Like many, I played Overwatch during the free weekend. Tyler Bro already discussed his thoughts regarding Overwatch, and I don’t have that much to add regarding its core gameplay. What I do have to add is an observation that really surprised me about the Overwatch community itself from my several hours of playing. No, they weren’t bullies, miscreants, bossy types, trolls, jokers, or fan bois. They were something much worse. They were silent.
Overwatch arguably entices players to communicate more than any of its previous titles. The potential for coordinated teamplay is so deep that it should inherently encourage communication. Blizzard has done their part to open up that communication with in game voice and even allowing all chat (a big deal for Blizzard). But outside of a talkative enemy pre-made group, I can count the number of players that actually talked in game on two hands (orally or in writing). Sure, some of this can be attributed to people simply learning the game, but I think that something far more reaching is largely to blame. Blizzard has actually conditioned its fan base not to talk.
Over the past several years, Blizzard has increasingly make multiplayer experiences less social. I would go so far as to say they even breed anti-social behavior. The proof is in the products so let’s go over each game’s disdain for communication individually.
The communication in this game is limited to six prepared phrases. Six. If all I could do was say hello, good game, and damn you in the real world these blog posts would be a lot shorter and a lot less interesting. I certainly wouldn’t have made a single friend gaming online limiting myself that way.
In Hearthstone, there’s no chatting with opponents nor even a general chat room. To speak with someone directly I’d need to add them as a friend first, which makes absolutely no sense. A friends list by its definition is a list of people you actually know in some capacity with which you have a positive relationship. How can I develop such a relationship in Hearthstone when I’m not even given the chance?
It’s not even like we can even opt-in to chat. It’s just a feature that literally does not exist in the game. Blizzard focused their efforts so strongly on delivering a casual CCG experience that they even removed the ‘chore’ of having to talk with people! It’s such a shame because players interested in discussing strategy or tactics must resort to out of game methods. Time in between turns presents players with opportunities to talk shop or offer friendly banter. But Hearthstone is a game you play with other people who may as well be intelligent bots.
Heroes of the Storm
Blizzard’s answer to League of Legends and DOTA2 instructed us that we could avoid toxic players and trolls by removing /all chat. Then came the realization that most flaming comes from teammates and not opponents, so they added an option to block team chat entirely. This is a MOBA that’s supposed to be about the team more than the individual but where allies can be ignored before even uttering a word. It’s entirely possible that the ally you’re trying to coordinate with doesn’t even see your messages.
What’s more is Blizzard decided that the game would be best without a post-game lobby. So again, there’s literally no way to communicate with the opposition unless you add them as a friend. Half of the people involved in every competitive match of Heroes of the Storm have no way to opt-in to chat with the other half. Somehow, Blizzard managed to create a game with even less communication between opponents than Hearthstone. The pattern of anti-social design choices by Blizzard continues with their MMORPG behemoth.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft at launch was anything but anti-social. Things have changed over time. World of Warcraft has always been solo friendly but used to also encourage guild participation and fostering friendships. This was in spite of design decisions such as Bind on Pickup and gibberish enemy communication. But the golden age of socialization in WoW seem be waning due to features that encourage casual and solo play.
The addition of cross-realm LFG and LFR (looking for raid) has been a life saver for off-time and guildless players. Whereas before content was unreachable for this population segment, it’s now incredibly accessible. The downside to this is that players don’t form any lasting bonds. There’s no need to worry about one’s reputation or finding a reliable group. Players can drop in and out of groups and even if a toxic player gets kicked it’s easy enough to join the LFG queue once again. LFG has completely supplanted the old method of dungeoneering for all but the most hardcore raiders.
Ten Ton Hammer posted a few months ago about the death and decay of guilds in World of Warcraft. They cite LFG/LFR as one of the reasons for guilds declining among other changes such as smaller raid groups and guild perks that discourage small guilds. Guilds are one of the primary methods of socialization in MMORPGs so to see the largest MMORPG continually weaken their significance is disappointing. That’s not to say that LFG/LFR is bad but to highlight the lack of value Blizzard assigns to socialization.
The addition and importance of garrisons in Warlords of Dreanor only reinforced Blizzard’s anti-social values. Garrisons are basically a Facebook game you play inside World of Warcraft. Players send followers to gather resources and heroes on missions for loot. The player gets rewards by clicking a few buttons and waiting a certain amount of time for their rewards to arrive. There’s no interaction with players and it’s completely a solo feature (unless a friend, which are becoming harder to find, wants to gauge the aesthetic appeal of your garrison for some reason).
Finally, a game without player opponents so everyone should be on the same page here. Unfortunately, the game is so repetitive and easy to play that bots can do the job for top tier players. There’s not really much of a need to talk in Diablo III because there’s nothing really to coordinate. The game can be played as easily solo as it can in a 4-person group. Rewards go up with more players, but the only interactive reason to group up is to trade items. Of course traders can only do this if they were in the same game when the item dropped. Many feel it’s a step back from Diablo II’s vibrant trading community.
Perhaps the most interactive component in Diablo II was in fact trading (bartering technically). Everything in Diablo II could be traded which made for some interesting negotiations at times. Players could also share loot with friends without restrictions and a cap of eight players allowed more to join in on the fun.
To their credit, Blizzard has improved interactivity since launch by removing the auction house and adding clans and communities. Ranked multiplayer greater rifts also encourage competitive players to find like minded individuals for success.
That summarizes the most chatting you’ll see in a StarCraft II match. However, unlike all of the other titles above, StarCraft isn’t a game with time for chatting. Actions per minute rules the ranks of StarCraft II and chatting doesn’t add to that ratio. RTS games typically balance and build around 1v1 and StarCraft is no different. Thus, there’s not really much of a team to coordinate with either. And due it’s popularity you’ll be unlikely to see the same person twice unless you are a very high ranked player. Players might sometimes discuss a game after it ends or chat in the general lobby, but StarCraft II isn’t game you play to make friends.
Blizzard’s Anti-Social Ways
Is Blizzard making a mistake by making their multiplayer an anti-social experience? It’s hard to say no considering Blizzard’s profit levels. All of their games exude quality and top sales charts. And it’s not as if Blizzard is making games with the intention of creating an anti-social community. In the examples above, Blizzard has implemented features in order to either strengthen casual play, limit real money transaction gold sellers, or diminish flaming and general toxicity. These are noble goals, but Blizzard’s foresight in how accomplishing these goals will affect other aspects (such as socialization) is questionable
If features are to be added that are anti-social as a byproduct then intentional social features should be added to compensate. That clearly is not a priority for Blizzard. Blizzard lately has produced entertaining games that could be played just as well with a computer as a human, if only the computers were smart enough. They seem to changing their tune with Overwatch, and it will be interesting to see if the anti-social behavior bred in older titles will bleed over into their latest.