No man is an island, entire of itself
In the time since I started playing online games, back with EverQuest, things have changed in a lot of ways, mostly for the better. There’s one area though in which modern MMOs haven’t shown a great deal of innovation: social tools. In the last decade, I’d argue that there have been three meaningful new ideas for social tools in MMOs. I’d like to talk about what we have and what we lack.
Let’s start out with the three innovations I spoke about. They’re 1) the ability to join content from anywhere in the game world, 2) the dungeon finder tool, and 3) public quests.
Classically speaking, MMOs strove for realism in many ways. If you wanted to visit a dungeon, you’d first figure out where it was, then fight your way there. That’s the simplest kind of design in that it mirrors reality; you can’t enter a dungeon until you get to the front door. But increasingly, games today allow players to enter dungeons/raids/instances/whatever you call them without having to first arrive at the front door. The convenience is undeniable. Some people worry that being able to access content without visiting in person will make the game world feel smaller and less immersive by failing to require or encourage exploration. And ok, I agree that this does happen, but I also feel personally that the convenience more than outweighs the drawbacks. It really comes down to how one wishes to spend one’s time; would you like to spend an evening in the Dungeon of Doom, or would you like to spend the first half of your evening getting to said Dungeon?
Once the requirement for physical visitation was removed, it was possible to take the next step. Mind you, it took years, and this step still isn’t common… but nonetheless, the other new idea in social tools for MMOsis WoW’s dungeon finder tool. In short, it allows people to queue up by selecting the role they’d like to play. The game will then automatically match players with other players until a team is formed with all required roles. This is undeniably convenient, and allows casual players the chance to find groups for content they otherwise couldn’t experience. There are a few downsides to this system though, including lack of control and lack of community feedback. The lack of control is fairly obvious; you’re placed into a group by an algorithm, which is efficient and fair and might well put you in some terrible groups. The lack of community feedback results from a necessary feature of such a system; it needs to pull from as large a body of players as possible, meaning across servers in games that use separate servers. If WoW’s automated dungeon finder didn’t pull from across all servers, the queues would be much longer, and correspondingly the critical mass of participants would be harder to hit. However, if you’re playing with people from another server, there’s less concern about how one is perceived, which leads in turn to John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.
This leads us to the other new idea in social tools for MMOs: the public quest. In some regards this provides the best aspects of the dungeon finder without some of the drawbacks. The basic idea is that an event occurs in an area, and all players within range are automatically participants. When this is manifested well, the result is a greater degree of freedom; players don’t have to worry about joining a group do to the public quest because everyone gets credit. You’re playing with people from your own server, so this should foster a sense of community that the dungeon finder cannot provide. However, there’s a crucial problem with Public Quests: you need to have enough players present to complete them, else they don’t work. There’s no advantage to everyone getting credit for killing a boss, if there aren’t enough people present to kill that boss. In WAR and Champions Online, a lot of the Public Quests were very busy for a while after launch, but soon were unpopulated and essentially pointless.
So, ok, that’s what we have. Now what do we need, that we don’t yet have? I’d submit that there are a few basic tools that we ought to have as players, that would make socializing within MMOs a lot easier. The most important of these are the simplest: notes and a grouping tool. Both exist in some form in some games, but neither have ever been done especially well, from my point of view.
I meet a lot of people online. Sometimes, when I’m being especially social, it can be a LOT of people. I’m over 40 and I like to drink beer while I play. All of which is to say, I don’t always have an easy time remembering who’s who, and yet no MMO I have ever played has provided me with adequate tools for this simplest of needs.
Let me make notes on individual characters. If the game allows multiple characters per account, then let me group names by account so I can tell which char is an alt of which other char. If I put somebody on ignore, let me jot down a note as to why I did it. If someone owes me something, or I owe someone something, give me an easy way to track it. Some of these notes should be automated. I’d be happy if the game would automatically note that I completed such-and-such a quest with Bill, and went to such-and-such a dungeon with Betty.
So in summary, I’d like to be able to select a character, and quickly see a) all the alts on that account, b) what I’ve done with this character, and c) any personal notes I decided to keep about this character. If there are concerns about privacy intrusions, let us create “networks” in game that are strictly opt-in, within which we can freely share information. So e.g. maybe the notes function would automatically add info on all the members of my guild/kinship, telling me the basics about their characters.
The second tool we need is also blindingly obvious, and it exists already in a number of half-assed and largely useless forms. The tool in question is a robust group-finder.
What do I want out of a group-finder? I want to be able to select content (quest, dungeon, whatever) and advertise that I’m interested in doing it. I want a list of everyone else who’s interested in doing that to be available to me. I want to be able to list multiple things I’m interested in doing; if I’m looking for a group, I might be perfectly happy doing a number of different things with said group. Let me advertise for them until I actually do something I’ve listed (start quest, enter dungeon, whatever), then remove the adverts.
Advertisements should be the same whether it’s an individual or a group seeking more people; an individual is a group of one, after all. If I select Dungeon X and say I want to find other people to go with me, the group-finder tool should first count how many people are in my current party (assuming they’re all coming) then display that to others. OK, so I’m not in a group, but there’s another group that’s almost full and two groups that just have one or two people in them, all wanting to do the same things as me. Now I have some options! I can join the big group, or merge with the two smaller ones.
LotRO’s group-finding tool is especially worthless in this regard. It’s designed to find people in the same physical location as you are, which isn’t really helpful given a) people can and do travel from one location to another, and b) we can access most content now from anywhere in the world. People looking to complete a dungeon run in Moria might not be sitting in Moria while they wait to find a group. Sorting by location and level are nice, but really I want to sort by CONTENT. Let me decide what activity I want to do, then help me find other people who want to do that same activity. While I do think there’s value in finding other players in your region and/or in your level range, I would vastly prefer to find other people interested in doing whatever I’m interested in doing at the moment. LotRO in particular suffers from this lack of grouping tools, as there are a lot of things to do that are hard to find groups for. Say you want to kill 360 worms in Moria for +2 to your Valour trait; why should this be hard to find people for? It’s not an uncommon thing to want to do, but we have no decent tools for it right now.