In late 2008 I started playing my first MMO, The Lord of the Rings Online. I had previously played other game genres, but had never tried this one. I initially considered buying World of Warcraft, but when I found out there was a online version of Middle-Earth I made my choice accordingly. So I purchased a double pack of The Shadow of Angmar and The Mines of Moria, which was on special offer at the time. I still have the media today.
I was hooked right from the outset. My working pattern and domestic arrangements afforded me an ideal opportunity to invest time heavily into this game and I did so willingly. I can remember one particular evening where I grouped up with two other players who were all attempting the same quest as me. We chatted and got on well together. After successfully clearing our quests and decided to meet up again the following night. Needless to say we then continued to group together for the next year or so.
Back then that the majority of the games content required people to play collaboratively. It was not an alien concept, but a simple fact of life. The prevailing philosophy of the time was this was what MMO were all about. The key to advancement was teamwork. People were friendly and approachable. Playing, levelling through the game was a shared experience. So we had a lot of fun and happily sank hours of our leisure time into playing the game. Joining a kinship only enhanced that further. It was nice to log on, say hi to people in kin chat and shoot the breeze. Between November 2008 and December 2009, was one of the most pleasant times I have spent gaming. There was always something to do and someone to help.
Then round about the release of Siege of Mirkwood in December 2009, something started to change for me. This was partly due to the LOTRO expansion becoming more solo friendly, but also due to my exposure to other MMOs. I played Star Trek Online in early 2010 and managed to progress through the game without the need to belong to a guild. Grouping for an instance was done automatically and I noticed for the first time that there was no necessity to play collaboratively in a traditional sense. The chat channel was usually just a the scene of an ongoing flame war with hardcore fans debating the finer points of the franchise. So I played on my own, ignoring others players and was happy to do so.
So the rot set in. When LOTRO went free to play in October 2010, it embarked on a radical redevelopment of material. Pursuing the free market and the casual player meant ensuring that content was accessible in easy bite size chunks. Turbine then set about making all prior zones soloable over the next 18 months. From my perspective, people continued to play, but unless it involved endgame raiding, most people started to pursue the game a lot more on their own. Grouping became less and less common. Of course people talked in kin chat and on some levels it seemed to remain the same. However, the culture within LOTRO and many other games was evolving.
Now solo play certainly has it benefits. As a player there is no time wasted organising a group, ensuring that everyone adequately equipped and briefed or any dependency on other peoples performance. You simply do what you want, when you want. As a result, expectations increase and tolerance decreases. But there are side effects. Because you do not need anyone else, it can impact upon your levels of your involvement within your kin or guild per se. There may be a decline in group chat . There may also a decrease in the willingness to help out. Requests for help may no longer be greeted by multiple volunteers. Everyone is too busy doing their own thing. Altruism become an inconvenience.
Consider Rift and the forthcoming Guild Wars 2 and how they conveniently automate the grouping of players via dynamic content. It is easy and seamless, but very much devoid of any meaningful social interaction. Players can pursue their own individual goals and simply tap into the benefits of a group participation, as and when they want. When done they can continue about their business, without a word. It is a curious paradox that sees a server full of people, playing a social game, alone.
Now I know that this situation does not affect everyone, nor am I stating that it is rife. RP servers, or guild based around hardcore raiding, fly in the face of this social decline. I am sure both such parties would strongly argue that they still maintain very high levels of social interaction in the games that they play. Yet I don’t think they represent the majority of the MMO population any more. I think that such team based dynamics now serve specific niche groups. I would also pint out, I am not advocating that this reduction in group content is necessarily a good thing. However, I do think it is a reality that we cannot ignore. It is prudent to note that F2P also contributes to general social decline, with the percentage increase of “problematic” players that join the community. That in itself has a big impact upon how we all deal with each other.
No let us not be overly sentimental or morally judgemental about this. People play MMOs for fun and one way or the other they are charged for that fun. Should a customer be denied access to content and the opportunity to advance their character due to subjective notions of social interaction? Well the logical answer is no. However, this move towards a player base that is following its own personal path, without a need for any dealings with others, is not without flaws. We often see in-game as we do in real life, an increasing amount of people who seem ill equipped to interact socially with others. Tolerance, consideration, and patience are abstract concepts for some. Commentators often talk about the decline in the sense of community in the real world. Do MMOs reflect that?
I personally have contributed to this shift in MMO culture. I do tend to focus a lot more on my own gaming needs nowadays, rather than others in my kin. I argue that I’ve played my part and done my share in the past. However, I think the reality is that I no longer have a dependency on others, so the notion of community spirit is diminished. I not saying that this is a good thing and I do have pangs of guilt occasionally and endeavour to be helpful. Ultimately, all kins have givers and takers. I have noticed that I’ve moved my position between the two ends of the spectrum in recent years, as have many others. This beggars the question, was the social heyday of MMO’s really ever driven by altruism or purely by necessity? Is this decline in the social aspect of the genre inevitable, or can it be stemmed?
I cannot answer these questions and only the future will tell. I do on occasions bump into people in-game who are very civil and and helpful. LOTRO does to a degree still seems to be a good example of this, so its not all doom and gloom. Yet because group content has been watered down within many games or relegated to an after thought with many new products, the incentive to communicate and collaborate is greatly diminished. Whether this all stems from developers just chasing a buck or whether this is a wider reflection of contemporary human nature, I’ll let you decide.