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Fabrics and Metaphors

May 1, 2013

Dear Reader,

There’s been a fair share of discussions about social fabric over the last few days, starting with Psychochild’s take on it.  Several others have responded, including Rohan, Tobold, and Green Armadillo, just to name a few.  Each of them has a rather unique perspective on it, and none really fully agree.  As always, I suggest you read the posts themselves, but I’ll sum up what I take to be each’s main idea if you’re not in the mood for more reading:

1) Psychochild suggests more grouping, though he’s well aware that it’s neither a perfect solution nor what everyone wants.

2) Green Armadillo counters by suggesting that social fabric is what turns playing into working as you become bound by those social obligations.

3) Rohan also counters by saying it’s not that we need more social interactions, but more repetition within them to form stronger bonds.

4) Tobold overall addresses a different subject, suggesting that MMO longevity could be increased by having worlds that were constructed around more than just progression, but says of social fabric that he thinks it’s necessary, but too often done badly.

None of them really looked at the term fabric, though, which of course they wouldn’t because they’re discussing social mechanisms, not sewing.  Examining the metaphor, though, might give us some insight into what we’re all really discussing.

A single string isn’t particularly strong (though you can supposedly hold down someone with a well-placed piece of floss held tight over their upper lip.  I don’t think that’s standard Mossad practice, though).  However, when you interweave them, you create something much more durable.  I think that Psychochild’s argument is based on this metaphorical fact: that the interwoven fibers will “last longer” than many single strands.  Consider, then, what you do when a single strand sticks out of your shirt or jeans: you cut it off.

And that’s what’s metaphorically happening to a lot of players; they’re feeling more and more cut off from their gaming worlds.  The thing is, I don’t think you can re-integrate a loose thread back into a fabric from which it’s become detached.  You may be able to ignore it, but often it comes more and more loose, sticking out more.  If left too long, it can even begin to detach other fibers around it.  Eventually, a hole forms, which weakens the overall strength of the piece of fabric.  Cutting it off, then, is actually better in the long run than ignoring the problem.

I may be stretching the metaphor, but I think it’s still meaningful.  Few of us have ever fallen back in love with a game that we’ve abandoned.  We may have returned to it, but often it’s not for long and even when it is, it’s not really the same game, like my return to WoW mostly for pet battling instead of hard-mode raiding.  I am still there, though, which at some level means I am strengthening the fabric by participating in game activities in view of others and discussing them with you, dear reader.

There is one obvious fallacy, though.  People are not mindless strings to be combined into some unseen tapestry.  Some of us want to be that string sticking up.  Some of us want parallel play instead of multiplayer or cooperative gameplay.  Each individual MMO seems to try to find the balance between forced grouping, forced soloing, or allowing players to choose what they want to do.  Dungeons & Dragons Online forced players to group to do most of the leveling content.  The Secret World forced solo instances into an otherwise great group game.  Star Wars allowed the player to choose but increased the difficulty when bringing a group.  Guild Wars 2 has very malleable grouping features.  Each finds their own balance.

The problem, then, is more the individual interpretation of that balance.  Some people, like Green Armadillo, find long-term social obligations to be a problem that ruins games.  Psychochild welcomes those same obligations.  Neither is right or wrong, but different games’ balances will appeal more or less to each.

In the end, I think what makes so many games 3 monthers now has less to do with social fabric than it does innovation and comfort.  Think how much time most people put into their first MMO love.  Whether it was EVE, WoW, LotRO, or an older one, the level of innovation that drew you in is what kept you there and made you, eventually, comfortable.  It’s also what helped weave that social fabric, the mutually shared love of this new thing.  New games can’t match that innovation any more; whatever they offer, it’s been done.  As a result, you’re not as strongly drawn, aren’t as quickly made comfortable, and, as a result, are more apt to leave once you feel done.  It’s also why so many of us end up back in Azeroth or Middle Earth after prolonged breaks.  We’re comfortable there, damnit, even if we know we oughtn’t be.

I’ve said before that I think the only thing that will dethrone the mighty MMO – or even WoW in particular – is a style of gameplay we haven’t even realized yet, something that’s beyond the bounds of what we can imagine, like MMOs were twenty years ago.  Maybe it’s being developed as we speak.  Maybe it’s still years off.  Regardless, in this long, cold winter of stale repetition, we need perhaps to be less picky about which hearth we choose to warm ourselves by.  We should be more forgiving and less demanding of the new titles and accept them for what most of them are: a small new spin on an existing genre.  If we can do that, perhaps we can be happy enough until the next big thing.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (Weaver)

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2013 7:51 am

    I certainly agree with the idea of the social obligation keeping you attached to a game. At the same time, I would argue that there is a more positive way of looking at it. I continued to play RIFT and enjoyed it because my friends were there. I wasn’t just logging in to play with them. By having them around we found new ways to extend the life of the title. Any MMORPG where I have made social bonds I don’t make the effort to find that extra life. I just leave when I’m that one thread sticking out.

    I think part of the problem is that most MMORPGs are currently on the latest fad of “action!” We must have action so that it gets us closer to the single player console experience! The 1 2 pro 2 3 1 2 blem with 1 2 actio 2 3 n 1 2 MM 1 2 ORPGs 2 3 1 is 2 that 1 2 th 2 3 1 2 ey 1 2 make it 2 3 imp 12 ossib 4 *damnit* le to type and play.

    If you don’t have voice chat you can’t have that social time. The example I use and that people hate is EverQuest camping. Yes, it is “the absolute worst thing ever.” Except I could progress my character while sitting and enjoying a conversation with my friends. I met people on my server. I built bonds. I learned more in one camping session about other players than I did in my whole time playing other games.

    I don’t want action. I want a slow down so I can enjoy those social ties a bit more.

    • May 1, 2013 4:22 pm

      See, I think at this point WoW is just a social network for me. That’s actually how that post started, as a discussion of WoW as a social network, but it morphed into the personality development post after a draft or two. The pet battling is just a low-key activity that allows me to play and chat freely so that I have something to do while waiting for people’s responses and can get back to them right away because I’m doing something turn-based instead of fighting raid bosses. I’m not sure how I feel about that development, but there it is.

      My reason for pet battling and your description of the rotation vs. chat problem are pretty much one and the same. I do have voice chat, but not many people are willing to set up a vent chat w/ someone they only sort of know online, so I usually don’t bother. I do speak to my friends in Germany over vent, but they’re in a minority.

      I get what you mean about the camping. I’d compare it to farm-status bosses in raids. I didn’t mind doing the first half of ICC in hard mode every week even though we’d destroyed it for months; it was time to chat, joke, and get to know people before the “real work” started. I didn’t miss those raids, even though some of the other “big wigs” did because it was too easy and they didn’t need any of the gear. I’ve always disliked those sort of players; I’m not here for gear, I’m here for the shared experience, and I wish more people were.

      Thanks for the comment! Did my buddy ever contact you? I may slap his face if he didn’t.

  2. May 1, 2013 9:25 am

    I think that there is an indirect cause for this change in the MMO landscape. WoW persists, largely, due to the item grind. It’s not a particularly interesting theme – run around and get better stuff! – but it does keep a large crowd on a treadmill. By my rough count, I’m on gear set number five for this expansion. For anyone who is neither obscenely lucky nor engaged in a high-end heroic guild you never stop having to improve you kit.

    I think that this is also the leading detriment to the sort of integrated social environment you are looking to return to the MMO market. Your group needs to stay on roughly the same gear track or content becomes too difficult or trivial. That will break the operational bonds between characters as they diverge into gear-gated content. It also leads to a lot of the player nastiness as everyone tries to be on the most efficient path to the next upgrade and that chatty guy in LFR or LFD is holding things up.

    Even in pen&paper games we old-school GMs had a standard derogatory term for a campaign that was based on getting stuff rather than doing stuff: Monty Haul. It was far easier – draw a map, add some monsters, add huge loot – but it was self-destructive. You would have to top it each week and very quickly the campaign collapsed under its own weight. WoW has avoided this by constantly moving us to bigger and tougher opponents – at the cost of trivializing everything that came before.

    It also establishes an echo chamber. The people getting the loot fastest become the people who are most vocal and who insist that more loot opportunities need to be created. This is very nearly the antithesis of the environment that will create the sort of deep personal connections the social fabric champions are looking for in a game. My silent DK who will speed tank an heroic to get the daily bonus valor is more useful, though less interesting, than the friendly and outgoing guy who makes the run last 40-100% longer.

    • May 1, 2013 4:26 pm

      Yes, the skinner box effect of the games is a bit scary when you really think about it. There’s a frightening addictive gambling-like quality to the loot treadmill, and it’s a huge draw for the raiding population of many servers.

      I’ve never heard the term Monty Haul, though I certainly understand the reference. I was just discussing this sort of adventure with my buddy, how easy it was to become a mediocre GM who just put doors, traps, monsters, and chests in front of your players and felt good about it. I’ve never liked that style of game; I prefer role play, intrigue, character development, and, of course, tactical combat far more than dungeon crawling. Thinking about it, I’m never sure I had what you’d call a “dungeon” in my games. Were there adventure locations populated with monsters and dangers? Sure, but I tried to make them as interesting and story-driven as possible, like the time the players had to go into the water works of a city that was run by an anti-gravity spell that provided upward thrust to river water, which was then pressurized by gravity driving it down (like a water tower). While they spiraled down around this gigantic reverse waterfall, they experienced the adventure. It wasn’t just a cave.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Samus permalink
    May 1, 2013 3:06 pm

    First, I repeat my objection that I raised over in Tobold’s blog that I don’t see any reason to assume this is a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” If a game is no longer fun after 3 months, we don’t need to scheme of ways to coerce players into slogging on anyway. Maybe developers want to, for financial reasons, but that doesn’t make the game any better that I can see. Nearly every game I have played, I stopped playing in under 3 months, and that certainly doesn’t mean I didn’t like them.

    Second, your post and recent developments in LoL (the friendly atmosphere that I agreed at the time was there, turns incredibly toxic at higher levels, much more so than WoW ever did) have made me realize that social bonds need to be made BEFORE high pressure/high performance situations. Players tend to expect a certain level of performance and are unforgiving of mistakes from strangers, whereas with an established friend, “mistakes happen.”

    However, in most games (WoW being the primary example), you will establish friends and then at the end game will not necessarily want to be doing the same content at the same level. WoW has a real problem with this, that their content all assumes players in a very narrow range of performance. This either means many players are forced into the “wrong” content out of social obligation, or they abandon those social obligations to play the “right” content with the “right” players.

    Also, WoW in particular has a problem of “weakest link” style of group performance. Your group is only as good as the poorest performing player, and it is extremely difficult for other group members to make up the difference (or impossible, if that group member is a tank or healer). This game design obviously leads to a lot of negativity directed at that player.

    • May 1, 2013 4:08 pm

      For the most part, I completely agree with your points, particularly your last two. Your “weakest link” comment is precisely what I think about WoW raiding, and I hate that aspect of it. Nothing alienates people from groups faster than being “the guy holding us back,” and nothing builds guilt up faster than having to kick out someone who’s a friend so you can progress. It’s nightmarish to be on either side of that.

      I think the comment on including it or improving it isn’t meant to be a coercion technique, though I see your point if it’s done as a post-problem fix. Rather, I think their and my point is that a game better designed around good, solid social interaction – rather than it being an afterthought or gimmick – would help players build that interest. Of course, as I stated before, my belief is that it’s not going to be simple because it’s not really about socialization but about a shared experience of awe – like what we had with our first mmo love – which is almost impossible to replicate.

      I’m starting to see the toxicity more and more; I don’t know if there’s “invisible” tiers pre-30 in LoL, but I’ve found myself in more and more games with really tough teams and more and more jerks on those teams. I’m not sure if it’s chance or some invisible progression, but I’m certainly seeing it more.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Samus permalink
      May 1, 2013 6:48 pm

      Mostly when I refer to “coercion” I’m talking about the specific ways people use to try to “improve” the social fabric. Forced grouping is a prime example of this. The emphasis on large group raiding content at the end game, over solo or small group content is another. The idea is to shove players together even if it isn’t what they want. This doesn’t make the game better, and I don’t think it even makes the social fabric better.

      We don’t need ways to force strangers of the same progression level together, we need better ways of allowing friends of different progression levels to play together in a meaningful way. City of Heroes was the first to do this well with their sidekicking/exemplar system, although I think the GW2 method of down-leveling everyone to the zone level is better.

    • May 15, 2013 11:39 am

      Yes, I completely agree that playing with friends is more important than any kind of progression tiers. I’ve run into that problem again and again when trying to level with groups of friends. Games like Diablo and Torchlight have no system at all for dealing with this problem, and WoW and the like only offer repetition of content (rolling another character) or complete steamrolling of content to deal with it.

      I completely agree that what GW2 did was a major improvement on the old model, and I hope to see more of that. I wish I had developed the interest in CoH to see the sidekicking system; I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • May 2, 2013 7:59 pm

      As I explicitly state in my blog post, I’m not talking about bringing back forced grouping. I’m looking forward, not back.

      As I say in my comment below, I think the bigger issue is providing social interaction opportunities for people who aren’t specifically seeking them out. This would increase the fun some people would have that they didn’t know they wanted. Plus, this would directly increase the fun of people who are seeking out social interaction, but find it limited because there just aren’t any opportunities to really interact.

      As for “just making the game fun”, I’m all ears. But, the reality is that sometimes there’s going to be stuff that isn’t as compelling. In a single-player game, you might stick with a game because you want to see the end. In an MMO, you want to spend more time with friends. I don’t see this as coercion.

    • Samus permalink
      May 3, 2013 2:49 am

      This is what I have in mind, based somewhat off of what you suggested on your blog.

      First, I think you need scaling content. This is a huge step in eliminating the “social overhead” you talk about, because it allows you to start group content with the people who you have, rather than waiting for the exact required group distribution of tank/healer/3 DPS. Also, if someone has to leave, it doesn’t just screw everyone over.

      Second, I think you need open groups (by default). So you start your group content and people gradually join.

      Third, I think you need something like the LoL honor initiative. You can give people a thumbs up for being good teammates, or a thumbs down if they are a jerk.

      Finally, it all comes together with a group finder that lists all the currently open groups, along with the current group members. This lets you avoid the jerks you have downvoted in the past, and obviously don’t want to play with again. More importantly, this lets you seek out players you enjoyed playing with in the past, to play with them again and form greater social bonds.

      I think this system would work much better than the current random group of strangers that you will definitely never see again.

    • May 9, 2013 3:26 pm

      @samus

      I see what you mean and I was inclined to immediately agree with your point on forced grouping. But then I re-evaluated why a game would want to do that.

      I think the problem here is that MMOs are designed to be played for much longer than 3 months. Thus, it’s not crazy at all to players leaving after 3 months as a serious problem in need of a solution. When looked at from that angle, 3 month tours are a very serious problem for an MMO.

      I still don’t think coercion is the solution we ought to reach for, though. But it’s still a real problem.

  4. May 2, 2013 7:44 pm

    Interesting extension of the metaphor. I agree with a lot of what you say.

    One subtlety here that seems obvious: socialization requires other people. Bloggers tend to talk in absolutes, but I think the reality is that a there’s a sizable group of MMO players who aren’t necessarily seeking out or absolutely wanting to avoid social interaction. Let’s call these people “casual socializers” who would be happy to make connections with others, but won’t go out of their way to do so.

    The problem is the “social overhead” as I call it in my blog. If it’s a hassle to interact with other people, then people will avoid it and that “casual socializer” will never get the opportunity to interact with others, even if it’s something they might enjoy. I think this is the danger of too heavy of a solo-focus in the game, where people who might want interaction just don’t get it because the game has so very few mechanisms to promote the initial interaction. And thus the social fabric doesn’t get built.

    As I said, I’m not talking about taking away soloing in the game, but it should be a side-thing rather than the primary focus.

    • May 15, 2013 11:32 am

      Yes, I agree that there’s a huge subset of players who are fine with parallel play, but who, if they find themselves in a group, don’t mind and might even appreciate the help. Rift events are a great example of an MMO structure designed to do just that, as are old Everquest bosses where everyone just sort of showed up and piled up (if they weren’t under control by a certain guild).

      I think WoW went in the wrong direction from there; instead of promoting all types of play while encouraging group play through the ease at which it could be done. Instead, we ended up with LFD, the “other people are disposal” grouping mechanism and LFR, the “let’s make content mindlessly easy” grouping mechanism.

      Thanks for the comment, and getting the ball rolling on this conversation to start with!

  5. May 9, 2013 3:29 pm

    I enjoyed your metaphor of the fabric. It’s very apt. But I think seeing that specific type of player as strings *wanting* to be cut-off, not wanting to be part of the fabric can also be something else. Any player that can be compared to this string is someone who is there for a single-player experience. But I think more often than not players definitely want to be part of the fabric — just in their own way. So it might be more appropriate to say they want to be buttons or zippers …special or semi-independent, if you will. Not everyone wants to be a string, in other words, even while they want to be part of the fabric.

    • May 14, 2013 4:42 pm

      Fair enough. You’re adapting the metaphor to be more of an actual garment than just a piece of fabric, but I don’t disagree with the points you’re making.
      Thanks for the comment!

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