A few months ago, Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime shared some thoughts about the early days of World of Warcraft, particularly its social nature. In those days, there were no dungeon finders and few people had guild websites or voice chat to organize activities. Despite its relatively solo-friendly nature, you still needed to form groups, usually in-game, or join a guild to tackle difficult content and carve out some serious time to get things done.
These days, things have changed. It’s easier to solo content, easier to find groups, advancement is quicker … basically, everything is faster and more convenient than it used to be. Morhaime acknowledged that without outright condemning it – as some have – saying “that’s a question of accessibility and time investment.” He also said that “the social experience, the ability to share your entertainment with others is core.”
I’m a very new-school MMORPG player. I didn’t play EverQuest back in 1999, or even WoW in 2004. I’m just old enough to remember having to wait half an hour or longer in City of Heroes or The Lord of the Rings Online to get a healer and so I love dungeon queues and never want to go back to a time when they didn’t exist. I like megaservers, account-bound items and achievements, fast travel, and especially convenient inventory management. Oh, and I like free-to-play games, too, but you should know that already.
But I also agree with Morhaime, that today’s MMORPGs, with their drop-in-drop-out action, are less social than the games of the past. And this really hit me with a new pastime I’ve taken up lately.
I recently wrote about Board Game Arena, a site where you can play all sorts of board and card games, simple and complex, for free. For a while, I had a regular Saturday night group with my nephew and his friends and occasionally got into games with his brother, my other nephew, when he’s online.
We haven’t played together for a few weeks, though. In the meantime, I played a few games with random people on BGA, which is an easy enough process, similar to queueing for group content in an MMO. But it’s just not the same. I barely chat in text with the strangers in my game of 7 Wonders or Colt Express, and certainly don’t get into it the same way I do with my nephew and his friends over our video sessions.
I feel like I had a similar experience at one of my earliest conventions, a Gen Con in the mid-’90s. I distinctly remember getting into an RPG session that sounded cool in the event booklet, only to realize that, as the game progressed toward the end of its allotted four-hour time slot, I just wasn’t having fun the same way I did when I played with my friends. It’s not that we were antisocial, or not chatting at all, but trying to form bonds with random people I wasn’t going to see after that day just didn’t feel enjoyable. Even though I liked the game itself, playing with people I didn’t know diminished from my sense of fun.
I think those experiences are similar to what Morhaime was getting at. Gaming with a set group of friends is probably the most fun you can have, but it’s hard to set up, hoping that everyone’s schedule matches up and you’re all going to be interested in the same thing. Finding a group via something like a dungeon finder is easy but, like my RPG group, relies on the game mechanics to provide most of the entertainment, rather than any actual enjoyment from doing an activity with other people. Even if you enjoy the game, that can be difficult, especially given the grindy and repetitive nature of most MMOs. “Grinding is more fun with friends” someone told me long ago, and it’s still true.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a good time when playing with strangers. We were all strangers to our favorite MMO at one point, and probably made a few new friends along the way. It’s good to meet new people and develop new relationships, because you never know when the next person you meet will become a lifelong companion.
Even so, I think the heart of Morhaime’s point is that there’s an inverse relationship between accessibility of group adventures in online games and the general quality of those experiences. You can form a group with your friends, which takes time and effort, but probably yields a better experience, or quickly and easily find a group with random people, which may not be as enjoyable. It’s a perplexing dilemma for players to navigate – and for developers to plan around – but I think I prefer that we at least have options for both these days.
Now, who wants to be my friend and go on some grand adventure?