Monday, March 7, 2011

MMO's As Bowling

Writing about Larisa's recent guild dilemma, Tobold asks:
"Is the purpose of raiding to play with your friends, whatever the content is you can reach with those friends? Or is the purpose of raiding to reach the top, regardless of how many friends you need to ditch on the way?"
This dilemma goes beyond merely the highest levels of raiding difficulty.  Because of their social roots, modern MMO's straddle a divide between providing an activity that is fun because of the company you keep and an entertainment medium that is expected to be entertaining in its own right. 

MMO's As Bowling
At the risk of drawing an analogy about an era I largely did not participate in, I'd suggest that the old school MMO is kind of like going bowling.  A modern MMO player might complain that bowling is a poorly designed game - when you go out with some of your buddies, you can expect to spend the majority of the evening either waiting for the machine to return your ball or waiting for the other players to bowl.  The thing is, all that downtime becomes part of the point.  The game becomes an activity that you do to provide an occasion to spend time chatting with friends.

Likewise, us newcomers look at the things that EQ1 vets say made the game harder and dismiss them as merely time-consuming, rather than difficult.  Again, this comes from a different perspective - to a fan of the game, spending up to 40 minutes mostly AFK for boat travel in FFXI might merely be an opportunity to chat with your linkshell.  (Or, they might find it as intolerable as I did, I didn't stick around long enough to find out.) 

The Price of Entertainment
The conflict is that MMO's are shifting from an activity into more of a game, because that's where the money is.  A game that's only fun if you're playing it in a group with your friends works if the majority of players and spending 3+ hours per night every night (or specific scheduled nights etc).  It doesn't work if players show up for infrequent, sporadic hours and rarely have the opportunity to play with friends.

From allowing players to solo to the level cap, to implementing automated group finders for PVP and dungeons, to offering open groups and public quests to encourage players to drop in for non-instanced group content, studios have worked hard to make sure that you can play the game (and therefore choose to pay for the game) without having friends on the same schedule. 

This change makes it feasible to spend tens of millions developing the modern MMO, but it also impacts just about every aspect of the game itself.  Far too many of the MMO genre's basic tropes don't stand on their own merits if you're not spending the time joking about them with your friends. 

All of which brings us back to Larisa's dilemma.  In the new, more entertainment-driven model, players who might have spent their time hanging out in mid-level groups in a game like EQ1 are suddenly thrust into WoW's hardest tier of content.  For WoW in particular, the need to get new players, friends and alts up to par quickly has created a bowling alley with multiple lanes per group and instantly returning bowling balls.  For people who were enjoying the wait, this change is not a good thing. 


Longasc said...

"The conflict is that MMO's are shifting from an activity into more of a game, because that's where the money is."

Well said!

The problem is that MMOs as games were and are usually inferior to single player games. But they have this "world" aspect and other people populate this world.

What will happen when this gets lost more and more? Then we will need even more "game" elements to replace that?

I am not sure if most MMO designers nowadays really understand this and design with this in mind. The current trend is solo friendly game design. Nothing wrong with that per se!

I think early games like Dark Age of Camelot got this "community" / "social" thing right by chance. WoW now tries to make people do "social things" through achievements and other rewards for guild quests or running dungeons as a guild team. I think they got the right idea there, but their implementation is crude. This soft social stuff got a bit lost outside of tight knit raid groups. Soloplay for personal progress is no longer the exception, but the norm.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say the games are inferior, merely different. I don't care much for raiding or instancing, my experience is very much single player. I do have a guild of "real world" friends, that I talk to however, I intereact with them more on an instant messaging basis.

I think what "single player" mmo's offer over say console games is more "game" for the money. I spend $60 on say the force unleashed 2. I play it for around 20 hours and I'm done. That's $3 per hour. I buy cataclysm and a month subscription, I play for 60 hours in that first month, its a little over $1 per hour.

Stubborn said...

An excellent comparison. There's a very influential book called Bowling Alone by Putnam (you may be aware of this book and have chosen this analogy for that reason - if so, I apologize for assuming you haven't heard of it) that discusses the same kinds of ideas that you discuss here. Your comparison actually opens more discussion about the implication of solo players in a "bowling league" environment. Great thought!

Anonymous said...

For me at least, there's no need to invent more opportunities for chat. In a world with email, facebook, texting, smart phones, IMs, blogs, chatrooms and web forums dedicated to any topic you care to discuss -- going bowling in order to have the opportunity to chat with a friend seems quaint. If the value of classic MMOs are tied to the social time they create, they should be judged against chat rooms. In that light, WoW is a pretty good synchronous chat client. It's terrible at asynchronous communication though. Given how ubiquitous and cheap communication channels are these days, being a chat client for a walled garden is about as quaint as going bowling.