Continuing the Social Economies thread, we’ve covered the definitions and the history. We’ll dive in to the current state for this post. Remember that previously, I used the Facebook timeline as a watershed moment for online presence and that social economies from that point forward changed, drastically.
Outside of the gaming field, people today have extreme ease of virtual access to nearly everyone on the planet. I talk a few times a day with friends overseas and in the US. Talk isn’t the right word though, I typically chat with keystrokes. And this is a big point. Keystrokes are limiting. They provide no audio-visual clues as to the theme of any given topic. You can’t easily communicate feelings and emoticons are not a solution. Many times, the keystrokes are limited in character sets, meaning that you need to summarize your idea quickly to get it across. Otherwise you get the fun “person is typing” message that still gives me nightmares. Today’s social interactions therefore become rapid and vapid. More like junk food really where the context isn’t there and there’s just so much that it’s hard to digest the quality from the quantity.
Back into the gaming sphere. Now that most (not all) have a reliable internet connection and are maintaining virtual “relationships” through web services, developers start integrating similar features into their games. This is due mostly to the word of mouth/peer pressure dynamic of gaming, where if you’re in a solo game of CoD, other people in CoD3 don’t affect you. However, if you want to play with your friends who have swapped games, you have to as well. This is more or less an extension of the guild concept – which many non-MMO players call clans – a formal association with loose rulesets. Joining a clan not only provide extrinsic rewards (mostly through perks) but also an intrinsic reward of easier difficulty. 5 coordinated people are much more efficient than 5 individuals. MOBAs are a great example. And that’s all fine and dandy. You put in time, get something out and want to put in more time.
The problem stems from the size of events vs the size of the group. Let’s say you have a 40 person event. Each person feels valuable as a cog in the machine. You have regular activities together. Bonds are built. If your group size is around 40, you’re grand. If it’s double that, then you start getting into the clique issue of who gets to attend and who doesn’t. The smaller the size of the event, the more segregated the group becomes. Flex raids in WoW are a great way to combat this issue, for smaller groups. If you’re in a 200 person guild though, what noticeable impact do you have? You can’t effectively contribute and the withdrawals you make are barely noticeable.
I’ll talk about WoW for a few minutes now, since nearly all games since then have tried to emulate it, for better or worse. Taking the previous paragraph into mind, WoW tiered access to a majority of the content behind group activities. 1-60 (at the time) was perfectly viable alone but at max level, you were “forced” into a group setting. The social incentives were less than the extrinsic rewards the game offered. Grouping had no purpose while leveling as it was time consuming and provided little to no rewards. For it to work with the existing extrinsic rewards, you needed an “auto-summon” feature (in other games but WoW), a social framework toolkit (in-game guild tools) and stakes of claim (long term PvP goals). If WoW was a sandbox, it wouldn’t have needed these things.
Vanilla put a lot of stress at the end game to be social, with no prior requirements or tools, and expected people to sink or swim. Players from past MMO games (EQ, DOAC, etc…) understood these constraints and for the first year or so, while the game was small, it worked. When the game became popular in the masses (again, the peer pressure statement + internet for all) people were joining the game only understanding the solo concept. And then they hit the wall at 60. With no social experience, a history of solo-only gaming, Blizzard suddenly had 75% of the playerbase in limbo. They tried to address it a bit more in Burning Crusade, what with the significant amount of group quests while leveling but the problem was a core issue, not something to solve at level 60+. 8 years on and rather than implement social values at the start of the game, then opted to remove as much social interaction as possible. Dungeon Finder and Looking for Raid are prime examples of this.
While not scientifically accurate (since no one surveys people about this sort of stuff) the above graph shows how the population increased overtime from Launch to Burning Crusade. The MMO experience club never really grew and the “new to games” folks didn’t as the game wasn’t casual friendly yet. The largest influx was from gamers who have never played an MMO.
Games from that point forward have replicated WoW’s no-grouping mentality with massive failure along the way. WoW worked because of zeitgeist – the masses played it with nothing else around. Every game that launched following that, without a social economy framework from day 1, has had to bolt it on after the fact and with poor results. If the people playing the game aren’t the primary reason you’re playing the game, then it has limited shelf life.
The next post on this subject will cover the future and what options are possible.