Looking for What?
When the Dungeon Finder (aka the Looking For Group tool) was announced for World of Warcraft months ago, I took my stance in the "this is going to ruin the community" camp. I admit, I was grateful my druid would finally be able to find groups, since her server was notorious for a thinly spread population at higher levels. Otherwise, I was sure the system was going to prove to be ruinous to the server environment.
Months later, I have come to admit that I was wrong.
The Dungeon Finder tool in World of Warcraft (for those of you who have avoided the game) is an in-game interface which allows you to select your role (tank, healer, or damage), what instances you're interested in, and then places you in a queue. The system will then automatically put together a group from across multiple servers. Blizzard also threw in a small, but not inconsequential, bonus for using the system. The idea behind the system was to remove the hassle of putting together a group manually, while expanding the pool of available players.
Essentially, the Dungeon Finder tool is an extension of the lobby system available in many MMOs currently. Those tools allow players to list their interest in a group, or the existence of a current group, as a sort of living, interactive bulletin board. World of Warcraft simply made a move to automate the process, making it easier to form a group but reducing player interaction, and by making it cross-server, expanding the pool of players but reducing the chance of intra-server bonding.
The change was met with a great deal of criticism. There was, of course, the argument that the game was again "catering to the casuals." Naturally, the change favored casual players who had less time to look for, or put together, groups - but it didn't only benefit casuals, or dumb down any content. The more concerned players complained that the change would ruin a server's community. There was little statistical chance we would run into the same players from cross-server queues again. If we liked someone, we couldn't invite them back into a group, or into a guild, or even chat with them; if we hated someone, we had no way of blacklisting them or making their reputation as a horrible player known. In short, the Dungeon Finder would ruin the social atmosphere of a server.
There was precedent to this concern: years before, Blizzard changed battlegrounds to be cross-server, in another effort to reduce queue times for players. The change redefined the PvP experience in World of Warcraft. Cross-server battlegrounds took away the sense of defeating a tangible enemy, of hunting down the personal nemesis, of beating someone who had a killer reputation on the server. Gone was the sense of being a PvP hero or villain. A feeling of meaning, of 'epicness', had been lost, and many of us still pine for the days before, even though it meant longer queue times.
Here's the difference: instances are a lot different than battlegrounds. There is no ongoing competition. In PvP, you win or lose; in PvE, you win or give in. Once you've been through a dungeon once, it's about getting through, getting your loot, and getting out. Before the change, grouping was about finding as many of your friends as you could to go, and then finding people to fill in the rest. After the change, well, nothing has changed. Just like before, I'm asking friends if they want to go; just like before, there's a chance that the people I pick up may be amazingly good or amazingly bad. The real difference is that they aren't usually on my server, so they can't become part of my community.
But the Dungeon Finder has not destroyed server communities, because it's impossible to destroy what didn't exist in the first place. There was no community around finding an instance group. Instead, there was a poorly used lobby tool and a global LFG channel where people spammed their requests. Using the tool was as it is today: a way of finding people to fill in the gaps. The tool makes it quicker, and it means you may not be able to ask SuperAwesomeTank to come to your raid later in the week, but those instances were far between anyway. You're still picking up people you don't know, and may realistically never see again.
The truth is, a server's community is growing in illusion. Sure, it still exists in forums, chat channels, and guilds. The MMO industry, however, has leaned increasingly toward catering to single player content to meet demand. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing is usually a matter of taste. It's fair to say that catering too much to either solo or group content is a bad practice, but offering a fair balance in between maximizes playability of the game for all player types. Because solo content is increasing, however, the need for a group or social bonding is diminishing - and that means that strength of the community on a server is too.
Notice I didn't say disappearing. Unless a game goes fully solo-only, MMOs will still have communities, even if small. In fact, I've seen a few games whose content is so solo-friendly that grouping is only a way to make things easier, and yet the community rallies strongly around the game. Players have a strong compulsion to communicate with others because they share a similar interest - the game - and can benefit from sharing information. Even with the lack of an in-game benefit (such as running an instance), a server population can thrive on simply getting to know each other, helping each other, and discussing the game.
There's no reason to be fatalistic about the fate of the social aspect of MMOs. MMOs are not becoming more anti-social; they're expanding to meet player demand. Does that mean that tools may appear to automate some of the social hassle of putting together a group? Sure. Does it mean that, as I discussed last week, players will be less willing to form a group to get something done? Sometimes. None of this means that the community is collapsing like a honeybee colony. It's more like going through puberty - there are some uncomfortable changes as the MMO player base grows, but we keep on living. Who knows, maybe as MMOs go past this puberty stage, we'll actually like how they've grown up.