Social Commodity

Spurred from posts on TimetoLoot and Kaylriene, and the prospect of Bhagpuss having his own!

In my field of work (and it would appear the general population) the goal is commoditization. That is, taking a highly complex and integrated thing, and simplifying it to a degree where the user requires minimal understanding in order to consume. Photography is a good example. Up until digital cameras came about, you had to know how to use a camera, manage the film, store it, then bring it to a shop to get it developed. No wonder people treasured photographs, it took weeks to get to see the result. Today, a toddler can take a dozen pictures without effort and print them out at home (or put it in a digital frame).

Socially we understand commodities as mostly basic items. Water and electricity in developed nations are just there. This is not the case for billions of people on the planet. We go to the grocery store to get food (or order it online) while other needs to grow for sustenance.

In games, there’s the crazy complexity of something like D&D as compared to early Atari games of blocks of pixels. Getting that complexity to be simplified required a TON of work. You can play games that are mechanically as complex as D&D today, but with relatively simple interfaces making it a smoother experience. Games like Call of Duty sell millions of copies, not because it’s super complex and deep (it is) but because the skill floor is so dang low. Anyone and their grandpa can play.

People tend to gravitate to the law of least effort. That we are pretending having dialogue on something like Twitter for complex subjects is ample evidence of our group laziness. These things are easy to use, and certainly even easier to abuse. I suppose this is in-line with the general laws of conservation of energy…

Complexity and Demand

And yet we strive for additional complexity. Not so much because because we want to do more, but because we get bored (or oversaturated) with the status quo. We, as a society, are never content with what we have. I can make an omelette in my sleep, but I get a kick out of making a gourmet version. If I could find a stupid easy way to make one in 3 minutes, I’d find a way to add more to it!

There are limits to this however, a waterline of sorts. EQ certainly was revolutionary for the constructs it supported. The game part was pretty much UO in 3D, minus the PVP and housing. You went around camping spawns, looted and sold things, worked as a guild. It was certainly prettier than UO, and appeared to have more depth. Yet the key here was the social part, and that you could have synchronous chat AND gameplay at the same time. To play UO in a group you needed ICQ or some other chat tool. EQ had real time communication channels. Revolutionary at the time.

That innovation and accessibility made it a smash hit. It peaked at 450,000 users which was well double what UO ever achieved. But…


When WoW launched, it was entirely focused on delivering focused group content, with ease of access, and (at the time) a quality state. It hit 450,000 players in a month and 6 million in a year. Where EQ failed in the game aspect, WoW threw tons of resources to make it as accessible as possible, and for nearly 6 years was unassailable. Certainly helped that it looked amazing compared to pretty much anything else, and could run on a potato.

It’s not from a lack of trying here, the dark days of MMOs trying to beat down WoW are full of records of failures. Most of those related to trying to copy WoW, rather than understanding why it was successful in the first place. WoW had a sunk cost problem in the social space, where people had invested hundreds of hours with other people, on challenging (and again, quality) content. They didn’t have the time to invest the same in another game that had nowhere close to the same amount of accessible content. The other games wanted players to spend the same amount of time as WoW in theirs, effectively having to give up their roots. But for what? The grass was never greener.

Blizzard has a larger problem on their hands. The social part only works if the games have some semblance of quality and value as a social goal. It’s been a rather consistent trend that the individual’s goals are more important that the group’s, not to mention the tremendous lack of QA for 5+ years, and here we are. There are dozens of other games people can invest in.


People will point to the shard split as what killed UO. (It clearly didn’t, EQ provided a much better experience.) People will say that dungeon finder caused the downfall of WoW. (It also didn’t, this was after the crazy grind of Champions and the end of the WoW story of Arthas, and a significant design shift for Cataclysm. Oh, League of Legends launched too.)

People are hoarders, we keep things close that work (or don’t) until they are more trouble to keep than get rid of. Look in your residence and you’ll find plenty of things you don’t use but keep around because.

Games are not eternal. They are built for a specific purpose, founded on a set of principles and coding foundations. Changing those principles often requires code changes (WoW’s db changes for spells is a good example) and that process is both time consuming and risks alienating the existing population (*cough* NGE in SWG *cough*). UO hit a need at a given time, served it well, and when something more accessible came about, that took the spotlight. WoW is not competing against a single game here, it’s competing against an entire industry, the largest entertainment industry on the planet ($200 billion in games vs $50 billion in film).

Other Games

The smart people in the room figured this out 10 years ago, that WoW’s special sauce is in delivering chemical bursts of pleasure to the brain on a regular basis, and exploiting humanity’s desire for social connection. The most popular games on the planet require positive groups, where success is only achieved through many people working on the same goal. They also have a competitive aspect, where this group is measured more successful than the other (WoW world firsts ring a bell?)

Genshin Impact is (was?) super popular because it was a masterclass at accessible brain drugs. It’s a gacha machine that gives you everything you want, regular explosions of positive reinforcement, and the competitive nature of comparing your draws to someone else.

Publishers aren’t dumb, they are profit making machines. They know that the social fabric is what keeps games popular and people to irrationally (at times) fork over dough. CoD’s dominance is primarily because of the people you play with, and ability to measure against others. They put enough social hooks in it to force people to get the next iteration, even if there’s no improvements present, aside from new maps. How does FIFA have people buy the exact same product year after year, just with new rosters?

To happenstance deliver quality and accessibility is a near miracle, requiring a level of passion that doesn’t exist (or is actively squashed) in large organizations. Indie devs sometimes find this, and we’ve seen plenty of examples, through thousands of failures. For every Valheim, you get Shiplord by the shovelful. That EA and ActiBlizz do this is mechanical to exploit the maximum from the playerbase – can’t blame them, it works!

The Future

The demand for social is larger than ever, in the connected sense. The need for intuitive design abstracting complexity is the eternal frontier. People swear by iOS even though it does less than Android, because it just works. The gaming frontier is subject to the same drivers and won’t revolutionize until that joint nut is cracked.

How do you get millions of people to be social together, using an intuitive interface over a multi-dimensional complex game? For now, sci-fi is the only place for answers. It will come, there’s no question.

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