The Ever-Changing Social Scene
My introduction to MMOs was through the Lord of the Rings Online in the
summer of 2008. I remember those early days vividly - my fragile Dwarf
Minstrel running around Ered Luin in motley low-level rags getting his ass
kicked by just about everything. It was not only my first LotRO character,
it was my first character in any MMO, and the learning curve was steep.
But I had friends who played often, and joined a Kinship filled with
smart, patient and helpful people, which made the introduction much less
painful that it would have been otherwise. In nearly every MMO I have
tried since, that support structure has been missing. But the learning
curve hasn't been as steep. For one thing, I'm more genre-savvy now than I
was when I started out those long years ago. But, more importantly, the
games themselves are changing. The social construct is no longer really
the central feature of the games.
I haven't been playing MMOs as long as some veterans - the ones who cut
their teeth on EverQuest back in the 20th century, for example. Original
EQ'ers will notice even more of a shift away from the core social aspects
of the game. See, the younger players just getting started with recent
titles may not realize this, but MMOs started out with a particular focus
on that second "M" - the "multi-player" part. Grouping up wasn't just for
the odd side-trip to an optional dungeon, quick instanced PvP matches or
elder-game raids and dungeons. In some older games, you couldn't progress
the main story without grouping up. You might be able to grind your way to
level cap by tedious solo mob-farming, but if you wanted anything beyond
that, you found a group for it.
That's how it used to be in LotRO. The epic books, which are the "main
storyline" of LotRO, had several difficult instanced chapters requiring a
full 6-person group. The group quests from Books 1 to 6 were quite
challenging when attempted with an on-level group, but you could
technically postpone them until you hit level 50 and just run through them
solo if you wanted. When you hit Book 7, though, that was another matter.
Book 7 took you to East Angmar, where things got real very quickly. The
remaining books were all level 50, and most of them had at least one
chapter requiring a full 6-man group.
Things began to change, though, around the time of the Siege of Mirkwood
expansion and the introduction of the Skirmish system. Group content began
to take a back seat to scalable instances. Open-world group content all
but disappeared. Eventually, even the epic books that used to require full
groups got converted so they would be soloable. Other players became less
of a necessity and more of a loosely-tolerated inconvenience who would
sometimes ninja your Dwarf-Iron deposits but could otherwise be largely
This isn't confined just to LotRO, either, but is happening across the
board - other games began developing ways to allow players to run group
content without all the social engineering. Developers started to
really make changes to reflect how players realistically took part in
their games. Most leveling-up content is done solo, and once the race to
the level cap is finished, players start grouping up and running end-game
content for gear. In newer games that I've played, I rarely encounter any
low-level group content at all, except for a few optional side-trips, and
what I do find can often be run in total radio-silence.
I noticed this specifically in Neverwinter during open beta. I would
queue up for a skirmish or a dungeon, the group would form, we would blast
through the place and collect our loot and only afterwards would I
realized that nobody had typed anything in chat the entire time. If things
started to go poorly, someone might complain until the situation was
corrected (or ditch the group without bothering to explain why), but if
things went decently, no one would bother saying a damned thing. At the
end, everyone parts ways silently with not so much as a "TY" or "GJE1."
That's not specific to one game, or to one community. I've encountered it
elsewhere as well, even in games with historically great communities. The
multiplayer aspect of "massively multiplayer online games" is, quite
simply, falling to the wayside. Players group up only begrudgingly, groups
disperse immediately after the dungeon is finished and nobody seems
interested in getting to know anyone else. Every game I've played in the
past several years has shown this decline, and most have actively
facilitated by introducing anti-social tools into the mix:
These are the primary culprit in the decline of the social game. You queue
up for a dungeon or raid or whatever and wait for others to do the same.
No need to ask others for help or "interview" potential running-mates. You
don't need to know anybody or belong to a club, or even talk at all. You
click a few buttons, wait for the queue to fill up and you're off.
This sort of dehumanizing system turns other players into a kind of style="font-style: italic;">D
currency or ballast. You need X number of bodies, (n)
each of types A, B and C, to run Dungeon
they are as long as they fill a specific slot on the team roster. They're
not people you are running with, they are sets of numbers.
style="font-style: italic;">D. It doesn't matter who
And the cross-server group finders, like the one in World of Warcraft,
are even more anti-social. If you run with groups slapped together via a
same-server dungeon grouping tool, the chances are good that you will
eventually run into those people again at some point. If you happen to get
paired with someone amazing or particularly awful, you'll remember that
and it can have consequences later on. If the group finder tool is pairing
up people from several different servers, the odds that you will run into
the same people again are much, much slimmer. Nobody can really stand out
as particularly good or bad, because they are essentially forgotten and
gone forever the moment the dungeon run ends. There's basically nothing
worth remembering if you'll never see the player again, and no reason to
communicate with anyone beyond basic combat commands.
Of course, you can still run group content the old-fashioned way,
shouting out casting calls to build a pick-up group or running with a crew
you know well, but it takes time to build that sort of relationship. Time
that you could be spending running...
Scalable Content - This is used in LotRO and SWTOR a
lot, and has had a profound impact on the way people run group content.
Essentially, content originally designed to be run with a group can be
scaled to the player's preference; if he wants to run it solo, there's an
option to do so. It can also be run at lower levels for decreased
In SWTOR's case, low-level content is recycled and upscaled for endgame.
The instances are basically the same as they were 20 levels ago, but the
monsters have been cranked-up and force-fed steroids and methamphetamines
to make them a challenge for higher-level characters. Because these
instances are familiar from previous runs, they can be tackled by pick-up
groups with a reasonable expectation of success.
Because players can use dungeon finders to run scaled content...
Guilds Have A Lot Less To Offer - In a
lot of current games, there's no real reason to join a guild. The real
value of any guild in any game is created by the players themselves; the
social network, the communication tools and the organization that are
built and used by the best raiding guilds in any game all come from
third-party sources. The buffs and occasional bonus quests in games like
Tera and WoW offer new players a little bit more than the blank framework
of, say, LotRO's kinships, but new players can get by just fine without
Players no longer really need guilds or social networks to get ahead in
the game. Group-finding tools take care of all of that. If a player wants
to run the most challenging endgame content regularly with a consistent
group, then sure, join a guild and sign up for that guild's events. But
there are usually enough people using dungeon or group finders, even for
endgame content, that belonging to a guild is no longer really necessary.
Queue on up and dig in like everyone else.
These changes over time are neither good nor bad. The market is changing
and players are looking for a different kind of game now than they were
five years ago. And when game genres grow out of small niche markets to
become industry-leading titans, of course that's going to bring change
with it. And none of this is to say that the social aspect of MMOs has
evaporated entirely. Guilds, while less attractive now than they were a
few years ago, are still a great way to connect with like-minded people,
even if you do end up using random group-finding tools to run dungeons and
such. And for newbie players, guilds are still the best way to get
acquainted with a new game. You don't really need one, strictly speaking,
but it's still the best way to find your place in a game world. I wouldn't
trade my guilds for anything.
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