Making People Group – GW2 vs The Old Way

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.

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3 thoughts on “Making People Group – GW2 vs The Old Way

  1. Milady says:

    Hi, there! Got here through the pingback, and would like to add to the discussion.

    Let’s see. Firstly, I don’t consider the forced grouping of WoW pre-LFD as a stick (as opposed to the carrot you prefer), although I understand why for some it might be that way. The truth is, in WoW nothing actually forced you to group if you desired to play solo, unlike EQ and its iterations. You could skip group quests and get to max level without any interaction with other players. I don’t know why anybody would want that, but I guess that there is a market for those kind of games. In the last post I have written, I mention that there is a lack of choice between purely multiplayer games such as EQ1 and 2, UO, DAoC, TBC WoW, and “alone together” games (incoming GW2, SWTOR, current WoW), which is what makes me so uncomfortable with GW2’s system, as it is following the same trend of every other MMO towards solo gameplay.

    “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.” If everybody is in-group, nobody is. You might have the benefits of playing together, but you eliminate the interaction that creating a group and managing it presents. I’ve read a considerable amount of testimonies of GW2’s system, and how people were all cooperating and playing together, which didn’t mention at all any verbal communication, or even stated that there was no such communication to begin with. You are saying that forcing into grouping can be a nuisance because of the time and effort it takes, and I agree, but it also provides an opportunity that GW2’s server-group does not. I told my experience of grouping for a regular quests, some mob-killing, and ending up talking about all kinds of things with that random stranger. Got him in my friends list, and has thought of applying into my guild actually. In GW2 that opportunity is lost.

    “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.” Yes, ArenaNET is not making us asocial mute egoists, the choice is indeed there, but I have to say that people need a little encouragement in order to open to strangers, and that is where “forced” grouping comes in. In our current society, it is not a common practice (it is actually regarded as creepy) to talk to strangers; we need a common cause, or something that binds us together (an accident happening, an elevator?). This individualistic attitude is of course transferred to our games, and most people don’t approach others unless they have an excuse to do so. Some people are indeed not sociable enough to cherish the opportunity, but that is one of the risks of MMOs, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of the possibilities for the sake of eliminating all frustration that comes from failed interactions.

    This is a long post, I don’t know if I’ll be able to cover it all. I’m going to cherry-pick a bit, if you don’t mind.

    About the exclusivity of content progress for raiders… Actually, I am in favour of that. For me, raiding is about interacting with the people in my clan, about forging a bond with them, and about seeing new content. When Blizzard released in WoW heroic modes that were the exact same thing as normals, I was dismayed. Half of my enjoyment (seeing new content) was gone. Raiding has always been about getting together with a bunch of people, whether casually or more hardcore, and get to experience something grand and different. I don’t intend to sound elitist, but I prefer to earn my guild’s access into a zone than only other equally-good guilds will see, than to have the content demystified and trivialised. LFR has given raiding the final blow.

    “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 like what you say here. The ressing doesn’t bother me as much as does the “all the server is in the same group” mentality. As I said before, if everybody is in a group, nobody is. Alone together. Being in a group is a physical connection that does not exist in this circumstance. Mind that I am not talking about current themepark MMOs, but of the time when server community was meaningful and you had the “incentive” to behave properly (if you’re a jerk), or to be social (if you’re that silent majority of nowadays LFD).

    “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.” I agree with this too. It can have a positive outcome. Nevertheless, I would like to see more actions that do not carry any personal gain whatsoever. Will we see those in live GW2?

    “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.” Although it is true that a lot of people with whom you interact in an MMO might not be interested at all in the exchange, I have come across lots of them who do. How can you tell if you didn’t have the opportunity to test them? How do you test pro-social behaviour? For instance, if in GW2 my buffs are shared with everybody, I won’t have the opportunity to be social and give my buffs to that random stranger. If I see somebody low in health or having a hard time with a mob, in GW2 I could be helping out of self-interest or to genuinely help; in ye olde MMOs you would be helping or not in a clear way, distinguishing yourself for your actions. I like to know who I am playing with. One of the ways for this is to be able to tell apart the bad/selfish behaviour from the altruistic one. Standing out from the uncaring crowd spurs socialization between the parties involved. Much more may follow from it.

    I do care about finding friendly people in my MMOs. Many others won’t, which is why we get those many new games with so much emphasis on solo content, lest it may frustrate some players playing with people which may act in a selfish/harmful way. I don’t know. I like seeing people act the way it comes naturally to them. I’ll refer to you another post I did on the subject: http://hypercriticism.net/2012/assessing-morals-through-games/

    Cheers and thanks for adding to the conversation.

  2. Jeromai says:

    Thanks for the response. I believe where you and I mostly differ is the degree with which we believe people can be influenced to act in a particular manner through game design, and how much of that is “natural” or “unnatural” for them.

    My opinion is that most people are pretty flexible and can be encouraged to act in a pro-social or asocial manner depending on the rules of the game, and it has very little implication on what their “true” or “natural” personality is – it doesn’t really exist, people act differently depending on context. The same player may act in a lethally cutthroat manner while playing Eve Online, but be a pillar of society in another traditional MMO game. Befriend or no?

    If I’d could wager a guess, you’d probably tell me that his free actions in a more anarchistic setting reveal his lack of morals, so therefore, don’t befriend. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    For myself, if I’m simply interacting with him in the traditional MMO, and I know he’s incentivized to behave properly (e.g. maybe he’s invested into leading a raid guild that will keep getting him progress), I wouldn’t mind being casual friends with him. Not best best friends and we wouldn’t exchange house addresses or phone numbers, but good enough to get by and mutual cooperation friendship is possible.

    In GW2, my criteria for pro-social behavior is simply, are they coming up to me and acting as they would in a group – ie. fighting the same mobs, providing buffs and support, etc. The zones are so big, you can easily turn around and walk away from people when you’re not interested in being together. Therefore, anyone who is together has a pro-social mindset, they -would- like the company. And people can take things from there.

    I suspect we’ll see more talking and discussion (and therefore opportunity for friend making and leader identifying) as the difficulty of events gets harder. In the lowbie zones, it’s all silent because it’s easy to zerg, and everyone is rushing to see content in beta.

  3. […] …or they try to get me hooked “You should play too,” which then naturally segues into asking why I don’t, and them blinking with uncomprehending eyes while I bite down on the words ‘endless treadmill’ and ‘hamster wheel‘ and try to explain the difference between vertical and lateral progression options, and inclusive versus exclusive mindsets, and how clever game design can affect the way players behave in-game. […]

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