Exploring the roots of today's silent, and sometimes mean, groups
Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and blogger to bear in Experience Points. This week he examines the troubling trends of silence and vitriol in today's groups.
In 2009 the MMO industry changed forever. World of Warcraft was midway through its second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and players were still stuck scouring their servers for fellow dungeon runners. Queue times could ratchet upwards to two hours if you were playing DPS. Groups, while still rushed, were also cohesive and usually willing to communicate through problems; everyone knew a lengthy wait was in store if the group fell apart. Then Blizzard dropped a bombshell: the cross-realm dungeon finder, a tool which would allow entire server clusters to play together, automatically, and on-demand. It worked well and for a time seemed like a godsend. The system had the unintended side-effect, however, of making communication – even just socializing – a thing to be avoided. The dungeon finder enabled a culture of rush-to-reward where climbing the learning curve makes you the weak link. System after system has reinforced this and the genre, once based on players enjoying each other, is now more silent and toxic than it has ever been.
This column spends a lot of time talking about how things used to be. I’m a believer in learning the lessons of the past but it’s no good to be stuck in a cycle of nostalgia. Here’s the reality: pre-2009 things weren’t that great. As a matter of fact, I would say they were pretty terrible when it came to grouping. I started my post-MUD days with WoW and this is what I remember: sitting in queue for hours spamming the LFG channel (which was often like trade chat); players becoming especially mad if you didn’t have the right gear for heroics or if you wiped during the learning process; single members dropping and not being able to replace them; never being able to see every dungeon when you wanted to see it… the list goes on. It was frustrating waiting for a tank that may have never tanked before and trying his first heroic. Or, worse, getting the tank with a head the size of a hot air balloon because he “saved your run.” So many things about that time enabled a culture of elitism that some people mistakenly miss.
There are core, important, and un-ignorable problems the dungeon finder was introduced to fix, and it worked.
It would also be a mistake to lay the echoing silence and culture of speed runs solely at the feet of World of Warcraft. Virtually every game that came after perpetuated solo leveling and avoidable group quests. WoW began the trend, sure, but other games made it a rule. Warhammer Online introduced public quests to the world and furthered the perception that other players were little more than quiet passengers along your Heroes Journey; everyone did what they were supposed to and everyone won. The only communication required became single or two word(s): “boss up,” “here,” “now,” and “go!” Sound familiar? All of this made seeing other players as people less important than winning the event.
This isn’t a WoW problem; it's an industry problem and, in fact, is far worse than simple quiet.
The Anonymity Problem
I stared playing RIFT again after about seven months away. I was level 52, somewhere in City Core, and had completely lost the story thread. Rather than backtrack and piece things together, I decided to queue up for a random dungeon. It was one I had never done before, called Storm Breaker Protocol. No problem, I thought, feeling a little nervous since I was the tank. I let the group know that it was my first time and would appreciate any advice they had to give. “Oh boy,” was the first response. Following the cue of another new group-mate, I hopped in my mech – yes, you play as a mech for the first part of the dungeon – and dropped over the side of the wall.
Two of the other three party members proceeded to berate us for not clairvoyantly divining the proper path through the dungeon. The third didn't say a word the entire time. We made our way to the first boss and defeated him without a problem. It wasn't quick enough, it seems, because after calling me a fail tank and retard, one of the players bemoaned his poor luck to have grouped with me. I told him to lay off or start offering advice. When the hate speech started rolling out, I left wondering why I had logged on in the first place. I've seen that scene play out at least a dozen times in different games because it's a painfully, shamefully common occurrence.
It happens because we're anonymous. The cross-realm dungeon finder ensures that you'll never group with the same person twice. It happens because we're not accountable. You can be a terrible person and no one will ever know. It happens because MMO design has skewed so far toward “me, me, me!” that the narcissists rule the roost. The average player has learned to be quiet because it is easier and less painful.
And who can blame them? Why shouldn't they be quiet? It's not their battle. The pick-up-group (PUG) culture exists in MMOs today because MMO developers have designed it that way. Worse, this wasn't some unexpected problem. PUGs have always featured the dregs of our communities. Rather than designing systems which provide accountability and foster positive interaction, they instead turned to what can best be described as troll bait.
The answer, some would argue, is in our own reactions to these scenarios. I agree in part. Good people should and do speak up. But you don't blame the cow because the milk went bad. Players have no teeth. Our entire self-advocacy approach is based in self-sacrifice (take up the fight or drop the group) and using a weak reporting tool. But developers don't seem to do anything. Oh, they might ban someone for 48 hours after their third offense, but you'll never know about it. In their misguided approach to “protecting player privacy” most game makers come off as completely and wholly ineffective at trimming the fat poisoning their communities.
And as an aside, why can't we know that the racists and homophobes are getting banned? Would that be so terrible?
Our call needs to be on game developers, not gamers. They made this problem and it's on them to fix it.
Dynamic Events, Action Combat
I also returned to Guild Wars 2 recently and, to their credit, they're trying. The dynamic event system making up a sizeable portion of the adventure allows players to cooperate passively toward the same goal. It's great for creating a positive atmosphere but doesn't do much for the lack of communication. The success of Guild Wars 2 makes it a useful example for illustrating a huge threat to meaningful, relationship-building communication: action combat.
A good friend of mine puts it like this: when players are busy clicking their mashing keys and dodge-rolling, they're not thinking about typing a reply. This leads to more and more silence until players either hop the quiet train or take to writing in short bursts when out of combat. I have seen this played out in both TERA and Neverwinter, so I believe it to be true. Action combat is fun and I don't foresee or want it to go away. Chat just needs to evolve alongside it.
Certain things need to happen to fix the communication issues plaguing the industry. First and foremost, we need to take the power out of the hands of the trolls. It's time to bring accountability back in ways that players can actually see. Cross-realm dungeons are a blessing but that doesn't mean we should give up on community policing. A simple up- or down-voting system would do wonders, especially if it was tied to an extra reward. Players should also be able to easily find each other again and be offered incentives to team up and make friends.
The second, and perhaps most important, change is that communication should be a requirement to experience the whole game. Dungeons should be harder to memorize and offer dynamic encounters forcing people to communicate and help one another. Speed runs should be the exception instead of the rule and only achievable by organized players. Whole game systems need to intertwine to keep players engaged with one another and remembering that Syeric or Jarimor or Gazimoff are actual people, not just mercenaries on your quest. There needs to be shared responsibility and shared goals.
Players are what make MMOs tick. If developers give gamers the chance and proper motivation, they'll start to see just how much more interesting these games can be. It's time we start embracing the social experience and gathering together instead of pushing apart.