When I talk about social apparatus, I mean the functions within games that we use to communicate, coordinate, and structure our social interactions. I think this is an area that is often under-developed in newly launched MMOs, and is sadly stunted in established games due to the complexity of improving legacy systems. This is not about social engineering, or telling players how they should interact with each other, but about giving players the tools to organize and communicate effectively.
This is a long-standing bug-bear of mine, ever since the Real ID debacle in World of Warcraft, but has been brought to the front of my mind by the rudimentary systems available in Guild Wars 2. The game has only just launched, and the design teams will be focused on fixing all of those bugs, rather than building new features. I fully do not expect any MMO to launch with perfect social apparatus, but it still astounds me that the social apparatus so often seems like an afterthought.
Always online, always connected
ArenaNet have implemented a BattleTag style account wide friendlist. This is a step in the right direction – keeping friendships and guild linkages at the account level instead of on the player level removes a lot of redundancy and adds much convenience. Players will also post on the official forums under their tag, meaning that their contribution to the wider community will be much more visible. This unified friendlist is mostly awesome, except that the ability to hide from guildies and friends on an alt is completely missing. That said – is the ability to hide relevant in this day and age of being always connected to social networks, email and IMs via Smartphones? ArenaNET has avoided most of the Real ID weaknesses – the service is global, has statuses, and does not use your real name.
Just as Blizzard wised up and made remote guild chat an integral service rather than a premium extra, the ArenaNet team announced prior to launch that they plan to bring GW2 to smartphones and tablets. Rift still has the gold standard in mobile apps, but the more MMOs give their customers useful mobile apps, the better it is for you and me. ArenaNet has always been about removing the barriers that stop people playing together, and other MMOs are falling in line with this reasonings. By enabling players to be connected even when not at their computer, and centralizing identity via the Tag system, MMOs are finally catching up with the way that people actually play their games and connect with their gaming friends outside of games.
Reaching out – Social Media and MMOs
ArenaNet shows a lot of social media savey in general, and this is very obvious from the way in which the CMs quickly stepped up to the plate on Twitter and Facebook in response to the headstart problems that Guild Wars 2 faces. Their zero tolerance policy may or may not yield results in the long run, but the attempt makes me want them to succeed (I have similar ~feels~ about the Trion team.) During development, the CMs kept the game in focus through engaging with GW2 bloggers and tweeters, and generally supporting community, so it was something of a surprise to me that the game did not launch with something similar to RIFTconnect. Players in Rift are able to tweet, facebook or tumblr from the game with a simple inline command – and can even send screenshots straight to any of these social services. This feature was initially very successful for raising awareness of all the cool stuff in Rift, and allows players to communicate with their twitter friends seamlessly from the game.
The feature isn’t without it’s downsides. If you follow a lot of people, then twitter easily drowns out in-game chat in the chat window. If you forget to adjust your defaults, you run the risk of spamming your twitter/facebook/tumblr followers with achievements and discoveries.
I think a lot of GW and WoW players may well respond that they don’t WANT social media in their game. I know many MMO players who are openly disdainful of social media, so I can understand the lack of motivation to spend development resources on such a feature. I’m also hoping that they’re the sort of thing that ArenaNet will add in later, once launch wrinkles are finally gone.
Multiple guilds – not so multiple
The idea of belonging to multiple-guilds does not live up to what I was hoping for. I understand that it is not fair to allow players to garner benefits from all guilds they are a member of, and that it would be unbalanced for a character to contribute influence to multiple guilds at once. I do. I just wish that the communication/social functions of guilds were not tied to the ‘Represent’ toggle.
Currently, Guild membership is held at the account level, but active participation in a guild is controlled by the player at character level. This means that choosing to Represent your PvP guild while you arse around in the Mists results in cutting off your access to the guild chat of your RP or PvE guild. It’s fantastic that a player can treat their guild choice as a kind of running buffet, while removing the administration for guild leaders. It’s fantastic that I can ‘be in’ multiple guilds, but frustrating that it creates a social barrier.
I’ve seen a few other bloggers criticising ArenaNet for going so far with a great feature, but not carrying it on to the next step – mainly in regards to the Bank/Collections system and crafting. The guild interface and multiple guilds is another example of that. Perfectly functional, but it could have been just that bit more often. Just as you can view multiple guild rosters at once, I think you should be able to access multiple guild chats.
There are some minor interface tweaks that could be done as well, currently I find the interface doesn’t really make that much intuitive sense. Plus you get guild management functions popping up in bizarre places like the party interface. Hopefully the UX team will be taking a look at that in due course.
Guild Wars 2 is also missing a few other things which are odd. Things I didn’t even realise I would miss. Things like guild/officer notes that help guilds sort out just who is who in this brave new GW2 world. As I throw a mix of new guildies together from a variety of sources, it would help if I could add identifying marks on the guild roster.
For me, what made Guild Wars 2 feel a bit lonely with regards to connecting with friends, was that the ‘always online’ nature of the account-guild relationship means that player presence is not telegraphed to any of the people they might be connected to. Think about things like guild achievement spam, the ‘welcome to the guild’ wall of text that often greets new recruits, or even the simple act of saying ‘hello’ to someone when they come online. There is none of that. There’s no sign of these social connections unless you’re looking at the guild or friend pane every five minutes.
Couple that with a simple thing like targeted emotes not doing anything, and the complete lack of /hello, /bye /thank, and GW2 is missing both some basic opportunities that prompt players into talking to each other, and the apparatus to encourage micro-interactions out in the field. What GW2 lacks is not co-operative gameplay opportunities, but the framework for conversations created by guild and social activity information. ‘Person X has come online’ is not a requirement for talking to a friend, but it’s the sort of nudge that has made Facebook successful, and World of Warcraft into the critical mass of players that it is.
(Please note that I understand it is early days yet for Guild Wars 2, and I’m loving a lot about the game in general)