Friday, 11 February 2011

No "i" in team

I've read a few blog posts recently about the changes to the social scene in WOW and MMO's in general, some of them were pretty damning, some of them going so far as to herald the death of MMO's. I can't actually remember a positive post on the state of the social aspect of WOW so, as I'd planned for a while to pen a few words about the way the social aspect of the game had developed over the years I thought I'd high-time I did just that.

I started playing this game just under 6 years ago, it was my first ever experience of an MMO, back then the social aspect of the game involved chatting to the one or two real people I actually knew who also played on the same server, and asking other better players who had the misfortune to party with me some really dumb questions about the game. As I described in my first post it wasn't long before I met a few likeminded folk and formed a guild. The guild grew and grew and we got to raiding and set up a Teamspeak server, this was the first step in my opinion to forming some lasting friendships, which have spilled over past the boundaries of WOW. We never managed to set up a guild meet, although there's one in the offing for next month, but on my travels I've had chance to meet 5-6 of the guys I've met through WOW. Back in the vanilla days, there was no dungeon finder, the onus was very much on the player to be proactive and find parties. This was frustrating in one respect, because it took longer to get a party together. The two main advantages to this were you relied on your guild heavily for players, either directly, or recommendation of their friends who fancied a chop, and when you met someone who you had a pleasurable experience with you quickly added them to your friends list and kept in touch for whenever you were looking for a party. People thought nothing of sitting on Teamspeak (or Vent) waiting for someone else to log on and just have a chat, I'd even sometimes log on to vent when I was working from home.

Now since then, the focus of WOW has changed, Blizzard are clever people and have realised that there's more money to be made in the mass market (i.e. casual gamers) than with niche players (i.e. hardcore raiders, pvp'ers etc.). Blizzard , in my view, have been very clever in what they've done, they've realised that the people with the most disposable income, young professionals, don't have time to grind endlessly to prepare for raids, they also realise that the high end content, the pinnacle of what you can do, is the thing almost everyone aspires to. So they've cunningly introduced patches which offer new harder content, with less people requirements (10 man and 25 man as opposed to 40 man) which the hardcore's see first, and then slowly nerf it so that jo public also gets to enjoy it. This has attracted more people to WOW (or back to WOW) but it has had on (possibly unintended) consequence; guilds aren't that important anymore! Not unless you're a hardcore raider anyways, back in the days of Molten Core we had a core of 35-45 players who raided 75%+ of instances and another 20-30 players who were more casual, and another 15-20 who would help out if they were about and we were desperate. Looking through the guild list now, I reckon there's 50 unique accounts tops. When I first came back to WOW, just out of habit, I'd click the Vent icon on the desktop before loading WOW, most of the time I was sat listening to my own feedback.

Now I'm not saying the changes are a bad thing, they've achieved Blizzards objectives of repeat subscriptions (i.e. revenue) and they've opened up the game to more people. It just means that people have to work harder at being sociable, but it's a catch 22 situation; you can't foce people to be sociable, they play WOW for one reason, enjoyment (or is it addiction?) the aspects of the game which people enjoy differes, and they'll focus on those areas, for me it's (these days anyway) the social aspects of the game, the team challenge of achieving something together. I couldn't care less about shiny purple pixels – gear is nothing more than a means to an ends; to allow me to play with other people I enjoy playing with.

The other reason I believe the social scene has dropped off, which I touched on earlier, is the dungeon finder. Don't get me wrong, it's an excellent tool, I just think it could do with some improvements. Firstly I'd like to see it favour other people from the same server who are in the queue when constructing parties, I can count on one finger the number of times I've randomly been grouped with someone from my server. By meeting people from the same server, you're more likely to form lasting friendships with them and do something together in the future. Secondly I'd like to see the Real ID system overhauled a bit so you don't have to give out your email address to befriend someone, and could actually use that friendship to form a cross server party prior to queuing for an instance.

For me, those are the two main issues which could be improved on, the game has obviously been refocused toward the type of player who only has an hour or so to log on in an evening, I probably fall under this category myself most evenings. There will come a day, and it's not as far as you might think away, where artificial Intelligence is advanced enough to be able to operate 24 other members of a raid, talk like people, act like people, and I suppose even throw hissy fits like people. This will allow the true casual to play single player MMO's, and may satisfy some, but not me, I like the social interaction, I actively pursue it in WOW it's not enough for me to stand triumphant over a bleeding pool of dead pixels, I need people to talk to, and in my view Blizzard need to encourage the community wherever and whenever they can or face the prospect of people falling out of love with WOW. More please Blizzard, much more.

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