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.