Social Economies – Part 4

This is the final post in the Social Economies series, where we covered definition, previous history and current state.  This post will focus on the speculative future and provide some suggestions developers may want to consider.

First we need to address the elephant in the room and that’s the gamification/RPG trend.  The gamification trend alludes to what seems to be a start, end, goal and reward process for many services.  Fitocracy is a perfect example, where you get badges for doing exercise.  The RPG trend is linked quite heavily and this refers to the “level up” feature in nearly all games and quite a few services.  COD took this to the extreme and now every game seems to have this feature baked-in.  The concept of a “ding” upon level up is so pervasive today that it has lost most of its meaning.

The baby elephant underneath the big one is the F2P gaming trend.  These are designed to be extremely consumable products focused drastically on the short term.  They are generally just like junk food; you get a fix and move on.  There are hundreds and hundreds of games that fit this mold and very few MMOs, in the West, are designed with F2P from the start.  They are magically reverse engineered with varying results.  Some give everything away, some put up massive pay walls.  Eastern games are nearly all F2P from the start and have very short life spans.  But the culture there accepts this model.  I won’t go into more detail about it, since our culture in the West is quite a bit different.

We’ve addressed the fact that social economies are dependent on people investing time to get results, regardless of the game structure around them.  The reward structure is primarily intrinsic but can be supplemented with extrinsic rewards as a “selling feature” of a game.  In this I mean that if Game A has a functional social economy that took 2 years to build, Game B needs to offer a more improved economy. In actual fact, this is simply not possible but due to the two elephants in the room, that often doesn’t matter until month 2 after release.

So how does a new game coming out attract, and more importantly, retain players?  It honestly cannot be a new shiny, as there just aren’t any left.  People have shot, sliced, danced and dinged their way through online games for 10 years and the market is just too saturated to sustain any more.  A new game needs intrinsic rewards that players value.

They need strong social bonds at an early point in the game – such as through a mentoring program.  Mentoring allows players of any level to get together and play together, with only small limitations.  I played with my brother for a long time but the level difference was always a hurdle we could not cross.  Mentoring, or level scaling play, is a no brainer.

They need synergies for social groups at an early level.  This can be done in a few ways but one idea I’ve had for a while is group/friend experience.  Similar to guild levels, the more you play with another person, the more options you have in interacting with them.  This could be a feature that allows you to copy their dye set, improves travel time when in range of each other or more social emotes.  This would again be account based because your friends are people, not avatars.

They need a framework of social tools.  They need to integrate into services that are not tied in-game, like the RIFT mobile application.  It lets you participate in game and stay in touch with friends and guildmates.  This allows you to maintain social bonds in and out of game.  In-game guild and group tools are also required and they must be available from the start and be intuitive.  Games need a no-tap rule and shared loot.  They need grouping tools to easily put people together.  They need teleportation tools to get friends together over long distances.

They also need a system of control for social interactions, policed in-game.  League of Legends has a tribunal system that works fairly well.  New games need an in-game, per account, reputation score.  People that are continually kicked, or who do nothing but harass other players should have a penalty for that activity.  UO tried this by not allowing PKs to go into towns but this was per character.  A per account penalty (which is what the XBOX One is doing) can easily weed out the trash that makes social activity difficult to maintain.  Gaming restrictions would be minor at the start (limited trade) and major at the end (Killed on Sight).

These are not exhaustive options and they are not extremely demanding.  They do however require a paradigm shift away from the per-character mindset to a per-player mindset.  If people suddenly feel a responsibility for their actions and therefore a value to them, they are more willing to invest in a game.  The future isn’t doom and gloom, we’re simply in a dip of game development while society as a whole learns to live with digital social economies.

Social Economies – Part 3

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.

WoW Player Population Over Time

WoW Population


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.

Social Economies – Part 2

In the previous post, I covered the definition of social economies in terms of gaming and hopefully provided some framing to the concept.  This post is going to cover the history of social economies to provide some better context as to how we got to where we are.

Believe it or not but humans require social interaction.  100 years ago, your social framework was the village.  50 years ago it was what you could phone and maybe drive to within a few hours.  20 years ago it was what you could fly to.  The Internet really only took off 15 years ago and that was through dial-up.  Broadband internet is still not common for everyone.  The ability to contact other people, over extreme distances, is really only standard for people under the age of 1.  Anyone older than that, you will have spent the majority of your social time in face to face or phone conversations.

Today, nearly everyone has easy access to some form of internet, a smart phone and free web services to keep in contact with others.  Just 7 years ago, that wasn’t the case.

I want to stress the following fact that many people seem to forget.  Facebook, arguably the largest single impact on social economies, launched to the public in 2006.  It turned a profit in 2009.  We are pretty much only 5 years into the “social media” phase.  Anything before this time was considered niche and geeky.  I consider this the watershed moment for social economies.

So back to basics.  Before MMOs we had D&D and tabletop games (like Warhammer).  These were competitive games certainly, but operated with a set of rules rather than a pre-defined path.  There was no “one right way” to run an Orc army.  This meant that strategies and discussion occurred between the players and that the actually gameplay was secondary to the social interactions.  I didn’t play D&D with strangers just to get a D&D fix.  I played with friends.

MUDs came about and for the most part were based on D&D structure, minus the grouping aspect.  They were glorified chatrooms really – like IRC in the day.  Ultima Online was the first (not really, Meridian 59 was there before) game to provide a fully interactive game with social elements.  Launched in 1997, these were the dial-up days.  A lot stunk about the game but there was freedom, lots of freedom.  Social boundaries were established quickly – PvP clans, villages, mentors, dungeon runs.  You could play alone but again since there was not destined path, people naturally got together to try new things.

Remember ICQ, MSN & AIM?  That was the Facebook of the day.  Ventrilo, Mumble and Skype all came later.  General chat channels didn’t exist until EQ.  PHPBB was making thousands on guild websites.  If you wanted to talk to someone, you did it on the web, not in-game.  This also meant that the social bonds you made were available in other games and at times where you were not playing at all.  You didn’t need to play EQ to keep in touch with your UO friends.

If you look back before 2006, contact with people not in physical proximity was technically challenging: you needed hard to find quality internet, a desktop application (or website forum), non-game related contact information and good typing skills.  This “barrier to entry” meant that those who were in the game, wanted to be in the game and had a vested interest.  They wanted to participate in the social economy of the day and made the non-negligible effort to get there.  Up until 2006, there was common ground to build on.