It's Not What You Play
I blog, but I also like to read what other people have to say about games, so I follow over 100 other blogs in my RSS feed. And every now and then, probably once or twice a week, there will be a game-leaving post. I'm not talking about ragequits, just people who don't feel their current game is giving them what they need and who will be moving on, either to another game or just to log into RL a little more for a while.
The older I get, the more normal this seems to become. Most of the other bloggers I follow are – how to put this delicately? – no longer in the first flower of their youth, which is a trait that applies to me too. It makes us perhaps a little more sensitive to endings and losses than when we were in our 20s and felt a lot more invulnerable than we do these days. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; but I've noticed a more elegiac feel in the posts people make when they leave games, or when they realize too many of their friends have left a given game.
I'm going to start by putting a nail in the coffin of one misconception that's irked me for years. Just because the term MMO (with or without the RPG) contains the word “multiplayer” doesn't mean you have to be joined at the hip with other people from the second you log in to the moment you log off. All it means is that you're playing a game that a whole bunch of others are also playing. What it does mean, however, is that there's a reasonable expectation of being able to socialize, because there are other people around.
And most of us socialize in games, to whatever extent and according to our own quirks and preferences. I don't think I can name a single person I know who is a total hermitic misanthrope in games, though I'm sure they're around – and more power to them. The possibility of socialization and the presence of other players in no way obliges anyone to spent their subscription money on doing anything but what they want to do. (Okay, we're excluding aggressively antisocial behavior like griefing here, but that's pretty obvious.)
That aside, however, just about everyone I know in the games I play is sociable to some extent or other, though I'll grant you that my definition of “sociable” is perhaps broader than most. I've known one guy, older than me and with apparently quite a rich and colorful past, who hardly ever says a word when he's online; but he's there, and he'll say hi now and then, and I've known him for a decade across several different games. He may not talk much, but he's also the guy who sent me a package of southwestern delicacies (chilies, chips, dip) all the way to England from the US when I admitted I'd never seen a blue corn chip before. That's plenty sociable enough for me, because my definition of sociable is based on what other people are prepared to do to socialize with me, and not on what I want from them in order to fulfill my expectations.
I would guess that I'm somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to being sociable. I like to do my own thing in games a lot of the time, which is partly related to how my playtime is structured (I usually have to AFK a lot and often without warning); I enjoy grouping with people I know; I can be extremely talkative in guild chat and I usually have anywhere from one to half a dozen tell streams going at any one time. I make new friends easily; some will in time become old and well known friends, and others will drop off and disappear. That's life in MMOs.
There are, however, some friends that have become constants in my gaming life, whether I'm currently playing with them or not, and the recent posts on leaving and friends leaving made me realize how much richer my gaming life is when those friends are around. When I look back on my most memorable MMO moments, it's not so much the kills I remember as the events that involve my friends. In Asheron's Call, I remember corpse runs (oh, so many corpse runs!) in the middle of the night, the ones that “will only take 5 minutes, honest!” where three hours later everyone has at least one corpse lying in the depths of a dungeon somewhere, everyone is exhausted, and yet somehow everyone is laughing their ass off because a shared experience, no matter how irritating, can still be a huge amount of fun. I remember the ritual booting from the guild mansion at the end of every guild meeting, and I remember the loot giveaways where people would just drop stuff on the ground for whoever wanted it to pick up.
In SWG, I remember trying frantically to log in after the update on the day player cities were launched, then running around like a maniac while trying to coordinate without the benefit of voice chat with those of us who for whatever reason couldn't log in, just so we could be one of the first 10 cities on Kauri. We did it, too. It was draining, but it's not an experience I will ever forget. I have similar memories in all the games I've played with my RL and v-friends, be it in Vanguard, LOTRO, CoX, Fallen Earth and a handful more. Running our baby night elves from Darnassus to Stormwind (well, Ironforge) during the WoW beta is another lag-laden, crocolisk-fleeing, death-intensive few hours that's forever engraved in my memory. We died and died and lost the main group and died some more, having no clue where we were or what we were doing, and it was a hoot.
Friends undeniably make a game more sticky, and there's research these days to prove as much, though you only have to look at the way social games try to propagate themselves among your friends lists to realize it's a fact well-known to marketing types. Acquaintances are one thing, and they tend to come and go without impacting our experience all that much, but close friends can actually and definitively impact one's enjoyment. Sometimes a game is just not the same without certain people in it. I'll admit right now that I might not have gone back to WoW for Cataclysm at all – or that I certainly wouldn't have stayed as long as I have – if it hadn't been for my guildies, some of whom I know in real life and many of whom I've known for 10 years; in both cases, whether I've met them in the flesh or not, they're friends, and it's quite likely I would have moved on by now if it weren't for them.
I'm not trying to sound all doom-and-gloom – quite the contrary, in fact. But one of the benefits (hah!) of getting older is an awareness of the fragility and impermanence of things. Solid friendships are a wonderful thing whether you play games or not; they're worth paying attention to, especially in the ever-mutable social world of MMOs. And they're worth a shout-out. Be good to your friends and always be open to the possibility of making more, because when it comes right down to it, what you play isn't nearly as important as who you play it with.