News From The Front Lines: Wolfshead!

Well met, crusaders!

Today I welcome you to a special guest. They have traveled from the frontlines of the battlefield where they lay witness to the struggles this genre has been facing. Our guest goes by the name Wolfshead. Wolfshead is a passionate video game designer, a MMORPG player and a crusader. Today Wolfshead has  come to answer questions regarding MMORPGs and Social Interaction.

Let us give a warm welcome and salute to Wolfshead.

Why is Social Interaction important in MMORPGs?

When humans are together – even as characters in a fantasy virtual world — it is only natural that we expect to realize some kind of synergy when we as players leverage our social skills and our fellow humans to achieve objectives within that virtual world.  The good MMORPG designer knows this and creates appropriate challenges that have the effect of bringing players together with complementary skills to fight shared adversity. You can’t simply create a utopian virtual world and expect socialization to occur without giving players conflicts and challenges to solve and overcome. This was tried by Second Life and largely failed. Therefore, most successful MMORPGs end up being based on the premise that the world is in trouble and only you and your friends can save it!

Social interaction cannot be expected to result on its own just because people are involved. Take a ride on any subway system in America in rush hour and you’ll little if any social interaction despite many people being crammed together. (An alternate view of the subway ride could be that there is an unseen social interaction and imperative as everyone is being quiet so the goal of getting from point A to B is as efficient and stress free as possible). Fantasy virtual worlds and MMORPGs are different in that the creators have to make a conscious effort to simulate adversity and conflict to make their worlds interesting and challenging. In order to address these challenges players naturally band together to pool their talents and resources. So we see that socialization is a byproduct of a virtual world just as it is the real world.

Social interaction is the unique feature that differentiates MMORPGs from single player RPGs as social interaction is impossible in a single-player RPG.

Since the advent of the Internet in the mid 1990’s suddenly it was technologically possible to bring players together from distant locations to play together. So it was only natural that the inventors of MMORPGS like Ultima and Online would take advantage of this technology to bring people together to adventure in virtual worlds via their computers and the Internet.

Do you feel that MMORPGs current mechanics have driven away Social Interaction?

Current MMORPG mechanics have done much to destroy the need for socialization.  The ability to easily solo to the level cap in most MMORPGs and the ability to organize groups and fight more powerful adversaries without using any social interaction skills via features such as a dungeon finder have created this problem. This kind of design ethos that places player convenience over mechanics that promote player interdependencey is misguided and bad for the long-term health of the MMO and the industry.  The result is that content (which is terribly expensive to create) is less challenging, consumed far too fast and rewards are given far too frequently.

Most MMORPGs today are designed with monetization and customer retention as the ultimate goal. Gameplay always takes a backseat to this design ethos which is enslaved to the tyranny of metrics. Anything that drives away subscribers or customers is seen as a negative and removed or played down in importance.  This is why video games have become dumbed down over the years. Anything that retains customers is seen as virtue. I shudder to think what the result would be if today’s game developers were tasked with designing venerable board games such as chess or card games such as poker. Those old games were created with good gameplay being the highest virtue not profits. In a perfect world profit would not be a factor in designing a game.

Do you believe that older MMORPGs were more social then current MMORPGs?

The older MMORPGS were much difficult to survive in and therefore they were more social as a result. Additionally there was much more player autonomy and self-determination allowed by the devs and less interference and hand holding either via GMs or features that restricted freedom. This was all by design. In MMORPGs like EverQuest you could not progress your character unless you formed a group with other players.  Player interdependence was the order of the day. Socialization skills were highly valued and players behaved more civilly to each other because the ability to cooperate with others was necessary for groups to form.

The pacing of the older MMORPG was much slower –at least between battles — which allowed for players to get to know each other and form bonds and often long lasting friendships. The deepness of the socialization created a large degree of player retention as players felt bonded to their fellow adventurers far more than is the case in today’s convenience solo-friendly MMORPGs.

If you had to express and define what MMORPGs are, what would it be?

The fantasy virtual world I would love to see is where player choices actually impact the world. Each server would have its own destiny to be forged by the collective actions or inactions of its players. Socialization and player interdependence would be critical to advancement. I’d like to see a virtual world that has NPCs that actually have needs and wants similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. SOE’s upcoming EverQuest Next has made some promises in this area so I’m excited about the possibilities of my dreams coming true.

Finally, language matters. I prefer to call MMORPGs virtual worlds. When you talk about a creating a virtual world rather than a game, suddenly more possibilities open up. The duties of a virtual world designer becomes more than just about creating “fun” and become more of a sacred vocation where the designer has to consider the complexity and interactions of an entire world not just pandering to the wants and needs of the player.

 Final Thoughts

With the current mechanics, MMORPGs have become less of a multiplayer game.  As Wolfshead has stated, older MMORPGs were much more difficult. This difficulty caused players to interact with each other in order to complete goals.With the ease of current mechanics, MMORPG players can now complete challenges without any help from other players. This causes the Social Interaction to decline and eventually disappear if not carefully designed.

Interested in what Wolfshead has to say? Check out Wolfshead for more information about video game design.

It is up to us crusaders to spread the word! Ask yourselves: What can be done to increase Social Interaction in MMORPGs?

 The truth is in the design!

Join my crusade and together we can find the truth!

For those that have just joined, I go by the name Raistmere. Just like you, I am a MMORPG player. My passion lies in the design of MMORPGs. As a student of video game design, I seek to bring back the roots of what MMORPGs were design for.

2 thoughts on “News From The Front Lines: Wolfshead!

  1. The debate over casual gamers vs. hard core gamers, or free to play vs. subscription, or what’s really an MMORPG, etc… it rages on. Why? Because these are real issues relating to where MMOs came from and where they are going. People, regardless of what side they are on, are passionate about online gaming. I’ve certainly thought a lot of about these and other related conundrums, and for now, I’ll say this:

    The MMO gamespace has grown tremendously in 16 years. More than 10 million people have now played MMOs. That’s a lot of people, and their tastes and what they’re looking for in an online game is going to vary, often significantly.

    Some gamers prefer more ‘solo play’ — they want to be online, and part of a virtual world, and to see other people. But grouping and teamwork and community interaction isn’t necessarily what they’re looking for. And while older MMOs targeted more social players, who enjoy grouping, shared experiences, interdependence, etc., many newer games are not being made to accommodate them.

    IMHO, arguing over what MMORPG really means, or asserting one preference is more legitimate than the rest, or even saying things like ‘hey, then go play a single player game’ are really unnecessary. I also see a lot of posts by the peacemakers of the thread, trying to figure out or design a single MMO that could appeal to both of these disagreeing groups. I respect that, but also think it’s really unnecessary, a problem not worth solving and likely unsolvable. I also think the days of trying to develop a massive, super expensive MMO in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, the ‘mass market’, is over and can even be harmful to the entire online genre.

    The future I believe are MMOs that have identified and targeted specific audiences. Like with any space that has grown tremendously and become much more diverse, developers need to adapt as well and make great games for these gamers but also be ok with this reality: several diverse yet successful games can co-exist, each with different mechanics and features and content. Likewise, if you make a good game, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it.

    Recently, the shift has been to appeal to the more casual, or the more single player oriented MMO gamer. That’s fine and for many it makes sense, business-wise, creatively, etc. But the more social gamer, the player who enjoys playing a role in a team, who wants an MMO to become his home and to play for months, even years… the gamer who embraces the communities that form because of the interdependence seen more often in earlier MMOs…. I can understand their frustration with this shift. But there is a solution.

    I won’t debate here and now how many belong to this orphaned group, or to the newer group — that debate is ongoing and can’t be proven in a post on a message board. But I will say the orphaned group aren’t some tiny, virtually extinct, odd-ball bunch of dinosaurs. And while I personally don’t think they should necessarily be bothered by MMOs designed not for longevity but rather micro-transactions and cash shops, these newer designs do fail to meet their gaming needs. I also hope that Pantheon, the game I’m currently working on, won’t be the only MMO that targets a specific demographic’; rather, I hope it will merely be one of the first. The MMO we’re making, while modern and with new ideas and features, is also being built on a foundation that some would call ‘old school’, but that is really what makes an MMO work for players who want to group, who want more of a challenge, and who want to play a game with content that isn’t devoured in weeks or months. And you know what, contrary to hyperbole that FTP revenue models are the only future model for MMOs, we firmly believe that the model should match the playstyle of the players the game is designed for. Subscriptions are not dead by any means — just look at the millions still subscribed to WoW and other games.

    I guess what I’m ultimately trying to communicate is this: it’s good and healthy that MMOs are being built differently, appealing to the large number of players more newly attracted to the genre. There is no ‘one’ way to build or design a massively multiplayer game. And there shouldn’t be. Debate as to whether these newcomers are the only true audience now, or arguing that the ‘old school’ games were better, or more truly an MMO, is really unnecessary and unproductive. There’s nothing to win here, nothing to be proven, nothing that has to be protected, and also no need to declare one style or design somehow, magically, obsolete. Unfortunately, some behind some of the newer games that failed to retain subscribers, many of whom then intelligently switched their revenue model, have also (for whatever reason) proclaimed that their failure to retain gamers is because that gamer no longer exists, that the gamers who want to play long term, involve themselves with the community, and to work together in groups and guilds are gone now, or radically different.

    I have to not only respectfully disagree, but also express some dissatisfaction, because people often listen to these assertions, both gamers and developers, and sometimes even analysts . So while I welcome healthy debate and applaud newer MMOs designs that appeal to perhaps a broader, or at least a newer audience, I do have to stand up for the ‘old school’ — and not just the older players who loved the earlier MMOs, but also the younger players who are enjoying co-op and teamplay in FPS and other types of games and who would love to experience that cooperation with other players in an online, persistent, virtual world. Again, feel free to debate the actual size of this or any other group of online gamers, cite numbers or studies or anecdotal evidence, but don’t pretend they don’t exist or are so tiny that it will never make sense to make MMOs for them again.

    Both types of online gamers (and probably other types as well) are here, are wanting to play MMOs, and it makes sense to create games targeting these groups. Another WoW is unlikely (even Blizzard agrees, having cancelled Titan). And, really, there is no imperative to make an MMO that somehow appeals to everyone — again, the gamespace is just too big. I would encourage developers to make games not just targeting players that have distinct tastes, but also to get to know their audience as well. communicating and interacting with them during development. The result, I sincerely hope, will be more MMOs, smaller yet still profitable, with designs that make their audience happy and satisfied.

    Early on, if you wanted to play an MMO, you didn’t have a lot of choices. Now, while there are many more MMOs, most seem geared towards only one type of MMO gamer. A sizable group has unfortunately been orphaned, and this just doesn’t make sense, creatively or financially. The future should not only be a variety of MMOs to choose from, but also a variety of styles to choose from, allowing players to play games without compromise… enabling gamers to choose an MMO that really entertains them and that has features, mechanics, and yes, revenue models they find both desirable and compatible.

    Anyway, while I’m sure this post will not only fail to stop the debate, probably even re-igniting it to some degree, I also sincerely hope that it makes all MMO gamers at least stop and consider that there may be no right or wrong philosophy, no current and obsolete designs, no better playstyle or inferior playstyle. I also hope it makes publishers and developers stop and think too, and at least consider the idea that the future is about variety, about targeted, specifically designed MMOs. Because, when it comes down to it, it really hurts the entire gamespace and everyone who enjoys MMOs when massive amounts of money are spent trying to create a game that is all things to all people, and then when that objective fails, not only do some gamers feel neglected, but some even end up disinterested and disenchanted with the entire genre. And that’s unfortunate, because quite the opposite is true — while MMOs have been around some 17+ years now, they are still really in their infancy. There is still a lot to learn, especially now that there are so many more people interested in them.

    Liked by 1 person

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