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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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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Richard Garriott and Story in Computer Games

With Richard Garriott and Portalarium announcing yesterday The Shroud of the Avatar Kickstarter, we have the man who many credit with the invention of the MMORPG (Ultima Online) returning to the scene.  While this in and of itself brings quite a bit of skepticism as well as excitement, there’s reason to believe that Garriott can bring back to the industry a much-needed shot in the arm.    Leave aside the whole Tabula Rasa vs. Garriott’s trip to space vs. NCSoft controversy for a moment.  This is the guy who literally brought MMO genre to the masses.  Yeah, he’s been quiet for a while, and yeah, that last project didn’t work out (under a company who since has become known for torpedoing game projects – Tabula Rasa, City of Heroes,  Auto Assault, NetDevil, Dungeon Runners, Dragonica), but Richard Garriott “gets it” when it comes to storytelling in computer games.  Here’s why:

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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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Is it Possible to Build a Combat-Optional MMO?

The whole Newtown tragedy got me thinking a bit recently regarding the combat-centric emphasis of most video games.  I won’t get into a discussion here about whether combat should be eliminated from games or not – I think it’s probably unrealistic at worst, and undesirable at best.  There have been many articles about violence in games before as well; just Google it and you’ll come up with plenty.

Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed are the games people first scrutinize (or blame) when these tragedies arise, but combat in games go back to very aborignal games – you could say RiskGalaga, or even PacMan had something of a “combat” focus – you were certainly fighting an adversary, and conflict is certainly necessary in any form of literature, and even art in general.  Combat versus monsters or dragons is a bit more acceptable, since they aren’t “real” in the sense that other people are—again, more reasons why Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto are the ones that get the most attention.

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The Endgame Dilemma

One of the most criticized and praised elements in more recent “themepark” MMORPGs is the concept of “endgame.”  A themepark MMO is a static world that remains largely unaffected by player actions.  It can be described as a backdrop where players are “led” through quests (with many pointers and hints making it difficult to fail at the task.)  Players critical of themeparks joke about games being “on rails” like a rollercoaster ride at a themepark.   Eventually—the time varies depending how frequently the person plays—the character completes most of the quests and reaches “max level” or “level cap,” and endgame.    This is simplified, of course; there are often additional ways to reach max-level besides questing, including player-vs-player (PVP) battlegrounds, crafting, and instanced dungeons.

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