Category Archives: MMO Social Theory

Comparing MMORPG Group Content

MMOs are, at their heart, about playing with other people. Even as a mainly solo player, I acknowledge this. To this end, developers have come up with many forms of content designed specifically to be tackled by groups, but they’re not all created equal. Each form of group content has its pros and cons.

A group flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Dungeons

Dungeons are the archetypical RPG experience: a party of adventures venturing into forgotten ruins in search of wealth and glory. In MMORPGs, dungeons are usually for groups of about four to six players, which makes them a happy balance between being social but not too crowded.

Dungeons tend to represent a stepping stone between the easy outdoor content and the more challenging raids. This is both one of their chief virtues, and their downfall.

The problem with dungeons is that they are, almost invariably, viewed only as that stepping stone. They are rarely granted the privilege of being an endgame unto themselves, instead being treated as little more than a funnel into raids. This makes it hard to achieve satisfying progression as a dungeon fan. You end up living as a second class citizen to the “real” players, who raid.

Raids

For better or for worse, raids have long been held up as the pinnacle of MMO group content. They feature the largest group sizes, the highest difficulty, and the best rewards.

For those who enjoy them, raids are as good as it gets. The MMO community is full of stories of fond memories, lifelong friendships, and even marriages that grew out of raid groups.

The downside is that while the raiding community is incredibly vocal and passionate, it’s also incredibly small. Due to the high time and skill requirements of raiding, most players simply can’t be bothered. Hard numbers for such things are always difficult to come by, but from the evidence I’ve seen it seems that raiders usually make up about 1-5% of a MMORPG’s playerbase, at best.

Fighting the Sha of Pride raid boss in World of Warcraft

The problem arises from the fact that raids are also very resource intensive, and by their nature as the intended pinnacle of endgame, they tend to offer the most desirable rewards and the highest production values. Thus, huge amounts of development resources are being devoted to a tiny minority of players.

It’s not impossible for raiders and non-raiders to coexist, but it’s a difficult tightrope for a developer to walk. You need to reward the raiders for their hard work without kneecapping everyone else. Raids are inherently disruptive to the balance of a game.

Small Group Content

By “small group content,” I mean content that is designed for groups, but groups of a size less than the traditional dungeon group — two to three people.

The fact there’s no commonly accepted term for content scaled to this size — the way there is for dungeons and raids — should tell you how common it is. World of Warcraft experimented with scenarios in its Mists of Pandaria expansion, which were catered to three player groups, and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth will add a similar feature in the form of Island Expeditions. Secret World Legends also has a feature called scenarios that can done by duos, but beyond those I struggle to think of many examples of dedicated small group content in MMOs (feel free to mention others in the comments).

People who prefer to play in twos or threes are therefore usually relegated to playing quest content that was designed for soloists, forcing them to endure phasing issues or difficulty that wasn’t tuned for more than one person.

And I really don’t understand why. Again, not being a developer or researcher, I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally as a longtime MMO player, I’ve found that groups of two or three (often couples or close friend groups) are by far and away the most common form of social group in MMOs. The fact that most group content is built solely for larger groups baffles me.

PvP

The chaotic PvP combat of WildStar

PvP doesn’t immediately come to mind for me when discussing group content, but duels and the occasional gank notwithstanding, player versus player gameplay is almost always group-based.

The trouble with PvP from a social perspective is that it necessitates losers as well as winners. For this reason, it has a higher potential for toxicity (not that PvE doesn’t have its fair share, as well).

As a result, I think it’s better to enter PvP with a group of people you already know and trust, rather than trying to form connections mid-match. The exception may be for slower paced, larger scale PvP such as Guild Wars 2’s WvW or Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls Online. The persistent nature of those contests gives time for meaningful social connections to flourish.

Public Events

A world boss spawns, and the call goes out in general chat. In a matter of minutes, dozens or even hundreds of players descend upon the unsuspecting mob, full of fire, fury, and the lust for loot.

First introduced by the dearly departed Warhammer Online and made a major selling feature of both Rift and Guild Wars 2, public events are MMOs at their wildest and most chaotic. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on personal perspective, but for my money, I feel public events are the purest expression of what MMORPGs should be, organic and epic in equal measure.

That said, there are other perspectives. Many argue — with more than a little justification — that public events are naught by mindless zergs. Even as a huge fan of the concept, I struggle to defend them from this criticism.

Others say that the lack of organization makes it difficult if not impossible to form meaningful social connections. If it’s just a mindless swarm of people spamming abilities, where’s the opportunity for friendships to form?

It’s a worthy concern, but I must say that the one and only meaningful friendship I ever made via MMOs was with someone I met at a world boss fight in The Secret World…


F2P is Individualism; P2P is Collectivism

In a genre dominated as much by raiding as it is by grinding for that next level, these two revenue models invite two different styles of play. Plenty of discussion has transpired on which is best, with fair reasons on both sides. Genre fans have debated each model’s merits ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed is which revenue model fits which social theory best.

Until now. I’ll be arguing why free to play mirrors individualism and pay to play mirrors collectivism.

What a crazy topic you’re thinking. Social theory on my MMO Bro? This isn’t some Nick Yee gaming science website. Nope, but it’s fun to contemplate motivations and personalities on a deeper level than the game mechanics themselves. So let’s break down each argument separately.

individualism vs collectivism

F2P is Individualism

F2P players are more focused on themselves. They want the most optimal deal on the market. Good free to play MMO games offer fun growth opportunities for completely free players, small spenders, and whales without diminishing the fun of the other groups. However, their low barrier to entry invites very transitory individuals. Without a financial investment, friends will drop as frequently as a theme park roller coaster. Every social list is doomed to an inevitable field of grayed out, offline users. This is because once a free MMO loses it’s appeal to an individual, another substitute awaits.

Pay to win also appeals to the individual. A select few may extend beyond that but only just so. An example here would be ArcheAge, where it’s hard even with a deep wallet to drive the narrative by yourself. These create oligarchic scenarios with a few people at the top running the show. Whether paying to win creates a dictatorship or oligarchy of winning, the focus is still on the few. Luckily video games like these aren’t the real world (at least universally) so annoyed players are free to hop off the real world money death train and move on.

Whether it’s a fair free to play model or a pay to win model, the individualist social theory persists. F2P players find fun in games in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social, hate cooperating, or won’t help others. This simply means the focus is first and foremost on themselves. They don’t derive as much satisfaction from accomplishing tasks as a group, but instead seek personal benefits for such activities. Further exemplifying this mindset is the heavier focusing on grinding in a free to play game. Grinding is a low level mental task based on repetition with a reward of powering up individuals.

F2P players are more focused on their own growth, choose themselves first over communities, and make independent decisions.

P2P is Collectivism

Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? The more you invest in something, the less likely you are to abandon it. Are you more likely to abandon a game you’ve spent $200 in game purchases and subscriptions fees or one you’ve invested no money? This forms a core foundation for pay to play MMOs as a collectivist draw.

Pay to play games want to reward players at the highest level for participating in group activities. Whether it’s raiding in World of Warcraft, conquering Nullsec in Eve Online, or performing trials in Elder Scrolls Online these require near equal participation from a dozen to several dozen individuals. The cooperation and skill requirements in these games exceed the mindless encounters of say, a world boss in Black Desert Online. This forces a reliance on other players to accomplish high end goals. Thus pride in one’s guild or corporation develops as a result of such accomplishments.

When someone ponies up for a monthly subscription, they’re typically eschewing other potential time competitors. This gives the community more chances to interact with one another, and thus enhance a game’s gravitational pull. The bonds and friendships that such games create can be difficult to break. Further, players aren’t looking to break these bonds. The friendships and communities that arise from P2P games are the point. MMORPGs aren’t known for award winning mechanics, but their ability to bind people together is unparalleled.

P2P players are more focused on community growth, choose community first over themselves, and make decisions with consideration of and from others.

In Between

Like every rule, exceptions exist. Guilds formed of F2P players jump from game to game like individuals, but their guild focus aligns closely with collectivism. Many individual players get into a game like World of Warcraft for the story, the exploration, or the single player questing. They don’t care one lick about group progression and will pick up group if and only if it’s needed to advance. Life is rarely so simple to completely equate one thing with another. That said, the link looks pretty strong here.

Where do you fall on the free to play vs. pay to play preference? Do you see yourself more as individualist or a collectivist?