The End of Friendship: The Current State of the MMO

In my experience, the development of online friendships in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG) is based on one thing dominantly: need. It would be sweet to think that friendships develop in online spaces and in virtual worlds because, well, people are just drawn to one another, that they want to be around other people. However, a lot of hardcore gamers, much as gaming has traditionally contained a social element (you can’t play non-digital Chess or Checkers alone terribly well), tend towards a more introverted personality type. They often, perhaps, are drawn to video games because of their focus on solitary action, problem solving, and personal achievement.

Again, though, when I first experienced the culture of MMORPGs back in 1999 in a beta test of Asheron’s Call, I found that playing alone made no sense in this kind of game world. I needed others.

Asheron’s Call, a fantasy MMORPG, contained many of the trappings of the traditional fantasy RPGs, a leveling system, a spellcasting and combat system, crafting systems, the need for global exploration, and the need for the grind. All of these systems typically can be handled simply enough by a single player in an RPG, but Asheron’s Call‘s world of Dereth didn’t hold the player’s hand much and most especially didn’t make it hospitable for lone wolves. Sure, initially the game explained how to fight a simple enemy like a Drudge, but if you wanted to play a magic user, it indicated the beginnings of an understanding of a system for building spells out of components but failed to make explicit a truly complex system of experimentation, randomization, and deductive logic that was the core of that system in the long term and that wasn’t easy to figure out.

I remember casting one of the default spells that I had been given, seeing other players casting more complicated ones, and the need to ask how they had acquired those spells. The answer was not, “oh, go buy the spell in a shop,” instead, it involved a complex system of experimenting with various spell focuses and spell components in order to learn each tier of a spell system. On beginning to learn the systems for myself with guidance from others, I found myself aiding others who had questions about how all these systems worked. I needed them, and they needed me.

Indeed, this need led to the formation of an allegiance (the equivalent of a guild in Asheron’s Call) just based on training mages and providing shared resources for learning spells (components could get expensive when burning through them by trial-and-error). Thus, friendship was born of need and dependency in my little corner of the Asheron’s Call universe.

Early MMORPGs, like Asheron’s Call, or later ones, like City of Heroes, though, often emphasized the dependency of the player on other members of the community. In Asheron’s Call when a character died, the character’s body dropped to the ground where it died, leaving some gold and their most expensive item on the body. Dying while alone or in a place with high level monsters could be very, very bad, as retrieving needed or expensive equipment could be dangerous — dangerous without friends that you could call on that is. Body retrievals (and other death penalties — in City of Heroes experience point penalties were the norm on death) were despised by many in the game and is an element of MMORPGs that seems to have largely been eliminated in the current crop of such games. However, many a friendship in Asheron’s Call was forged when passing strangers helped out with some difficult monsters that were “guarding” a body or in City of Heroes when some kind heroes would join up to fight enough villains with a player to burn off his or her experience penalty.

Indeed, City of Heroes is an example of a game in which fighting alone was rarely a good idea. Villains came in large groups, which meant that a tank soloing that group was most likely not going to do enough damage to them to survive or a damage dealer like a blaster wouldn’t have enough resilience to survive long enough to take them out on his or her own. The game’s class system of damage dealers, tank, and supports and the necessity for co-ordinated group efforts in even accomplishing the simple task of grinding for levels made it a game in which people cried out for groups, needing them, and then befriending them along the way.

Most of the needs that I have described, the need for knowledge, for cash, for ameliorating death penalties, for grouping for almost any combat are all things that seem to have largely been “fixed” as the MMORPG has “evolved.”

The interesting thing about MMOs when they first appeared on the scene was that despite these irritations, people were willing to pay a monthly fee to take part in these worlds. As the free-to-play model has taken hold, and I have dabbled in games that I might not otherwise (DC Universe Online, Age of Conan, and Tera, for example), despite having paid to play Asheron’s Call for two to three years, I tend to play these games for a week or two before losing interest. Mostly, it is because of the lack of irritations that are involved in these games, which, I think, relates to the fact that I never form friendships in these games and thus have no reason to remain in their worlds.

MMORPGs now pride themselves in “soloable” content, and the three games that I previously mentioned all seem to fit that bill quite nicely. I almost played through all of the content in DC Universe Online in about two weeks, maxing one character’s level completely and nearly a second one. I didn’t need anyone else to see or explore the game’s world, so why bother forming the kinds of friendships that might keep me playing for months and months?

Tera is a very nicely designed MMO with interesting and fun combat systems, a lot of story-based and other content, and a rather beautiful world. It also features characters that can easily take on most missions that the game throws at you, and those missions are spoon fed to the player on a regular basis with active NPCs being highlighted on mini-maps and instructions on how to accomplish end goals being made explicit and, again, marked with large arrows and essentially glowing, blinking lights. I’ve never bothered to ask anyone in Tera about where a town is, how to initiate a quest or how to solve one, or where to buy anything. I have no need of them. Admittedly, there are a few quests that require the disposal of “boss level” monsters, like basilisks, that are nearly impossible to fight solo. However, in my experience, groups form up when players are on these quests and dissolve immediately after they are resolved, since all the players know that they won’t be needing anyone else in the very soloable missions that will follow that one and that permeate the world of Tera.

Now, I realize that the monthly subscription fee to play an MMORPG has probably gone the way of the dodo. Money is now made in these games through micro-transactions, but you do need a player base with enough investment in a world in order to keep them investing in virtual items. I wonder then about the longevity of play for any supposedly co-operative multiplayer game that doesn’t generate social bonds. Many of the elements that I have mentioned that created need for players for one another have to do with challenge and difficulty. Challenge and difficulty create need. Has player convenience and a lack of need killed any hope for long term commitments to persistent universes because they have killed commitments to our fellow players that occupy those universes alongside us?

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.