The MMO Social Tug-of-War
Sep 1, 2009
~4 minute read

A recent post over at Frank Sanchez’s Overly Positive blog got me thinking on this particular topic. Frank stated that “ultimately more MMOs is a good thing, not a bad thing” when discussing fans of various games obsessing over competition in the MMO market. While I shared Frank’s sentiments regarding people needing to chill out in general over whether whatever MMO is currently the media darling is going to be a “WoW-killer,” I’m not so sure that I could agree that having more MMOs around is necessary beneficial - but for completely different reasons than anything Frank is really discussing.

At a basic level, I can readily understand the basis for Frank’s statement - “competition drives innovation” is a tried-and-true observation when it comes to any productive enterprise. There’s definitely room for more than one MMO in the gaming market, and probably even room for a reasonable number of them. In a purely business sense, there’s actually probably room for quite a lot of smaller-scale MMO games - assuming they’re not trying to shoot for the multi-million subscriber numbers with AAA budgets (and even that can be viable on some level if you have giant MMO markets like Korea and China to work with).

My thoughts, however, went beyond the simple business sense - they drifted towards consideration of the social aspect of MMOs. MMOs are rather revolutionary in terms of the both the scale and type of human networking involved. With single-player or even standard multi-player games, there’s no real concrete commitment to a specific group of players - one week, you could play with friends, the next week with another, and the week after that some combination of parts of the previous two, and there’s be no issues whatsoever when it came to organizing things (aside from perhaps what pizza toppings to order).

Things are not so simple for MMOs. MMOs are about commitment. They’re pretty much the exact antithesis of the casual “come over to my place Saturday afternoon and we’ll play Mario Kart” get-together. Whether it be coordinating the selection of a server shard so that everyone can play together, trying to keep all the characters approximately equal in level so that no one is being held up by anyone else, or even just trying to convince everyone to play a particular faction, gaming groups for MMOs require a level of organization and commitment above and beyond anything found in the non-MMO gaming world.

So how does this tie into the number of MMOs on the market? On a basic level, each MMO is essentially a “shard” in one big “meta-MMO” - subjecting potential players to all of the same problems as an individual MMO’s shards would, except now in another layer that you have to make it through before you even care about the game-specific stuff. Before picking what game shard you want to play with your friends on, you have to get them to agree on what game you all want to play. Just like with shards, it’s hard to divide up your attention between more than one or two (three if you push it) at a time if you want to make any real progress - but again just like with shards, it’s quite possible to encounter friends you’d like to play with who are already playing numerous different MMOs.

As the number of MMOs on the market increases, the chances that your friends are going to be split between increasingly larger numbers of games can’t possibly do anything but rise. So while yes, more MMOs on the market certainly can’t be a bad thing as far as increasing the quality of each game’s play… I can’t help but wonder if there’s some point at which we should really say “okay, we have enough options now.”


I don’t think this issue is entirely without hope. After all, there have been some fairly innovative approaches to the social problems created by shards in individual games already - one example being Guild Wars’ districts system, which allowed players the option to move seamlessly between shards at will and without restriction (at least after the regional districts were made accessible - and even before this the International Districts were quite popular). Perhaps an analogue of this could be applied at the multiple-game level, where one or more games could actually be linked together in such a manner that progress in one would provide progress in others as well, such that you could swap between various games as desired without falling behind in any. I’m sure there are many possibilities out there just waiting for the right person to think of them and the right developer to implement them - but we’ll just have to see, won’t we.

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