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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

How MMOs Designed Away Social Gameplay

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 26, 2009

In the heyday of EQ and DAoC players were incredibly loyal to their game. They logged in every day for hours.  They forged Long-term friendships. They often had a gaming schedule based that meshed with their “regular group” in their game of choice. Some RL marriages resulted. Care was exercised in what a player said, and to whom. A bad reputation made it hard to find groups or stay in a guild. Getting kicked by a GM for bad behavior was a real punishment.

From a business standpoint this was pure gold. People played EQ for years. Yes, it was possible for a solo character to advance. However, as EQ Necromancers undoubtedly remember, the painful difficulty drove many to seek groups whenever feasible. In this first half-decade player longevity was so common it became assumed. The game industry businessmen learned to equate major, successful MMOs with long term subscription income.

In November 2004 WoW introduced solo-able content. Aside from certain quests, instanced dungeons and endgame encounters, no grouping was required. Of course, one could group, and many veterans did so. However, given the time needed to find a group, and the significant chance it would include players with no group skills, min-max players correctly concluded that soloing was most efficient than grouping.

MMO designers around the world sought to imitate WoW’s success and made significant parts of their game solo-able. Conan and Warhammer were built on that philosophy, along with a significant number of quests in Lord of the Rings. Bioware’s The Old Republic appears to be built around strongly story-driven quests that vary by class, which implies highly solo-able content. Even Vanguard, supposedly an “old guard” game in the spirit of EQ, had more solo than group content.

Game players responded predictably. They tore through the solo-able content, reaching top level in a few months. The only remaining gameplay for them was PvE or PvP raiding. These required both character abilities and human teamwork skills very different from soloing. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t make the difficult transition went on to another game. Games that sold a million boxes struggled to maintain 300k subs at the six month mark. The business side of game publishing was in an uproar – this wasn’t the long term subscription income they expected.

Recently my wife and I were playing through the higher-level PvE zones of Warhammer. We consumed all the quests and saw virtually all the sights of a region in a half dozen hours or so. All that world-building, mob-building and quest-building for a paltry half dozen hours of play? In the “bad old days” of EQ, not to mention the various Asian MMO grind fests, we spent dozens of hours getting to know a zone really well before moving onward and upward. The extra time gave us a chance to notice other players in the same area. We chatted, grouped up, and evaluated them as potential long-term gaming friends. In solo-able games you will go weeks without seeing anyone answer a tell, waves hello or ask to group.

Others noticed this phenomenon: see Wolfshead’s “Why Players Should Be the Ultimate Content for MMOs.” What is the design lesson? Obviously the level-up curve must be stretched out and take longer. But more importantly, games seeking long-term “stickiness” must make grouping vastly more rewarding than soloing. For example, greater rewards compensate players for the trials and tribulations inherent in grouping.

Exceptions or Enhancements?

An exception to this rule may be MMOs aimed at non-western markets, where play normally occurs in Internet Cafes. Teaming there occurs via real world encounters as players look over each other’s shoulders. Casual conversations and offers of help occur in the real world, completely independent of gameplay mechanics. Of course, gameplay that fosters grouping will inevitably foster these real-world encounters as well.

A similar exception may be forming around the new “social gaming” milieu. Here players enter the game via social networking sites like Facebook. Gameplay mechanics encourage a player to recruit friends. A player’s game awards are automatically displayed to those friends, and players can “gift” others with useful or even critical gameplay items. Within a year or two I expect social site “wall” links will connect players to larger downloaded games, with games reporting back to the social site a player’s activities, gifts, awards and standing.

But are these cases really exceptions? Internet cafes and social networking sites facilitate casual, friendly contact. They don’t facilitate cooperative gameplay per se. Only the game can do that. In effect, the cafes and social sites really serve to help people FIND compatible “game buddies” for groups or raids. Once people are together within the game, group gameplay must cement those bonds in the “test of battle.”

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3 Responses to “How MMOs Designed Away Social Gameplay”

  1. Frank P. Williamson said

    Interesting article. I still remember the guild raids in EQ, herding chickens is the light-hearted way of describing the pain of setting up a 70-person raid and actually executing it effectively. 2 hours or more just for raid setup were the norm. Frankly I do not miss that.

    World of Warcraft has very good gameplay mechanics, greifers are not hard to deal with, you can log on for 30 minutes and do something meaningful, or spend hours with your guild in a raid.

    There will always be a shift in game play when the experience bar vanishes as you hit the level cap. Making experience to level exponential (ie: Legends of Kesmai) makes it easy to blow thru the early levels and get to upper level content within a couple levels of your friends with high level chars, while also making the upper levels extremely long to go thru .. I thought that was very nicely done.

    I felt the biggest drawback to Conan Online was the lack of anyone to group with for end game, towns were deserted ..social interaction became very rare. It was an empty world. I do think they had the best Barbarian online though :)

    In all the games over the years I have learned there is no simple formula for success.
    If there were, everyone would be doing it.
    There are elements that need to be there, though.
    Enough carrots dangling for a character to pursue. Variety instead of a beaten path. A sense of humor. A way to deal with greifers effectively. Effective small unit tactics that complement each other. A mix of single and group things to do that offer short and long duration adventure/accomplishment. And .. a good story :)
    If it’s fun, people will play it.
    If it isn’t .. they wont.

    -Gray Eagle aka Frank P. Williamson, just my 2 copper

  2. […] How MMOs Designed Away Social Gameplay […]

  3. Stabs said

    I suppose the test case for this will be SWTOR.

    SWTOR appears to mainly be offering 8 quest lines that will be fun to play through once. Almost certainly it will be more fun to play solo than to group with people who Esc out of the dialogue you want to hear.

    They are vague about end-game content. Possibly it will be surprisingly brilliant but I’m expecting something fairly wow-like (battlegrounds, solo mob grinding, raid dungeons etc).

    If the main reason to play the game is to solo each class once will they be able to keep people?

    Oddly I half-expect that they will for the same reasons WoW keeps people. People get in, get comfortable, have some status, have some friends and don’t want to hop to some other game where they’ll be a level 1 noob again.

    It will be a very interesting test case for your theory.

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