A week and a half ago I added Star Trek Online to coverage at Soulrift, after being invited to play the game by the folks at the Priority One Podcast. As soon as I was in the game, I had friends to talk to, a fleet to join, someone to answer my newbie questions... and most importantly, I got twinked the heck out with the best newbie gear I could stuff on my ship. Awesomesauce. Then Cryptic comes along and upgrades my trial to full access and throws in some other goodies to sweeten the pot. Awesomesaucier!
I'll come right out and say that I've had some rough times in STO. A few missions didn't work properly. There was a rough grind through to the end of Lt.Commander before I could finally upgrade to a decent ship. Sometimes the gameplay had me crying from "rough" design and a number of times the random Borg encounters had me force-quitting the game in fury at the bad balancing. But I keep coming back to the game and I keep seeing it through rose-coloured glasses. Why? Simple: other players in the game want me there and the people making the game want me there. That feeling of being wanted has a huge psychological effect on someone.
I'm writing this blog entry not just about STO, but to compare the experience I had with STO to experiences I've had with other MMOs. What jumped to mind immediately was my experience with Age of Conan earlier this year. I met with Craig Morrison, creative director at Funcom, who works passionately with AoC, and he hooked me up with a copy of the game to play. But that was it. I was at the mercy of the game. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I didn't have anyone cheering me on. I didn't have anyone twinking me out. Ultimately, it was just me and the game, tooth to tooth.
I think this is a meaningful comparison because I think I'd have had the same experience with Star Trek Online that I had with Age of Conan if I hadn't had any social ties to the game going in. I don't know if I would have kept playing STO right to the end of a 10-day trial if I had picked up that trial on my own and played the game on my own. In fact, I may have had the exact same "I tried, but I just couldn't get into it" experience that I had with Age of Conan.
There's an important lesson buried in here, I think. The socio-psychological feeling of "being wanted" is well known and plays a big role in many social group scenarios. Most pertinent when it comes to online games is the player retention factor. Players are more likely to join an MMORPG if their friends also join; keep playing an MMORPG if their friends also play; and leave an MMORPG if their friends also leave. That's why "refer a friend" programs are so important to the sustainability of online games, and why "social" games on Facebook are so popular and successful.
But not everyone has friends they can convince to join them in a game. And not everyone makes friends in a game within that "I'm willing to try it out" window. If having friends in the game is a crucial element to keeping a player playing that game, and if its in the game operator's best interest to keep a player playing their game, then isn't it also in the operator's best interest to help that player make friends?
More MMORPGs need to take a serious look at improving the social introduction capabilities of their games. In many ways, games have actually moved away from encouraging socialization with their players: public quests and auto-dungeon-finders take away the need to socialize with other players in order to play with them. That makes content more accessible, but it also severs ties a player might generate with the game. Cross-server queues especially damage this process, because players meet others they cannot establish a friendship with, since once the dungeon finishes each will be whisked away to a separate and isolated world.
Unfortunately, while I see this as an area in need of significant development, I don't really have any solutions. You can't really force friendships, and you don't want to build game systems based on social pyramids. You don't want to create a situation where players are "encouraged" to be friends when you are in fact just encouraging exploitation of social ties for game advancement. Instead, games need to find a way to encourage players to create meaningful friendships.
I wonder if Asheron's Call got it right, way back when it introduced its Vassalage system. Players would swear allegiance to a patron; that patron would gain bonus XP whenever their vassals gained XP. In turn - or, at least, in theory - the patron would help out their vassals with advice, gear, and assistance overcoming difficult challenges in-game. It kind of worked then when communities were much smaller and MMORPG players tended not to be jerks. But could such a system work again in today's market? I dunno.