Mobhunter: The Overhead of Social Gaming

Three weeks ago I wanted to sit down, relax, and play Call of Duty 3 on my Xbox 360. I put in the disc, booted up the 360, began loading up my saved game, and within 30 seconds "Soandso invites you to a game". I don't want to play multiplayer, I want to play single player. I decline the invite, disconnect myself from Xbox Live, and start playing again. But now I feel guilty. The guy who sent me the invite is a friend I haven't seen in a while. All he wanted to do was go around shooting some newbs. What sort of ass do I have to be to disconnect from Live and play a single player game? So now I'm playing single player Call of Duty 3, sitting through the same stupid movie sequence I've seen fifty times, and feeling like an ass because I just blew off a friend of mine.

When did this sort of guilt infect our game play? Why should I feel bad for not wanting to connect to online games? When did these feelings of remorse and duty move us to play games we don't really want to play?

Often in war we hear soldiers say they aren't fighting for some doctrine or political mantra but for the buddy next to them. They're there to protect the friend sitting in the trench at their side. Like the Greek Phalanx, their shield protects the man to their left. They may not want to be in the war in the first place. They may disagree with the politics or the doctrine or the strategy or the tactics, but they are there because if they weren't, their friend's flank goes undefended.

Perhaps it is this philosophy that guide us to play games when we don't really want to play. How many times have I played Everquest for three or six or nine hours when my only real reason for being there was that other people could use my help? I didn't enjoy it. Likely I had played through the event many times. For example in the Plane of Sky for example, but the only reason I was there was because I knew that some warrior needed his sword or some mage needed a crown. Tunare knows I asked the same from others.

I never booted up Final Fantasy 7 because I was afraid Red XIII wouldn't like me if I didn't. That same pressure doesn't exist in single player games. I am reminded of those old Japanese LCD keychains where one had to take care of a virtual dog. Leave the virtual dog in a desk drawer for a week and you'd see this little sad dog, ribs showing, and sitting in its own filth. Who needs to feel the pressure of care and feeding from a device powered from a watch battery?

Single player games have very little guilt associated with them. You might feel pressure to finish a game even if you're not really enjoying it. You might consider it a waste of money if you don't spend some time on it. Right now I feel the desire to play Final Fantasy IV on my Nintendo DS not because its so wicked fun, although I do enjoy it when I play, but because I spent $30 on it and it's not seeing a lot of use.

As I write this I turn 70 degrees to my left and ask my wife, who is helping out a group in Everquest kill some tentacled cyclopean horror, if she *wants* to be doing what she's doing. "I don't mind it," she said "But I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't asked to help." For a Saturday morning gaming activity, that isn't exactly a rave review. Yet this isn't uncommon in our MMO gaming. At best, it's something to do. At worst, it's stealing our own free time to focus on the desires of someone else. It is our desire to help others that drives us to spend our time in a game doing things we don't really want to do. When will that madness stop?

Twice before I wrote articles about the true strength of massive online games lying with the other players. The games themselves aren't the most exciting games ever created. There are bosses in God of War that outstrip just about every creature battled in a thousand hours of content in Everquest. It's the excitement of working with a team of other players, using our character's abilities as a part of a great mob-killing machine that drives us to play.

That strength can also be a detriment. Playing games with other players adds an overhead to our gaming experience. For every player added to a game, a hunt, or an event, there is the difficulty of coordination, scheduling, training, skill, and group balance. Blizzard knew this and designed World of Warcraft so that most of the game can be played without any of that overhead. A player can solo his or her way from level 1 to level 70. A lot of the most exciting events require a group and the overhead of building and leading that group often moves us to go back and collect 8 owl feathers simply because it's a lot easier to do so. There's no overhead and no guilt if you decide to leave after only collecting one.

I've spent a significant piece of my life over the past six years playing massive online games - Everquest in particular. I have over 10,000 hours logged in to my primary character. I've had a lot of fun over that career. Most recently my guild defeated Vishimtar in one of the best, most stressful Everquest battles I ever faced. I don't think I recall feeling so good after a game battle as I did then simply because of the added complexity and added responsibility floating on top of the 53 other players at the event.

The designers of massive online games would do well to recognize the overhead of multiplayer gaming. They should strive to make it as easy as possible for players to gather and get into the action.

At the same time, saying that all games will eventually go multiplayer is nonsense. Games like God of War and Zelda, Twilight Princess show us that there is a lot of room left for games that let players just sit back and play without having to worry about the social overhead of multiplayer gaming. Massive online games have the wonderful ability to, beyond any game style in the past, bring people together, help us meet new friends, and enjoy cooperative and competitive games far more than we ever could before. Other times, however, it's nice to be alone.

Loral Ciriclight
11 March 2007