Monday, May 24, 2021

Alone Again Or

at Time To Loot has a post up, bouncing off a YouTube video by Josh Strife Hayes. The video, which I've embedded below for those who don't feel like clicking on a link, is called How the MMO became less social and it's three-quarters of one of the best analyses of the much-discussed phenomenon that I've seen.

I would recommend watching it all the way through... or listening to it in the background while you do something else, for example play an mmorpg. It's basically a lecture. It would make more sense as a podcast than a YouTube video although I did discover from watching the first few minutes that Runes of Magic is a better-looking game than I remembered.

The first three sections are lucidly argued. I found myself agreeing with most of the points made. It was the fourth segment that Naithin's post highlighted, though, the chapter entitled "The shifting of social interactions to 3rd party platforms", and that was the part I found the least convincing.

Josh draws threads from the previous three parts together to make the case that socialization in mmorpgs hasn't disappeared altogether, it's just gone somewhere else. As someone who's very much part of the problem he describes under the second and third headings ("The genre popularity boom and rise of the solo player" and "The catering of systems to the solo player"), a player for whose increasingly solipsistic tastes the entire genre has been redefined, I find myself in a precarious position, discussing how players might these days find themselves engaging in what passes for organized content.

I'll take Naithin's word for it that such players today often "organise dungeon content. Raids. Heck, any group content" on external platforms like Discord (It's always Discord, isn't it?). If that's the case, though, I would question just how much of a change it represents.

You call it bragging, I call it socializing.

Larger formal content like raids has always been organized externally but even in the early days, most quasi-formal appointments-to-play, from guild events to weddings, were generally handled outside of the games themselves. As far back as 2001-2 I was having to make accounts with various hosting platforms, register for services like Magelo, set passwords and sign in to forums, just so I could find out what guilds I'd joined were planning. And those were family guilds, not raiders.

I remember it now because I found it so irritating then, but I knew you couldn't get by as a supposed "social" player just on the in-game communication channels alone. The people for whom those were paramount were, ironically, those most resistant to the overt social aspects of the genre. People who were focused on ad hoc content, on character-based activities, on leveling up and playing alts.

Socialization in those days was gameplay, even if you weren't social about it. Even for a soloist, the experience was defined by relationships with others, in that case as much by a refusal to participate as a wish to be included. I do think one long-forgotten aspect of solo play in pre-World of Warcraft mmorpgs is just how proud solo players were of their skills. They soloed not because no-one would group with them but because they didn't need anyone to group with them.

There's a whole different post to be written about how the genre's drift towards soloability has contributed to the attritional decline of true solo play. Maybe I'll get to that another time. Sticking with the topic at hand, the slow but steady transition of the mmorpg genre from one in which gameplay is predicated on in-game socialization to one in which the overwhelming majority of content is available to all regardless of willingness to socialize represents a fundamental change that can't be hand-waved away by a misconcatenation of interactions that share only a few surface similarities.

In the beginning, mmorpgs were ultra-social. Everything Josh says about the early days rings true to me from my own experience. Being able to fight monsters side-by-side with people on the other side of the world and talk to them while doing it was mindboggling. The games operated as de facto social media platforms even before the term "social media" had currency. 

If you need a favor you still have to ask.


These are not new insights. They're concepts often discussed and widely accepted nowadays. But Josh does highlight something much less frequently noted: some of what we glibly term "socializing" was, in fact, core gameplay content. 

There's a kind of accepted wisdom about the old LFG days. How much time was wasted, standing around in a city or at the entrance to a dungeon, spamming /shout or /ooc with your virtual CV, hoping someone would at least acknowledge your existence before you had to give up and log out. It all makes things sound quite pathetic and painfully dull. 

And it could be. But what you hear far less of, something Josh alludes to but doesn't elaborate on, is how putting groups together could be fun. How coming up with effective ways to sell yourself as a useful, desirable group member was a skill as satisfying to improve as two-hand blunt or evocation. How people became as well-known for their group-building prowess as their tanking skills. Much is said about the value of reputation in those days: in my experience almost nothing gave higher social status than a rep as someone who could build and run really strong, effective groups.

Generally, when older players harp on about what was lost, they make too much of how "we sat around between pulls and chatted". Yes, we did do that, a lot, but for my money real "socializing" never revolved around fireside conversation as we waited for the cleric to get her mana back. It wasn't swapping stories about what we were doing outside the game that made for strong bonds. It was discussing what we were going to do in it.

My strongest memories of social interactions from the golden age of the genre mainly involve planning sessions as we brainstormed tactics to achieve some immediate gameplay goal. That's what no longer happens in most of the mmorpgs I play, largely because, as Josh explains, the need for such tactical concerns has been designed out of the genre.

Once it was groups. Now it's maps.


It's why I'm looking forward to the return of the Marionette fight to Guild Wars 2. It's a rare example in modern times of content that regularly generated the kind of in the moment tactical discussions I relish. That's the kind of social gameplay I enjoy.

And that's why I don't see the burgeoning acceptance and use of third-party platforms for communication between people with a shared interest in mmorpgs as a replacement or even a corollary for the kind of gameplay-based social interactions upon which the genre made its name. And that's if we accept on face value the argument that the average mmorpg player is making widespread use of social media these days.

I wonder if they are? Discord, as has been discussed in this corner of the blogosphere a number of times of late, is far from being accepted as a universal good. Some people like it, some people put up with it, some people can't stand it. In the games I play it's not at all unusual to hear people being critical of out-of-game platforms, not because of any inherent flaws in the software but because they're deemed to be an inappropriate way to communicate.

A lot of that is most likely based on age and experience. Older players are less likely to want to move their conversations to new and unfamiliar platforms, partly out of an innate resistance to change but also from previous failures. How many different communication media will a ten-year veteran already have signed up for and then found themselves not using a few months later?

Some of the resistance, though, is structural. Communication that takes place outside of the game is by definition not part of the game. It's related to it but not of it. To some players that's not why they're playing. They want to be part of a self-contained imaginary world that has internal consistency. That's hard enough already without making further concessions to asynchronous social media or voice chat.

Some people never speak. Some people never shut up.


I'm not going to fight for the flag on this one. I have no way of knowing how widespread the use of 3rd party social media platforms within the wider mmorpg audience might be. In a way, though, the more widespread it is, the less it means. 

Josh refers to a whole range of providers - YouTube, Discord, Twitch, Facebook - as though a shared interest expressed across those for a commonly-held hobby makes for some kind of cohesive social bond. If that's true then it must also apply to all fans of, well, anything. It's just too general to have significance.

As he says, at the start mmorpgs were doing something new, something unique. Now they share those functions with much larger, more popular, more successful platforms, processes and providers. That mmorpg players also use those platforms says much about the pervasive influence and acceptance of social media but it doesn't necessarily indicate a straightforward change of venue.

Everyone uses social media. Of course that includes mmorpg players. Just because we socialize outside the games we play doesn't mean we've simply transferred our in-game social structures and practices to a new host. The games aren't social any more, not in the way they were. Talking about them on social media doesn't change that. Making plans with our friends about what we're going to do when we see them in game doesn't change that. 

Josh had it right in the set-up: for mmorpgs, socialization was gameplay. His conclusion, that "the social aspect has simply moved out of the game" won't stand up.

If the socialization isn't in the game, it's not part of the game. And that's not, in itself, a bad thing. Not everything has been lost. The genre hasn't become asocial, just differently socialized. I prefer things as they are now. I like the new forms of socialization that have replaced the old.

That's why my game of choice for much of the last decade has been Guild Wars 2. Of all the mmorpgs I play, it's the one that's most successfully managed to integrate the genre's older, socially-reliant gameplay with modern, solo-oriented expectations.

But, once again, that's a whole other post.


  1. I think Naithin has more of a finger on the pulse of this with how people & individuals have changed over time as well. Sure, external tech factors have an influence, but I think are more of a symptom and reflection of the changes that have taken place internally in people.

    There are the 'before' days, and I use this liberally, as a term to describe MMO innocence, where other people were seen as benevolent & beneficial & desirable to make contact with. For someone of our age group, this could have taken place in MUDS or the earlier MMOs like Everquest or WoW. For newer introductees to the genre, it could even be taking place now.

    When people are sold on the idea of connecting to others = good for them in some way, they'll use whatever means and tools are available to communicate. In-game, out-of-game, forums, Discord, what-have-you. Two or three decades ago or now, it doesn't make a difference to the motivated-to-connect person.

    Then at some point, the jadedness sets in, or at least a recognition that other people also bring with them their own hang-ups and inconveniences, that there is some imbalance in the relationship or negative aspect to the connection. Now there is a tension in whether the good of the connection outweighs the bad, and whether there are other alternatives that might work better for said person.

    What's different these days is that there are alternatives out the wazoo.

    From playing games that require different amounts or types of socializing or none at all, to using different tools for socializing - asynchronous, synchronous or even separating the desire to socialize from the desire to play a video game (e.g. social media to connect with other parties, no socialization while playing video games.)

    Games have had to amend and tweak their design to continue to attract players, or see them move to different alternatives. Hence the perceived difference in games of today versus games of old.

    1. There's been some good discussion in the past on various blogs I've read about how difficult it is for established players to understand the experiences of novices. Mostly that's focused on surpring things like the trouble first-timers have in doing basic things like moving using the WASD keys or interacting with NPCs but it applies equally to the whole gosh-wow "I'm in a virtual world with people from all over the real world" weirdness of the genre itself. I do think there's a qualitative difference between talking to someone 3000 miles away on Skype or Facebook and seeing yourself embodied as a giant cat standing next to someone embodied as a tiny fairy, both of you fighting an enormous dragon *and* having a conversation about what the weather's like on another continent. That's a lot to process and it takes a while to get used to it, even nowadays (although it probably happens faster for newbies in 2021 than it would have in 1999). But of course everyone gets used to it eventually and then it just becomes another day in the office.

      The games kind of developed along the same lines, for better or for worse. The developers became as familiar with the experience as the players and together both sides colluded in a general de-mystifying of the whole experience to the point that almost everything about became known, expected, understood and finally routine. One of the reasons fewer people talk to each other in game these days is that the content, even when it does require co-ordination between people, is sufficiently known and understood that everyone is able to do their part without communicating out loud. We've all done it so many times before we could do it in our sleep.

  2. Great discussion topic. I tend toward your side, I think. However, you note that "Of all the mmorpgs I play, [Guild Wars 2 is] the one that's most successfully managed to integrate the genre's older, socially-reliant gameplay with modern, solo-oriented expectations."…

    As always, EVE Online is a litmus test for MMO gaming ideas, because it is so out-there. When it comes to socialization in play, EVE has arguably gotten more rather than less so. This is partly because the ongoing meta has pushed players really hard to socialize to succeed in-game — what I think you were talking about — and in part because the relentless use of out-of-band tools, many of them custom-made for EVE, has facilitated very large and active social groupings.

    Over my few years in EVE I played as both a very solo and reasonably social player. They were both fun. I even made a few friends out-of-game (though I have since sadly let that slide) whom with I shared more than just gameplay stuff. But it was mostly gameplay stuff.

    I don't know what to make of all this, but I would say that by far EVE is the game that for "me most successfully managed to integrate the genre's socially-reliant gameplay with solo-oriented expectations." I left out "older" and "modern" deliberately, because in EVE neither is really old-school or new-school: it's *always* been like that.

    I played some Guild Wars 2: I never got far enough into it to bother getting socialized. Even many years ago it was an extremely solo-friendly game. EVE is solo-playable, but as many many players have noted it's pretty large-group friendly in its core gameplay.

    1. I would make definite and clear distinction between PvP and PvE gameplay in mmorpgs, when it comes to talking about socialization and the need for communication. It's a truism that premades wreck pugs but it's also well-accepted that almost any PvP team that uses voice will have a big advantage over any that don't. That also holds true, in my experience, for PvP where the participants communicate effectively using in-game text channels. although clearly not everyone can type and/or read fast enough to make that work.

      The obvious reason for that is that when you're competing with other players the patterns are a lot harder to spot. PvE content in mmorpgs, even the hardest, is largely a process of learning afinite set of programmed behaviors. Communication helps that process go faster but once everyone "knows the fight" there's not much need for anyone to talk about it any more. In PvP, at any scale, every fight at least has the potential to produce something new.

      Whether that applies to more popular forms of PvP, like Battle Royales or MOBAs I wouldn't know. I imagine it does, though. In PvE, though, a lot of the kind of internal communication that used to take place in game has been handed off to YouTube or Twitch. People literally go watchs omeone else do the fight and learn the moves from that so they know what to do the first time they come up against it in game.

      GW2, though, is a *very* chatty game. It would be even by the standards of twenty years ago. In most of the bigopen-world, set-piece fights, of which there are dozens, more often than not someone will be in chat explaining each stage, sometimes in detail before it starts and also during it. There's a huge amount of tactical conversation, most of which is repeating information 90% of the players in the fight already know. I don't play any other mmorpgs that come anywhere close to that level of conversation about the content while doing the content. It's quite peculiar when you stand back and look at it objectively.

  3. Replies
    1. It'll be in the monthly music post if you want another excuse to hear it again. Not that you'd need one...

  4. I think our views on this aren't perhaps *as* divergent as I first thought when I saw your comment on my post before work this morning.

    I took a very functional view of the socialisation in my post. The side that deals with organisation. Getting shiz done. Which upon reflection is rather sad -- as I very much *did* enjoy the 'before times' version of in-game socialisation.

    It was in large part what I was there for. Asheron's Call was the best chat-room I ever played. Huge upgrade over IRC. ;)

    Some of those types of discussions have survived the migration. But not all. And where I definitely agree with you is on the point of simply talking *about* games on the likes of YT, FaceBook or whereever else is not the same.

    It might be socialisation. And it might be re: MMOs. But it isn't the same.

    That said, I don't think it was really Josh's argument that it *was* the same. Just that the degree of socialisation around MMOs had expanded with the furtherance of technology. There is also no inconsistency here, I don't think, around other hobbies / interest groups being able to use the technology to the same ends.

    I think largely the fact we moved to these other platforms though, and this whole other... style... of socialisation is from the earlier points and how they contributed to shifting attitudes of players over the years.

    You say that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm less sure. Or at the very least- there is a part of me that regrets the change I've noted in myself. Even though I cannot (easily) go back.

    Interestingly though, when I revisited Asheron's Call a year or so ago, I did find myself falling back into the old habits associated with the game. A phenomenon I've heard echoed by those going back into EQ99 too.

    1. WoW Classic eighteen months ago was a very interesting data point. Almost everyone who wrote about it, and there were a lot of people both playing and recording their experiences, mentioned the return to the kind of social interaction we associate with the early years of the genre. I definitely experienced it myself - I spoke to strangers and joined pick-up groups in which people both chatted and discussesd tactics.

      Most of those players were genre veterans. Few, if any, would have been out of their depth or overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. It's probably true that many of them were actively looking for a re-run of those social experiences but I can say for certain that, for me, the nature of the gameplay itself nudged me in that direction. I was mostly soloing but I kept running into quests that needed a group to finish or that were easier with a group or I just plain got invited to group because other people were in the same place doing the same thing.

      From all of that it does seem to me that a sizeable portion of the audience may not have lost the ability or the desire for the older kind of gameplay-led social interactions. I suspect that what we're really missing is a game that's well enough designed to take full advantage of both those elements *and* the more solo-friendly aspects we've all come to expect. Unfortunately, no-one seems to have that vision right now - we're seeing some high-profile attempts to turn the clock all the way back and a lot of attempts to dump the difficult social elements altogether but not much in the way of a new style of social gameplay.

      It's not as though no-one's had any big ideas. GW2, for example, definitely moved things on in terms of large-scale social play but it did nothing at all for the kind of small group social play the older games excelled at. That's another topic too long for a comment though.

  5. That video argues points well we've felt for years and years. The novelty factor of online coop worlds was groundbreaking in the early 2000es, that's just something you can never recreate. Also very true about outsourcing much of the social interaction.

    1. I agree that most people are unlikely to be able to recreate the experience over and over, although plenty seem determined to try, but I think the significance of that can be overstated. In life, every experience is novel when we first encounter it but while some of those quickly lose their thrill, others go on to become lifelong habits. It's notable that even in the small selection of views expressed in this part of the blogosphere I could name a few veteran players who still actively enjoy meeting strangers and doing content with them. They are very much the minority, though. Most people seem to detest the idea of having to talk to anyone they don't already know.


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