Friday, January 18, 2008

Asynchronous Collaboration in Online Games

One of the most persistent myths of online gaming is that people who aren't gregarious don't contribute usefully in massively multiplayer online games.

I've observed more than once that being "massively multiplayer" is what's most unique about these online games, and therefore that this is what most needs to be leveraged through appropriate design features. In other words, designers ought to be looking for ways to iterate on the massively multiplayer aspect of these MMO games because that's where the unique value is to be found.

So making social games highly social is a Good Thing. But here's the sticking point: it's a mistake to equate "social" with "grouped." The goal of social activity is collaboration, but not all collaboration has to happen in real time to have value.

The question is whether someone can make useful contributions to a society without face-to-face grouping. A cursory glance at history is enough to provide examples of individuals who -- as individuals -- made world-changing contributions to the societies of which they were a part, even if they were not actively engaged with others. Isaac Newton, for example, made crucial discoveries (published later) in the fields of calculus, optics, and gravitation during the two years during which he had removed to a small hamlet in Lincolnshire while the Great Plague raged.

Fortunately, we don't have to be a Newton to contribute to a group without directly engaging with other group members. Discussion forums are another example of how individuals can play useful roles in a group while never chatting in real time.

So here's the phrase that sums up how and why non-social gamers ought to be welcomed in MMORPGs: asynchronous collaboration.

Most people tend to perceive right-here-right-now -- synchronous collaboration -- to be the only valid form of social interaction because it's the most visible form. But "asynchronous collaboration" benefits a society as well. Where synchronous collaboration features (such as pick-up groups) enable the local/immediate interactions preferred by outgoing gamers, providing gameplay features that support asynchronous collaboration creates opportunities for more socially reserved players to engage in the non-local/non-immediate interactions they're comfortable with.

And my point is that because asynchronous collaboration is a valid way of contributing to a MMOG, non-social players who participate in these indirect interactions absolutely do contribute to those gameworlds, just as people leaving messages on a discussion forum contribute to those discussions.

Probably the most visible example of this kind of interaction is crafting and auction house activity. How effective would the in-game economy of any major MMOG be without the non-social people who collect resources, make things with those resources, and buy and sell them via the game's marketplace system? The many indirect interactions of non-social players with other players directly benefit everyone in the game by efficiently creating and distributing goods.

So let's dump this mistaken belief that you have to be a "people person" to deserve to enjoy a massively multiplayer gameworld. That's bogus. And it's past time for developers to say so by providing more features that allow asynchronous collaboration.

Markets (auction houses) are one such feature. But auction houses shouldn't be the only way that more socially reserved players can be encouraged to contribute to a gameworld. What about other kinds of asynchronous collaboration? More specifically, what are some other game features that would allow players in a massively multiplayer world to collaborate that are either non-local, or non-immediate, or both?

1 comment:

  1. I have played Everquest I for a decade (literally) and I wasn't always a social animal - despite being in one of "the" raid guilds for most of that time.

    Towards the end of my stay I more and more turned towards... hobbies. Hobbies like collecting ingame currency. Ingame money was just about the only character stat that wasn't capped at that point.

    For instance, I sold epic weapons. (330k pp, takes about 20 min =)
    When I had a set of items to complete another such quest, I had my trading char travel the server's auction channels. This resulted in many interesting conversations and me meeting lots of interesting (and rich ingame) people.
    Since I always delivered and was careful not to break any actual game rules, those who 'reported the haxxor' only got ridicule for their efforts.

    It was a lot of fun but completely outside the classic template of grouping and grinding. People were talking about the "notorious Gazzfence". It was... server-wide entertainment!
    The money? Still on my various accounts. It never was about the money.