Socialization and isolation in MMO games

“Don’t everyone speak at once…”

I love the social aspect of MMO games. I think being able to build a community within the community is an amazing and glorious thing. I love the whole idea of banding with guild mates and taking on challenges, working together, exploring, crafting, and even roleplaying together are what make MMO games so Much better than single player games or typical shooter games.

So where is it all?

I’ve been noticing a distinct decline in socialization in MMO games for some time. Game developers are making people playing together easier and easier; but playing together with random strangers on a dungeon or a raid is not the same as socializing. There’s nothing that is making it worthwhile to make new lasting contacts with other players outside your limited social circle. Guilds are made up of large, sterile organizations that cannot name every guildie without a written list in front of them, or of small groups of close friends that have known each other for years and don’t want to make the group bigger.

Working together to complete goals, but silently, and then disappearing once the goals are complete. Yeah, sure. We’ll call that fun.

The game developers are doing their best, I have little doubt. Trying to balance the need for grouping to be worthwhile and preventing exploits through grouping is a tough balance to find. Most games out today have a nice boost when in a party with other players, but that does not encourage people to group specifically with each other regularly. EDIT: How about a slight boost to XP and drop rates when grouped with people in your friend list, and perhaps additional rest bonuses when grouped with people from your friends list in social zones fore more than a certain length of time? There’s only so much developers can do, though. In the end, it comes down to the community. It’s up to us to be open to making new friends, not just getting the next level or taking out that next boss. A lot of the problem is caused by anti-social behaviours we learn from society that we end up carrying over from real life, and assumed expectations of what we should share or ask people to share. These need to change, not just in-game but in ourselves as gamers. And just like everyone else, I have to start with me.

Guild Wars 2 introduced a few mechanics that make it much easier in some ways. For example, being able to revive downed players without needing to be on a team with them or use a specific healing skill ; you just have to be close enough for interaction, and you automatically get the option to revive them for free. One afternoon, I took an hour and simply ran around reviving anyone I came across. In fact, today I was in the Iron Citadel and stupidly took a leap off the 3rd floor when I was only level 6. Of course, I died; but a nice player who happened to be right there anyway revived me. I, of course, said “Thank you” somewhat embarrassed at my foolishness. They said “no problem” and ran off.

Did you catch that? That’s the problem right there. He just ran off. The art of sporadic conversation with random strangers is kind of lost these days on most people. People aren’t too chatty with strangers (outside the general chat channel, and don’t get me started on the issues with that. 2 words: Barrens Chat. ‘Nuff said.) which is just as true in real life. And, frankly, most of the general chat doesn’t make sense to me. The conversations are too broken and incoherent and overlapping… It’s like being in a room full of couples, each having their own conversations, and trying to listen for something worth adding your own comment to. IF they decide to be cool with someone butting into their conversation.

“Hey, guys, check out this awesome view… Guys? Is anyone else there?”

Most people don’t strike up sudden unsolicited conversations with random people they pass on the street, either; not in-game or in real life, and that’s just sad to me. There was a time when people at a bus stop or some equivalent would politely strike up conversations; not so much any more. “Don’t talk to strangers” has become ingrained in most people, and I feel it’s a sad thing. It’s expanded into the online gaming world; now, the most common conversing I’ve found people do in games is explaining in excruciating detail to your online PvP opponent how many different ways you fuck his mom.

Star Trek Online (STO) is another good example of this. The game is built with “open grouping” which, supposedly, lets players entering a specific mission map that other people are entering as well get automatically grouped together into a team. I’ve tried this back before STO went F2P and it worked well. But I found that few people I ended up grouped with ever bothered to talk at all; they just went off and completed the next mission objective, oblivious to other players in the map. I got tired of it. I was getting as much social interaction as I would running the maps solo. Sometimes, they’d just leave half-way through, as if annoyed someone else was there.

I’ve even gone in from the perspective of someone entering a new game for the first time without their friends, by actually doing that. In WoW, for example, I tried a new server that I knew no one on. Any time I did that (which happens a lot more often than I’d like), It felt like I’d moved to a new town without a job or friends. Anyone who’s done that kind of thing knows how hard it is to do, and it’s just as tough in an MMO to start making new friends. I find that people in MMO games generally are becoming more and more clique-y every year. They’ll play with their friends but then generally ignore most people, with maybe at best giving some casual platitudes when helped or when giving help. PUGs, even the one’s I’ve seen that work well, are less and less often staying in touch. My STO friends list is filled with at least a couple dozen people I just don’t even see online any more, or when they are online, they don’t really say much. I am hoping GW2 is going to turn out different, but I’m not holding my breath.

I just feel people need to be more active in attempting to make and working at maintaining new online gaming friends, beyond recruiting for your guild, and be more receptive to other players doing just that.  When you revive someone you randomly pass, maybe ask if they’re needing help with a task. Be willing to come to the aid of newer players. When you’re running a mission that involves random other players, be friendly and chat them up; compliment them honestly when they get a good attack in, offer positive encouragement to those around you. This is all no-brain-er and easy stuff. How about simply saying hi and chatting up people randomly as you wander? Not in whispers, of course, that might be creepy, but in general or local chat, for sure.  And when someone starts chatting you up randomly, take it as an opportunity to make a new friend to adventure with. You don’t need to get overly personal to get familiar with another player; ask them things like what they like best about their class or why they chose the crafting skills they did.

My point is that making new friends in an MMO is vitally important, and it’s a 2 way street. The answer to the problems I face, and the problems many others share with me, isn’t simply because everyone else are assholes, and it’s not simply because I’m anti-social. Not only do we all need to be more active in trying to make those new friends in-game, but we need to be more receptive to others who might be looking to make new friends as well.

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WoW – Inching toward F2P?

WoW announced today that, in the new 5.0.4 patch, they are making all races playable for everyone, regardless of which expansion you have. On top of several other changes, including the move to making levels 1 – 20 F2P, it’s looking more and more (to me) that they are going to be shifting to a F2P or Freemium model sometime in the future. They already have a cash shop (though I haven’t checked if it’s in-game or just web only). I’ve been on record as saying I won’t ever play WoW again unless it goes F2P. Honestly, even if it does, I’m not sure I’d play it. With so many triple-A games going F2P, I’m just not sure WoW has enough to make it worth my while over other games. The community on most of the RP servers turned me right off, and the gameplay just isn’t that innovative. I might try it out again and level a toon to max, but the story has just become… Well, old. The grafics would run super smooth on my system, but they’re pretty dated now.

What do you guys think? Does it look like WoW is going F2P, and if so, would that be a good thing? If you’re not a WoW player, would F2P make it worthwhile for you to try out? Why or why not?

Vanguard – Saga of Heroes F2P (with youtube trailer) – First Impressions

So Vanguard – Saga of Heroes has gone Free to Play; I decided it was about time I tried it out. The screenshots and videos look awesome. I’d heard a lot of good things abut this game since it was in initial beta, and have been hoping to try it for some time.

See? Looks pretty awesome, doesn’t it? After waiting so long to jump in and give this game a try, I took the plunge.

So far, I’m far from impressed.

The graphics and gameplay, in general, are rather similar to EQ2 and every other MMORPG of the time, so pretty dated by today’s standards. The formula is a common one; go to quest givers for quests to complete, go to class trainers to improve skills, get new equipment from mobs and vendors, rinse, repeat. The combat is mildly fun, but identical to EQ2, LotRO, and many others that use the standard MMO combat scheme. Nothing hugely innovating there.

The social mini-gameOne thing that supposedly separated it from other MMOs of the time and was supposed to be a huge gameplay innovation was the “conversation” system, which is actually a mini-CCG. Some people love it, and I can kind of see why they might; I thought I would, too, based on the simple tutorial. But guess what – it actually sucks. It adds a layer of confusion and difficulty that just seems excessive to the game, and out of place. It does not blend with the rest of the mechanics at all. You only get 5 “cards” or statements to use as your “deck” in a conversation scenario, so it’ a matter of repeated trial and error to find the 5 that will work for your given situation. It annoyed the crap out of me.

The conversation mini-game is everywhere. After killing a small handful of zombies as my first experience in the world, I went to the first town, learned new combat skills, then was stuck running these conversation quests and got sick of it quickly. I need more combat than that. If I wanted to play a strategy game, I’d play a strategy game; I play MMORPGs for a different kind of challenge, and this card game thing just turned me right off. I was expecting the game to be more an extra and laced here & there to spice up the game world, not a mainstay replacement for combat. Seriously; it was less than 5 minutes of combat then over an hour of this stupid mini-game. I’ve been given 7 quests at the start and they’re all about this mini-game. NONE are combat or crafting oriented at all. And I’m only level 2.

I don’t think I’m going to keep playing.

Hellgate Global – First Impressions

The Hellgates are opening once again... This time the world is "open season."

Ok, I’ll admit up front, I’ve not actually played the original Hellgate London that this was built from. I’d seen the adds and talked to friends that did buy it, and there’s lots of articles all over the internet that explain why it died so violently. In essence, the payment model was shit for a shit game with shit graphics; it was just not worth the money they were demanding.The game has since been bought by T3FUN and recently re-released as a F2P MMORPG. Now THIS model fits the game.

I signed up on the website back when the F2P was just entering beta, and regretted wasting my time. It had nothing to do with the game itself; I never got into it. The beta client crashed every time I tried to start it, and that’s not counting the hassle I had just trying to download the damn thing.

It’s now been launched, and I’ve played a few minutes so far; it’s totally worth getting – DO NOT USE THEIR DOWNLOADER! Get the install files via the optional torrent download file; their install downloader is a piece of utter crap. You cannot minimize it, and it is stuck forced to the top above other windows. ALL other windows. It also chokes up your bandwidth and cannot be throttled down. Just get the torrent off their download page instead and ignore their downloader entirely. Oh, and once it’s installed, their updater has a little options button – DON”T TOUCH IT! It crashes the updater & client when it’s clicked.

“But is there any good news?” Damn right there is! The game itself runs beautifully, and I had no server connection issues. The tutorial needs a bit more work in making the explanations of the controls and interface clearer, but the main gameplay was smooth and simple. It wasn’t too hard to figure it out for the most part; anyone who’s played any of the Diablo-style games will recognize a lot of the inventory & skill tree interface controls. The biggest bug I found was the dialogue boxes seem to have been translated to English, and sometime  the translations were clearly not great. I am hopeful that this gets fixed in the coming months, however.

I’ll post more thoughts on it when I have more time to try it out; right now, I have an apartment to finish painting 😛

Age of Conan goes “Unrated”

From M to "Unrated"... but the ammount of boobs, sex & violence is staying the same. Sorry, pervs.

This past week, “Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures” made a huge announcement – they’re changing their name to “Age of Conan: Unrated” and going to a Freemium F2P model and dropping the required subscription fees. When I first heard the name “Age of Conan: Unrated” I have to admit, my first thought was “Whut? They’re making it even more adult?” So I checked my account on the official website from when I was playing the 14 day trial last fall, and guess what – It’s active & playable again! I hopped on there, and I’d forgotten that last time I played was back before I had the gaming rig I have now, and it barely ran on the old system. I’d also forgotten about the nudity of my female character *evil grin*. So I started up a new toon, a male, and spent most of the other day playing through the tutorial areas and a little of the first city, Tortuga.

The gameplay is… different. The combat is, honestly, a little convoluted. your 1, 2, and 3 keys are 3 different melee attacks; swing left, swing right, and overhead chop. There are little transparent shield icons on your opponent for each area you can attack – left, right, and above. The idea is to hit the side with the fewest shields, and I’ve found the shields will shift randomly during battle. The randomness of it was annoying, and combining the attacks with WASD movement is just plain a hassle and irritated me often. The effects in combat were actually kind of lackluster, and even the blood effect just seemed overly fake and out of place, almost forced.

The quests were actually fairly simple yet had effective stories, and the voice overs were excellent. I had little trouble with the first few bosses, too – they were rather easy to defeat… almost too easy. I had some lag issues once inside of Tortuga, so even on my gaming desktop rig, I had to lower some of the graphics settings. This was odd, because I can run Starcraft 2 at higher settings than AoC. The shaders weren’t even the greatest; I can only surmise that the ones AoC uses are just more of a system hog due to being older and less efficient.

There was pretty much no nudity thusfar (unless I removed all the clothes off my female character, then her boobs were naked) which was, actually, something I appreciated. I have no problems with nudity in games IF they are in proper context. There was actually a spot where it would have made sense (the first decent quest has you rescuing a woman who escaped the red district of Tortuga & was captured by brigands; her dress being torn & revealing would have fit the context of the mission).

There was an issue I had with one of the missions. It kept telling me to use my hide ability to sneak past some guards, but the ability kept telling me I wasn’t trained in it. I searched for about 45 minutes for a trainer and never found one; I eventually found out that there IS no trainer, I just go to a panel that was not mentioned in the tutorial pop-up messages, go to a tab I didn’t know was there, and just click the plus sign. This is one of my pet peeves about a lot of MMO games – they don’t clearly and simply tell you how to use all of the interface.

All in all, an interesting game, but wasn’t enough for me to be worth $15 a month, even with guild-built cities & city sieges (a topic I’ll be posting about in the coming weeks). For free, though, it might be worth rummaging through once in a while.