashioned profits, good things come to these types of communities.  I am primarily familiar with this from business research, but the companies who make MMO’s are businesses and I am aware of no downsides to this phenomenon.

These benefits come not just to the individuals in them, but to the entire community.  There is a rising [social] tide lifts all boats analogy to be made here.  Additionally, you don’t have to achieve perfect efficiency to reap benefits.  Just moving from an inefficient, disconnected community to a more intertwined community is helpful.  I’m leaving the maths out of this, but those interested are directed towards the work of Brian Uzzi who manages to do a really wonderful job of making such a ridiculously technical concept fairly easy to follow. 

Rewards are better than punishment

Some early MMO’s, particularly Everquest and Final Fantasy XI built socialization hooks through punishment.  Long travel times, steep death penalties, and content which scaled far beyond soloability were each tools that shoved players together.  The only way to minimize, or even eliminate, the penalties was to find a team and stick together.  While some players simply quit in frustration, others banded together into fairly enduring social networks in order to succeed at the game.  So it’s natural that some MMO players associate those social hooks as good things (they brought people together) while others associate them with the cudgels that they were (beatings will continue until morale improves!). 

You can build social  hooks through punishment, you don’t have to though.

Asheron’s Call built its social hook through its Allegience system.  Players were encouraged to form monarch-vassal relationships.  Vassals funneled experience to Monarchs who were thus encouraged to provide resources and information to help vassals level up faster.  Dereth was a very solo-friendly game, even back in 1999, but this system pretty much guaranteed that every new player was hit up with a “want a patron?” tell.  I always found the system to have a weird multi-level marketing feeling to it, but it certainly was a hook for socialization and it definitely worked through rewards.

You can also achieve social hooks through economic systems.  Early MMO’s like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and EVE all had social hooks integrated into their economic systems.  While each game lets you build a crafting or merchanting empire, there is virtually no chance of accomplishing this on your own.  These games each feature deep, rich, interdependent economic systems that encourage specialization and multiplayer coordination.  Here, the reward isn’t explicitly linked to socialization, but the rewards come from embedding yourself through social systems.

Fans of open-world PVP will be quick to point out that nothing builds community faster than ganking newbs.  More specifically, the threat of open-world PVP drives players to coalesce into factions.  These factions form both as means of self-defense and as means of more effective ganking.  This is a bit like socialization through punishment, though perhaps not as extremely so.  You run a risk of punishment if you eschew social systems, but you aren’t definitely punished for doing so (unless a predator is nearby).  Whether you like open-world PVP or not, there is no doubt that this social hook is a huge driver in the success of EVE.

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