Massively Single Player?
Players, players everywhere, and little reason to group.
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
It’s one of the most devastating complaints made against an MMORPG: “Game XYZ might as well be a single player game in a glorified chat room.” In the halcyon days of the genre, no one would have mistaken a game like EverQuest for a single player game in MMO clothing. If people didn’t roleplay, they at least sought to interact with the larger community (mostly because that’s how players got traction in the game world, short of grinding away at levels and experience alone). Nowadays, there’s simply no such thing as an “ooc” (out of character) chat channel anymore, because there’s no distinction between what’s appropriate game chatter and what may be safely filtered out if you aren’t in the mood for hijinx. (One channel for zonewide chat is one of the more unfortunate innovations brought about by the World of Warcraft phenomenon.)
But, I promise, this article won’t be just another rant about how things used to be. “Casual” has arrived, and I don’t think there’s any going back. In point of fact, I hope there’s no going back to those painful days where an entire night was spent frantically beating away at mobs in order to eek out a fraction of a percentage of experience. Or when you needed 4 of your closest friends to pal around with you for four evenings straight to get that single solitary piece of decent loot.
However, as painful as those sessions were, they fostered a small, tightly knit community. My question, therefore, is this: is it possible to develop a strictly casual online community nowadays? Is forcible downtime the only way to get people talking to each other (about something more than how to kill the next mob)? Let’s take a look at what driving the casual trend in today’s MMORPGs, and why the market continues to embrace the Massively Multiplayer concept despite a casual consensus.
Hardcore no more
In college, between schoolwork and work-work I could manage a good 2-4 hours a night to play, give or take. You’ll never find me pinned to a frame in a social butterfly collector’s study, true, and a string of long-distance relationships left me with a lot of time to kill sitting alone in the dorm. Sociologists and former professors alike would gape in horror at that nice round figure, but the truth is I studied smart and worked hard. I earned good grades, and my wind-down gaming time was often ripped from rosy, contented slumber. I could do this back then, I can’t do it nowadays. If a night of earnest effort only earned me a speck of experience in one of today’s MMOs, the next thing I’d do is cancel that sub with a flurry of angry clicks. I think there’s an entire generation of gamers out there that, with regards to EverQuest, we’re happy we played the game, we loved everything about it, it was great, but we’re not going back there. Nosiree. That style of grouping / raiding had its heyday, but you’ve got to be a special kind of gamer to put up with a nightly “talk - invite to group/raid - talk some more- invite their friends – travel – meet up – wait – wait some more – and finally kill something an hour later” routine in today’s gaming environment. We’ll do it when we have to, and while grouping is fun, the downtime is killer.
But there’s the rub: to form something more than an incidental relationship, you have to have some excuse to spend some unallocated time together. As casual gaming demands that the developers streamline the experience (yet keep the gameplay compelling and challenging), fostering the kind of virtual gaming community that makes for a happy, low-churn subscriber base becomes exponentially more difficult.
Let's get this party started
Maybe we’ve already lost the soul of the MMO. If so, there’s a lot of folks still searching for it; and though we may not have as much time as we used to, we’re looking to re-create some fond moments of gaming days gone-by. To that end, here’s a few thoughts on how to keep it casual while building an active online gaming community:
- Denser servers with lower populations – This Richard Garriott approach to server pops simply increases the number of chances two players have to see each other, group up, connect on a more personal level, etc. It’s as simple as it is effective.
- Voicechat – Gaming seems headed for a variety of innovations on the user interface front, and VoIP technology is just the start. It’s going to be a learning process for developers and players alike (filtering / monitoring abusive language is one issue; getting everyone at least listening in is another, since voicechat doesn’t work practically unless everyone hears the instructions given). Once gamers grow comfortable with push-to-talk voice solutions, I foresee that many players will use the keyboard solely for controlling the game. The speed of today’s games is already so fast that typing a message takes you out of the game for an uncomfortable period of time, even though it’s just a few seconds. No matter how you feel about people using cellphones on the go, you can see how voicechat may penetrate the MMO mainstream via the cultural mainstream.
- Achievements – Another unfortunate result of 1st-Gen burnout is a generation of gamers that realized they have nothing to show for the countless hours they’ve played a game after they quit. Even Atari games often had a “Congratulations!” screen. PvP ladder rankings on a website are great, but show off some of the cool stuff players do with their characters too, even if 500,000 other players do the same thing. And I’m not really even talking about loot or levels; for example, a badge for completing a key quest or exploring some out of the way place is a community builder – it gives players some fun (if nerdy) common ground.
- Quest chains like passenger trains – Exploits be damned, I’d like to see players be able to jump in on a more involved quest at whatever point they log in at and pick up the rewards from there. The more the merrier needs to be the rule.
- More mentoring – This is one of EverQuest 2’s major innovations, and I can’t figure out why it hasn’t caught on. Basically, any player can assume the level of a lower-level friend, fighting beside them with a scaled back version of spells, armor, etc so that they’ll get full credit for the kills (otherwise they’d get next to nothing, since you’re helping them with your all-powerful self). Thus if your significant other logs on and he/she isn’t half the gamer you are, no problem, mentor them up and enjoy the game with them. I’d like to see the concept expanded; perhaps once per your character’s existence, you can “adopt” another character – afterwards both characters would permanently be the simple average of your combined levels, something like that. Though some players won’t make the best decision with their “adoption” – it could be a powerful incentive to get a good friend into the game.
- Innovative ruleset servers –I’d like to see a game offer a fixed development scheme; i.e. players would automatically advance, say, one level every week. Take the bulk of the achiever-impetus out of the game, and see if people will huddle together into groups and treat the game more like a social adventure. The technical demands would be huge, but how cool would it be to see hundreds of lowbies zerg a dragon like some fantasy battle of yore.