Sunday, April 28, 2013

Social Fabric

Pyschochild wrote a post on social fabric and multiplayer that has been bouncing around the blogosphere. His thesis is that "MMOs need to focus back to the multiplayer foundation", in order to improve the social fabric that binds people to these games. He feels that the lack of social fabric is what keeps modern MMOs as "three-monthers", where people come in, play for a bit, and then fall away.

I am not entirely convinced of his argument. But let us say that it is correct. What can games do to improve their social fabric?

Let's start from the basics. What is social fabric, at least in games?

I would define social fabric as: Social fabric is the bonds created by repeated, positive interactions between the same set of people.

Key elements here are repeated, positive, interactions, and same set of people. After all, the various group finder activities are repeated and positive, but they don't create social fabric because you never see the people in them again.

My first thought is that the best and most useful element to build social fabric around is the guild. But guilds are very optional in the modern MMO. I think the first step in strengthening the social fabric is to make guilds more central to the player experience.

Consider the following changes:

  1. Players can only group with people in their guild.
  2. Players can only trade with people in their guild.
  3. Guilds are limited to 100 unique accounts.

What this does is create a very small subset of people that you can interact with. This means that all your group interactions occur within the guild, with the same people. It makes joining and belonging to a good guild a meaningful affair.  There is a cap on guild membership so that you are interacting with the same set of people, and to prevent the formation of mega-guilds.

Now, of course, this is very restrictive. It is not very convenient. But rather than allowing players to form very transitory bonds through dungeon finders, local chat, or an auction house, it focuses all those interactions on the same small set of people.

If a game wants to create a strong social fabric, I think it must necessarily limit the scope of player interactions. I think limiting the scope of interactions to the small guild level is the best path for creating the strong fabric that a lot of older MMO players desire.

Edit: This just came to me, how to explain my thoughts in a different fashion. Whenever this topic comes up, a lot of people say that people need to interact more. They need to group more, to trade more, have more interactions in general. I think that we don't necessarily need to have more interactions, we need to have what  interactions we do have with fewer people, in order to create more repetition, and stronger bonds when we do end up interacting.


  1. Actually the interaction needs to be social to be social.

    I mean I shop at the same place for years. The stop assistants don't switch much, I see the same faces every day (repetitive). The interaction is positive (I get bakery, they get money).

    Yet I don't know their names and they don't know mine. I know them as "shop assistant" and they know me as "customer". I don't think that a repeated "tank" - "DPS" interaction would be any more rich.

    To make the interaction social, you must make the people in it not interchangable. EVE is good in this as you must trust in the guy as the game mechanics allow and even reward scamming and teamkilling.

    Your 100 man-only guilds would be simple collection of 100 players of similar goals who just grind dungeons efficiently together without a word.

  2. I think your point about needing repetition with whom you interact with, as opposed to just having lots of interaction with a (possibly) wide range of people is spot on.

    However, I don't think the guild is the right vehicle to solve the problem. I agree that it seems that once people are in an active guild that they're comfortable with the "social fabric" sort of weaves itself- but how do they find that guild in the first place?

    I think that's the real issue. You can't force (or nudge) someone into a guild without many forming for silent convenience, which undermines the purpose. So you need players meeting other players they'd like to play with before they're even in a guild. How to do that?

  3. I'm not convinced that limiting guild size is necessarily a good thing. In Age of Conan you get these huge guilds because of the PvP aspect of your own buildings.

    Additionally, I'd argue that most guilds fall well below that 100 account level in MMOs not called EVE or AoC, so that doesn't do much to change things.

  4. I think it comes down to familiarity. We want to meet the same people again and again. We don't even need to interact with them. It's enough that they make us feel familiar - at home.

  5. I think that a great deal of this is nostalgia but the larger part is the nature of the market. Back in the old days we didn't have Elitist Jerks, Icy Veins, Ask Mr Robot, and on and on. Things tended to be more social because, frankly, most of us really didn't have a clue about optimization and best-effort pathing through content. When I think about it objectively some of the groups I had - which were a great deal of fun - in early Vanilla WoW would be laughed out of the game now.

    It seems to be a choice between a large and accepting community or a fractured set of micro-communities focused on specific goal optimization. To put it another way: the raider-mindset won.

  6. While I agree in principal that the social fabric is good, your suggestion here has some serious problems.

    The first problem is one that Anon mentioned; if the only people you can group with is guildies, then how do you get to know people before you join one, and thus know a guild you want to join?

    The second is that your suggestion makes for insular groups, which may help build your PERSONAL fabric, but does nothing for the game as a whole at best, and would be greatly destructive at worst. These suggestions make everyone who is not in your guild some nebulous entity who doesn't matter, because you simply cannot engage with them at all. It dehumanizes everyone who is not part of your guild.

    Social bonds is more then how you deal with the people you know, it involves dealing with the people you don't.

    And this is also not even factoring in the reasons why a person may or may not be in a guild. I haven't joined a guild in most of the MMOs I am currently playing because I just don't play them consistently enough to feel like it matters. If I'm only logging into STO once a week, or once every few weeks, then why should I be part of a fleet? I might as well just do things on my own.

    And this is beyond me just being an introvert and being uncomfortable looking for and attempting to join a random guild. All the guilds I have joined so far were because of players I already had as friends before I started playing.

  7. I got tired of guild drama in the last MMO I played so I haven't joined any guilds since then, and I have noticed that I don't stick with a game for very long after reaching the level cap.

    I suspect this is due to the main attraction to me of these games is the challenge of mastering a class or playstyle and exploring the world. Once I've "grokked" a particular class then I don't really feel a need to grind the best gear, etc. Nor does leveling up another character of a different class hold much attraction if I'll just be going through the same areas and the same quests.

    Lastly, to be frank and tactless, other people suck. I would far rather play together with my wife than some random stranger I met on the internets. They have different priorities and different social/behavioural standards (or lack thereof), and relying on them is just a recipe for pain and suffering.

  8. The problem is that with any MMO you have people with differing levels of social interaction 'needs/interests'. You can't force grouping and make people like it unless you have a homogeneous group of socials. Socials who also have the same schedules and interests in the game.

    In many ways people playing MMOs are simply a reflection of the social groups we may (or may not) belong to in the real world. We group up when we find it important (our kids' activities, personal events, professional meetings, etc.), but we're not constrained to only doing thing in a group.

    Somewhere the idea of building social bonds, aka, forced grouping, is always fun for everyone. This ignores the fact that many of us play games to get away from real life organizations for the opportunity to do what we want, when we want (in a game). Having to spend time putting a group together or waiting for automated tools to put a group together for me isn't fun. I want to be doing something while I wait, which is why MMOs (should) provide the bulk of it's content as solo activities. Yes, the prestige stuff can be group oriented (organized PvP, large group PvE operations, etc). But group activities shouldn't be the dominate form of play. Anyone that spent hours putting together a group for Heroic Shadow Labyrinth knows what I mean. :)

    TL;DR: Forced grouping only works when everyone wants the same thing out of a group, at the same times. That's why so many MMOs have tons of solo content.

  9. Gevlon, I disagree with you. The bonds formed from simple interactions like that are weak, but they still exist. More extroverted people often strike up conversations.

    Redbeard, I think the size limit is necessary because otherwise everyone just joins one giant guild. As well, new guilds fail to get off the ground. This also gives existing guilds a reason to curate their membership, to pay attention to who is actually involved in the guild.

  10. Also, a several commenters have said that, under this scheme, you don't know what a guild is like before joining it.

    That is true. On the other hand, I've found that you never *really* know what a guild is like before joining.

    I'm used to guilds having a trial period where the two sides get used to each other. I think that would become the standard in this system.

  11. I'm tempted to agree. When the Hutt expansion came out I tried out SWTOR for the first time, having never played it before.

    In addition to absolutely loving the questline (I can't go back to WoW after that), I liked how the zones gently push you into grouping up for 2-3 person quests and how common such quests are right from the start. I do always play a healer though, so I don't know if this may be annoying to people who usually play DPS and are used to be more independence.

  12. Damn it, I wish Blogger did trackbacks properly on my site. Interesting post and discussion that I missed. :/

    Rohan, your idea is interesting, but I don't think it would work out too well in practice. I worry that people would get a bit too paranoid about joining the "wrong" guild and would guild hop too much, leading to ultimately weaker social bonds.

    I do think that smaller server sizes could help, as it does let you interact more frequently with the same people. But, you still need to have some choice in who you interact with.

    My thoughts.