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What's Happened to the Social Aspects of MMO Games, and How Is It Changing the Industry?

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The history of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) is a long one, dating all the way back to 1986. The idea of interacting with other players in the game world is not a new one. However, it has definitely been popularized over the last decade or so with extremely successful games like Everquest in 1999, or the ever-popular World of Warcraft. One of the main draws to this MMO genre is the simple fact that you can interact with other players around the world. Someone in rural Nebraska can play in the same world as someone in Hong Kong, it brought a completely new social experience to video games that otherwise was not there before. Games like World of Warcraft and Runescape have spawned life-long friendships both in the real world and in the game world, as well as marriages. Obviously one of the more popular genres of MMOs is the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) which you can find in a game like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and so many others, where the core of the game is to level up your character, find better gear, etc. However, there are also games like Second Life, where the core game is to live out a fantasy life with other players online, build houses and simply interact with other players, without a set objective. The game at its core is strictly a social experience in a game world. That being said, in recent years the "social" aspects of an MMO have slowly started to dissipate, MMOs no longer emphasize interaction with other players to be successful and advance in the game world. Having to group up with other players to successfully level up your character is not something that is stressed in many MMOs today. Depending on who you are, this can be seen as a great thing, or a very bad thing to the MMO genre. On a game design standpoint, there are many reasons why a genre that is all about the social experience is losing its core concept. The player interaction is often limited to passing another player in the game world, probably never to see him or her again. In this article, we are going to discuss the MMO genre, why from a game design standpoint limiting social interaction to progress in the game is a concept being utilized more and more. [caption id="attachment_38696" align="aligncenter" width="800"]final fantasy 11 in-game screenshot Final Fantasy 11 - © 2001 - 2015 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.[/caption] Let's first look at games that emphasize this social aspect, where communicating and interacting with other players is vital for progression. MMORPGs like Final Fantasy 11 or Final Fantasy 14 have you rely heavily on socializing with other players in order to progress. While Final Fantasy 11 is an old game, the severs are still active with a pretty healthy population. Once you achieve level 10 in the game, you must "party" up with other players within 1-3 levels of you to continue to level up. In order to defeat the enemies at this level you need five other party members. This means that you have to socialize with other players in the world in order to progress, you must work together, create a party with the right combination of players, i.e. healer, tank, damage doer, etc in order to have a successful group. This makes socializing a must in order to level up your character, you have to seek out other players in the world, and communicate with them to ensure killing the enemy goes as smoothly as possible. This gives the game more depth, it's no longer just a one person experience, it's the world of online players creating their own unique experiences together. How you socialize in the game can determine your success, gaining the reputation of a party member who does not contribute to the team can spread among the community of players quickly, and soon finding a party to join can be very difficult, as other players may decide not to have you join them based on your online reputation. In a game like Final Fantasy 11 socializing is a must. Like mentioned earlier, a big draw to an MMO is its socializing aspects, the gamers who typically play enjoy interacting with other players around the world. However, there is a big drawback to requiring interactivity with other players, and that is the fact that you have to rely on other people to perform well, more often than not. You have to find the right combination of players, a tank, healer, etc. If one of these players doesn't perform how you think they should, i.e. not healing the team in time, it can be extremely difficult to progress in the game. While socializing is fun, if it's not helping you progress in the game, suddenly it's not so fun anymore. That is a challenge many game developers are trying to overcome in their MMORPGs, which is causing the MMO to be less and less social, and suddenly you're in a game world with thousands of other players, and it doesn't feel any different than playing a single player game. However, this is causing the MMO genre to lose that spark that made it so popular, having unexpected encounters with other players that had nothing to do with the story, but it created a completely unique experience. You were essentially able to create our own story within the game. [caption id="attachment_38697" align="aligncenter" width="800"]final fantasy 14 in-game screenshot Final Fantasy 14 - © 2010 - 2015 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.[/caption] So why do game developers try to lessen the socializing requirements of their MMOs? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple, they want to capture the more casual gamer audience. Yes, there are both "casual gamers" and more "hardcore" gamers enjoying MMOs. Let's face it, not everyone likes to wait around for hours to find the right amount of players to join up with in order to progress further in the game, they want to jump into the game, and start playing. Maybe they only have a few hours to play in a day, certainly not enough that is required of a game that emphasizes socializing to progress. Suddenly, a game that requires socializing with other players to level up loses thousands of potential players. The second MMORPG in the final fantasy genre is Final Fantasy 14, and the devs took what people loved in Final Fantasy 11 like being able to party up with other players in the world, while also balancing a more casual experience. You can progress to the final level in the game without having to socialize with other players, but it will certainly be more fun to fight along side other players, and leveling up can often be faster if you join a group. That way they can capture the audience that enjoys jumping on the game for just an hour or two, and the other side that loves spending an entire weekend in the game world. [caption id="attachment_38698" align="aligncenter" width="800"]World of Warcraft in-game screenshot World of Warcraft - ©2015 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.[/caption] Many MMORPGs are trying to mix this social aspect, while still maintaining the ability to progress in the game without having to interact with others, and this balance is key to having a successful game. World of Warcraft has always been a game that doesn't require socializing to progress, you can play by yourself and reach the final level. But, there are also things like raids that require a group of people in order to successfully achieve them. While there are many MMOs that are trying to balance socializing, and playing alone, some have gone as far away from socializing as they can. This has caused a lot of backlash in the MMO community. Take Destiny, for example, it was a first-person shooter categorized as a mix of an MMO/RPG/FPS. However, as many players found out, when entering the world there was no way to interact with other players, you could not chat with them through an in-game chat system, and there was no proximity chat, meaning if you talked through your mic, the other players couldn't hear you. There was no way to pass by a fellow player and say, "Hey, you want to team up and do this quest?" the only interacting you could do was an awkward wave, and move on. Yes, you could see the other players in the world, but there was absolutely no way to socialize with them. [caption id="attachment_38699" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Destiny in-game screenshot Destiny - © 2014 Bungie, Inc All rights reserved.[/caption] Many players were confused why an online connection was required to play Destiny, when there was really no reason to be online in the first place. Even the online PVP had no way to talk to others, even the players on your own team. Which was strange since PVP requires a lot of teamwork and communication. Destiny soon became the most unsocial, "social" game out there. Of course, with a recent update, the devs at Bungie included team chat into the game as a response to the large backlash from the community. This is a good example of balancing the social aspects of an MMO. While there are definitely players who don't feel like interacting with other people online, completely cutting out any socializing options alienates the entire community, and you lose the spark and unique experiences that an MMO can bring to your game. The MMO genre at its core is still a social experience, at least that's what it should be. How do you feel about today's MMOs? Are they leaning too far away from the "social" aspects, or have they found the right combination to keep every gamer happy? If you're a game designer or student working on your own MMO this is a great question to ask yourself, what audience are you trying to cater to? And what type of social balance do you need to find for your game?