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Build Better Social Bonds in MMOs

Dana Massey Posted:
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Dana Massey Asks Why Not?: Build Better Social Bonds in MMOs

People. It's what keeps people playing, no matter how clever the mechanics. It's why EVE grows, while others shrink. This week, Dana talks about how MMOs need to build stronger bonds between its players.

Developers and fans of MMOs always ask why EVE Online continues to grow, while most other MMOs slowly fade over time.

Some people say it’s the constant, free expansion packs. Others say it’s the fact that there is very little competition in the space MMO genre.

I believe the answer is more fundamental than that, and likely a lot more accidental on CCP’s part.

Every game has an “end” and every MMO needs to find the perfect end-game solution if they want to keep their players around for years, not months. For weeks, I’ve written about ways to improve the journey and argued that a more directed experience is the way to go. The logical hole, as many of you on the forums have gleefully pointed out, is that eventually people run out of content. As well done as Fable 2 was, no one plays it forever.

There's nothing more social than the void of space, apparently.

This brings me back to why EVE has thrived, while others tapered off. Simply put, EVE Online is engineered to bring people together.

Most MMOs, in some way, build on the same premise as CCP. Developers cannot produce content faster than players consume it, it’s a fact of life, so most rely on the players themselves to be the end game content.

This usually means PvP conflict and in most MMOs, this has been successful to some degree.

To sum it up in a sentence, EVE’s end-game is player faction driven PvP war. It’s simple and clearly a lot of people learned that one line lesson. Warhammer Online and Age of Conan’s end games can be summarized with the same sentence. Clearly, though, they’re not having the same kind of long term growth.

The truth is that there is far more to it than that.

Maybe it’s just the space-faring nature of EVE, or the fact that it’s far more of a virtual world than a game, but when you talk to a CCP developer vs. one from another MMO, there is a fundamental difference on how they approach the player on his or her way up the ladder.

Most games spend their time focusing on the newbie experience, then the first so many levels, etc. Whether or not I agree with the approach of games like WoW and WAR, there is no doubt that they pay attention to the curve and relentlessly seek out points where players drop off. They try and balance the content to keep people playing all the way until the end.

By sheer data, that means the lower level you are, the better your experience in a game is likely to be. Everyone plays a level one character, not everyone plays level 40. So, when it gets down to launching a game, you better bet those first 10 levels get a lot more time under the microscope.

See this Orc? He's lonely.

They always say they’ll get to those higher levels and they eventually do, but remember that no developer can keep up with a player. It’s why MMOs right after launch tend to have some pretty big hiccups in the mid-levels.

By contrast, CCP doesn’t talk about the journey nearly as much. Sure, like everyone else, they want to improve their newbie experience. EVE is damn overwhelming for a new player and, while I don’t have their data, I would bet my left arm that they drop more players inside the first hour than at any other point.

Now, let me disclaimer what is to follow. I am speaking from my general experience talking to CCP developers over the years. I may be wrong, and I am not trying to put words in their mouth. This is just the impression I’ve come away with over dozens of meetings.

It seems to me that their focus is not getting players “through the game,” without issue, but getting them into a corporation.

This is partly the nature of the game, of course. Leveling up is basically automated and has very little to do with the reason people log in day to day, thus it only makes sense that the focus has to be on something else.

But whatever the reason they chose to focus on this, it is – see I can get back to that point I raised off the top – the biggest reason, in my opinion, their subscriber count continues to steadily grow, even years after launch.

The fact is that people keep people in games, not clever end-games, not polished leveling experiences, not pixel shaders. People.

Sure, the game has to not suck. That’s key too, I am not saying abandon the “game” itself, but the focus of MMOs has shifted so far towards mechanics and “the experience” that grouping and guilds have become secondary, in some strange way.

For example, most modern traditional MMOs make grouping so damn easy that I don’t even need to talk to people.

At the risk of picking on Warhammer again – and I only pick on it because I’m playing it at the moment, so don’t take it personally Mythic! – I recently joined a Warband that was running around the open world RvR area killing anything that moved. It was great fun.

And while it’s cool that I could hit three buttons and teleport across the world and join this warband as they killed some Destruction, Mythic had made it so easy that I never actually in the three hours I ran around with these people typed a single word into my chat window. Not one.

Maybe I’m an anti-social bastard, or an a-typical user… but, “Hey, can I join your group” is a good ice breaker.

I never would have done this in an older MMO. Even if I didn’t care about my pickup group, I would have to say hello and “Do you need an Armsman?”

Modern mechanics have made pickup groups so easy that you don’t ever need to talk to anyone. That was fine for hermits, but when you can experience all the content, in groups, without ever saying a word, the pendulum has shifted too far in the other direction.

Not a single UI in sight... and people are talking to each other!

Think of it this way. If when you walked into a bar, there was a menu on your table of the people in there and what they had in mind for the rest of the evening and all you had to do was touch a button beside their name and voila, you were off… well, let’s just say the marriage rate in the United States would drop really freaking fast.

What’s the point of making long term connections, if you can get what you need – in this case levels, sicko – without having to say a word?

"The future of the human race depends on it!"

Remember who plays MMOs. It’s nerds. We’re not exactly always the most social creatures. Make it easy and people stop socializing.

And if people stop socializing, the long term relationships required to be the glue of a community are never made.

What’s that mean?

It means the only thing standing between Bob and the Cancel Account button is the quality of the user experience.

…and no one wants that!


Dana Massey