Making room (again) for sociality in MMOG’s

A recent blog post over at TAG  got me thinking about the role of down time in MMOG’s. Something a lot of (but not all) gamers complain about. It seems that if a game is not chalk full of action, it is often deemed boring or not very good. Over the years, MMOG’s seem to have fallen into this mindset as well, making quests faster (and easier imo), combat is swift, recovery time often little to non-existent, and corpse recoveries that used to take hours turned into a respawn or resurrection…Some people like the fact that the pace of MMOG’s have gone the way of an action-packed, single-player game.

The TAG post mentions that a colleague disliked SWtOR game because there was “no gameplay/no challenge” and the response to this is that he is right …. but the post goes on to say:

But that’s the point… I felt that familiar tedious rhythm of questing in MMOs return.  That steady pace, ever incremental, always one more thing on the horizon… time slows, workdays are neglected, worries recede.

And what’s this?  Time to ponder, time to think, time to reflect.  Playing SWtOR, like all MMOs, brackets time and space — its a virtual world excuse to chat and socialize  for some and it’s time alone for others.  But what is the nature of this time alone?  You are occupied at the keyboard but barely occupied cognitively… this is why MMO players are great multi-taskers.  You can play the game while chatting on the phone, watching television, doing email and even playing other games, or…  you can ponder and muse about stuff.

Time to ponder and think indeed. For me, the gaps in the gameplay brings mmog play back to its social roots… it is what the waiting is for…… see, back in the day (for me, this starts with EverQuest in 1999), mmog’s were known for long pauses between action, everything took forever to do, even finding a group and getting to the agreed upon location. But they were also known for the close bonds and relationships among guild and group mates because you had nothing to do but hang out and chat while waiting for mana to regen. as mmo’s developed, but as early as Dark age of Camelot gameplay started to shift to exclude the social bits. The big thing was closing the gaps between battles, speeding up the regen time, eventually moving to insta-recast, etc. While this made gameplay more ‘fun’ and action packed for some, what got lost was the available moments for sociality. It didn’t take as long to level up, you didn’t need as many people to help for quests, and battle could rage on almost non-stop as long as you could stay alive.  But it came at a cost.

For me, this idea that mmog gameplay should be quicker and there should be less ‘waiting’ is actually what ruined my mmog experience. There was no more time to chat even about in-game stuff; little time to strategize during combat. Every moment had a purpose, unless you consciously chose to sit somewhere and be social, it didn’t happen. See, a lot of people aren’t social by choice (especially in video game play). They don’t want to say “hey, instead of killing mobs and leveling my avatar, I am going log into the game, and go sit in a city or safe place and have a chat with my guildmates, or heck, with random players”. This is not to say that people don’t do this, but having the space to socialize within structure of play is different.

But when the waiting is designed INTO the gameplay then eventually, people talk. They strategize, tell stories of past battles, get to know each other but not “on purpose” … they socialize. Not many people like silence (at least when in a group) – even digital silence – when in a group. It was always just a bit awkward to sit in a group of 6 in EQ back when (or in WoW when I did play) where everyone just sat there, waiting for the mob to spawn or someone to have enough mana to continue… So people chose to fill the silence – the waiting  – with social bits… Even people who couldn’t care less about being social, ones who, when you talked to them about it later (as I did for my MA research) didn’t see the value in it as an end within itself, would talk about how these moments, over time, became the social glue that bound a group or guild together. To me, judging solely on the TAG post, it sounds like SWtOR brings that old “waiting” mentality back to mmog’s, slowing the action down and returning to a sort of ‘social’ (or potentially social, some people will just sit in silence, or choose to play alone, etc…) gameplay.

I was always furious when people could not see the value in those downtimes. It is where trust and bonds are made that lead to better gameplay experiences (I say imo, but I know this at least from my experience of interviewing ppl during my MA and just being an MMO player over the course of 5 different mmo’s- of a certain era of course – I stopped playing when the first WoW expansion hit, but still – there are so many stories of bad PUGS, people you will never see again, not only because they were horrible players, but because you didn’t have to bother getting to know who you were playing with. There was hardly time to do so. When you can sign your name to an automatic list for a group, get picked up solely based on your class, get insta-ported into the location, and get into battle within a short period of time, there is no sense of obligation to the group or the individual players. If a group sucked, it was nothing for many players to feign getting booted out of the game to rid themselves of a bad group. But when it took you an hour to get something going, the process of getting your foot into a group through chatting up your skill set and accomplishments, taking the time it takes to travel to the camp spot, when you get there and a group sucks, you stick around if only for the time you’ve invested in getting into the group.

Don’t get me wrong, in EQ back in the day, there were bad pick up groups, there was always that person who could never quite play their class right, or what have, but because you got to know people over time (smaller servers helped of course), and you had already committed so much time in getting the group together, you stuck it out (maybe even just a bit more). And while there will always be crappy groups, in my experience, I’ve found that if you have time to talk about things, even if its just strategy, the group usually gets better. But when the game forces you to be in action 95% of the time, there is less time for the glue to gel. Of course, the addition of VoIP enabled players to have these discussions ‘while’ fighting, but in my experience, voice chat never quite enabled the same type of bonding (I have many theories on that, but I will reserve them for another day).

In the end, I think that all the epic feats talked about among elite players would never have happened (here I am referring to EQ specifically, but it is transferable) or not with the same amount of pride that many elite players have when recounting their stories. In my opinion, without these ‘waiting’ times designed into the game – people would not develop the same levels of attachment to the game, to their avatars and to their fellow guild/group mates, for these epic battles to be successful (and fun), there needs to be a level of trust and camaraderie in place. And trust has space to develop in these moments of waiting….I could go on about this, but I will restrain myself…