YMMO (Part 4)

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My previous articles addressed issues I have with the supposed ‘social’ nature of MMOs, now I want to go down a slightly different track. From my view of MMOs they offer no single feature which is unique to the genre. Everything that they do offer can be found somewhere else, where it is usually done better. The single exception to this I can see, and even then only certain MMOs meet this exception, is the specific combination of their mediocre features that they present.

This idea may seem odd, even confusing, but to demonstrate I am going to go back, way back, to the earliest examples of MMO type games: Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). MUDs were an early attempt to produce an environment in which users could interact in a game like setting, they were similar to large multiplayer text adventure games. In fact, they are large multiplayer text adventure games, but with less humor, none of the great stories, and a load of obnoxious other people constantly bothering you for help or killing your monster for you. In essence, they took all of the more boring elements of text adventure games and added the nuisance of having to play with annoying people.

In much the same way, the MMOs of today draw many of their best game elements from other, single player role-playing games which did a far better job of implementing those elements. One fairly simple and easy to demonstrate example of this is the leveling systems used by MMOs. You can literally pick up any single player RPG from the last 15 years and see examples of leveling that are better thought out than most systems used in MMOs today. If you insist on talking about some of the better MMOs, then I say simply look at newer higher-end single player RPGs and again you will find better leveling systems. Similarly, the quest systems from MMOs reflect largely the systems that single player RPGs had been using for some time. The postal quest, the kill a certain number of enemies quests, even the run to the end of the dungeon quests are all as old as NetHack itself, and have much better thought out and detailed examples littered through out games in general than any of the quests found in MMOs. And then the story, for me the reason to play a game is its story, and here MMOs are somewhat lacking. I say somewhat lacking, I mean they hide it behind pointless events, annoying special quests, and occasional updates or sequels. Even Guild Wars, one of the best at actually containing and presenting story to its audience, more or less used the story as an excuse to say “Quick! Go to the next region full of monsters now and forever 5 levels higher than you!”

But wait you say, they can’t have all those in amazing uniqueness because they have to incorporate the ‘social’ elements. Fie I say. Again they are essentially implementing systems that have been in existance for a long long time here, Usenet I think it was called. Every single one of the social elements in the game, with a few small exceptions (the characters appearing next to each other on screen and maybe character emotes…), have been around since dirt. Or the internet, either way. The party is essentially a chat room. Guilds, basically a mailing list. Friends lists, instant messaging if ever I saw it. Heck the towns are basically Battle.net but with extra pretty pictures. These are especially true in instanced ‘MMOs’ such as Guild Wars where the only time you can run into someone not in your party is in the towns.

So there you have it, I am unimpressed with these features and see that the way they are implemented I could find more enjoyment from playing the single player games they derive from. Admittedly MMOs are the only place I can find all of these things together in one program (by ‘all of these things’ I mean limited RPG systems and stunted social systems…), but I would rather run say two or even three programs to get this functionality than be limited by what the MMO creators decided they had time for while squeezing other almost functional systems into their games.

Continue to Part 5

YMMO? (Part 3)

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My previous article dealt with the claims of MMOs as ‘social’ games, and for this article I would like to look at a similar claim. Many MMOs have long claimed that they have a great community of players, and I have often wondered how true this is. I am not trying to argue that they do not have a community element to them, any group of people with similar interests can be considered a community. I doubt, however, this interpretation of community is what is intended by those who mention the community facet of MMO gameplay. For the next few paragraphs I will be inspecting MMOs in terms of community, how they function as communities, what they lack, where they go wrong, and -if I am feeling nice- where they go right.

Before we look at MMO communities in general, a few things need to be established. First is that I, admittedly, am an outsider looking in to the MMO phenomenon. I have very limited personal experience with MMO worlds, and that experience I do have is limited to hanging out with my real life friends for a few hours in a virtual setting. Next is something I attempted to establish near the end of the previous piece, any virtual social interaction is necessarily limited by the nature of the medium. Finally, something that is often forgotten about communities built around MMOs, at least when they are referenced in real life, they are focused around a game and deal primarily with the things of that game. With those few points out of the way, I am ready to continue.

Now for my big question about MMO community: is there really any? I will freely admit there is plenty of community in the sense that any fan group is a community, but what I am asking is this: Is there really a thriving functioning social community in game? Do these games actually support community in something like the same way a town or small city does? I have seen many descriptions of the nuance and subtlety of guild relations and inter-party speech which seem to imply this type of community does exist within these games, but these descriptions belonged to what I often observe to be a minority within the MMO environments. From my vantage point, on the outside looking in, I see a few small groups of people that get along in a way that resembles a real community, at least with respect to game things, and much larger collection of people that simply want handouts or someone to beat the monster for them or someone to drag them to where they can quickly gain levels worth of experience. What results is less a community and more a collection of players trying to exploit each other toward the same end. This system simply cannot meet or fill the same emotional and mental role of an actual community, it fails by being to narrow and focused on the game and by leaving real concerns or issues untouched. It is also telling that those who form the small community like groups tend to extend their interaction to things and modes outside the game, they were friends to begin with, or they use e-mail or instant messengers to talk about things other than the game when not playing. Essentially, these groups form community by using the game as a spring board to further, and different, interaction. For them the game is not the end of their community, it is merely a part of it.

There is one other problem I have with the MMO approach to community, a problem which I admit is a bit odd considering the ‘social’ premise of these games. It has always bothered me how difficult MMOs make it for someone who attempts to play without engaging in their little community of mutual exploiters. If I wished to play the game on my own for a few hours, I would be very limited in my choice of quests, enemies, and even character types. I admit that these games were intended to be social and that by forcing some degree of interaction they are better able to accomplish this goal, but sometimes you just need to be alone and these environments make for very immersive and enjoyable places to be alone, if you didn’t have to drag a party with you to find anything interesting to fight. On a slightly more social note, this particular limitation also makes getting your characters to a level where you can effectively interact with your high level friends during gameplay far more of a chore by forcing you to grind low level ineffective enemies, simply because you are playing alone for a while.

Again, what I seem to be saying here is that the answer to the question is determined largely by how you chose to approach the game. If you are using the game as a meeting ground, something to bring you together long enough to find other things to relate and talk about, then community is possible from an MMO. If, however, you take what appears to me to be the more common route of viewing the game as essentially social and not using it as merely a starting point, then you will find it to be lacking in the community aspects for which you are looking.

Continue to Part 4

YMMO? (Part 2)

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(Continued from YMMO? (Part 1) )

Confusion at Premise as “Social Games”:

The most stated reason for playing an MMO, both by the manufactures and the fans, is the social experience. Its claimed that these games take what is often a reclusive hobby and magically turn it into something social that can be played with friends. This line of reasoning has a few problems really that need addressing before we simply let that excuse slide.

For starters the “I play them because they are social” approach to the understanding of MMOs fundamentally mis-represents the remaining portions of the distributed body of information that is video games. This understanding implies through its reasoning that other games are in fact not social, that some how because I choose to play a game that only one person may control, or in the very least fewer than several hundred others, I am choosing not to be social with my games. If that were the case then why would I play games at all? I (and, from my experience, the distributed gaming public) play games so that I may be more social. The idea being: because my friends and I have faced the same challenges and have experienced the same stories, because we have followed the same characters through the same events, we have more in common and are able to better relate to one another. Games, weather single player, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer are intended as social engines. They are designed to convey people toward more in-depth social exchanges through shared experience. Basically what I am trying to say is, like all other forms of entertainment media, games are intended to be social.

Another problem with the premise that MMOs are more social is the question of what exactly makes them more social? Is it the ability to undertake the exact same actions your buddies do in the exact same places, while your buddies are? Or maybe it is the idea you have to work together in order to solve the puzzles and problems of the game? Or is it really just a fancy way of saying “I can talk to my friends while I play”? After several years of watching my friends play these kind of games I can definitively say there is no right answer, at least not 100% of the time. If I were too declare which of those alternative answers is the most right the most often however it would be “I can talk to my buddies while I play”. Whenever I would ask my friends why they play, that would be the most immediate response from all of them. Somehow they perceived the act of slinging lines of text back and forth across cyberspace as a very social occurrence. In a way I guess they were right, but honestly what are they really talking about? Can you really get to know a person between asking them for quest help and grinding those low level monsters to try and get that item you need. At some point the conversation always focuses on the game and what you are doing within it. I know, I know, I just spent how long convincing you that games in general are social, so talk about a game in a game must be social right? Well kinda… See games are intended not just to be social in and of themselves but to encourage further social engagement by being a sort of common meeting place to come back to, but not necessarily to dwell in. Since the conversations of MMOs are almost necessarily limited and directed to in-game concerns they tend to limit the social interaction, not further it as is often claimed.

Finally there is one simple very fundamental rebuttal to this idea of ‘social’ gaming, being social just works better in real life. I mean how well can you really get to know a person if there are no facial expressions or body language, or worse, the facial expressions and body language you do have are false. With these cues missing or being spoofed toward unknown ends, the person you meet online could be entirely different from the same person in real life. This is a long known problem with the online system of meeting people I admit, but still a ‘social’ game is essentially limited in how functional and authentic any social interaction within it is by these simple problems. If you are that desperate to hang out with someone, then go make some friends instead of simply hanging out with virtual ones. In fact, if you prefer hanging out with your ‘friends’ from an MMO to hanging out with real people, then you could quite effectively be argued to be anti-social, but its ‘ok’ it’s a ‘social’ game, right?

Being a little more specific here, I have several friends, who for about a year there scheduled everything they did around their raid times in WoW. After even a little bit of investigation I discovered through means of that glorious overflow of useless information, the Internet, that they were not only not unique in this, but that it was common practice at the time for players of the game. Further, these same friends were more apt to talk to each other in game than face to face and when they were interacting face to face, though they had plenty to discuss before every starting to play WoW, would always focus primarily on the events that had recently transpired in the game. It became quite difficult to even hang around them, not because they were talking about something I could not relate to, but because they were focusing exclusively on that topic and refused to discuss it in such a way that their friends who did not play the game could relate. They effectively were using the game for the reverse of its intended and advertised purpose of being a social game.

I guess what I am trying to say is, playing a ‘social’ game is fine, as long as you understand the game is not inherently social simply because it contains an internal instant messenger. What makes a game social has nothing to do with the game itself, but instead the way you approach the experience and how you use it to relate to others. With this understanding, the oldest most pixilated games for the Commodore 64 or the Atari (Pong any one? or maybe Asteroids?) can be just as social as visually stunning online games like EverQuest 2 or WoW.

Continue to Part 3