The Decline of Social Interaction in MMORPGS – Full Interview

What follows is the full transcript of the interview I gave a University of Texas at Dallas student regarding the decline of social interaction in MMORPGs which was the basis for my previous article. The format of my answers is in no way as cohesive as I would have liked and is presented in “as is” stream of consciousness format chronicling my thoughts on each question.

It has been a while since I have thought about the state of social interaction in MMOs and this interview gave me a chance to explore many of those thoughts in greater detail.

Why is social interaction important in MMORPGs?

To understand socialization it is important we need to reflect on human history and some anthropology. Humans by nature are tribal and thus are social creatures. From the beginning of history humans have banded together in tribes to survive, thrive and fight off adversity of all kinds. Social interaction is the byproduct of the human experience. History has favored those individuals who have the ability to develop and master their social skills.

Today’s team sports are remnant of our tribal past (for some in the world today tribal reality) and involve teamwork, camaraderie and socialization for a team to be successful. Socialization can be very rewarding whether it be for survival and or for sports.

It is important to note that that socialization is rarely seen as a goal in itself and often results as a pleasant result of humans banding together to address a collective threat or challenge. Socialization also occurs when tribes engage in rituals, ceremonies and commemorative events such as marriages, harvests, etc.

Social interaction cannot be expected to result on its own just because people are involved. Take a ride on any subway system in America in rush hour and you’ll see little if any social interaction despite many people being crammed together. (An alternate view of the subway ride could be that there is an unseen social interaction and imperative as everyone is being quiet so the goal of getting from point A to B is as efficient and stress free as possible).

Fantasy virtual worlds and MMORPGs are different in that the creators have to make a conscious effort to simulate adversity and conflict to make their worlds interesting and challenging. In order to address these challenges players naturally band together to pool their talents and resources. So we see that socialization is a byproduct of a virtual world just as it is the real world.

When humans are together – even as characters in a fantasy virtual world — it is only natural that we expect to realize some kind of synergy when we leverage our social skills to achieve objectives within that world. The good MMORPG designer knows this and creates appropriate challenges that have the effect of bringing players together with complementary skills to fight shared adversity.

You can’t simply create a Utopian virtual world and expect socialization to occur without giving players conflicts and challenges to solve and overcome. This was tried by Second Life and largely failed. Therefore, most successful MMORPGs end up being based on the premise that the world is in trouble and only you and your friends can save it!

I believe that everyone derives value from social interaction in a MMO even if they can’t personally appreciate it. There are no hard and fast rules on the direct value of social interaction for the individual player. Social interaction is a means to an end for certain types of Bartle archetypes such as achievers and killers. But for socializers it can certainly be an end in itself.

If there is one feature that separates the single player video game from a MMORPG it is social interaction. Social interaction is the unique feature that differentiates MMORPGs from single player RPGs as social interaction is impossible in a single-player RPG. Yet too often the importance of social interaction is ignored by developers in favor of more quantifiable things such as combat, animations, artwork and game mechanics. It is a tragedy that the greatest asset of MMORPGs has been forgotten and under developed.

The inventors of the MMORPG genre in the 1990’s like those that came before them that invented the various non-graphical virtual worlds called MUDS understood the importance of social interaction and created their virtual worlds accordingly. I think that many of these creators believed that technology could bring people together and that virtual worlds were a force for good where people could come together and cooperate with each other and transcend their human frailties and shortcomings and don the anonymous guise of the mighty warrior or wise wizard.

These inventors hearken from a generation that was weaned on the table top RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons where the players would have to be physically present in order to simulate adventuring.  This happened before the advent of single player video games and the game consoles of today.

It is worth mentioning that the grandfather of the concept of banding adventurers together to face adversity is of course J.R.R. Tolkien. The characters from his beloved classic The Lord of the Rings trilogy became the fantasy adventurer archetypes that we know and love today. These include the rogue, the wizard, the warrior, the ranger, the healer and so on. This group of characters (known as the Fellowship of the Ring who traversed the Mines of Moria in Tolkien’s books) is the prime example of the classic dungeon crawl that the creators of D & D used as a basis for their pen and paper table top game.

Since the advent of the Internet in the mid 1990’s suddenly it was technologically possible to bring players together from distant locations to play together. So it was only natural that the inventors of MMORPGs like Ultima and Online would take advantage of this technology to bring people together to adventure in virtual worlds via their computers and the Internet.

Do you feel that MMORPGs current mechanics and gameplay have driven away social interaction? (Ex: Solo Questing, Auction House, Looking for Dungeon/Raid, Lack of Guild features(in some cases), Matchmaking systems (For PvP and PvE), etc.)

Current MMORPG mechanics have done much to destroy the need for socialization.  The ability to easily solo to the level cap in most MMORPGs and the ability to organize groups and fight more powerful adversaries without using any social interaction skills via features such as World of Warcraft’s Dungeon Finder have created this problem. This kind of design ethos that places player convenience over mechanics that promote player interdependency is misguided and bad for the long-term health of the MMO and the industry. The result is that content is less challenging, consumed far too fast and rewards are given far too frequently. We see evidence of this when the subscription numbers significantly decrease for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft in the year previous to each expansion.

It seems today’s MMORPG designers see socialization as a customer service problem. What I mean by this is that, not all socialization has good results. Invariably verbal/behavior/territorial disputes occur between players, player guilds, and player races. The natural tendency of a modern American corporation is to make their customers happy by solving these problems. As a result,  MMORPG developers unwittingly keep restricting player freedom so much so that the world becomes overly regimented, sterile and predictable. Yet I contend that drama and conflict is the point and main premise of a fantasy virtual world. Players need to be given the freedom to solve these problems on their own within the confines, limitations and tools available to them in the MMORPG itself.

Most MMORPGs today are designed with monetization and customer retention as the ultimate goal. Gameplay always takes a backseat to this design ethos which is enslaved to the tyranny of metrics. Anything that drives away subscribers or customers is seen as a negative and removed or played down in importance.  Anything that retains customers is seen as virtuous. This helps to explain why video games and MMOs have become dumbed-down over the years.

I shudder to think what the result would be if today’s game developers were tasked with designing venerable board games such as chess or card games such as poker. Those old games were created with good gameplay being the highest virtue not profits. In a perfect world profit would not be a factor in designing a game.

A lot of MMORPG players believe that older MMORPGs (EverQuest, Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Shadowbane, Dark Age of Camelot, etc) were much more social then current MMORPGs. Do you believe this to be true? If you do or don’t, why? (Can you provide some examples, please?)

The older MMORPGS were much difficult to survive in and therefore they were more social as a result.

Additionally there was much more player autonomy and self-determination allowed by the devs and less interference and hand holding either via features that restricted freedom. This was all by design. In MMORPGs like EverQuest you could not really progress your character unless you formed a group with other players.  Player interdependence was the order of the day. Socialization skills were highly valued and players behaved more civilly to each other because the ability to cooperate with others was necessary for groups to form.

The pacing of the older MMORPG was much slower –- at least between battles –- which allowed for players to get to know each other and form bonds and often long lasting friendships. The deepness of the socialization created a large degree of player retention as players felt bonded to their fellow adventures far more than is the case in today’s convenience solo-friendly MMORPGs.

If you had to express and define what MMORPGs are, what would it be?

What MMORPGs are and what I’d like them to be are two different things. The tragedy of the modern AAA+ MMORPG is epitomized by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. It has transformed the MMORPG into a single player, fast paced, narrative driven MMO where players are alone together with thousands of other players. The design of WoW is flawed because Bartle achievement archetype has been put above all other Bartle player archetypes. The meta game of player efficiency and the improvement of character stats have become the goal.

Other aspects of single player games such as a reliance on a heavily scripted narrative via quests have infected WoW as I briefly mentioned above. In a recent interview, WoW Creative Director Alex Afrasiabi has lamented that his push to introduce narratives has eroded the socialization in WoW. So there is some hope that the top creative people in the MMO world are finally understanding the Frankenstein monster they have created is now coming back to haunt them.

The interesting comparison about WoW to EverQuest is that there were barely any quests to speak of in EverQuest compared to the hundreds of thousands of quests in existence right now in WoW. Back in the original MMORPGs, players were themselves the quest. Players created their own stories. Players created their own memories too. Basic survival and progression in a harsh and unforgiving world was the ultimate goal and it was a priviledge to be a part of it for a brief few years.

The fantasy virtual world I would love to see is where player choices actually impact the world. Each server would have its own destiny to be forged by the collective actions or inactions of its players. Socialization and player interdependence would be critical to advancement. I’d like to see a virtual world that has NPCs that actually have needs and wants similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. SOE’s upcoming EverQuest Next has made some promises in this area so I’m excited about the possibilities of my dreams coming true.

Finally, language matters. I prefer to call MMORPGs virtual worlds. When you talk about a creating a virtual world rather than a game, suddenly more possibilities open up. The duties of a virtual world designer becomes more than just about creating “fun” and become more of a sacred vocation where the designer has to consider the complexity and interactions of an entire world not just pandering to the wants and needs of the player.

Is there anything else you want to add about social interaction and MMORPGs that was not covered in the previous questions?

There is a epidemic in MMOs right now that I call the silence of the guilds. The state of socialization has gotten so dire in MMORPGs like WoW, that in the last few years I have noticed in that chat activity within a guild during non-raid times is the exception rather than the rule. This is because people are usually off pursuing self-interested solo activities and under the spell of the quest narrative Pied Piper. Even in dungeon groups — thanks to so-called innovations like the Dungeon Finder tool — where you would think that player to player communication would be instrumental in success, chat is almost non-existent.

New features that were created with the intention of bringing players together has had the unintended consequences of tearing us apart and preventing us from even getting to know each other.

A few years ago I pondered that given the trends of decreasing socialization and convenience driven game design, if the future of MMOs would even bother to have chat capabilities at all. As MMO companies strive to incorporate console gamers, I believe that forecast is due to become a reality.

(Note: some part of the interview were edited to improve grammar and clarity).

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