The Seed that Didn't Grow:

The Fate of the Social MMO

By Ralsu

In case you missed it, Runesoft Game Development ceased official
support of its massively-multiplayer online game (MMO) called Seed over
the weekend. What the hell is Seed?
you ask. Seed was a sci-fi MMO where social interaction, politics, and
role-playing were king. Players did not advance their characters
through the slaughter of countless href="">sphincter
beetles. I mean, Seed didn't even have classes. Instead, players
advanced through parlay and negotiation. OK, now I hear you demanding,
"Where do I get the phat lewt in a game like that? How do I know if I'm
progressing?" And--just like that--you see why Seed's operations have
come to a halt. As we explore the feasibility of a social MMO across
the Ten Ton Hammer network today, I can't help but think that Seed was
doomed from the outset. Gamers want clear units of measurement from
their games. It's much more satisfying to kill the 50th sphincter
beetle in 2 hours and have your piercing offense skill increase by 1
than to negotiate the price of H-VAC units for 2 hours. The latter
feels eerily too much like real life.

What Players Get from MMOs

The desire to escape the pressure and politics of real life is one of
the driving forces behind successful MMOs. Players enjoyed being caught
up in the lore of their virtual worlds. It's good when the tension you
feel because your brother doesn't approve of your fiancè is
replaced by a seething hatred for the goblins who have been raiding the
mines of your dwarven kin. It's far more enjoyable to learn about the
pantheon of an online universe than to contemplate the senseless
killing that occurs everyday because of religious differences. Finally,
it's more fun to blast a few alien vessels and board them to loot their
good than it is to worry about where you'll get the money to cover rent
and groceries next month. Plain and simple, MMOs are a form of escape
for us, and while some people enjoy role-playing that creates a sense
of realism, most people agree that it's perfectly OK that their online
avatars never have to use the restroom.

Another way in which we use MMOs to escape manifests in conquests. Big
or small--but mostly big--we enjoy teaming up with a good group of
players to take down a fearsome dragon or to defend our home world from
a massive invasion fleet. A social game like Seed has its
accomplishments, too; don't get me wrong. It's just not as satisfying
to secure trade routes from Argoles to Niepter as it is to bash
something really hard with a stick. In real life, some of us work
menial jobs we don't enjoy. Or we feel frustrated in our careers
because we work under a restrictive administrator. MMOs let us escape
to a world where we are dragon-slayers and ace combat pilots. A grocery
bagger who is in charge of nobody during the day can be the guild
leader of the most respected raid guild in href="">EverQuest 2 by night. A lawyer
who loses a shot at partner to an officious brown-nose by day can come
home to take out his frustrations on hill giants that night.

Social Role-play in DDO

For sure, Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) gives players the kind of
escape that I describe above. If anything, I'm going to say that DDO
works to the opposite extreme. All there is to do in DDO is kill
monsters and run quests. It's constant action. While DDO does feature a
System, it doesn't really involve any social aspects. Players
need only blast through a few quests to increase favor. And the Favor
System rewards are not social either. Since DDO href=""> alt="scorpion attack"
style="border: 2px solid ; width: 267px; height: 200px;" align="left">doesn't
have a real faction system, there's no opportunity to perform heroic
deeds and sway the opinion of a previously hostile lord.

The inability to shape social status in a meaningful way is one of the
game play areas where DDO is lacking compared to it's tabletop
inspirations. When I played my Dungeons & Dragons (DDO) campaign
with Ralsu, my bard could enter a new city and immediately set out to
learn about the mayor or lord. He could find out what he needed to do
to get on that important person's good side and go do it. Once he'd won
the approval of a major non-player character (NPC), he'd gain access to
special quests, discover powerful allies, and gain vicious enemies.
Ralsu would often make a social faux pas based on an incorrect
assumption or (in his case) a lack of social decorum. Such a mistake
would create other interesting scenarios that the dungeon master (DM)
and I enjoyed working through.

The levels of social complexity like those that used to leave my DM and
me in stitches are sorely missed in DDO. At a glance, it appears that
the humanoids of Stormreach all live in perfect harmony. The kobold
invasion of the sewers and the minotaur invasions of the surrounding
area seem to be the only conflict present in DDO's only city. I
would love to see some in-fighting within House Jorasco as one member
seeks to usurp the power of another. Or it could be fun to see House
Phiarlan declare hostility toward House Deneith. Such social
machinations would make the Favor System mean something. Players would
need to choose to serve one or two houses exclusively, though it might
mean the other houses would send assassins to dispose of them. It would
even be a nice way to introduce player-vs-player (PvP) combat as an
aspect of lore. Perhaps your work for House Jorasco has annoyed a
prominent member of House Deneith, who has hired another player as an
assassin to take care of you.

Parting Thoughts

I don't think a purely social MMO can ever succeed. Players are too
invested in character development and clear progression for that to
ever work. The sad consequence is that we are likely stuck the levels,
loot, and grind of typical MMOs. At the same time, I think at least
some level of social interaction--be it factions or a Diplomacy system
promised by the upcoming Vanguard--is needed to make a virtual world
feel truly alive. We gamers enjoy a good escape, but we also want our
worlds designed so that our choices are meaningful. Right now, the only
meaningful choices in DDO are which Feat you select or you spend that
next Action point.

does social complexity fit into MMOs? Tell us in our forums!

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016