17 Feb 2012

MMOs: The Changing Social Context

When I started playing MMOs there was a general feeling that the game itself was the social hub. You’d log in and chat to people while playing the game, making new friends in the process. The game would support everything from building a core network of friends through to being able to group up and defeat tough content together. For many of us, the game world also represents our social world.

All this is changing. As our preference shifts from one game to another we’re faced with two options: try and take our social network with us or abandon it and build a new one. As Azuriel mentioned in the comments last week, this continual relationship building can become frustrating. In the absence of portable social tools in our MMOs, many of us are turning to low-friction networks like Twitter instead.

But are MMO developers missing a trick here, or should they accept that gamers are migrating their social networks away from the games?

Many MMOs have traditionally felt a “month 3” problem. As gamers finish the single player content and start looking to group play to keep them engaged, as many as 60% will leave in search of something else to play. A large amount of endgame content rests squarely on the strength of social tools available in-game, yet this area is often overlooked. Better social tools are likely to lead to greater engagement, which should translate to players sticking with games for longer.

It’s why we see a large amount of hype around MMOs. A high number of box sales means a high number of people in-game, which should hopefully mean a high number of gamers continuing to play after the first few months. With part of the cost of developing an MMO being launched from post-launch sales such as subscriptions and microtransactions, getting a higher retained playerbase means higher revenues.

The problem with this approach is that MMOs tend to be developed as islands, with a dedicated community team working with journalists and  fansites and building interest. I’m not sure this is a great idea, as publishing houses and developers can generate their own fanbases as well. While getting as many people as possible to play a new release might be a short term goal, the longer term has to be focused around creating a fan-based market for every new release.

So what would this longer term goal look like? It means developing social tools that connect the in-game social experience with the wider internet, but in ways that help to promote a sticky relationship with the developer. How many of us would like to be able to take Battle.net chat beyond the smartphone, with desktop versions available? How about being able to link to Twitter in the way that Rift does, allowing you to send tweets and pick up messages while playing? What about using your Steam account to chat while playing Rift or Rusty Hearts?

I think that expanded social messaging, both instant and asynchronous, is one of the cornerstones of helping to build social experiences that go beyond one single game. I also think that it’ll become crucial as publishers move to a multi-MMO approach. MMO gamers can be nomadic, so encouraging them to stick with a particular network of games means that they’re more likely to invest time in building up friends on that network, which in turn means an upturn in subscriptions or microtransaction revenue.

I really feel that in time we’ll see communities forming that tie a range of MMOs together, underpinned by social technology and shared authentication, registration, and billing systems. I think that today’s fragmented approach will eventually retire, but it will take time. I also think that we’ll see an expansion in the role of community manager, moving from nurturing a single game to managing a multi-game community through a variety of mediums.

It takes time, effort and care to build a community of players for a single game.It makes a huge amount of sense to encourage that community to expand into further games, supported by technology that makes the experience seamless.

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