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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9 Responses to MMOs: The Changing Social Context

  1. Siha says:

    I absolutely agree with all of this, and this is – amazingly – something SOE got right with SWG and EQ2 back in 2004. Even then, EQ2 had web-based access to /gchat and whispers, and you could do not only cross-server whispers in both games (in the format of “/whisper servername.playername message”) but cross-game whispers as well, between SWG and EQ2 (and, I believe, EQ as well).

    Brilliant idea, and the lack of such tools in every successive MMO has irked me greatly. Blizz got it half-right with the iOS app and then insisted on charging a premium for it, which was ridiculous – it should be a core elemental, not an optional for-pay extra.
    Siha recently posted..Bittersweet is…My Profile

  2. Telwyn says:

    Yep, this is spot on. Especially now as we move into a more ‘nomadic’ era as you put it in gaming. When all of my gaming friends were playing WoW it was even then a problem as you couldn’t chat cross-server before RealID. Now spread those friends across half a dozen games and the problem becomes rediculous. This won’t go away as more high profile games are launching and more will be tempted to move on.
    Telwyn recently posted..Crafting breakMy Profile

  3. thade says:

    Some games are doing things like this, already. Rift has built-in video sharing and facebook/twitter support. TOR presents you with a “Do you want to add these players as friends?” with every quest completion while in a party, in an attempt to build pre-end-game community. Honestly, Rift’s entire leveling game is built around building community as players are naturally aggregated together into larger and larger parties to confront dynamically spawning Rifts during region-wide events.

    These games are making some solid attempts to build and maintain community, but whether they’re having real impact is a question. I’m starting to wonder where the blame lies; we really offered too much choice as consumers and that makes us less happy with whatever we choose (as the other choice may have been better). There’s actually a TED talk on that topic (maybe I can find it). During WoW people saw few other options. Now the options are everywhere and people aren’t content, jumping and jumping.

    Maybe the fault lies with over saturation.
    thade recently posted..CommitmentMy Profile

  4. Windpaw says:

    One of the biggest challenges that I see for online games (at least in the near term) are how disposable many people still treat online relationships. It’s simply too easy for players feeling disenfranchised with a game (or their social circle) to simply “go away” and start over somewhere else.

    Building a community where a core of the player base seems willing to drop out with no notice and no repercussions can be problematic.
    Windpaw recently posted..Cataclysm was a Failure(?) – Part 2My Profile

  5. Francois says:

    I definitely agree with the changing social context: we entered in the Social era (social networks, social media, Many to Many communication, Social gaming with real friends) and the core foundations of MMO didn’t change. Most current MMO are simply not Social Proof in particular because of the strong stats vertical progression separating players.

    I tried to explain what I mean here:

    and here (social data mining WOW and SWTOR):

    In this context I’m also considering new MMOs as “vacation” places. Worlds to temporary explore knowing I will probably not want or can settle there.

  6. Windpaw says:

    @Liore – shared experiences are *key* – but from watching the WoW twitterati chatter for months now and watching them collaborate, group, and share it didn’t surprise me when I saw one of them tweet the following:

    “Seeing what people are like on Twitter makes me wish Twitter could be my guild”

    That’s huge. These are people that for the most part don’t play on the same server. Or in some cases, even in the same game. Yet they’re building an ad hoc community all the same.

    With a little time and integration – and with supporting technology from the MMO developers – the concept of “game world” make take on a completely new meaning.
    Windpaw recently posted..Cataclysm was a Failure(?) – Part 2My Profile

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