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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Beyond Battle Magic: Non-Combat Spells

One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic.  Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great.  I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used.  Remember Detect Magic and Knock?  Levitation?  How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall?  Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death.  Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff?  Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.

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The Faction Trap

One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation.  In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance.  Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth.  This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story.  Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.

If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope­.  The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between.  It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting.  It’s good to know who the enemy is.

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Questing Difficulty, Diversity and the Need for Achievement

I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.”  It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned.  LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing.  There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.

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Will EverQuest Next Save Us All?

It’s been fun watching the EverQuest Next news and reactions at SOE this year; after several development reboots, Sony finally showed off the latest direction of the venerable MMO title.  For those who are not completely up to speed where EverQuest (EQ) fits into MMORPG history, it was the big MMO on the block after Ultima Online, but before World of Warcraft (WoW).  It was known as EverCrack in its early days due to the addicting lure of a vast world with lots of stuff to do in-game.  Later days brought EverQuest 2, but that wilted before the might of WOW polish and popularity.  EQ and EQ2 have hung in there quietly all these years, while WoW has gone on to become the MMO standard.  But Sony has been working on this new version for awhile now, and last year they announced they were going back to the drawing board with the game, with SOE president John Smedley basically saying it was too much of the “same old, same old.”  Sony wanted to do something revolutionary with the next version of EverQuest, not a simply polish of old engines and 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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Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?

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