Monday, 27 January 2014

The Mythical Social Wall

This is a response to Ripard Teg's "Prepare for Staging"

I suspect the "social wall" is an imaginary construct created by an economist to explain psychology which he doesn't understand.

As a casual gamer (sure, I'm logged in to EVE for several hours a day some days, but I'm rarely at the keyboard for three hours nonstop) I play in fits and spurts. This is anathema to forming lasting social connections: the best WoW guilds and EVE groups I've been part of had a core of social people with a retinue of coconspirators who would provide the necessary "social inertia" to keep the group running when the core were temporarily away.

My main examples of "overcoming the social wall" are casual and hardcore raiding guilds from World of Warcraft: you'd start conversations with people in the area that you were questing, people you were running PUGs with, or met through other means. Then you'd find that you have a similar interest and playtime, so you'd start looking for them the next time you played. Eventually you'd end up recruiting them for your guild.

There is no PVE activity outside Incursions in EVE that rewards forming groups. Mining is so low-return and such a repetitive un-gamelike process that the cost of managing a group of actual people pushes miners into running fleets of alts. Running missions together has diminishing returns since the rewards are split between participants so ISK/hr drops as you add people to the fleet: travel time becomes the limiting factor causing ISK/hr to climb as your fleet's DPS approaches 1000-ish. The cost of forming groups in EVE is far higher than the cost of forming groups in WoW: both have the social aspects of talking to people and recruiting folks to join your current cause, e.g.: running Lower Blackrock Spire to build the Seal of Ascension, or renting oneself out as a UBRS key-holder. In EVE the equivalents might be renting oneself out as a consultant to a particular mission agent or NPC corporation. On the flip side, forming groups in EVE has the added risk component: are they trying to scam you, gank you, infiltrate your corp to steal everything that isn't nailed down, corp-kill, or somehow cause you loss or grief for their own enjoyment?

When I was single, I raided in raiding guilds in World of Warcraft. I was happy to go establish a routine of napping after work, staying up late and cooking fork-food for dinner. The important factors for me were that I had a bunch of folks I could share a common interest with, and that having a reliable pool of competent players was essential for making PUG dungeons more bearable. None of my guilds were seriously involved in the Gates of Ahn'Quiraj questline, but we helped others who were. Having a common voluntary external goal was a great way of bringing a bunch of disparate folks together, IMHO.

Now I have a partner, things like napping for an hour and a half after work, then spending four hours a night playing computer games and eating at the computer are not happening. I have to plan my time: if it's WoW I tend to book a half hour or so to tend farms and perhaps run a few PUG heroics. If it's EVE I'll log in my Pro Synergy alt and see if there is a backlog on salvaging contracts, if not I'll run missions myself. Pro Synergy is about the closest I've found to a long-term stable casual social group in EVE. Various other groups such as BTL incursions end up falling apart due to the core members leaving, burning out, or changing direction in game.

I've been back to WoW a few times. Each time I feel the game getting socially poorer: now you just log in and press a button to have the computer find a group for you. No longer would I log in, camp out in Ironforge or Orgrimmar and advise people that you're a healer looking for a group heading out to Blackrock Spire. There are fewer opportunities for random friendships to be formed. The best that has happened so far is a bunch of folks who added me as battletag friends, then never talked to me again. The game design has removed any requirement to talk to people and make friends as a means of ensuring ongoing ease of play. You even have dual-specialisation so you no longer need to find a niche: want to advance as quickly as possible? Dual-spec as healer/tank! There's no adventure, no risk and no satisfaction: the game is now entirely about scaling the "average item level" ladder, and parading in this expansion's forced social hub to show off your epic items, great transmog, or dance naked on the mailbox. The "social" features of the game are all optimised around mechanical progression: Dungeon Finder, Raid Finder, Scenario Finder, Flexi-Raiding, and so forth.

One of the nice things about WoW's "friends" system is that you just have a list of friends that you can communicate with through various channels including a broadcast (something akin to a Twitter post or Facebook status update). This broadcast is visible to all your friends when they log on (they don't have to be online at the time you update your status), and other than being visible on the friends list this status takes up no more of your attention or screen real estate. The nearest equivalent in EVE is the Twitter-ish EVE Gate status update, or the innumerable social-circle-specific chat windows that are polluting your screen real estate. One feature I'd like to see added to EVE is for my People & Place list of People to include their latest EVE Gate status update (visibility controlled by standings, perhaps). Thus I could advertise "LFG Incursions in Sinq Laison" for example. Then when my friends & associates log in they can see what activities are up and running (e.g.: open up the fleet finder and join my fleet). The Fleet Finder serves this purpose in a limited scope.

The people to ask about the "social wall" are psychologists who specialise in socialising, and whatever type of expert can tell you how to maintain organisation in a loosely-knit group of people who barely even log on at the same time. I suspect that having some kind of long-term PVE goal will help more people connect. The Ascension Project might go some way towards that, if it requires people to combine efforts. If it just requires pooling of resources gathered through solo play, it won't pay off in the social stakes.

I suggest group-oriented PVE only because it's easy to take PVE at whatever pace the group decides to take it. You can't take PVP fights at your own pace: the antagonist has a say in what pace a PVP fight proceeds at. There's no, "AFK for three minutes, have to go walk the dog for pee time," half way through a 3 vs 3 fight in low sec. There's no scheduling PVP either, "can you guys wait five minutes while I go change the baby's nappy? We'll be in Laslenur with three light missile Condors."

As a result of its "bookmark-able" casual-friendly nature, PVE appeals to many more people than open world PVP. Mission will reset after downtime, but apart from that you're free to shoot those NPCs on your own terms. You already know exactly what you're going to be up against so there are no surprises in PVE. Even in Incursions, the NPCs are omni-tanking, omni-damaging, and they never mix up their ships or fittings.

Here are some ideas for more group-oriented PVE (which of course means the multiboxers will be all over it):

  • Allow multiplayer hacking, so you and I can hack a relic together to make better use of our ship bonuses or to beat a particularly tough hacking challenge which requires more than 100 virus HP while we're both limited to 70 virus HP.
  • Convert mining to a process of exploration rather than a process of extraction, so that a group can split up and find the richest resource to extract, then combine to extract that resource as quickly as possible. The group will be rewarded for cooperation by finding the most profitable lode.
  • Acknowledge that ISBoxer's keystroke broadcast is providing a material advantage over one player pressing many buttons or many players each pressing 1 button, and start banning people for using that feature (it's easy to detect: a dozen clients sending the same instruction within milliseconds of each other? that's a multi boxer using keystroke broadcasting).
  • Specially design some PvE to require multiple players to coordinate actions, such as hacking certain structures simultaneously in order to open up the next acceleration gate

None of this is to suggest that PVE should be made any easier than it already is. I'd like to see NPCs fitting and behaving more like players in PVP. Incursions have gone some way towards this, but each encounter is very much predictable to the point that a FC only needs to follow a script to call out the appropriate targets at the appropriate time.

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