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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Promoting Social Play in MMORPGs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday July 28 2012 at 9:09AM
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The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym.  At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.

While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction.  Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session.  In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person.  Communication was by text only.  It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other.  Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
But the strides made in what became MMORPGs in the years since MUDs have been incredible—games have created devices for forming dungeon groups, raids, guilds, voiceover IP, chat and simple grouping with friends.  And yet within gaming forums, there still are cries of discontent about the state of games today.   One of the more bitter debates has been whether MMOs should accommodate solo play in addition to group play.  One group declares that development catering to solo play intrinsically hurts the “massively multiplayer,” objective (“solo gamers should go play single-player games”) while the other asserts that solo play should be available as an alternative activity between grouping sessions.  Developers have tried to accommodate both sides, but while MMOs have become more popular than ever, the voices of dissatisfaction have grown louder with the growth in sheer numbers.
So what are some of the ways, without taking sides in that particular argument, that social play could be made easier?  How do we get people in the “big city” talking and working with each other, and generally having more fun?  I think it’s, much like internet dating or social networking, all about pairing up gamers with like-minded gamers.
Player Profiles and Pairing Like with Like
One of the biggest complaints about “PUGs” or pick-up groups is that a less-experienced player gets grouped with a group of veteran players.  While this in and of itself might not be a bad thing if the experts were willing to teach the new player the ropes, often the professionals want to face a challenge with other professionals.  The problem gets worse if the new player somehow causes the party to “wipe” or all be killed.
What if players and guilds could designate their skill and type in-game as well as how they would prefer to group?  “Hardcore,” “Expert,” “Adept,” “Trainer” and “Trainee” might be skill designations, and “Solo,” “Guild Grouping,” “Informal Non-Guild Grouping,” “Player-vs-Player” and “Roleplayer” as possible preferences for interaction?  Another set of selections for interests—“Raids,” “Dungeons,” PvP Play”, “PVE Play”, and “Roleplaying” could further refine exactly the types of activities the player prefers in game.  Because a lot of flak and stereotyping could come up between characters if these profiles were easily viewed, players could choose whether these preferences are visible.  But behind the scenes, for dungeon or raid grouping using the various “finders”, the pairing algorithm would look at these preferences and pair folks with groups who are more likely to be looking for the same thing.  When viewing guilds, a Roleplayer and PvP player might see different filtered guild lists based on what they have picked, and what the guild preferences are.  Of course, all these preferences could be changed at any time once a player is ready to change modes.  By the way, game companies may want to consider hiring away some eHarmony or developers for this sort of thing (just don't advertise it too loudly.)
Bulletin Boards and Matchmaking
So with a profile created, how about setting up bulletin boards where players can go look for other players with similar styles?  I’ll even go back to the low-tech way we used to do it for our tabletop games—tack an index card to a bulletin board at the local hobby store with the game you’re interested in playing or refereeing, and what kind of group you are looking to join, the times/days you are available, and a button to open direct chat or send in-game mail.  There most likely would be a time limit set on the posting (perhaps 30 days for guild openings and 4 hours for PvP, raids or dungeon groups?), and the list should have some ability to filter and search through the postings.  I’m actually surprised no one in the MMO space has tried this yet—please let me know if there’s a game out there I've missed.
Improved Mailboxes
And while we’re out it, why don’t guilds have mailboxes?  In Warcraft, it’s surprisingly difficult to get in touch with a guild, even if they are accepting new members.  Often, you need to exit out of the game to find the guild’s website and make contact completely outside of the game.  Sure, there are some addons out there, but for some reason, developers seem to feel that chat is sufficient for talking to other players in game.  Sometimes, you really want to sit down and write a longer message and send it to a mailbox; it certainly would help players introduce themselves and let guild members screen prospects.  Even if these features are too expensive to create in-game, how about setting up dedicated servers and websites associated with the game, so that this information centrally located and easily accessible?  Or at least partner more closely with a company like Guild Launch for official guild services, and create hooks between in-game features and the website?  Like hooking up regular mail to in-game email, so that players can catch both in and out-of game?
Speaking of Chat…
It’s time to blow it up and start over.  Really.  The General Chat is like looking through a funnel only to see a stream of never-ending acronyms—“LFG 2 DPS + Tank BWL” or such scintillating discussion such as “Jst pwned u NOOB!!!”  Can’t we do better?
In olden days, it was necessary to stand outside and play town crier in order to pair up with a group, but with the Dungeon and Raid Finders today this is really not necessary.  And wouldn’t a bulletin board, as suggested above, be a much better place to look for this kind of stuff?  Instead of spamming chat 100 times, or taking a chance on a Dungeon Finder PUG, just post what you are looking for – the board would be as popular as the bank or auction house, and would help you sift through what you need quickly and actually start a dialogue with the group that looks a good match.  The notice could be automatically removed as soon as the group is formed or the opening filled, or after a set time period if the posting is abandoned.  This kind of communication is also less likely to end up in a random group of disparate skill levels.  Finally, you might actually have a real discussion instead of watching alphabet soup.
Ventrilo vs. Chat
So am I advocating removing chat altogether?  Well, not completely.  There may be some times you want to open a discussion to General Chat, or just watch the chatter or trade/sell an item outside of the auction house, but I do think we’re far along enough now that general chat could be turned off by default—let players decide when they want it turned on.  The chat window is useful when you are in a dungeon or raid and can’t communicate over Ventrilo, so the window could appear on entry to the group.  But typing is such a clunky way to communicate when you are in the middle of a pitched fight that I really think it’s time for game companies to start thinking about partnering with and bundling a Voiceover IP service such as Ventrilo or Mumble as part of a subscription.  MMO companies might work a deal with headset companies to offer deals there as well.
Party or guild chat is another window that could prove useful at large gatherings of grouped players, but for smaller groups, are chat bubbles enough?  People who are hardcore raiders probably prefer the efficiency of a common chat window or Ventrilo, but roleplayers might prefer chat bubbles.  Again, VOIP services are better than either and serve both groups.
Promote Informal Grouping
I’m really happy to see more of this in many of the new games coming out.  Guild Wars 2 has dynamic events, where people in a particular area can team together to complete common goals—with difficulty scaled for a range of players.  Rifts started this trend with a similar feature, and even Warcraft has introduced “scenarios,” which are a short instanced quests designed for 3 characters of any type to informally group up.  Loot and experience rules are being cleaned up, so that that helping fellow players does not penalize their take of the spoils, and characters are awarded items that fit their character, eliminating “loot ninjas.”
Get Players Talking To Each Other
Finally, what are some ways that games can make it easier for people to just start talking to each other?  Sure, plenty of people do talk in line, but is it really promoted by the game in any way?  This idea is along the lines of setting up player housing, how about creating instanced or guildhalls?  I was actually thinking about AOL and CompuServe the other day, and remembering the “walled gardens” these places used to create for communities on the internet.  While that ultimately went away as people realized they could access the internet directly, there was something attractive about the sense of community these areas fostered.  Within Lord of the Rings Online, cities have instanced zones where players can set up their own housing, but what if something similar was to be created for guilds?  This would create a place where members could gather and discuss guild business, hold holiday and special events, gain access to special guild services, bank, plan strategy, perform crafting (group crafting of special PvP items or siege weapons), roleplay, decorate, drink beer.  The problem I've seen with the instanced housing zones is that they can easily become ghost towns if there's not enough incentive to hang out there, so there needs to be activity.  That may fall to players, but it's something game developers need to keep in mind if they go down this path.
How about incentivizing player interaction the same way we do questing, or gear, or achievements?  Perhaps participating in guild events could provide a week long buff, or give access to special mounts or crafting materials, unlock hidden high-level quest chains, dungeons or raids?  There are a million things you could do here to make social interaction a goal rather than something to be tolerated or avoided.
Older games, such as Warcraft and LOTRO manage to hold many seasonal events, but because those events tend to be PVE, there’s a very static feel to them, and the opportunity for community is lost.  One brilliant exception to this is LOTRO’s Weatherstock event.  In that game, instruments are playable, and there’s a yearly gathering of where players take turns performing songs for all the people that turn out.  Genius.  There’s also small weekly gatherings as well.
While I’ve seen plenty of structured PvP in battlegrounds, I’m actually surprised something as traditional as a medieval-style tournament hasn’t been created with PvP in mind.  While Warcraft’s Argent Tournament has a series of quests and achievements that make for a solo storyline in a tourney setting, it doesn’t really encourage any kind of player socializing or PvP contests.  For all those people who like to duel, this would be the perfect place for it – spectators could bet on the proceedings, and PvPers would have a great stage.  Hold straight man-to-man fighting, or jousting, perhaps specialized skill-based “iron-man” combat without gear?  Introduce games of dexterity like barrel rolls, polefighting, straight racing, and of course, jousts.  Approach the design as you might an “eSport” and you create an Olympics-style game-within-a-game that could attract many players.  If you wanted to mix in PVE elements and dynamic events as part of the festival—new ones each year—and mix those as part of the PvP portion of the game, it could create the lively feeling that an event like this needs.
The trick for a tournament is to keep that structure around PvP, so that it takes place within the venue.  So if you’re jousting, you can’t just pull out any weapon you happen to have – you’re limited to the tournament equipment and mounts.  It’s like using the house cards or dice in Las Vegas – no bringing your own!  I know some players would prefer completely open, sandbox style events that are created by and for players.  I’m not sure that would attract the larger audience that a controlled setting would produce, however.  Organizing something like this I am sure could be done, but I’m not so sure it could be done consistently and reliably, and this is the reason I think a mass audience might shy away from it.  Convince me I am wrong!
In summary, it seems there is huge opportunity for any game to pull ahead in this social space.  Many games have worked hard to produce great stories and atmosphere in their games, and many have created lots “to do” in game, but no one has quite nailed the live, social experience (although do I hear cries of Ultima Online and EverQuest in the background…?) Who do you think is best positioned to evolve?  Do those UO and EQ games simply need to be revamped?  Is there a mainstream game that just needs to make some adjustments?  Or is there some new game, just waiting in the wings to take the whole gaming world by storm?