A Misanthrope’s Guide to Social Facilitation

I really shouldn’t be developing Epitaph at all if you look at it from a logical perspective. I don’t really like MMOs any more – I spent a lot of time suckling at WoW’s teat, saved from it only by the prospect of another tedious gear grind as Wrath of the Lich King loomed. I played SWTOR for a while, but while I liked several parts of it very much, in the end it was just too much like WoW. Now, when a cool sounding MMO is pitched to me (such as The Secret World), I just think ‘nah, I’ve done my time’. In truth, I don’t even like playing multiplayer games. I don’t really like people generally. What the hell are you all doing here on my lawn? Get off. I KNOW YOUR DADS! GET OFF!

So, I don’t like MMOs, don’t like playing with other people, and my secret shame – I can’t read. My only real explanation for Epitaph then is that if *this particular* game existed already, I almost certainly would play that one.

That lengthy preamble sets me up for today’s topic – quests that (almost) mandate co-operation. At first brush, they might seem like anathema to me – I played WoW like a single player game for a lot of the time. I played DWMUD almost entirely like that. So, why would I write quests that (almost) mandate co-operation when it goes so violently against the grain of my own preferences?

Let’s digress again here. One of the criticisms always leveled against people like me who said things like ‘Can we get a single player version of WoW’ was ‘why bother playing an MMO if you don’t like people, DUH DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT THE FIRST M STANDS FOR???’. And I’d say ‘Actually, it’s the second M you idiot’. But the reason is pretty simple – there are significant benefits to be had from having a single player game within a multiplayer environment. The auction house alone, for example, would have justified a design of ‘thousands of single player games intersecting in macro economics’. I’m not saying it would have *worked*, only that it is not a fundamentally incoherent desire to have the impact of ‘many decisions by autonomous agents’ reflected in a single player game.

That is, in these things, my default play style. I like questing, I like leveling. I like exploring quiet places. When the *next* WoW expansion is released I’ll probably take advantage of the free trials and play through Mists of Pandaria (which I don’t have and think looks very dumb) and the one after. I’ll have a week or so of leveling through two expansions without raiding, and then I’ll not play it until the next two are released. If a game can support that kind of play style, it supports me. If it *needs* multiple people in order to experience content that 95% of the player base has already left behind, it leaves me behind also. That brings us back to the topic… (almost) mandated co-operation.

There are quests in Epitaph that explicitly require several players. That’s fine – while I don’t really care for developing social capital within an MMORPG (or I guess for Epitaph, just an MOROG) it’s still vital that a game provides hooks to make it easier for other people. It’s really difficult for someone who is shy and nervous and not well integrated within a community to make friends. Just saying ‘Hi, I’m new and I’d like someone to play with me’ is unlikely to yield success unless you happen to be pretending to be an attractive eighteen year old girl[1]. However, when you can offer a chance of mutual utility, it becomes much easier. ‘I’m looking for someone else who needs to do A CERTAIN THING in a CERTAIN PLACE[2]!’. Such encounters won’t spark off an immediate friendship that will last a lifetime, but it creates the opportunity for that to happen. You’ll see those people again, you’ll say ‘hi’, they’ll say ‘hi’, you’ll feel more comfortable saying things to them on the talker which will make others warm to you and before you know it BOOM you have a social circle. Quests and gameplay mechanics[3] designed to enforce multiplayer interaction don’t create a social environment but they do facilitate it.

But, not every quest can be like that (you’ll alienate people like me). So, we have a number of quests that a single person, isolated in their own hateful world of misanthropy, can complete but where there’s room for ‘macro level’, low cost co-operation.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say there’s a quest somewhere where you need to give a drunk a bottle of whisky [4] of a brand that he hasn’t had before. It doesn’t matter why. No it doesn’t. NO. IT. DOESN’T.

So, the first person to solve the quest gets it easy. The second person can solve it using any brand the first person hasn’t. And so on. That’s easy for person one, but an exercise in frustration for person 100 because the only thing the drunk says is ‘No, I’ve had that kind’. There’s no other feedback, and while that may seem like a design flaw it’s entirely intentional. There’s already another feedback source you have, and that’s other players. I see this kind of thing manifesting itself in two forms – one is in the construction of collaborative documents outlining what a particular community has done regarding this – a couple of the quests allow for ‘protocols’ to be developed, for example. The other is in a simple ‘check who has done this quest, ask them what they provided’ question and answer loop. Either way introduces you to a larger context of players – the first by situating you within resources that are collaboratively being built (and to which you can contribute). The second not only encourages low cost social interaction but it’s also one that sustains. You originate questions and eventually you’ll answer them.

The emergence of ‘protocols’ is one that is supported by several of these quests. Some of them involve providing particular combinations of things that haven’t been combined in the past, and that allows for community norms to be evolved. The faction structure allows for this to be eased by ensuring it’s not a process of keeping everyone up to date, but only those to whom the quest will be available. It’ll become a kind of ‘guild secret[5]’ that gets passed on when people hitch their wagon to a particular faction.

Essentially these kind of quests implicitly tell you ‘you don’t have the information to solve this easily’. You can brute force the answer, or you can think about the nature of quests and the environment in which they are presented. It all meshes together – even the fact that quests are secret is part of this. It means you can’t just blurt out a question on the radio – you need to investigate player quest profiles through the infocentre. This means you become more familiar with the tools that we have for facilitating social engagement but also that you get to know our players a little better. You need to see who has done the quest, and then you have a reason to approach them. As with the quests that explicitly require multiple people, you have an ‘in’ to conversation. Unlike those mandatory quests, the ‘in’ continues even if you can’t provide mutual utility.

A lot of what makes a good social game is built around mechanisms like this – while we may occasionally hint at ‘talking to others might help’, it’s largely an invisible property of explicit and implicit design. It’s about lowering the cost to social interaction (by making it utility based rather than personality based[6]) and then creating situations whereby that social interaction can flourish[7]. Did we succeed in accomplishing that? Well, we’ll find out soon enough hopefully!

Drakkos

[1] I’m not saying that’s RIGHT, just that it IS.
[2] Quests are secret here – no spoilers on public channels.
[3] Like our narratives in 1.5
[4] There isn’t such a quest, but there are a couple very similar to it.
[5] Although, probably not very *secret*.
[6] As I say, it’s very hard for some people to start a social encounter off with ‘I need a friend, will you be my friend’. If someone says no, it’s hard for that, however it was phrased, to be anything other than a personal rejection. If you go to someone with ‘Hi, would you mind answering this question for me?’, if they don’t then *they* are the asshole you didn’t want to be friends with anyway.
[7] It may be *inconsistent* that radios don’t require batteries in Epitaph, but it’s absolutely intentional for that very reason.

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