Caster's Realm: Disturbing Trends in Massive Online Gaming

Since late last year we have seen big changes in massive online games. On the surface, many of these changes appear to improve the game and open it up to a wider audience. Not all of these changes come without cost, however; and not just financially. Some of these changes miss the point of why we play massive online games in the first place.

Everquest 2 recently made most of its overland creatures soloable by all classes. Players can travel all over Thundering Steppes or Nektulos, and find hundreds of mobs killable by a single character regardless of class. World of Warcraft included large amounts of solo content since its release. The vast offering of solo creatures, quests, experience, and loot often proves too tempting an option when compared to the difficulty of finding a group with a bunch strangers. If options exist for a player to level from 1 to 50 without grouping with a bunch of strangers, players will follow it.

Those strangers, however, are the reason to play. Gameplay, evolving environments, and character advancement are important features of any game. There are many single-player games that involve the players in deep plot lines, offer fast and powerful progression paths, and have an important feature all massive online games fail to include: a pause button. It's the thousands of other players that make massive online games unique. Avoiding them ignores the one thing that sets these games apart.

The more solo content game designers add, the more they steer players away from the strength of massive online games.

The shift from Everquest's buffing system to the more rigid system in Everquest 2 made it much harder for players outside of groups to help one another. Buffing other players, while overpowering in many circumstances, created a social community of those who want to help people and those who seek help. Buffing in Everquest created contact between players who might never have met eachother before. In Everquest 2 it becomes much more difficult to establish that connection. The rigid combat and buffing system of Everquest 2 makes it not nearly as clear how one character can assist another.

Last week, Sony Online Entertainment announced that it would set up a new set of servers and facilitate the transfer of characters, equipment, and in-game money in trade for real life currency. The outside purchase of characters, equipment, and in-game money has gone on for a long time now, but this is the first time the company of the game validated the practice.

Players who purchase gear, in-game money, or characters completely miss the point. Massive online games aren't about gear or level or items, they're about meeting other people and going on adventures with them. Players cannot build friendships with other players if they continually shift from character to character or spend their entire play session seeking out the rewards that might offer the best cash on Station Exchange.

These changes points to a disturbing trend. Instead of longer and more enriching content meant to bring players together, we see games turning toward instant gratification with large amounts of solo content and validation for purchasing characters, gear, and in-game money outright rather than earning it in-game. This may lead to more subscribers for each game, but it will not help reinforce the main difference between massive online games and traditional single-player games: the other players.

There are things we, as players, can do to improve our own played time and help show others the strength of massive online games. Here are some examples:

- Go out of your way to group with people. Don't always seek the safest path for personal gain if it steers you away from other players.

- Remember that the game isn't about levels, gear, or money; its about the other players. Years from now you won't remember what the ratio was on your fancy sword or how many hit points your breastplate had. You will remember your friends and the adventures you shared. Your friends list is your greatest possession.

- Go out of your way to help new players and show them that not everyone is out for themselves. Institute a buffing-event or newbie adoption program for your guild. Set up contests or player-generated quests that don't just involve killing beasts for experience and coin.

Game producers can also improve the grouping aspects of massive online games rather than leaping to the easy fixes for solo-play, experience bonuses, or the real life purchase of in-game resources. Some examples include:

- Help get groups together faster. Allow group invites across zones. Focus group content around one-hour play sessions. Widen the level ranges on group content to allow for a larger pool of players looking for groups.

- Remove detrimental features of grouping such as group experience debt and add a significant experience bonus for players who choose to group instead of soloing.

- Add features that reinforce pickup groups and pickup raids. Reward all players in a group for their work, not just one player with random luck.

- Improve tools for social connections. Add a notes section to friends lists. Offer a method for alt tracking. Let players forward tells from one alternate character to another.

- Add in a system that lets low level players and high level players group together. Ensure both players earn experience and meet appropriate challenges. Don't get stingy with the experience they earn, make it worth while for a high level to group with their low level friend.

- Do not jump to soloing as a fix for short-time players.

Most importantly, find new ways to get people together in a group, get hunting, and having fun together in a short period of time.

Massive online games are seeing much greater popularity than ever before and this trend appears to continue. With a far greater number of players playing online games, the urge to make quick and easy changes that might bring in even more subscribers is strong. It is easy to give players what they ask for but not always easy to look deeper into why they ask for it and what the real problem is.

Sometimes players forget the real difference between these games and other RPGs. It is easy to get caught in item statistics or levels. Game companies should remind them what is important. Game companies should constantly and continually reinforce the biggest strength of their games: the massive amount of online players. Players should never forget why they play. Your greatest rewards aren't gear or levels or items, they're the people you meet in your adventures.

Loral Ciriclight
24 April 2005