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Mark Kern: Make Friends & Influence People in MMOs

Column By Mark Kern on June 20, 2014

Every game developer loves to talk about putting social into games. Usually this amounts to some token integration with Facebook (shudder) or Twitter from inside the game, or looking for group systems. But to me, what I’ve been describing in my last two articles as the decline of socialization, really means the loss of ability to form friendships. Friendship means meeting new people in-game, and refers to the surprisingly strong bonds you can form with people inside online games.

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Forming friendships is one of the things that really sets apart MMO gaming from any other type of multiplayer gaming such as shooters, MOBAs or even most co-op games. The bonds can be so strong that MMO communities honor their real life dead, or find love and get married both in game and in real life. For many, MMOs provide an equal social playing field to get to know each other, many times enabling those who can’t socialize well in real life to do so in a virtual world. In a virtual world, nobody cares how you look or how much money your make, where you live or what color skin you have. If you think about it, that’s a pretty amazing and socially enabling phenomenon.

But as I’ve lamented, we’ve lost much of this as we’ve streamlined MMOs for faster gameplay, less downtime and dependence on help from others, and the focus on class homogenization to enhance solo-ability. What I want to talk about in this article is how we can get friendship back into MMOs without it being forced or creating problems like grinding and excessive downtime.

There are two major areas where we can improve. The first is closer to traditional MMO design in that we have synchronous, co-operative group activities. The classic example being grouping up to kill bosses or do raids. I’ll save this for a future follow-up article. The second is more radical, and yet I believe essential to modern forms of friendship and socialization: asynchronous goals and collaboration. Let me explain this later concept a little bit.

Synchronous, for the purpose of this discussion, means players have to be together, online at the same time, in order to have any interaction with each other. In our modern, hectic lifestyles, synchronous models of socializing online, such as chatrooms or chat channels in games, means it pretty hit or miss how much socializing you can do if everybody has to be online at the same time.

The web has shown that asynchronous communication is a far better model for communicating and sharing with friends online. This is why Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook (shuddering again, maybe I should call it “the social site that shall not be named”), work much better than IRC in terms of gathering critical mass and providing a richer (even if still shallow) depth of interaction with friends. You don’t have to be online at the same time as all of your friends to have social interactions with them.

What could we do with this concept in games? The low-hanging feature here would be to implement a richer asynchronous, but still in-game, sharing and communications system. Some MMOs allow you to see whispers and direct message that you missed while you were offline. I would propose creating an actual feed, based on your friends list that you could pull up as a window in the game. This feed would work similarly to Twitter and Instagram, but be focused on game activities.

We collect a lot of stats and data in games. The feed could allow players to post their achievements, screenshots or short Vine-like video clips that the game could annotate with actual stats, like damage dealt, rewards earned, etc. It would be a great way to see what your friends have been up to while you were offline, and you could also post likes and comments to their exploits and adventures as well as share tips and strategies. It also would be a gentle, competitive spur, as you would be able to compare scores and accomplishments and ladders amongst your friends list. A little, gentle competition among friends, can really drive you to play the game more and become better at doing so. As a bonus, imagine this feed is also available on your iPhone or Android phone.

But we are playing a GAME, not building a social site. For that, we also need GAMEPLAY based interaction and collaboration between players to build richer friendships. One feature I have been exploring for some time, is distributed, asynchronous guild activities. The inspiration came from the fact that well run guilds have some of the strongest social bonds and friendships. But being part of a great guild is a lot of work. You have to show up at agreed times and places (often several times a week) and put in a lot of hours per play session to even qualify to join some of these guilds and, more importantly, earn those hard to get loot drops and rewards.  This is because guild activities, mainly raiding, require synchronous gameplay between players.

But what if we could also provide asynchronous ways to be a rich, contributing member of a guild? This would open up the experience of well run and social guild to a lot more people - people who can only play when they can grab a few hours, but still want to belong to a group and share in their efforts and rewards.

What if we built a new layer of gameplay centered around guild activities, but in a way that allows players to contribute to the group gameplay without having to be online at the same time. WoW has a guild achievement system, but what I’m imaging takes it much farther. I’m envisioning entire gameplay systems built around the notion of group activities.

For example, there could be a guild city system where players contribute crafting materials in order to build their custom city, and the guild system automatically tracks those activities and has a reward system attached to it for reaching specific goals of gathering. These goals can be automatic, or set by the guild leader as the needs of the guild changes. Guild members can, on their own time, gather these materials and submit them to the guild. The guild system keeps track of this, and when specific achievement are unlocked, the guild is able to build a new type of building for the guild city. Different buildings in the city allow the guild access to new features, such as a smithy that allows for crafting of new items not available through the regular non-guild crafting system.  Now imaging if guild cities were PvP as well, now we can have group goals for building of fortifications and weapon systems and even things like barracks for NPC armies and minions.

The game could also unlock new instances and raids for the guild based on this collective group effort by collectively building dimension gates or excavating catacomb entrances. There could also be individual rewards, rare and less rare, for the players who participated. These rewards are automatically parceled out to guild members based on their level of participation and contribution to the goal. In this way, players are free to contribute and participate on their own time and still belong to strong social group with great rewards. It also encourages friendly competition between guild members, as contributes are ranked on a leaderboard.

By thinking about gameplay systems that require a collective effort to achieve, and then enabling it so that small groups of player and individuals can contribute to these efforts on their own times schedules and ability/desire to participate, I believe we can achieve richer friendships and socialization in a way more compatible with our modern gameplay lifestyle. When you combine this with the in-game social feed system I discussed earlier, you will also get a picture of the beehive of activity happening all throughout your guild, complete with rich media screenshots and video clips and guild members discussing and commenting on their successes and failures.

Next week I’ll talk about some ideas on how we can make improve the social aspects of synchronous gameplay, the type that occurs when we are actually playing together at the same time.

Also, I’ve enjoyed all your comments and ideas on the articles I’ve written. Thank you. They are inspiring and push me to think harder about the issues plaguing modern MMOs and where to take the genre. I read all of them, so please keep them coming!

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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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