The End of Friendship: The Current State of the MMO

TERA (En Masse Entertainment, 2012)

Friendship is based on need in online worlds, and I don't see many needs in current generation MMORPGs.

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?

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.