5 Ways to Improve Sociability in MMOs

Last week, I talked about how we might improve community in MMOs, and these were pretty broad principles, based on perhaps some examples seen here and there in older MMOs as well as some (hopefully) common sense thinking about how people like to interact. But I thought this week, I might talk about some more specific ideas for improving sociability. That is, improving tools and ways that reward players to interact in a positive way such that a supportive community eventually arises. At the same time, I’ll try to keep the suggestions to things that won’t blow the development budget, or penalize players that prefer solo gaming.

Most of us know the current in-game tools for interacting and grouping, but here’s a brief rundown:

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5 Ways MMOs Can Improve Community

One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?” That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO? It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others. With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly. And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling. It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering.

So what are some things that could be done? Here’s a few ideas.

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The “Catch Up” Mentality

Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels.  I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try.  I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level.  Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes.  Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding.  It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary character, and eventually, I ended up leveling on my own.

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Choosing an MMO

Not too long ago, there were only a few MMORPGs on the landscape; the genre was relatively new.  The big names started with Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, then EverQuest  and EverQuest 2, and finally, the ultimate behemoth, World of Warcraft (yep, I know your other favorite was in there somewhere as well, but those are the biggies).  Since that time, the genre has literally exploded; currently, there are almost 600 active MMORPG’s available, from every genre imaginable, with emphasis on one feature over another, browser-based, to mobile, and even some targeting consoles.  How the heck do you choose?  I say this because to many folks, an MMO is a long-term commitment; many are looking for a game home that will provide off-hours recreation for a good many years; many solid friendships and even marriages have come from people met in-game, so finding that right mix is essential.  Keep in mind that as you ask yourselves these questions, there is no right or wrong answer; everyone has their own preferences for play, just be honest with yourself.

It pays to narrow down the options, so let’s start with…

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Promoting Social Play in MMORPGs

The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym.  At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.

While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction.  Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session.  In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person.  Communication was by text only.  It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other.  Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.

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