Dual Wielding LFG Edition: Social Engineering and the Freedom of Choice

About two weeks ago I got into a lengthy twitter conversation with fellow bloggers Mersault and Ironweakness about good and bad ways of forcing or facilitating group play in MMOs. I believe Black Desert Online might have steered us there, being this very playing alone together experience so far. As more voices joined the conversation, we decided to re-visit this difficult topic on our blogs individually as part of an ongoing inter-blog tradition between Mersault and Ironweakness, which they call “dual wielding” on their respective blogs. I am actually quite fond of this idea and so I was happy to chime in for this one.
Social Engineering and the Freedom of Choice

Forced Cooperation versus Fostering Community in MMOs

I usually feel trapped in a dilemma when talking about group content in MMORPGs: on one hand I am a big fan of the cooperative aspect of the genre and would call it one of its most defining factors – on the other hand, I value the freedom of playing when and where I want to without games forcing party and setup restrictions down my throat all the time. There’s a time for all things I suppose, today I am fed up with appointment gaming. And I’ve never actually believed that some of the restrictions/requirements forced upon raiders in early WoW, for example, made for particularly good as in genuine and lasting cooperation. Raidguilds were based around common goals for sure, yet as soon as those goals were removed or someone left the community, people and relationships faded away. Game mechanics do not actually hold the power of connecting people; only people can connect to people. What games can do better or worse is set the stage for interaction.

And interaction may or may not occur more depending on whether an MMO “requires” coop. BDO is an interesting example in so far as actual game mechanics discourage many forms of social interaction (partying penalties, trade and chat restrictions) and yet, despite all of this has created a playerbase in desperate need of their fellow comrades’ knowledge. That’s what hardship can do, bring people together to share information and cooperate. The beauty is that it can happen in completely unforeseen, possibly slightly unflattering ways for developers. This could be an opportunity to talk about how MMOs can be too polished or too convenient, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Social Engineering and the Freedom of Choice

So how do you get players to play together in MMOs, assuming that’s what you want, and what’s the preferable way of doing so? My personal answer is less clever than I would wish; naturally you do it by creating content and challenges that are balanced around group numbers, be it dynamic FFA grouping or traditional partying. That doesn’t necessarily mean dungeons and raids either, it includes questing, shared crafting, trade, building effort and guild progression. The all important distinguishing factor to me across all these activities is access and this is where MMOs vary greatly in execution.

Bad examples of facilitated group play come down to a majority of linear, gated content that’s enforcing group play in a certain inflexible way – or else face the consequence of all progress coming to a halt. I would call out all of WoW’s early endgame here; it was difficult to find and set up groups outside your guild and even running successfully with guildmates required considerable logistic effort. Yet run you must, attunements needed to be followed and exact numbers met. This worked for about 2% of the playerbase back then, so not that great. Everyone else was leveling alts and complaining on forums.

What WoW did was exact punishment in form of restricted access unless all criteria were met. The rigid regimen didn’t just cause discontent outside the few hardcore but caused considerable amounts of pressure for guild recruitment too as well as downtimes from hell when trying to set up balanced raid groups. I would therefore call this a malus-system for group play. It did very much kill communities as much as the other way around, so hardly a winner in fostering community, either. The great hardcore vs. casual divide was born in vanilla Warcraft and our spoils and victories were all satisfaction, rarely fun. Not a brilliant way of handling group content and cooperation.

Social Engineering and the Freedom of Choice

What I generally like to see instead of mechanics that punish players who won’t meet grouping requirements, is systems that will reward them for doing so, as in bonus-systems. Whenever you are awarded more loot, experience or reputation for grouping up with others in an MMO, that is one example of a bonus-system at work. Players should feel motivated to cooperate not because they fear failure otherwise, but because it makes for the better, more rewarding overall gameplay experience. This may be a small difference to some, yet it matters greatly to everyone flying solo and to bigger, more diverse communities that operate on the premise of individual freedom and respecting real life. And no one likes to pay for a game that’s denying them access to either content or one another as soon as they can’t party up or meet exact requirements.

Thinking of FFXIV’s story dungeons here, I believe we’re in somewhat of a grey area in that particular MMO. While the game clearly dictates everyone run a dungeon at least once with others, it also makes the whole process easily accessible. The 4man dungeons generally aren’t very hard, queuing is simple and the great majority of PuGs in the game are surprisingly friendly (my experience anyway). This seems like a compromise to me, in a game that already features a lot of social engineering done right via bonus systems (newcomer bonuses in parties, wide range dungeon roulettes etc.). If players are presented with feasible tools and solutions, I can get behind an enforced dungeon run every now and then.

The Real Thing is still on us

As for actually fostering community and people hooking up in MMOs, I’m afraid to say I don’t believe any game can achieve this for you. The best and worst games have brought people together and probably produced MMO babies somewhere around the world. Social games may set an accessible stage for meeting others but the magic spark, the moment when we cooperate for no reason at all other than enjoying someone else’s company, that’s not something we can expect to be “facilitated”. Nor do we need to – being social is a free choice that’s up to the individual and fortunately it is one we can always revisit. Cooperation opportunities in MMOs should therefore be an invitation – a door that is always open, either just for a run or whatever else we want it to be.

12 comments

  1. It’s funny that you mention Vanilla WoW as a negative example. I can’t disagree with the stuff you cite in this post, but I’ve been casually playing on a private Vanilla WoW server for some time now and while levelling, that game actually did exactly what you mention as a major plus point: it made grouping up a bonus. Yes, you could solo your way to cap, but many areas were actually quite dangerous and pulling adds could quickly get you in trouble. Teaming up with someone else, even if it was a random stranger, was simply beneficial, and that created opportunities to get to know people. I talked a bit more about it in this post.

    1. Yeah, leveling up in vanilla WoW was also the only time when I actually met new people and made some lasting friendships. It was short-lived however and after that, WoW was all about the endgame. They also did their utmost to make basic leveling from 1-59 as fast as possible in later patches.

  2. I’m not sure there are any three words in the English language more depressing than “lengthy Twitter conversation”, so I’m glad you decided to visit the topic in a format actually suited for expressing thoughts. :-)

  3. Totally agree on the bonus incentives for grouping, rather than penalizing soloers.

    I’d also add that the difficulty of the encounter should go down slightly when grouped up – this I believe is a great recipe for least resistance players to have a reason to group, and they also like to socialize… while stubborn soloers are often okay with a harder challenge as long as it is still conceivably -possible- to do it by themselves.

    I think back very fondly on the old City of Heroes days without too much inventions loot or selectable spawn settings. To get the most complex arrangements of mobs, you wanted to join an 8 person group, which in turn also created the most complex and “fun” synergies of powers firing off in unison. At the same time, even if a few were weaker players, they could still be “carried” and contribute a little and it would not bring down the group to the point of wiping or being incapable of completing the instance.

    The culture then was very much find a group and do stuff together because it was the most efficient, most complex, most fun, yet most casual way to play. However, if you were grouped out, you could still do less chaotic or complex missions solo and still progress and enjoy the storyline that one would often not read in groups.

    1. If a game can work out that kind of balance, that’s absolutely amazing! soloing should be a feasible way of doing things but at a slower rate, or for less loot, or alternatively a slightly less complex challenge – it’s a fine line to tread before it looks like punishment to soloers, but for me the distinguishing factor is always access. As long as you can solo most things or do very quick and easy pugging, that’s fine in my book.

  4. Maybe I am just unusually cynical, but it seems to me that the steadily spreading optimisation culture makes the “bonus incentives for grouping” design – which is definitely more desirable than punishing soloing – is twisted by an increasingly large portion of the playerbase into the idea that soloing IS being punished, simply because it is not optimal.

    Unfortunately, because endgame is still seen as the “point” of many MMOs, the min-maxing that occurs there has spread to the leveling process, and anything or anyone who slows down that process is an obstacle that becomes resented and, ultimately, subjected to anti-social sentiments.

    1. No, I think you’re quite right; there will always be the optimizers in all MMOs and if they happen to be soloers, they will feel ‘forced’ to group up if there’s slightly better profit from that. That said – it’s a small issue in my opinion. As long as you can still feasibly progress on your own instead of being cut off entirely, that surely is the preferable option. Most devs still have the coop vision for MMORPGs as far as I can see, so obviously they will incentivize that in games and that’s completely legit. The question is really ‘how’ and how much division it creates.

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