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Archive for May 27th, 2007

Some time ago, a friend of mine wondered “aloud” (on a forum, so not really “out loud”) why MMORPGs do not implement something like IRC chat, so that people can stay in touch even while not in game, via the chat server. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that almost all “MMORPGs” on the market today are focused on short-term groups, rather than long-term ones.  In fact all of the MMORPGs I can think of support, not massive social networks (as the term “massively multiplayer” would imply), but rather, massive numbers of very small “pickup groups” — people playing with random other players, who just happen to be online and doing what you are doing (i.e., the “pick-up group”, or PUG).

In fact most games are designed around the pickup group almost exclusively. I will look at a few examples.

In City of Heroes, it’s often much easier to just grab a random group of people the same level as you are, who happen to be in the same zone as you, than to try to coordinate members of your friends list to all meet in one place at the same time, and somehow get the right mix of levels (and sidekicks) to accomplish a mission. This is exacerbated by “Strike Forces” and “Trials” where the characters must all be within a certain level range, and even worse, some trials require a certain mix of character classes (“archetypes” in COH) or power sets. The odds that your circle of friends will have the required levels, classes, or powers, as well as the time to run the Trial, are vanishingly small… but the odds of finding some random player in the Trial’s zone, who also wants to do it, are much higher.

In The Saga of Ryzom, after starting all the new players on the same island (where friendships are very likely to form), the game forces each race to begin in a different country [Editor’s note: this was originally written in Aug 06, and may have changed since]. The “mainland” starting city for each race has “weak” creatures, easy for “newbies” to combat, but to cross the area from one city to the next, one must face very hostile high-level mobs who are likely to one-shot a new character. Crossing such terrain is basically death until you are well over 100th level in a combat or magic skill, meaning that new players are forced to find all new friends (i.e., “pickup groups”) in their new city, and abandon the old ones. Typically players ask for a “trek”, which is a band of high level characters who help escort some newbies across the hostile area (and resurrect them when they, as they inevitably will, perish to the random hostile creature). The trek is usually, you guessed it, a pickup group. SoR also provides only a “regional” channel for general chat (including “looking for team” requests), and has no custom channels or other ways for players to communicate (other than /tell, which is one-on-one). Thus the primary means of communication is a channel whose purpose is “looking for team” requests — the pickup group. Guilds, of course, can offset this (most games have guilds), but even here, unless your circle of friends is all in your guild… you have no good way to communicate with them and (barring a trek, at least at low level) no way to even get to them.

In Guild Wars, the game centers around small groups of players all working on a very tightly defined mission. As with COH, the primary modus operandi here is the pickup group. Players can’t even meet each other in-game except in city areas — small zones where you can sell and buy equipment, and form groups to go out and do “cooperative missions” or other quests. Thus, walking through a city zone in GW is like walking through a giant “singles bar” for gamers… everyone’s “hitting on” each other (or being hit on) for a pickup group. “LFG!” is shouted every few seconds (“looking for group”). Here again, apart from the guild, there are no means of keeping up a persistent group of friends.

Now, one thing City of Heroes implemented (about a year after launch) was the “Global Chat channel” system. This system was a persistent set of channels that players could create and maintain, invite each other onto, etc. The global channels came with a global friends list, allowing players to keep track of each other across multiple alternate characters (alts) and even on different servers. This system is one of the few decent ways in any MMORPG of maintaining a reasonably stable social network. Otherwise, almost all MMOs are built around the idea of the pickup group, and so is COH (again except for global channels).

With pickup groups as the model you do not need a large friends list. You do not need global chat. You do not need wide mission level-range tolerances. You don’t need any of that, because pickup groups are transient, short-term aggregations of people just getting together for today, for this hour, and most of the time they won’t ever see each other again, nor care if they ever do.

IRC servers, persistent global chat, large functional friends lists — in short, the ability to maintain long-term and persistent communication with other people — these things are only needed if you are presuming that the social network is stable and long-standing. When the group is persistent, it needs more sophisticated ways to “stay in touch” than /team chat. When you are friends with a particular player, you want to see when he is online regardless of his character. You want to team with him (or her), not merely with his “toon.” And most MMORPGs do not provide the tools to (easily) maintain persistent groupings. If they have such tools, those tools seem to be an afterthought or seen as “optional” or “a bonus.”

On the other hand, everything I have ever seen in these games indicates that most players establish and maintain a persistent circle of friends. If you begin with the assumption that players will do this, then the tools for persistent groups (rather than ephemeral ones) would follow naturally. But MMORPGs of today are usually built with the assumption of transitory, ephemeral groups. That’s why COH had to shoe-horn globals in almost a year after launch. That’s why requests by new players at SoR to do something about breaking up friendship groups formed on the newbie island have fallen on deaf ears. That’s why most other games only support the “guild” as a persistent social network, apparently never having it dawn on them that a player might well be friends with and want to maintain long-term contacts with people who are not in his own guild. (Imagine that!)

Because online games are social, and because most players form persistent social networks in these games (frequently despite the fact that most games do not support such networks), I think the first game that implements something like real IRC chat, is going to be the first one whose designers actually get the idea that players generally maintain persistent, stable social networks on these games. Until a team of developers gets this though… you won’t see much in the way of “IRC” type chat, sadly.

What’s really funny is that most of these games owe their continued existence in the face of bugs, ever-increasing competition, and developer incompetence to the very persistent social networks that they refuse to support. After all… how many of us have already said, “I’m only playing game X for the friends who are still in it?” These games primarily support PUG style play, but the PUG purists are, for the most part, the least likely to be loyal — because if they grow bored, there is no persistent social network to keep them in game and keep them paying. Yet people with persistent social networks often pay for months or even years after growing sick of the game itself, just to stick with friends (I did it, for months in SWG and twice in COH).

Ironic isn’t it?

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