I’m a month late to reading this post on Guild Wars 2, where Milady expresses an argument that defends “forced grouping” as having significant benefits for players to make social connections with each other, and suggests that GW2’s new system of incentivizing sociable activities makes the actions players take comparatively more meaningless than in the traditional forced group MMO setting.
I beg to differ.
You can motivate people by forcing them somewhere with a stick, or encouraging them to approach with a carrot. Personally, I know which one I’d prefer.
One liners aside, I’d agree that “forced grouping” does provide a compulsion to interact with others, and an opportunity (in that there is a captive audience) for those who would like to exercise the free choice to socialize with people.
However, there is another not-inconsiderable-in-number subset of players who do take issue with the compulsion and the “force” because it reduces their freedom of choice – to make game progress with whomever they want, alone or with others. By feeling like they have no choice in the matter, there’s even less incentive and desire to connect with others, beyond making use of them to get to wherever they want.
In a scenario like this, it becomes important to be able to tell these players apart and not befriend them overly, because you run the risk of getting stabbed in the back and having trust betrayed when they ditch you for greener pastures, possibly making off with all your items or what-not.
I’d argue that in Guild Wars 2, far from making social interaction an automatic meaningless reaction to get rewards – the aim of all the incentives, all the systems working in tandem, is to move past all that in-group out-group nonsense by making everyone on your server in-group.
Everyone is a potential person that you could make the free choice to open up to, chat with, and befriend. There is no lack of free choice with GW2’s system either.
I believe the degree of incentivization may be crucial as well in helping GW2’s system function appropriately.
The default option of many MMO players (especially if they’re trained by WoW) is to go their own way and solo. (Among just some of the in-built incentives to this option: not needing to wait for someone else, can pause or sidetrek at any time, no exposure of vulnerability to other players required.)
If you over-incentivize with a carrot, say if you gain a lot more xp in a group than you would solo, then yeah, you’d see lots of people clamoring to get into groups and travel together. But no deep social interaction occurs – people group, farm xp, leave when their objective is achieved with nary a word.
Some people may take advantage of this enforced audience to build social connections, through chatting, through personal exposure, through performing a group combat role well, through good leadership, etc. but there is free choice at work here. Others may very well not bother to connect.
Very soon, the over-incentive to group is perceived as “forced” grouping. I may want to solo, but I cannot progress my character at a good clip without “having” to group up. Free choice is lost. And then people complain.
There’s also the real force with a stick option. That’s the typical raid mechanic. If you don’t participate in this group activity that -requires- such and such amount of people, no progression for you. Or to take xp as an example: no xp when alone, you only get xp with others. Do you have any choice in the matter? Only a very binary one, play it and get the reward or not play and forgo the reward.
But what if you defuse some of the built-in incentives to soloing by providing (approximately) -equivalent- alternative options to gain rewards with other players?
At any time, I can choose to walk away from other players and solo and gain a set rate of xp and rewards. In most typical MMOs, if I choose to walk towards other players to group, my set rate of xp doesn’t change much, or it may even go down – “omg, u’re killstealing frm me.” To maintain or slightly improve my xp, I’d have to pause, invite everyone to the same group, lead, converse, organize and keep talking – that’s an increased amount of effort for not very much reward.
Milady argues that putting up with this mild disincentive proves how worthy a “friend” another player is, because they’ve made the choice to value a social connection over self-progression. Fair enough, if your criteria for friendship is only with people who don’t mind un-optimizing themselves temporarily in order to connect with others. That’s one way of forming an in-group, only connecting with those who think more of the good of the group than personal gain.
But why would we want to lose out on the opportunity to build connections with the rest? Plenty of people balance both community good and personal gain.
In Guild Wars 2, the aim is to remove the disincentivizing barriers to grouping with others. If I walk toward other players, and help out on their mobs, I’m not taking away any xp from them, and I’m helping them kill faster, benefiting all. Social interaction doesn’t have to be a zero sum game – I put up with irritation in order to help you more? Both of us can benefit from the interaction in GW2.
Rezzing people is not the only way to gain xp in GW2. If it was, then yeah, I’d say that would promote meaningless exchanges because everyone would be racing to rez people for progress. Rezzing people is an option, and by performing it, you gain a reward. You could also happily ignore the dead person, and continue to swing away at the dynamic event boss, because when he dies, you get a big reward. That small reward for rezzing people just provides positive reinforcement, a ‘good job!’ signal for people who make the free choice to reach out and help someone – often facing the risk of coming under fire in combat to do so.
I actually think there are a couple more critical factors in this rezzing mechanic than just reward optimization encouraging automatic behavior. As Chris Bell proposes at GDC, social interaction requires vulnerability in order for people to become open to trusting another. Being defeated and about to die is about as vulnerable as it gets without harsher mechanics like the risk of item loss or permadeath. Naturally, you take note of those who come to your aid, rather than the rest of the masses who are still unthinkingly automatic firing at the boss. A little bit of trust and respect is built, paving the way for more chances at future social interactions.
I’d argue that by encouraging these sorts of iterative and positive small gestures in a game, it has a subtle effect on the entire community of the game. It becomes more welcoming, more willing to respond to someone in need and help, rather than taking the default option of treating others like a stranger who will bring more trouble than he’s worth. City of Heroes was a much nicer place when people ran around giving out free money to lowbies because they had no other use for it, instead of now being incentivized to hoard the cash to buy better loot for their characters.
As for the not-so-good apples, or those who put personal gain over anything or anyone else, Guild Wars 2 actively strives to ensure that they can never perform actions that harm others while doing so. Whatever they do, will still indirectly help others on their server. That’s a far better design goal than tacitly permitting them to do harm.
Is it crucial to be able to tell them apart in order to judge who is worth being “friends” with? I don’t believe so, they likely have very little interest in getting to know you anyway, so they won’t make the free choice to open their mouths and interact, or even bother to travel together with you.
Guild Wars 2 is the next stage, the next experiment, in players socially interacting with one another. To move from a system that has less “I win, you lose” interactions, and more “I win, you win” ones. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes us.