Massively’s Jef Reahard posted another noteworthy soapbox column over on their site, stating that of course he cares what “you” are doing in an MMO. I found it difficult to understand what he was expressing, exactly. The only thing he mentioned directly was “solo questing” and the common saying that “you shouldn’t care what others are doing in an MMO”. Funny enough, i agree to the second part and am what you’d call a solo quester. I wrote about the reasons for that, so i’ll concentrate on the second part of his criticism, the don’t-care-part.
Normally, i’m with Jef on many occasions- i think he’s what you’d call a “core player”, which in this case would mean that he likes his MMORPGs to be “virtual worlds” more than games. But in this case i think that if games would follow that philosophy, you wouldn’t and needn’t to care about other players’ activities in your MMO. The reason this comes up is because themeparks are designed in a way that makes combat just about the only activity “worth” pursuing, and solo questing / solo progression is just the most accessible part of that activity.
I do, however, agree with two sentiments he only scratches at the surface in his opinion piece- one being that we all influence each other, even more so when we are thinking about a free-to-play game with an ingame shop, the other one being that MMORPG design took a wrong turn at some point in their history. But this is not about grouping up, storylines or quests. This, in my opinion, is more about trying to get attention of a wider market (remember: World of Warcraft is so successful because it gained a lot of players who didn’t play MMORPGs before WoW. Also, as a disclaimer: WoW was my first MMO, as well) and a strong focus on combat and loot. MMORPGs can be social without grouping up and doing dungeons.
I could just log in and chat with my guildmates while playing solo. I could gather resources and sell them on the market, someone else could use them to craft something- all the while not being in a group but playing by him- or herself. Maybe i stand at a crafting station and get to chat with another player whom i meet at these stations regularly. Also, i would argue that grouping up to do a five-player-dungeon is not really social in a “massive” sense, because, after all, you are only interacting with three, four or five other players. If you are interacting, that is. With dungeon finder tools, “Hello” and “Thanks!” are often the only sentences someone writes to the group mates.
If we wanted MMORPGs to become more social (again?), there’s really no way around the fact that games need to be designed in a way that favors social interaction, friendlist-building and stuff like that. There are a few good ideas out there, like Guild Wars 2’s loot and gathering system (which has its own problems regarding the ingame economy), The Secret World’s time-to-kill and, for instance, Aions open world group zones, where Elite mobs roam the area, so that you are kind of forced to group up to travel these zones comfortably. Nothing really worked in getting us, the players, to play or interact more often. But i think this is the way to go. Add a good gathering/crafting/economy-component to that and forget the notion of instanced content altogether, and you might be on to something.
Of course, there still is the other side of the medal- the players. After adding incentives to group up, play and interact with each others as an option, which is important- it shouldn’t be mandatory, we would still have to do our part.
What i noticed- and i’m surely not alone in this- is that the perception of other players has changed since we took our first steps in whatever our first MMO was. Mine was WoW, and i was amazed- all these other people played the same game. We helped each others out, gave instructions and advice on how to get better in playing the game, we faffed around, doing things that made no sense in regards to progressing our characters. My wife and an ingame friend of her made a tour to see the world bosses in early WoW when they were level 30 or something. It was dangerous, it made no sense and they had lots and lots of fun.
Today, other players- in a more general sense- are players we meet via dungeon finder tools, who generally criticize what we are doing, have no respect for beginners (or, from the other point of view: steal our time by being beginners), hurry through the dungeon and/or become obstacles in progression (“forced grouping”, “gathering node thieves”) or kill our fun by perhaps killing us in world PvP, or hacking, cheating and exploiting their characters to success in a Sandpark of our choice, thereby destroying an economy and a whole feature for those looking for that kind of experience.
I’m not saying this isn’t true- i made some, if not all those experiences, as well, and i don’t like them, either. But i think we should look at other players in a better way. Because no matter who you are going to ask, everyone, even the hackers/cheaters and gankers, will say that other people ruin their fun in an MMO. Of course they don’t mean everybody, but each group has another group they don’t like: hardcore/casual, crafter/raider, roleplayers/gankers, pve/pvp and so on. So the real problem might not be “not caring” what others do in your MMO, but “caring too much”. They made Wildstar for hardcore raiders and it didn’t work out so well for Carbine. Now they make the game more accessible and the “hardcore” players don’t like the “dumbing down”.
I think, in the end, what i’d want to say is: we should give every player we meet the chance to get in your friends list. I think most players aren’t the monsters we make them out to be.
Also, if your MMORPG is a “real” MMORPG, there’s enough room and stuff to do for all kinds of players.
Another thing would be cash shop purchases, of course, which directly influence what the developers do in the future- you don’t like lock boxes, labor point potions or raid gear? Don’t buy them- not even when/if the publisher “forces” you.