Game talkWays to make your virtual space more social

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Jan 282009
 

I’ve said before that socialization requires downtime, by which I mean that people who are busy pressing a bunch of other buttons or busy watching a dozen different colored bars have pretty much given all their attention to it, and therefore have difficulty having a conversation (or indeed paying attention to anything else, as other people in that person’s house can attest).

This doesn’t mean that you have to force downtime, necessarily. Users can choose to stop doing whatever it is, and choose instead to just hang out. But they often don’t. So why is that, and can we or should we do anything about it?

The short answer is “yes,” and you can just scroll down to the list at the end if you agree and want concrete actionable things you can do to improve the sociability of your game. But if you want to argue, then the next two big blocks of text are for you. :)

The arc of human activity

This blog post is “downtime” for many of you. We speak of “forced downtime” but let me reverse it for a second — what’s forced is uptime. Players can choose downtime whenever they want. It’s the default state — lounging around doing nothing. Uptime requires action. And you need to nudge people along the curve to get them to take action, because of simple inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. :)

The result is that we have carefully designed the games to always be prompting players to do something. We use eyelines to tell players to go someplace, we push quests on them with glaring icons and popups, we put constant reminders up that they could be gaining experience and levelling up all over the place, in the game of giving them greater guidance. All the good work we have done to make the experience more directed and minimize confusion and boredom has the side effect of also making it somewhat less social, precisely because there are so many cues driving you to go do something that will occupy all your attention.

So games have developed incentives to get you to go do stuff. The payback for this is direct jolts of fun. Users are perfectly capable of taking actions on their own and getting fun. But if your objective is to have users get that jolt often, then you force them to have fun. You throw them into situations where they have to take action. You make them get off their lazy butts and make tough choices. You push them constantly, via all sorts of signals, to feel like staying still will make them feel bad, insignificant, inadequate.

(If you think these words are strong, think of the sorts of unsubtle prompts that have been put into character’s idle animations over the years… yelling at you to do something, looking bored, etc).

The culmination of this, of course, is constant action. But here’s the thing… humans get tired. The body itself, the human mind, has natural thresholds. Laziness may be bad, but lack of rest is worse. And in this, I include mental rest. Every arc of human activity has periodicity to it, with ramping attention, peak action, flow, gradual decline, story sharing, evaluation, rest, and then repeat. To see more about that, you can read the original MUD-Dev debate on socialization requiring downtime, then come back here.

Back? OK… a simple empirical test: name an intense game with naturally long sessions. Sure, you see some crazy people who do play intense games for hours and hours on end. They usually need to depend on stimulants to do it. In general, the more sustained high action and attention a game demands, the more exhausting it is, and the shorter the game is. That is because the game itself has architected downtime by ending. A high-intensity game that lasts eight hours would have few players precisely because most people wouldn’t be able to handle it.

This human cycle is pretty much inevitable. We see entire gaming forums premised on the “ramping attention” phase (“come check out this new KRPG!”) phase and the “story sharing, evaluation, rest” stage of activity. It happens on long cycles (the still active SWG exile forums) and on session-level cycles (your various guilds). These days, a lot of people use Ventrillo for the warm-up and cooldown phases.

Arguing about whether a game should have downtime in it is arguing whether the game should have those phases within itself, in the environment, or have them elsewhere, in forums and other communities. There are benefits and tradeoffs to each. Either way, socialization does require downtime.

Game design can be thought of as the structuring of incentives.

We don’t get to ignore shaping socialization, as designers. If we put a building in the wrong spot, the whole freakin’ zone doesn’t work, and players just say “it sux,”  and in the same breath “designers shouldn’t force socialization.” Well, sorry designers, but we build the world, we build the rules, we are either forcing it or inhibiting it, and we don’t get to ignore the question. When it works, players don’t notice. When we don’t pay attention, random shit happens and players complain. A game like WoW is architected to make you keep running around. They did it on purpose, and you are doing it because they tell you to.

All this means is that the choices you make when you design your game can have more consequences than you intended. And that’s hardly news. But it bears repeating, because there are many voices out there that will decry anything that resembles “social engineering.” But the shape of your map is social engineering; the layout of your buildings, the colors on your HUD, the placement of your text box — it’s all social engineering. We need to get past the simplistic observation that we shouldn’t treat users like ants in an art farm, and get real about the fact that we do have significant impacts on what our users do and how and when they do it.

OK then. So we know what incentives we have put in. We also know that users who make friends are more likely to stick. Socializing in an online game is generally a good thing. You get to make the decision whether you want to have that happen on forums or in Ventrillo or within the world. But once you make the decision, you have to think about how to work with your game design.

A side effect of constantly incentivizing action is that those who try to choose to have downtime within that sort of environment will often fail. There will be no “quiet spots,” and they will either get sucked in or decamp. It is rather hard to hold a wedding in a Quake deathmatch. If you design the game so that people are encouraged to stay on quest chains, quickly move from place to place, and have no breather time in the game proper, then people will simply move the breather time outside of the game. This can be seen as giving people choice, certainly. It can also be seen as removing choice. YMMV. If you’re someone who doesn’t know the forums, the Vent channel, whatever, then you just can’t see it. You can’t find it easily. You have to be more plugged in in the first place.

A good example of how this cuts both ways would be how the designers at Blizzard have organized levels across zones. A lot of them are on gradients — one end of the zone will be at the low end, the far end will be at the high end, and it naturally leads you to the next zone. More, they carefully have a quest at the low end that leads you gradually up the chain, and a quest at the high end that sends you to the next zone. It’s a brilliant and subtle way to manage your progress and railroad you on your way. But it also means that people always move through, and that has tradeoffs. If you are on a quest chain that is leading you in a particular direction, going backwards to a social hub is time-consuming and annoying, and you don’t want to even if you want a break. So you hang out wherever you are, or on your chat channel/Vent. If you are a social type, you know of specific central locations where the more social, slower-paced play happens. This isn’t bad — it is just tradeoffs.

Some specific tactics

OK, enough about the problem and the context. What are specific tactics that are used to work against the go-go-go tendencies? You’ll spot many of these in WoW, and in other games. Many others simply aren’t used very much even though they easily could be. Some are ripped from architecture. Some are more “forcing” of downtime than others.

  • Quests to take you to vistas, quiet places, and badges for exploration. This works to guide people to secluded segmented locations. Art design in these locations can prompt hanging out, or using the space for a social event. As an added bonus, it becomes a ladder for achievers to climb as well.
  • Design spaces intended for public and private events. Many of the social worlds know this one very well; it often only takes subtle cues that a space is intended for events. Don’t put any gameplay activities in there, though providing simple event tools can often bring this sort of area to life.
  • Allow users to mark off spaces as theirs. Obvious, of course. Guilds like having places for guild meetings that they feel are theirs. This sense of privacy and belonging underlies even the notion of private guild voice chat.
  • Un-optimize traffic. This is one of the ones that people hate the most, but it’s also very powerful. A lot depends on where you do it. If the payoff is sufficient, people are often willing to wait for a little while. It seems to work best when the wait period can serve as prep for an activity — the few minutes before going into a new match of a game can be powerfully social bonding experiences.
  • Lay out traffic patterns with crossroads rather than one-way flow. Socialization happens where multiple traffic patterns intersect, not where people are moving in an orderly line. Perhaps itis because users pause there to decide which way to go, but it’s evident throughout history that crossroads indicate a place of rest and commerce to people.
  • Gameplay patterns with “loops” to them. We often speak of games in terms of reward loops and compulsion loops. But don’t discount simple travel loops. We are used to “string of pearls” style layouts these days, where you operate inside a connected environment, then graduate out of it. But bringing people back to a base of operations, kind of Spirograph style, is a sure way to make that area into a more social one because the loop will tend to start and end there, meaning that the preparatory and mythologizing phases of the adventure will happen there.
  • Reduce globality. Another touchy one. But instant teleports to any point, global purchasing, etc, reduce the crossroads and “loop” factor quite a lot — possibly completely. The human mind thinks in networks in a lot of ways, because we live in networks. For me in San Diego, San Francisco is “closer” than say, Big Bear, because my travel time via planes to the SF travel hub is short, whereas my drive to Big Bear is long and tedious. New York is closer than Montana even though it isn’t, as the crow flies. Hub and spoke design permits both rapid travel and user clustering.
  • Mechanics where users do things to each other or with each other. These can be almost anything, and obviously the commonest is team-based combat. But really, shorter duration, less intense things work better for socialization. Users sometimes want really short things, and sometimes really long ones.
  • Social minigames. Trivia, social word scramble, etc, are a great way to provide slower-paced (and faster drop-in/drop-out) activities for users looking for company but not intense activity.
  • Gifting. Few things build social bonds more strongly. This is actually one of the things that modern MMOs have lost sight of in a lot of ways — and that the social networks have picked up on with a vengeance.
  • “Display” events such as talks, lectures, theater events, concerts, etc. These don’t happen all the time, but serve as a draw. Events and rituals are a huge part of human society.
  • Alternate advancement systems for social elements provide feedback that doing these various activities is not a waste of time. This can matter because otherwise, people who stop can feel like they are actually penalized for doing social things as they watch other users advance via the traditional advancement ladders.
  • Add “LRC” — looking for conversation tools. This has been used to great effect in many social worlds — ways to find flagge groups that just want to hang out, ways to find popular rooms where lots of people are, etc. This may in fact be the one unambiguous place where you absolutely do want to provide instant teleportation.
  • Player-voted awards for roleplaying, helpfulness, etc, are a powerful community bonding tool. Sure, they lead to favoritism, politicking, etc. But you want groups feeling so invested in your game that they start to do those things. They are not bad things, they are signs of passion. And community-validated social activity is much more powerufl than validation from a mechanical game system.
  • Newbie helper, greeter, and mentoring programs are a hugely powerful way to weave someone into the game’s society quickly. There’s a reason why theme parks and big box stores alike make sure to have a smiling face at the door. We seem to prefer giving users kobolds with sharp pointy teeth.
  • Permit not just group identity, but belonging to multiple groups. Humans are more strongly webbed into society when they are members of more than one cluster in the social graph.

It’s instructive to see how many of these tricks are employed by Facebook, by the way. And also instructive to see how incredibly bad Facebook is at supporting groups. :) The lesson is that not every game will be suited to use all of these. But just about any virtual world will benefit from having, say, half of them. And the payoff for you as a developer is in the retention, which can be dramatically improved.

  91 Responses to “Ways to make your virtual space more social”

  1. I think player-voted awards can be a double edged sword, as strong cliques can make it much harder to attract new blood to the game, and it kinda promotes that. If you’ve got something that’s not approachable to new players, better retention may not be sufficient to deal with simple long term player burnout due to the newbie hose being inadequate.

    Most (though, yeah, not all) of the rest of the list would be pretty easy to implement into any sort of virtual world though.

    And this is primarily a semantics issue, but where is the line drawn between encouraging socialization and forcing it? Is it really equivalent for the gameplay to force you to loop at regular intervals or to simply encourage semi-regular returns to the hub location but with greater player control over the duration spent “out in the field” or is one of those two options superior?

  2. I don’t think there is an easy answer. These days people would say “make it all choice, let them stay out as long as they want” — but then you get a case where you want a game mechanic to have a loop for good reasons, like say, limited ammo.

  3. PS, give awards for best newbie, best newbie helper, etc, and you start counteracting the clique thing some. :)

  4. These days people would say “make it all choice, let them stay out as long as they want”

    Which is not too smart.

    I’ll stick with what my mother taught me when I was a kid: if you want something, ask. If you never ask, there’s a great chance you’ll never get the answer you want. Fundraising 101, too: you have to ask. If you don’t let anybody know what you want, there’s a great chance you’ll never get what you want. You have to ask.

    My philosophy regarding the sort of marketing in which I specialize is “engage, empower, and elevate.” That pretty much means get people involved, give them the tools they need, and help them take over as leaders. Never failed me once.

  5. I find it strange, that every time I’ve gone to a social virtual world I’ve encountered some sort of newbie helper. But only one of the dungeon crawler MMOs I’ve visited even had anything close.

    I might also add one, though it may not be very popular. Start a new player, after the tutorial, in a major population center. I’ve seen this more than a few times in Eastern MMORPGs, but have rarely seen it in Western MMORPGs, speaking only from my personal experiences here. It just seems to me that the player is immediately introduced to the communal atmosphere, and the concept of being surrounded by people that way.

  6. [...] maybe “possibility spaces” *wink*). The name is not important, though. Raph Koster has this great article about empowering social interactions inside a whatever space. And I think they should be kept in [...]

  7. Raph>give awards for best newbie, best newbie helper, etc, and you start counteracting the clique thing some.

    Maybe guilds should be given the ability to hand out such awards to their members?

    Richard

  8. [...] in their social aspects more than anything else, and Raph has some good thoughts about how to make virtual spaces more social. This entry was posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 09:05 in Commentary, Game [...]

  9. Great post. This socialization failure is one of the things that makes me dislike WoW. I’m actively discouraged from grouping or socializing with other players during most of the game, and I feel so compelled to run to the next carrot, I never take the time to get to know anyone else. I think we’ve started seeing current MMOs realize that there is a need for social play in games like WAR (Public Quests and RvR areas help), but it can and should still be taken significantly further.

  10. I love the fact that you recognize the question.

    Either way, forcing anything cannot be done in any game. There are plenty of bloggers going around now, talking about a forced grind, a forced gear set/spec.
    The forcing is all in the players mind.
    But, I guess,if it is perceived online (for some people) it can feel a lot like reality.
    Encouraging socialization is great, and I wish more games had things like LOTRO’s music system, (guilds forming to just play music) or Vanguard’s boats (useless save for fishing, roleplay and socialization.) In fact, I would probably rather socialize than play, most of the time.
    But to put obvious mechanics in game like limited ammo, to “encourage” players to go back to town or something is dangerous: look at Tabula. All the players I met hated that, it was just a frustration.
    But putting encouragements like tools, beautiful meeting areas (with their own special feel, music, look) is definitely needed.

    Beau Turkey

  11. I’ve always thought the multiple organization membership one was very important but to date, very few MMOs implement this. In all the large mainstream MMOs, you can belong to one guild/kinship and only one. You might also belong to a server or a faction on a server but those are developer chosen groups and not naturally forming social groups when humans intersect. There’s a nice low hanging feature bullet that could be put on a boxed set somewhere for the next MMO that I believe will increase retention. Afterall, it’s harder to leave the game when there’s more than one group to consider breaking from.

  12. All of this can be successful to at least a minor degree in any game, and in varying degrees in different games. But can it really be fruitful in any level grind game? It seems to me that the next carrot drives most players in that direction, even if they’d like to do something else sometimes.

  13. In UO, we had social hubs like Kazola’s, the Golden Brew, the Mage Towers, etc., and several factors contributed to their success:

    *Recognition – Also known as “favoritism”. Special rewards outside what were normally available in game were bestowed upon roleplaying establishments that went above and beyond the call of duty to provide a social nexus. These ranged from simple decorations to full-blown GM-moderated quest lines centered around a particular establishment. Places that were not so favored often called “foul”… in the same breath that they were ramping up their own efforts to become a major social nexus and claim the same rewards.

    *Visibility – Player cities and establishments were not consigned to a seperate residential zone (or worse, an instanced interior accessible only through a generic portal). Players passed by them while wandering about the countryside or on the way to spawn zones. They were also spotlighted on the official website.

    *Personalization – No two player establishements were exactly the same. Each had its own personality and flavor. At first, player structures were limited to a small selection of “prefab” buildings, but the number of available decorations increased steadily and eventually players gained the ability to construct custom structures. The more that players can make a unique contribution to the face of the game world, the greater their sense of investment in a particular establishment or community.

    As a side note, the Golden Brew on UO’s Baja shard decayed just last December, after 10 years of operation in various locations. I just stumbled over a summary from a digital arts conference from three years ago that was still discussing its significance. Today, two of the three founders of the Golden Brew Players are active almost exclusively in social virtual worlds (giving live musical performances). Where are our successors in the MMORPG arena?

  14. On other thing, and it sounds trivial; in UO, you could sit down in chairs and on benches. Without that basic visual clue — “my character is relaxing and being still” — taverns and theatres are a tough sell.

  15. can it really be fruitful in any level grind game? It seems to me that the next carrot drives most players in that direction, even if they’d like to do something else sometimes.

    Sure, it can. A lot depends on the tone of the level grind — how forcefully it is pushed.

  16. Notice how much your rules resemble the secrets of professional party organizers (say wedding planners) in terms of layout, where to place the buffet to maximize traffic and opportunities for introductions, how long ceremonies should take, parking, how many bathrooms, who sits with whom.

    Game builders could study wedding organizers. And vice versa.

  17. @ Beau Turkey (#8):

    The issue of “force” comes when you explicitly encourage one activity, and then require certain steps to get there. In most MMOs, this activity is level up, level up, level up, and then whatever the elder game is. And any intermediate step to either of these that the player doesn’t like is something they’re forced to do.

    Stuff that the player likes is something they perceive the designer “encouraged”, if they think about it. The rest is “forced”.

    A different way to understand the term would be in the sense of a “forced smile”. It doesn’t fit well with the general fabric of the game.

    @ len (#14):

    Game builders could study wedding organizers. And vice versa.

    Actually, my first thought was architecture. But I believe Raph has referenced that before. :P Christopher Alexander goes on and on and on about it.

  18. can it really be fruitful in any level grind game? It seems to me that the next carrot drives most players in that direction, even if they’d like to do something else sometimes.

    Sure, it can. A lot depends on the tone of the level grind — how forcefully it is pushed.

    I think players are going to make their own choices of the options given them. It doesn’t matter how much the designers push game play options. And as long as the carrots for increased power are there, in the form of “just go do this” the large majority of players are going to do exactly that.

    It would be a different story if new powers/abilities were not gained so predictably, and an even more different story if the gains weren’t so major. So it’s not really the levels, it’s the means through a combination of “grind” and importance.

    I’m not clear if that’s what you mean or not, by “how forcefully it is pushed”.

  19. PS, give awards for best newbie, best newbie helper, etc, and you start counteracting the clique thing some.

    That’s a good point actually. Yeah, that’d help a lot. Actually, simply making newbs necessary parts of gameplay mechanics would go pretty far. I think in Bartle’s book on Virtual World design there’s a reference to a text world that made it so that only newer players could perform a certain action that vets found very important. Something about dusting the city streets or something. It’s been a while.

    So perhaps an important addition to the discussion should also be a similar list of ways to encourage interaction between players of different playstyles and levels of proficiency. There’s some overlap with the above, and you need to have players interacting at all or it’s kinda moot, but I’d argue that the long term health of a community needs to go beyond just providing ways for people to interact but into providing incentives for people interact with people they normally wouldn’t. A solution that encourages newbs and vets and players with disparate playstyles to bother with each other seems like it needs a much more specialized set of tools.

  20. Amaranthar, even in a game like WoW there’s a great deal of socialization, especially on the intra-guild level. But WoW actually hits some of the items on Raph’s list as well, and you can see that it has an impact. The localization of the Auction House and trade channel to major cities results in people looping back to those cities, and there’s near constant chatter in those zones as a result.

    You’re conflating worldy behavior to community, and that’s not an accurate way to look t things. A few minor changes to WoW’s xp system (it currently promotes soloing over grouping in most situations, but that’s easy to fix by simply adding an XP bonus for grouping) and a smoothing of the power curve so that there’s a bit less level stratification would actually provide a relatively vibrant community without needing much more in the way of changes. Throw in a few more things to increase the benefits of returning to a hub periodically, especially for low impact activities, and you’ve got a pretty solid system.

    Adding more items from the list would go even further, and I’m sure WoW guilds would love to have spaces for events. People still DO stuff besides level grind even if that’s the main gameplay mechanic.

  21. @Eolirin (17) – Everytime I hear about this I am reminded of a conversation I had with Jay Thompson over Air Warrior. (The old Kesmai game) Apparently, that game required veterans to interract with newbie pilots for part of its game mechanic. The system was an officially supported mentor system and from his telling of the idea, it facilitated just what you’re talking about.

    I’ve been a proponent of linking the end game with the newbie game in some tangible fashion for quite a while. It all boils down to making any given event appeal to as many players as possible so that yet another shared experience occurs. It doesn’t have to be prepared for like a raid so to speak but the event needs to be shared. WAR’s public quest system is a step in the right direction there.

    Combine what you’re talking about with my last reponse about multiple organizations and you have businesses. Need crafters to make something for you, well get the new players to do it. They’ll do it cheaper because they’re getting experience out of it and you’ll make a coin or two by having them on your staff producing saleable items. Today we vendor all that crafter production because all it serves is a means to get us to the end game for crafting. Make it mean something to the world beyond the transitory leveling usage and crafters of all skill levels will participate in the economy. Nothing says the furniture guild needs to be developer declared and run guild (i.e. LotRO’s completely arbitrary crafting guilds) Empower the player run business to employ lower skilled new players. That’s just one way to connect the two ends of the experience spectrum. You just have to have the right game mechanics in place to make that happen naturally. Unfortunately, all these suggestions and the thoughts that derive from them seem to de-emphasize the leveling grind and you need to be careful to not ruin the adventuring game in the process. I still believe that a level treadmill(s) of some sort is essential to the play process except that it doesn’t need to be as blatantly promoted as the current games do it.

  22. It’s no MMO, but have you played Left 4 Dead? The pacing provided by the AI Director is superb, precisely because there is an understanding of the need for downtime — after a zombie horde rushes your party or after a Tank battle, players do need a moment to decompress, assess the situation, and make a plan for going forward.

  23. Recognize that:

    Players want to socialize with their friends.
    Your game makes that difficult.

    I think the mindset that “we designers need to encourage socialization” is wrong. Humans are social animals. Your players almost certainly came to your game with an existing circle of friends (the already-playing friends that recommended the game to them, the meta-game guild that joined your game en masse, the friends that they in turn bring to your game, etc). To then concern yourself with shallow social design elements such as downtime and quiet spaces while simultaneously crippling a player’s ability to play the game (and thus socialize) with their actual friends (because of level disparity, quest-locked content, etc) is ridiculous.

    A thought experiment: Imagine your whole playerbase. Now pick two players at random from it. Now imagine those two players are friends. In the course of normal play how likely are they to “run into” each other? How much shared gameplay do they have access to if they make an effort to play together? How much effort would it take? Repeat the questions for a few more randomly picked pairs of friends. The answers may surprise you.

  24. @Michael Chui: Architecture, music, enterprise design, and so on, are well-mined. If you want socialization, go to the social experts at social games and try to generalize that. It may not reveal more than what you know (eg, buffet tables or the food table in general is discreetly but deliberately organized to encourage casual introductions); or it might inspire a different abstraction. A hundred years ago, there were smoking parlors that deliberately segregated the men away from the women after a meal.

    So organizing social spaces deliberately to encourage interaction or to discourage it, to create groupings and to dissolve groupings, all of this has a long long history in our culture and there is some potential in asking these questions outside the usual magic circle.

  25. @Michael Chui: Architecture, music, enterprise design, and so on, are well-mined. If you want socialization, go to the social experts at social games and try to generalize that. It may not reveal more than what you know (eg, buffet tables or the food table in general is discreetly but deliberately organized to encourage casual introductions); or it might inspire a different abstraction. A hundred years ago, there were smoking parlors that deliberately segregated the men away from the women after a meal.

    Sure. I’d recommend “The Rituals of Dinner” by Margaret Visser.

  26. A side effect of constantly incentivizing action is that those who try to choose to have downtime within that sort of environment will often fail.

    It would be a different story if new powers/abilities were not gained so predictably, and an even more different story if the gains weren’t so major. So it’s not really the levels, it’s the means through a combination of “grind” and importance.

    On the thought of feeling forced, I wanted to state that it isn’t just failure, as in a discrete event, but it’s also falling behind, which is more persistent and damaging.

    If I start the game with a group of people, I come to know them as my peers. If I don’t keep pace with them, what happens? If I’m not as driven as the average player to stay in the race, if I rest more often, we stop being peers. Social fabric is stressed and often torn.

    Looking back, this is probably the number one reason I end up leaving an MMO after some amount of time. Either I don’t make many social connections, or the ones I do make fade away. Can’t party with teammates if they’re not in your zone / not in your level range (or rather, it becomes a social imposition on them to make the request, and a negative event for me if they are unable or unwilling to come back to where I am).

    Counters to this? FFXI just implemented level synching, and CoX has the mentor and sidekick system. Other than that, I don’t know… mixed-level or mixed-skill zones sound about as easy to plan out as mixed-use housing and development areas.

  27. Yep. In fact, it would be interesting to know if video games have resulted in the emergence of any novel human rituals or if what is observed can always be mapped to the common rituals the same way improvisational commedians know the seven ways to end a scene but are always scouting for a novel one.

    I’d suggest that most games are really variations of a handful which is why the race to improve the representation technology is so fierce among game makers. Happy to hear counterpoints to those assertions.

  28. The level-based DIKU lineage is naturally in contrast with socializing, in a lot of ways. It promotes selfishness, focusing on the loot/level treadmill, min/maxing, level stratification and gear envy. It’s built on progress against other people via comparing numbers, rather than by comparing skills. If you want to make a “social game”, starting with a DIKU root is building stress into the system. If you want to make a DIKU game social, realize that you’re working at cross purposes with yourself and plan accordingly.

  29. Interesting post. Over the years I’ve tried almost all the major MMOs and the one I’ve played the longest is also the one that I’ve done the most socializing. It’s EVE and reading your list of elements it has virtually all of them.

    One element it has that you didn’t call out explicitly is a complex economy, although that does fall under the category of “Mechanics where users do things to each other or with each other”. In fact game complexity in general helps build community since it gives old hands areas to be expert in and a knowledge base to pass down.

    Another element I think can lead to more socialization is consequence. EVE has a hefty death penalty, and some operations involve the risking of several days, months, or even years of work, in that sort of environment having a support network is a advantage. Join the right channel and you can find out about local pirates and after a while you start to get to know the guys on that channel.

    One element that Eve has thats somewhat problematic is that the game state can change from a slow form where chatting, in-game browsing, etc. is fine to a moment of extreme danger with little warning. This can act to discourage social interactions.

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  31. The thing that immediately popped to mind for me was the starports of Star Wars: Galaxies, especially Coronet City, the capital of Corellia and the most popular crossroads site in the game. People bitched and moaned about the ten-minute wait times at the starports waiting for the shuttles to take off, but there always seemed to be a ton of activity going on: doctor characters peddling buffs with long lines of players waiting for service, the occasional Creature Handler showing off his pets over to the side, and of course, frequent firefights. It all served as a great backdrop for players to quietly ooooh-and-ahhhh to themselves at the other characters moving through the place.

    Later, when doc buffs were largely eliminated, all that hubbub and sense of “place” disappeared, because the incentives for pausing in Coronet City were gone. And with them, the game lost a big chunk of its feeling of “alive-ness” which had even survived instant planet-to-planet travel, introduced via the Jump To Lightspeed expansion pack and personal space flight.

    I guess it’s the difference between the art of game design, and doing something because your focus-group research told your boss the changes were the way your customers wanted you to go. All I know for sure is, something precious got lost in the translation.

  32. [...] Koster has an interesting post up on socialization. I’m posting to highlight this part: And that’s hardly news. But it [...]

  33. One element that Eve has thats somewhat problematic is that the game state can change from a slow form where chatting, in-game browsing, etc. is fine to a moment of extreme danger with little warning. This can act to discourage social interactions.

    The focus on immediate, visceral danger–no matter how cartoonish the rendering–is probably the biggest roadblock to socializing in virtually all MMORPGs to date. In my humble opinion.

  34. Contemporary MMOs actively discourage meeting people, and even make it difficult for people who know each other to stick together.

    Some examples not specifically mentioned by Raph:

    – Gameplay is 3rd person, elevated, meaning that monsters, NPCs, and PCs are so smal on the screen that you can’t see their faces. You can only see their equipment. (Faces are VERY important to people.)

    – Because MMOs are targeted at achievers, the equipment drawn on your PC is the l33t weapons and armor that your character holds… showing his accomplishments. If the games were targeted at socialization, what your character appears to be carrying would be a matter of personalization… as a way to visually show your personality.

    In other words, you are what your character brings to the party. You are visually objectivized into a tank, healer, or mage.

    – MMOs provide virtual walkie-talkies for parties/guilds to talk to one another. Such walkie-talkies mean that the “local” chat channel is 100% quiet except for spammers… which means you don’t ever “hear” anyone talk who is not already your friend; you only see them run past towards their next quest.

    – (I think Raph mentioned this one) People run everywhere. They run past you in 2 seconds, before you can even “/wave” at them. Typing “hi. My name is mike” certainly doesn’t work because no one pays attention to the “local” chat. Hence, it’s actually very difficult to meet someone.

    – MMOs have a “invite player into party” button… I have found that if I get one of these invitations without the other player first talking to me, subsequent gameplay is inevitably about running around killing monsters without ANY socialization. They want me for my magic. Again, objectification of other players.

    – And how about a personal blurb that shows up when you click on someone’s character: “In real life, I like to hike and read books.” This might go a long way to de-objectify players.

    And now too insult an awful lot of people with a hyperbolie: The biggest problems with MMOs is they are designed by achievers (and some killers) for achievers. Most MMO developers and players are so achiever-oriented that they cannot possibly comprehend why socialization and exploration would be important. As a result, players and (potential) developers who like socialization/exploration go elsewhere, turning MMOs into ghettos of achievers and killers.

  35. @David, I dunno, for me that break down occurred when the doctors were replaced by players running bots. Not to mention that the doctor buffs destroyed the combat system by negating the armor penalties and then some, making most encounters completely trivial.

    I remember the very early days before anyone could really even use doctor buffs when people would hit up local hospitals to deal with their wounds, and in a lot of ways it was much more preferable than the mess of people waiting in lines for the buff-bots to put them into easy mode. Back when people couldn’t really use armor at all and you couldn’t get more than 2 feet into Fort Tusken as part of a group of 10 without getting shot to hell. And I remember what it was like afterwards when you could basically solo the entire place in full armor with higher stats than you’d have unbuffed. It hurt too much of the actual combat system, and removed a lot of the value in working together as a group. I think Wounds needed to be emphasized in a better way, and buffs less so. It would’ve created more localized hubs, perhaps, rather than one really big one, but I’m not sure that would’ve been as much of a problem.

    If you wanted a really big crossroads hub, content would’ve been a better tie, leaving necessary gameplay looping hubs as a more localized thing.

  36. Some of the best MMO experiences I’ve ever had have been social – on their own or (more often) mixed with content.

    One of the best involved helping a new friend do a complicated quest chain that took days to complete. I wanted him to have the benefits and so we worked together with me doing a number of rather tedious chores I done just to complete the chain for myself.

    One evening as we met up on a hill, he asked he could take a bio break, and I joked with him when he got back about taking so many breaks. As it turns out he was ill and often had to stop to lay down for a bit or get some medication. He told me how much it meant to him that I was helping him and that I was his friend. Based on some of the things he would say up to then (and after) I’m pretty sure his illness was serious.

    I was touched, and doubly so that he often gave more than he received. I only wish we’d had more opportunities for “Casual Play” that might have fit his physical abilities better. I got the feeling that he wanted more conversation from others in the game, but with downtime being “Dead time” it just didn’t turn out that way.

    Happily though, I went back into the game a year or so ago. He wrote me a letter saying he saw me on and that he was glad to “see” me in game. Though we never got together to play we wrote each other a good bit.

  37. We did get some great tools in SWG that we’d always wanted in UO, such as defined player cities, political systems and specialized structures such as theatres, and we the players didn’t use them to their full potential. I’m not sure why, but I have a nagging suspicion that it was simply that the war-torn space opera genre didn’t appeal to the strongest community organizers.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the gender balance in the Star Wars trilogy is a bit skewed. And (taking a deep breath and hoping not to sound too horribly sexist) IN GENERAL, women in our culture are better socializers. The leadership of the Golden Knights was male, but the ones who really moved us beyond PvP and got the Golden Brew and the Golden Brew Players off the ground were RL women (namely Ursula and Kita Talith).

    I’m emphatically NOT saying that men can’t form strong and lasting social networks, or that women can’t enjoy games built around intergalactic conflict. Both statements are manifestly untrue. But what I am saying is that if you’re working with a source property which is either apathetic or actively hostile to women (not mentioning any names, Conan), it’s going to make building a lasting social infrastructure roughly twice as hard.

    SWG did try. But with role models ranging from exotic dancer to beautiful space princess who gets captured and dressed like an exotic dancer, well…

  38. Maybe guilds should be given the ability to hand out such awards to their members?

    Richard

    You have no idea how much demand there is for this idea. Every guild I have been in across SWG, EVE, and WoW would have loved this dynamic.

  39. I really enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    When I read the first sentence, I immediately thought of World of Warcraft because it is an issue I have been trying to resolve in practical terms. I have recently come to the conclusion that I really can’t solve the social problem in WoW; it is a part of the game by design.

    With the release of Wrath of the Lich King, the game reached a greater level of polish and design than it had ever achieved before. There is always something to do, and it is all done well. Unfortunately, it is less fun now than it was in 2005 when there was less to do. I play on an RP server, and the level of activity the game encourages has decimated the server-wide RP community. Who has time for a conversation anymore?

    I’ve begun limiting my play time more and more. It provides the downtime that does not exist in the game anymore, but it doesn’t provide social benefits inside the game. Most of the people I knew before WotLK have been 80 for two or three weeks while my main is 74. We don’t get to play together very often that way.

    Fallout 3, while not a social experience, does succeed in the area of downtime. I don’t use fast travel very often, and walking across the Wasteland can be strangely relaxing–plus you never know what interesting sight you might come across.

  40. It’s worth noting that this cuts both ways… If all you have is downtime then there’s no common context of uptime experiences to socialize about. That’s clearly a problem in massively unstructured environments like Second Life and Sony Home.

  41. Good post – saw this linked from Nerfbat. Posted this on Ryan’s site:

    “Permit not just group identity, but belonging to multiple groups. Humans are more strongly webbed into society when they are members of more than one cluster in the social graph.” I’d be refreshing to have a game integrated with the community site, and “tools” to support their short & long-term gaming goals, and easy establishment of communities that share those goals.

    Example (using WOW stuff): Someone wants to complete achievements (or PVE raids, PVP, etc.) There should be “tools” in place so players can establish a community focused on achievements. They could discuss strategies/ suggestions (side benefit: minimizes the importance of cheat sites.) The “tool” should be flexible enough to allow for segmenting within the community (e.g. Heroic dungeon achievements), perhaps even the forming of *guilds* (server-level), while still keeping a feeling as being part of the core community.

    “tools” include message boards & the like, CMs that don’t overly moderate, established in-game chat channels (bonus/ extra fee?: EQ-like out-of-game chat tool so people can participate in chat while off-line), a well integrated LFG tool, etc.

    *guilds* there should still be some level of structure as guilds currently are now, but expand upon this – call them Clubs, Associations, Societies, whatever. This allows a player who likes to fish & raid to be part of the [Rather be Fishin'] club and [Ownin' Bosses] Association while still being part of their guild [BFF]

    Just off the top of my head – didn’t have a lot of time during lunch to refine, but you get the idea. -Vald

  42. The trackback isn’t working, but I just blogged about this topic as well. I think this is a hugely underrated and ignored facet of game design. Developers focus so much on giving people things to constantly DO, they forget that people need time to figure out their own things to do. They also need time to enjoy social activities that are “not productive.”

    There is a certain amount of paternalism and social engineering that developers really must engage in. Players will often do things that are not in the best interests of their own enjoyment. It is the responsibility of the developer to try and prevent that.

    Great topic, Raph!

    -Michael
    Muckbeast – Game Design and Online Worlds
    http://www.muckbeast.com

  43. @Mike Rozak
    As much as I don’t like using the Bartle test as a serious measure… last time I took it, I zeroed out on achiever. I definitely know why I have trouble finding any MMO that I care to play.

  44. Either way, forcing anything cannot be done in any game. There are plenty of bloggers going around now, talking about a forced grind, a forced gear set/spec.
    The forcing is all in the players mind.

    I’m not clear if that’s what you mean or not, by “how forcefully it is pushed”.

    For move in week here at the college housing unit they cover the elevator walls with furniture moving blankets. It’s quite interesting to note that while bare, riders stick to the walls and spread out as much as possible. While the walls are covered, however, riders clump to the inside of the car, generally orienting the cluster close to the door (the last place most stand regularly).

    In my SWG cantina, a redesign of the room changed the pattern of behavior from a dispersed crowd into clusters of social centers that people floated between with more intention. Players even respected going around the large indoor gardens blocking two of the three stairway sections despite that the decorations did not have clipping.

    In both cases, nobody is ‘forcing’ these behavior changes, but we can use these truths (emergent as they may be) to better facilitate people’s interest and enjoyment.

  45. It’s worth noting that this cuts both ways… If all you have is downtime then there’s no common context of uptime experiences to socialize about. That’s clearly a problem in massively unstructured environments like Second Life and Sony Home.

    That’s an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of. I can say that I’ve had more loyalty to purely social MUCKs and the like than to the actual game MMOs, but that’s due 1) to a lack of cost and 2) to managed expectations, to not expecting a game but approaching it upfront as simply a well-decorated chat room.

  46. Second Life requires you to bring your own interests to the table and locate other people who share those interests. The challenge becomes one of ascertaining the interests of a new resident and getting them hooked up with relevant communities. With thousands of events and venues competing for attention, that can be pretty daunting.

    But once integrated with such a community, finding a topic of conversation or focus for events is rarely an issue. By offloading content development on the residents, Linden Labs has essentially conscripted an army of developers of widely varying taste, interests and skill levels. By granting them ownership of their creations and giving them the means to monetize their efforts, they’ve provided incentives to continuously create new items and experiences.

  47. @Yukon Sam, which is great for people that are heavily invested in SL, and not so great for people that aren’t but might want to be.

    Having UGC in abundance like SL does is great, but not generating your own content and working to connect people with established communities so that they can effectively navigate that UGC kinda hurts. And SL just doesn’t have that “bridge” for new players to cross into becoming actual members of the community, and honestly it’d be very hard for one to develop without Linden directly involving themselves in some way. No other individual person or group of people have the resources or means.

    So the hands off attitude on content ultimately results in a pretty big trade off. Whether it’s worth it or not isn’t really something I’d be qualified to say, but it does limit its growth potential. And given infinite funding I think having a proper bridge for new players to cross is pretty much universally better than not (No one having infinite funding, trade offs do need to be made, and that’s why I can’t say if the SL decision was the right one or not).

    As I said before, it’s not enough that communities are given room to exist, they also need to have incentives built in to help them recruit and interact with people that they normally wouldn’t intersect with.

  48. A thorough treatment, thanks for this. I have a contribution, and an argument.

    Contribution: Dreaming is a form of down time; a type of digestion after eating. After a session of role-playable gaming, I like to settle the events into my memory, recalling how this or that took place.

    Argument: Forced socialization via un-optimized travel is like sitting on a bus, waiting in an elevator, or standing in line. It is not like sitting in a tavern, hanging out in front of 7-11, or gathering at the shopping mall’s central plaza.

  49. The concept of most MMOs being an actual world to travel through brings up this socializations problems, because you need time to get from A to B and your players are acutally devided by their distance. It’s possible to reduce that issue by trying out other construction for the game world.

    For Pirate Galaxy we organized the game world that way, that you can always switch from action (on the planet surface) to socialization (the planet’s orbit) whenever you want, just by clicking a button. You can do it even within a quest.

    This allows players to slow down whenever they want and go back to action within seconds.

  50. @AngleWyrm, people talk on buses, in lines, and in elevators. Not all the time, but enough. The whole point is simply to get them interacting with each other, and it does do that.

    The taverns and other meeting places are usually where you go with friends. The buses and lines are usually where you interact with strangers, however briefly.

  51. AngleWyrm, one of the two other essays linked in the post talks about the difference between different lines you have to stand in, and how it relates to whether it is acting as a gate or as unwind time… basically, it can be bad but it isn’t always.

  52. “socialization does require downtime.”

    Just for the sake of argument =)

    I think it takes more uptime to socialise than it does to fulfill a task or quest. A quest or task has a goal thats already defined for us.

    Socialising doesnt have a defined goal like a task or quest has. People socialising have to define the goals as well as how to accomplish this. The most difficult goals being how not to bore each other and/or get on each others nerves. So in this sense it takes more uptime to play. I think that socialising is a more difficult game to play for most people, and gameworld creators simply recognise this.

  53. Eolirin… “frustrated with Linden Labs” is pretty much the default setting for all Second Life residents, and I’m certainly no exception.

    But on the plus side, they’ve recently acknowledged the huge problems with the new user experience, and are articulating approaches to address it.

    Color me skeptical until they publish concrete changes… but also hopeful.

    I’d agree that social worlds can experience some of the same issues as MMOs, but I don’t think that the lack of a game is the cause. If you think PvP is intense, try a few rounds of player vs. screwy scripting language. That’s more than sufficient to drive you to a coder’s group to kvetch with sympathetic peers.

  54. Tabliopa, that’s actually the subject of my next post. ;)

  55. [...] Ways to make your virtual space more social and slides from Small Worlds: Competitive and Cooperative Structures in Online Worlds [...]

  56. @Tabliopa

    Actually, that is why socialization requires downtime. It’s far too complex a task, even for human beings who do it naturally, to add on top of regular game play. You can’t honestly divide your attention between making time sensitive responses to inquiries and even more time sensitive responses to changes in the current in-game situation. Both can’t be the main focus of your activity at the same time.

    As soon as someone logs onto your game, they’ve decided to be active within it in some way. We don’t need to design much true downtime, since there is a natural amount of downtime through logging out. (Although perhaps out of the way areas that are completely cut off from both could be good for when players need a few minutes of downtime here and there.)

  57. I would love to see more socialization features added to MMOs. I think a lot of small lessons can be learned from Facebook and other social networking websites but I think the key is helping support the community fostered within the MMOs. Nothing should be forced, just positively reinforced via in game incentives. I think if Guilds were allowed a bit more creative freedom via in-game rewards as Richard mentioned previously it would really be an upgrade over whats their.

  58. @Yukon, no no. I wasn’t trying to say that the lack of a game was a problem, but that the lack of official higher quality content to bridge system mechanics to new players, which in Second Life would include things like scripting and even just figuring out where the cool stuff is, is a problem.

    Content generation is one thing, but leaving that purely up to the player base means there’s no gold standard for content. Some of it may be better than anything the devs could’ve created sure, but it’s hard to know that without having something to compare it to, and lacking a directed experience to content that’s been certified as being excellent is problematic. If you dump people into a mess of UGC most of which leaves something to be desired, and some of which is really excellent and then tell a new player “hey, go figure out how to find the cool stuff!” you’re probably not going to keep that player very long.

  59. I was thinking about topic during work on my idea of on-line strategy game.

    Here is some thoughts…

    Let me name it…
    MMORBS — Massively Multiplayer Online Role Based Strategy game.

    Where, into one game world, hundreds of players are playing simultaneously.
    Represented as kings, rulers, generals, economic elite (the bourgeois)
    of different countryes (about a hundred into each game world).
    Players are not chained to one country and game world till end of
    game. On the contrary, they can absolutely liberally come in (and out)
    to a different game worlds and take playing for an any country.
    Can take one or another role (as military, merchant-manufacturer,
    king, bishop) accordingly(respectively) player’s rating. Making game
    decisions, which, if being successful, will enlarge his rating, but
    otherwise — reduce it.
    In the same way they can play simultaneously several roles (in several
    worlds also).
    But also able to play straight for a one country from the very beginning
    till the end, if they have enough time and tenacity for this.
    It will look like in original Civilization.

    Roles in the MMORBS is not quite as roles in RPG, need to say. It give
    for players possibility to govern the corresponding sphere, not
    distracting on others. Roles which are not serviced by players, remain
    in charge of game automatics and playing by simplified rules,
    providing average level of management. Accordingly, if player take
    certain sphere under control, he can, possibly, obtain success,
    enlarge both own rating and capacity of further playing or get a loss.
    More successful development of the economy will result in more resources for building of armies, for example.

    The main thing there is to build such mechanism of in-game presence which would not hurt players.
    As original strategy type of game have strong restrictions in a way of how player can take part in game.

  60. You’re right, Eolirin. But it’s also worth noting that any attempt by the developer to promote, spotlight, or direct players towards the good stuff inevitably raises anguished cries of favoritism amongst those not featured. We saw it in Ultima Online with structures that were “blessed” by the seers with decorations unavailable to the general player base. We see it in Second Life, where the “Spotlight” tab of search is always hotly debated — most heatedly by individuals using armies of “bots” to bolster their traffic and gain higher search rankings.

    The take-away is this; if the promotion of player content (whether it’s Second Life venues or outstanding RP guilds in WOW) is based on in-world systems, it will be gamed. If it is based on human judgement, it will provoke endless whining. Endless whining is better than a broken system that punishes those that follow the rules.

  61. From a purely mercenary point of view, increasing the opportunities for shallow socialization won’t help you retain players. No one ever reconsiders unsubscribing because they got a chance to say “hi” to the elf dancing on the mailbox. And even worse, players will unsubscribe because some griefer kept emoting farts while they were chatting with their guildmates in a public space.

  62. Phil:

    Shallow socialization is a required next step towards deeper socialization. You don’t generally jump straight to being bosom buddies.

    And it is well demonstrated that even shallow sorts of interactions do have demonstrable effects on first impressions and conversion; that’s why greeter programs keep getting implemented.

  63. [...] Koster talks about ways to make your virtual space more social, including specific design suggestions to prompt downtime and an opportunity for players to [...]

  64. @Yukon Sam, oh I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m saying it’s needed. :) Yeah, those are all problems, and putting up with cries of favoritism is still better than not having anything in place.

    But Linen also needs better tutorial content as part of what I’m talking about too. It needs to be able to link people together also for the sake of helping new people learn how to build, how to script etc. They need a much more coherent and directed new player experience basically. And it has to be them that provides it.

  65. “From a purely mercenary point of view, increasing the opportunities for shallow socialization won’t help you retain players.”

    It may not help you retain certain types of players, but don’t assume there will be uniformity of motivation. Designers, most of whom are achievers, make this mistake all the time. The socializer, from a content perspective, is the least expensive type of player to retain. They are not the ones to chew through content as fast as they can. Socializers ARE content or at least they add content to the game just doing what they do best. They humanize the experience for other players and can add an intangible element that solidifies the feeling of place. There can be a tendency to over design in MMOs; to micro-manage the player’s time. Sometimes a designer just needs to know when to get the out of the way, leave a little room for emergence and let the game be used like a chatroom once in a while.

  66. @ Sara (51)

    I agree that socialisation takes more time. I’m not a game creator. I just play them. So perhaps I just see things differently. But ya, is just semantics really when I said more up than down. Just a different perspective is all I think.

  67. Raph said:

    Shallow socialization is a required next step towards deeper socialization. You don’t generally jump straight to being bosom buddies.

    Only if you assume a player comes into your game friendless and alone. As I mentioned in an earlier response, some large fraction (a majority?) of players come to a game as part of an existing social network. This is not 1992, where your players are all bored comp-sci students who find your mud in the gopher file and telnet in at 2am while waiting for a compile to finish. ;)

    You don’t need shallow socialization to become bosom buddies with your real friends. But you do need the game to make it as easy as possible to actually socialize with those real friends. I suspect that just being able to play at will with one real friend converts more players than a very large amount of shallow socialization with near-strangers.

  68. @Tabliopa
    It was a good perspective, though. Made me think in slightly different, better, terms than I usually do.

    @Phil
    But what if that minority is 40-45% of your player base? What if it isn’t the minority at all? Personally, I don’t think lone players are even close to being a minority. But even if they were, from a mercenary perspective, it’s in your best interest to get those friends to play with other people as well. After all, if one of two leaves, the other is almost definitely going to go, but one of a group of six for example leaves, the other five are much more likely to stay for each other, than leave for the one.

  69. Raph:

    What you mean under “deeper socialization” at all?

    Because it seems that in-game and real-world socialization are ortogonal.
    For example buddyes who invite each other to the game to play together, obviously carry their previous real-world acquaintance there.
    And in opposite, players who create in-game gang or guild to play together, merely have no wish to meet companions in a real world and talk about non-game. Am I right? In-game experience have no direct mapping on real-world one.

  70. Because it seems that in-game and real-world socialization are ortogonal.
    For example buddyes who invite each other to the game to play together, obviously carry their previous real-world acquaintance there.
    And in opposite, players who create in-game gang or guild to play together, merely have no wish to meet companions in a real world and talk about non-game. Am I right? In-game experience have no direct mapping on real-world one.

    No, they are not orthogonal. It’s been well-established that in-game friendships deepen over time and turn into real life friendships. It starts with slowly starting to talk about RL, then soon you trade emails or IM, and then you start having guild get-togethers. :)

  71. @Sara Pickell
    Maybe lone players are a majority. I don’t have any data, just personal experience and anecdotes. Maybe someone can jump in and point us to existing survey data? Regardless, even lone players have existing social networks. Give a lone player a good newbie experience (polish the heck out of the first few game hours), hint that it would be even more fun with a friend (expose coop gameplay as early as possible), remove every possible barrier to inviting friends to the game (free trials for friends from day one, one-click invites, one-click-to-play clients) and you have just turned every single player into a salesman for your game.

    My personal experience is that existing social networks (both real world and from other games/forums/etc) are key to product choice and conversion. I played the muds my college friends did. I played UO because I got interested while shoulder-surfing a friend who was playing. I played WoW on the Medivh server because a dozen of my coworkers and friends played there and told me how much fun it was. The new friends I made in WoW were largely friends of friends. I played Call of Duty 4 multiplayer because my friends did. I introduced my CoD4-playing son’s friend’s dad to my friends that played (which, as you said, promotes retention). The Xbox Live listing of friends, what they are playing and the total achievements they have in games (often a signal of how compelling they found that game) are extremely powerful motivators to buy and play certain games.

    Capturing and reinforcing existing, orthogonal social networks will only strengthen conversion and retention.

  72. Phil, I think we’re talking past each other.

    First, you are correct about the paramount nature of existing social ties. But all the things I mentioned make it more social even for people who already know each other. Many social networks are separated by distance; providing chances to chat and catch up is beneficial to those ties. Even if there is NO distance, these moments are still valuable.

    Second, as I mentioned in the article, even if you capture an entire cluster of a social network, you still want them to web weakly across clusters, and the more the better. Otherwise, the cluster is at risk of disconnecting as a unit. The higher the clustering coefficient of your group as a whole, the better.

  73. Phil, even if they’re the majority, it doesn’t matter. Out of game friendships are migratory in a way that in-game ones aren’t. You want people meeting people in game, you don’t want them relying solely on established friendships. It’s less sticky if they ONLY play with real world friends, because you know those people will still be around if you leave, and if a few of you decide to go at the same time, most of the rest of the group goes too.

    And considering the size of average guilds in games like WoW it’s unlikely that people only keep to their real world acquaintances. I doubt there are people dragging groups of 20, 30, 50, 100 of their real life buddies into game. So you need the ability for them to meet new people in game.

    And those in-game relationships do grow and leave the game, which is why guilds tend to have their players leave all at once rather than a few at a time. The deeper and wider your net of interactions becomes though, the more you can minimize that effect. If players belong to multiple social networks in game, there are more things to “catch” them if one of those networks collapses.

    And besides that, there’s actually not much you can do to capture and reinforce real world friendships other than offering sign up bonuses. It’s a very narrow vector since there’s very little overlap between the game world and the real one. Strengthening coop is something you should be doing anyway, since it builds in-game interactions.

  74. Or what Raph said. ><

  75. @Raph

    Yeah, we are talking past each other. I want this to be about not crippling existing social ties, not about designing the pace of play to enable more socialization as you intended. :)

    By the way, why settle for “web weakly across clusters”? Do everything you can from day one to encourage the player to strongly identify with as many clusters as possible. Players come into the game with ties to more than one social network (friends, school, location, language, job, hobbies, etc). Find out what they are, model them in game and your clustering coefficient skyrockets.

  76. Phil,

    You just described the social architecture of the original form of Star Wars Galaxies.

  77. The problem I’ve yet to see addressed (sorry if I missed it) is how to engineer systems that are equitable and compelling for both the 40+ hours a week player, and the 12-16 hours a week player?

    A twenty-minute boat ride may be perceived as a minor inconvenience by someone expecting to play your game for eight or more hours in one session. However, for someone who only has an hour and a half to two hours of free time? That’s a lot of downtime.

    Do you simply write off one or the other as not your intended audience?

  78. This post has brought about a lot of interesting insights on how to improve my virtual space. The exchange of ideas are really helpful and enlightening. Thanks so much guys!

  79. [...] Ways to make your virtual space more social and Ways to make your social space more gamey. [...]

  80. Raph

    “”No, they are not orthogonal. It’s been well-established that in-game friendships deepen over time and turn into real life friendships. It starts with slowly starting to talk about RL, then soon you trade emails or IM, and then you start having guild get-togethers.””

    May be, may be. I just do’nt know such examples from my own. But I’ll trust your word.

    But I mean slightly different thing. I interested about in-game socialization. Or name it “agumented” socialization.
    In game and about game. To achieve more deep involvement, more deep experience of virtual game environment.

    That’s what I’m try to talk about.

  81. I feel very much in strong agreement with this post. I’d like to point out that I can only handle so much combat in an mmmorpg. My guess when I was asked at the top of this article was that I was 50/50 social/combat. I say that because I get exhausted clicking buttons, pulling, killing, healing, etc. It used to be that there was some downtime in between, but it’s much more fast paced now. What happens is I don’t do combat as much as I used to, I just get too tired of it. I take constant breaks and ninja afk a lot more. I find that my performance goes way down unless I drink three cups of coffee.

    I think that we should all slow down a bit and consider that maybe mmorpgs are becoming too acheivement focused. Maybe socialization is being neglected.

    I’d like to see an MMORPS – Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Simulation. A non-linear world where most everything is procedural and there’s very little developer intrusion in the world. Players are free to change the world by manipulating hte ecology, and so forth. The main goal of the game is to build cities and to socialize, and to brag about all the cool stuff you’ve done and collected. Character creation would be as involved as you choose it to be, everything from changing your innate skills to your history to your appearance to your birth place in the world and so on. And I’d like there to be no levels and no forced grinds. All characters would have skill innates that they could set at char creation and could change liberally during the course of their character life, but nothing would be permanent and changing your innates would be cheap. Innates would rule your ability to do combat, to do tradeskills, basically they’d govern your power at any particular skill, number-wise. That’d be the limit of numbers, however. The difference, versus other mmorpgs, is that you wouldn’t have to grind to change your innates. Armour and weapons would still have stats and characters would still have stats like hitpoints/etc to boast about, but I’m inclined towards a system where items are about bragging rights instead of beefing up your character. They might make your character better by a few small percentage points, but the vast majority of their value is the bragging rights you’d collect from showing them off to others. For example, someone next to me might have equipment that’s 10x better, but they’re not 10x better than you. The only thing that would make players different quantitatevly (as determined by numbers and formulas in the game engine) are their innates and by a very small amount, their items. The main fun in the game should be community, adventuring for kool stuff to show off, in general showing off what you’ve created or collected, building cities, enjoying the dynamic non-linear ecological-based world, and so on. The main thing is to get rid of grinds, no more! I want social worlds that’re roleplayer friendly with depth and intrigue and causality and so on, but I don’t want a world where the only thing that matters is combat and how good your equipment is.

  82. To clarify my last most in regards to how skills would operate, I’d like to say that number-wise, the only things that would be a factor are your innates and by a very small amount, your items. AS I said above, items would be about bragging rights, and littel more. Acquiring magical, arcane items, would teach you about the world because finding them is not something that’s freely given to you and they’d have many different looks and uses, especially in social settings, but for the most part, this world would not be item-based. Beyond that, the only limit in your ability to progress is your imagination and cleverness at manipulating the world in whichever way it’s that you most enjoy. The world would be highly non-linear and transmutable; changeable. That would be a big part of the enjoyment of it. The days of linear grinds and levels and skill gains and so forth, would be over. Innates would be a mixture of traits and skills that you could both change during char creation and during general gameplay. Any costs involved would be trivial, merely a leftover from the way mmorpgs were once designed. They’d preserve some of what players are used to in previous mmorpgs by having the same quantified effect, but in a way that’s less permanent and less grind intensive. Instead, they’d just be another way to understand and manipulate the world. They wouldn’t have to be balanced either as players would pick what works and discard what doesn’t. This is especially important in a non-linear world. This knowledge about what works and what doesn’t would quickly spread all across the community, and because changing innates would be cheap as dirt, most players would keep up to date without frustration and resentment towards it. There should be many, many innates spanning dozens of hundreds of disciplines. In fact, innates would probbly be smilarly non-linear, and nearly countless in combination.

  83. John, that sounds like a very casual game. I think you’re on the right track, except that I think items and skills/levels need some importance, just not the dominant importance such as most games have now.

    What I see most people missing, here and elsewhere, about “the grind” is the daily game play it forces on players so they can keep up with their friends. The alternative is to fall behind which means separation from friends. It’s not the act of grinding, it’s the consequence. Every game has grind, unless you have no character development at all, and most gamers want to develop their characters.

    How many players are going to go do that social event thing a second time when they fell behind their guildies a couple of levels the first time? That is, under the way levels mean so much now. If level dominance didn’t mean so much, if players could be of value and intermix with players who are 10-20 levels higher than them, even beat one in PvP if they play smarter than the other +10 guy, then they wouldn’t have to miss social events. And I’m not talking about rock/paper/scissors class (un)balance here. I’m talking about R/P/S in choices. Playing trump cards at the right time.

  84. I’d like to see an MMORPS – Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Simulation. A non-linear world where most everything is procedural and there’s very little developer intrusion in the world. Players are free to change the world by manipulating hte ecology, and so forth. The main goal of the game is to build cities and to socialize, and to brag about all the cool stuff you’ve done and collected.

    Give me like.. five years, dammit.

    How many players are going to go do that social event thing a second time when they fell behind their guildies a couple of levels the first time?

    You missed the part where he takes a hammer and smashes the existence of a power differential into tiny pieces and replaces that with status symbols. :)

  85. You missed the part where he takes a hammer and smashes the existence of a power differential into tiny pieces and replaces that with status symbols. :)

    No, I wasn’t talking about John’s idea at that point. Just saying that without some meaning, power wise, to items and skills, there’s not much left to give players “bragging rights”, except maybe rareness and artistic beauty. Yet, the current system of grind is way too far the other way. Something in between is what I’m getting at, where things have value in the scope of power and abilities, but not so much that players can’t do social events without feeling like they fell behind.

  86. You missed the part where he takes a hammer and smashes the existence of a power differential into tiny pieces and replaces that with status symbols. :)

    No, I wasn’t talking about John’s idea at that point. Just saying that without some meaning, power wise, to items and skills, there’s not much left to give players “bragging rights”, except maybe rareness and artistic beauty. Yet, the current system of grind is way too far the other way. Something in between is what I’m getting at, where things have value in the scope of power and abilities, but not so much that players can’t do social events without feeling like they fell behind.

    Before I reply I’d like to say that this is not a “design” I’ve built up over the yeears. It’s just something I decided to write last night. It does represent a feeling of what I think an mmorps should be like, but it doesn’t represent a professional project that I’m working on. So we’re all kind of taking part in a brainstorm here, NOT anything more than that.

    The enjoyment of an MMORPS would be in manipulating the simulation and sharing these creations with others in various ways. You’d change the ecology: its numerous interlocking dynamics. There’d be a lot to learn and to manipulate. I think that a non-linear simulation almost wholly requires that a player is flexible and not permanently fixed or bound to a particular skill set or ability, that’s why innates would be so cheap to change. This doesn’t have to mean that using those innates is automatic, so even though you don’t have to earn the innates, you still have to use them appropriately. There’s still a learning curve here. And learning to manipulate the ecology effectively would also be a big thing.

    Consider that testing all of the possible fail-conditions in a non-linear world is virtually impossible. This doesn’t mean there’d be no testing, there would be, but there’d be a lot that the developers just have to realize can’t be tested before the fact. There’d be details that players AND developers haven’t seen, and there’d be details that players have seen, but developers haven’t. Thusly, players would find what works, and discard what doesn’t. The developers would have to keep this in mind when they design it from the start.

    Players would develop the world more than they’d develop their character, in technical terms. In abstract terms, you’d get status symbols, as pointed out by Michael, from collecting items and accomplishing quests. Items could accompany you in your social pursuits and should contribute to your status and appearance. Most quests would be intricately connected to the ecology, so quests might tie into that instead of them being item dispensers, but items would still likely be gifted as an additional reward.

    Dungeon delvers would also find cool, one of a kind items. These types of items would likely be collectibles. Rich players, assuming there’s a currency, would probably buy these types of items from adventurers for a show of status to others. I’m not against some kind of benefit for items, but like Micheal said, I’m trying to get rid of any hard or permanent power differentials. By hard I mean, number-wise. For example, a sword that’s 10 damage versus a sword that’s 5 damage. That’s hard, and it’s permanent in the sense that you have to first acquire the 10 damage sword to have its power, and in most mmorpgs, that means a lot of linear grinding. I’d rather that the difference between one player and another is in their ability to effectively manipulate things around them, and how well they work with others to acheive these feats. So knowledge would or should be much more valuable than than the items you’ve collected. Dungeon delvers would, assumimg they have the same innates, virtually perform the same, despite whatever items they’re wearing. It would be their knowledge of innates and how to use those innates that determines their performance versus someone else.

    I do think there should be a currency since trading should be a part of this mmorps. Players would want tools and resources, having a currency allows players to move things around quickly without having to spend the time bartering various odds and ends. Besides, it makes more sense to carry gold trinkets which are lightweight than it would to carry everything you own in wagons just so that you can trade items with others. The trick is to make sure that rich players don’t feeel the need to isolate themselves from poor players. And that experienced players don’t isolate themselves from new players. The goal of this mmorps should be to invisibly encourage players of all rank and status to come together and share time. It’s afteral a roleplayer friendly world, and social gatherings should be common. They shouldn’t be tempted to isolate themselves, unless it’s just simply a preferance that they have to be alone – which is impossible to prevent, imho.

    That’s the hardest thing of all, imho. How do we ensure that we have a rich world and a rich variety of things to accomplish and to trade, and to do this all without tempting players to isolate themselves away from those who do not have the same knowledge or status? How do you ensure that new players have a chance, that they won’t be left behind, that they won’t be ignored?? I’d like new players to be almost as important as old players, but I’d like there to be things that players earn during the course of their time in this world, but I hope that it’s not too divisive.

  87. I know that this post is not the best place to brainstorm, but I like this post a lot because I also think social time is immensely important.

    Constructing mmomrpgs is massive, massive effort. Something like an mmorps would probably take a very long time. Its best chance is a 400 million dollar budget or a bigtime open source team – since something like this is almost impossible to find out there, this means lots of trial and error.

    I said that the world would need currency. This got me thinking a bit about how items would be more of a status symbol and a consequence of adventuring – which also has other benefits. One way of going about this is to make constructing items themselves cheap, but the knowledge to produce that item is not automatic. If you can acquire the knowledge, then you don’t need the currency. This atleast would prevent players from blaming the developers that currency is too grindy. The only thing they could blame is the complexity of the innates and the world around them. In this instance, it would be much more non-linear, so there’d be much less to fall back on. This would reduce any single argument, no matter how good its evidence is. This is all true unless most of the players are complaining about the complexity of the world. In that case, you’d attempt to reduce the number of innates or the number of combinations that’re required to produce usefull goods to meet the needs of the average player. For myself, I’d prefer complexity over simplicity because I’m inclined towards engineering and design and software, but I think many players might feel a bit frustrated at a system that’s too complicated. On the other hand, if knowledge is going to be important, simplifying it will compromise its value. If you simplify it too much, you might lose causality and you might even lose the non-linear ecology, which is hte basis for the simulation.

  88. [...] media (Amy Jo Kim) >> slideshare.net • Ways to make your virtual space more social >> raphkoster.com • Digital Identity Map: Typology >> flickr.com • Global Warming UK Traffic Goes to US [...]

  89. [...] what’s this got to do with game design?  Consider the riff in this post by the celebrated game designer, Raph Koster:  “…we have carefully designed the games to [...]

  90. [...] Raph’s Website: Ways to make your virtual space more social [...]

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