Friday, March 8, 2019

Talking To Strangers

This corner of the blogosphere seems to be passing through some kind of reflexive wavefront right now. Everywhere I look I see thoughtful, analytical, detailed discussions. Mechanics, metaphysics, motive, all the tropes of academia - or at least a lively student bar - directed at dissecting, discussing and determining what makes an MMORPG.

There's more to react to than there is time to react, which is both frustrating and energizing. I note with pleasure the long comment threads (and the long comments) that trail many of these thought-provoking posts. Blogging dead? Doesn't seem like it right now.

One of the recent wave of posts that particularly struck a note with me was Naithin's commentary on the Transition from Social to Solo in MMORPG gameplay. We've been round this track more than a few times but there's always more nuance to tease out.

For one thing, I hadn't ever really thought about the provenance of the term "Pick Up Group" before. I tried to think back to when I first heard it. I'm not at all sure it was in use back when I was joining - or recruiting - pick up groups most evenings and every weekend. Google, for once, doesn't have an awful lot to contribute. The earliest reference I could find only went back to 2006. There's a very interesting and detailed game-by-game rundown of usage at TVTropes , which strongly implies a much older heritage, but it sheds little light on provenance.

As far as I recall, we used simply to refer to "groups", without any need for further definition or clarification. I'd probably played MMORPGs for several years before I ever heard the term "Guild Group". People often used to speak of their guild responsibilities and it was commonplace for people to have to leave to "help a guildie" or go on a guild raid, but I can't recall anyone ever leaving a group I was in because they preferred to join an exclusive group of people from their guild just for regular, everyday play.

When I was in a cross-guild chat channel in EverQuest that satisfied most of my grouping requirements, we would fill spots from outside the channel by asking if anyone had friends or guildmates who wanted to run with us. If those people fitted in to our culture we'd invite them to join the channel.

We prided ourselves on being competent and capable but there was a wide variety of skill and experience. We had some very casual players who were great company but needed a degree of direction and some top-end raiders who were there just to chill and relax. We liked to get things done and we liked to challenge ourselves but clearly what was cutting edge content for some of us was slippers and cocoa for others.

In twenty years of playing MMORPGs, the couple of years I spent with the people in that chat channel represent the zenith of my grouping experience. It offered the flexibility and variety of pick up grouping but with the familiarity and structure of a guild or static group. In some ways it prefigured, in social terms if not mechanics, the kind of open group play that eventually grew out of Warhammer's Public Quests.

While, as I said, the members of that chat channel liked to get things done, the real reason we were all there was to chat. Okay, not everyone would have listed their priorities in exactly that order, but fitting in socially was the defining factor on whether guests ended up getting an invite and the way we assessed social suitability had much more to do with affability or snappy repartee than whether you mistimed the odd heal.

In the comment thread that follows Naithin's post there's a discussion about the changing role of text and voice. Jeromai has a theory, to which I also cleave:

"...the design of action-focused games has steadily made it physically impossible or inconvenient to maintain a good typed conversation. Typed conversation has more stately pauses, and takes your fingers away from WASD, causing your characters to pause in whatever they are doing. Given that most people want very much to be actually playing during their game time, every potential sentence is briefly weighed (subconsciously or otherwise) for whether it’s worth utterance."

When I was googling "pick up groups" I came across a fascinating piece of academic research at Wiley's Online Library, entitled "Where Everybody Knows Your Name". It's a dense and very heavily referenced paper and I haven't even begun to dig into the detail, but just on a quick scan some paragraphs positively jump out:

"Text‐based interaction in such worlds is incessant and ubiquitous. There is not just one chat channel but multiple simultaneous ones: public, private, and various group channels. Together, these function as both a one‐to‐many and one‐to‐one communicative space..."
Despite the encroachment of voice chat, that seems to me still to be the case, at least in the MMORPGs I play. In Guild Wars 2, for example, voice communications are almost de rigeur in many World vs World squads but that doesn't mean no-one talks in type. Quite the opposite, in fact. It just adds yet another layer.

It's become a truism to state that the exponential growth of social media and the mainstreaming of instantaneous global communication has stripped the magic and mystique from talking in real-time to strangers on the other side of the world. And it most likely has.

Whether that has very much to do with the changing attitudes to running dungeons with strangers, I'm becoming less certain every time I think about it. As for the accepted narrative that people no longer want to talk to strangers in MMOs these days, the more I think about that, the less convincing I find it.

I talk to strangers every day, in GW2 and EverQuest II and pretty much in whatever MMORPG I happen to find myself. Not, as I once did, in group chat seen by no more then five or six other people, but in open channels where the conversations bounce between dozens of participants in front of an unknowable audience, any of whom might join in at any moment.

It's entirely commonplace for me to be calling out scouting information in Map chat, arguing with someone in Team, making sarcastic comments to Mrs Bhagpuss about other players in Guild and bantering in Squad, all while I'm on auto-run across the map in the middle of the Zerg. It's much the same as I've been doing in a variety of channels in  a multiplicity of MMOs for two decades.

The only element that's missing from the mix are those rambling group chats on personal and out-of-game topics we used to indulge in between pulls and those, it seems to me, were more a function of the specific combat mechanics of those games than any kind of end in themselves. If you have to sit down and do nothing for anything up to five minutes after every big fight you have to pass the time somehow...

I don't feel there's been quite as much of a move away from the old methods, either of communication or socialization in MMORPGs as has sometimes - often - been claimed. I'm not sure there will be, either. People do like to talk, and text is orders of magnitude more efficient than voice in the context of the shared "third spaces" of MMOs.

Which isn't to say that online games in general aren't travelling in a different direction. They are. The widely-praised non-text, non-speech communication system built into Apex Legends suggests that mainstream gaming is evolving away from the kind of personalized, intimate relationships we've so long taken for granted towards a more functional, gameplay-directed future.

Battle Royales aren't MMORPGs, though. Not hardly. MMORPG players like to chat. If they can't do it during fights they'll go sit somewhere safe and do it there instead. I don't see any sign of that ending any time soon.


  1. I commented somewhere (where did input my keys?) How I am back in EW in p1999 and the downtime is very refreshing. I can relax and play.

    1. I am half tempted to start on the new EQII PVE server when it comes. Supposedly the leveling speed and combat difficulty there are going to be similar to the 2004 launch. I rememeber there being a lot of downtime back then, although not as much as in EQ. My PC struggled in dungeons back then and I never enjoyed grouping much because of that. Might be interesting to give it another go.

  2. World chat and or zone chat is still pretty lively in most of the MMOs I frequent. There seems to be some sort of happy medium in terms of number of participants. You need a critical mass for there to be a fun conversation there. However, when too many people are involved it very often devolves into political diatribes or other distracting bickering. Sometimes you can clean it up with a few well placed ignores, sometimes I need to just opt out.

    Tells and area chat ("sayu" in most games) almost always work pretty similarly from one game to another.

    Party chat is a different beast. It seems to depend wildly on the game that I'm playing, and sometimes even what I'm doing in a given game. Some communities expect you to be on vent/ TS/ discord, some don't mind typing. Some seem to largely want you to do your job on a team (be it dungeons or PvP) efficiently and shut the hell up. Teams also vary a lot. Some teams are happy to answer questions, some will boot you if you aren't obviously already a vet. I find the unpredictability stressful, and generally solo in most of the games I play because of it.

    1. Yes, I agree that the real change has happened almost exclusively in the group/party segment. When I look at how I interact and communicate in the MMOs I'm playing, there's very little difference between the conversations I had in /ooc in Lake of Ill Omen in 2000 and the discussions I get drawn into in Wayfarer Hills in 2019. Even the topics aren't all that different. Same with /say and other open channels.

      Guild chat remains guild chat - I'm not in a busy, active guild anywhere right now but I have been in the last couple of years and it was the usual greetings, jokes and endless discussuions about builds and gear. And guild drama, of course. Nothing much has changed there.

      Grouping, though, is, as you say, unpredictable. I don't do it very much, and when I do it's mostly around holiday events, which generally attract a more laid-back crowd, but even there you never know if it's going to be speed runs in total silence or a lot of general chit-chat. That said, I always found conversation in PUGs (or "groups" as we called them then) fairly random. I used to dread joining groups sometimes for exactly the same reasons I don't much look forward to it now - the attitude and etiquette of other players was hard to predict.

      What was a lot different was how long those groups lasted. Yes, there was often a difficult or uncomfortable start but once you'd taken the plunge and joined you were often grouped for two or three hours - sometimes twice that. You got to know people fairly well in that time whereas now you're likely to be in and out of whatever instance you're running in 20-30 minutes and 95% of that will have been combat. No wonder there's not much time to chat.

  3. You’re right, back in my MUD days of 1998 or so, the terminology used was always simply “groups.” “Let’s group up and run this mob,” if I recall the phrasing correctly. I should go over my old logs at some point. The term “raid” was simply not in common parlance on my particular MUD either. Possibly only took over the language from Everquest onwards.

    I do seem to recall the phrase “pickup group” used from City of Hero’s time onwards, say circa 2004? Though since we’ve lost the CoH forums, not sure there’s any real evidence dating back to that time. It was more to highlight what a great casual thing that was, such fast and easy grouping and that you could get plenty done in a pickup group, compromised of just taking the first people to come along, as differentiated from say, Everquest or WoW’s more considered class composed groups in order to get anything done in at a good clip.

    Somewhere from that time on, through the decades, it shifted slightly and picked up an abbreviation (pun fully intended) and the double meaning from the look of a pug dog - slightly stupid, not very effective - and the general tendency of casual grouping in many games to be less effective... and then took on some negative connotations from people using it like an insult.

    Ain’t language evolution rad?!

  4. I recall pickup group or PUG being used very early on in WoW. I'd never heard it, but it made sense given that I previously played pickup games of hockey and football. I figured the etymology of it came from that. Pickup games are just games that organically develop. A couple guys playing football, a couple more join in, all of a sudden you've got a full game.

  5. What a blast from the past having you link that article!

    I think the first time I heard the term 'PUG' used was in WoW, but not in the vanilla, probably into Burning Crusade at least?

    I'm not sure it carried with it the negative connotation that it does today at that time though. I suspect it followed soon afterward though with the difficulty of the heroics at the time, especially some of those Sunwell orientated ones.

    With difficulty being (in general) lower today, the PUG stigma probably isn't as warranted, but it's so ingrained I don't think it's going anywhere quickly.

  6. Because I'm bored and more than a little obsessive, I did a bit of random web archive searching through CoH's forums, which someone a lot more obsessive than me apparently backed up.

    The earliest reference I can find right now is Sep 2004 by user opticus2.

    I started by checking Zombie Man's Guide to Guides, where quite a few guides were written about Pick Up Groups or PUGs, but they were all labeled Issue 5-6 (around 2005ish) and following the links showed a 2006 posting. So I went for the random brute force method of going to a general discussions page, and searching from the earliest posts downward for some people talking about groups. Still just as popular a topic 15 years later!

    1. Nov 2003, Everquest, some random group's forums that are still alive

      How deep will this rabbit hole go?! This is fun!

    2. My last trick: searching for mmo "pickup group" keywords on Google and selecting the date range from 2000-2003.

      Yielded Dec 2002

      I'm happy to credit the origins of the phrase as used in an MMO game sense to Everquest. Someone else can attempt chasing it back through Ultima Online, but if Google can't find it, well, that's good enough for me.

    3. Great detective work. I started doing it when I was writing the post but right at the start I hit that academic piece and spent too long reading it to have time to search any further and still get the post done.

      The term "pick up group" was definitely around long before MMOs. I vaguely knew it from musician-speak, where it probably goes back to the Jazz age and as Joe says above it's been used in sports for a long time, althopugh I guess that would be more a "pick up team" or "side" than a group.

      I guess given that history anyone might have used it for MMO groups, as the commenter on Allakazham did, and everyone would have known what they meant, but I'm reasonably certain it wasn't in what you'd call common use back then. The 2004/5 dateline with WoW soaring in popularity sounds more likely as the point when the term took on a life of its own.


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