Spinks has written a thoughtful post today about the end of a golden age in online gaming, an age of cooperation and consideration for others which she sees as being replaced by a more individualistic culture, perhaps for good.
I'd like to examine her points then move on to a prediction about the way group play is going.
Competition and Cooperation
Let's start by looking at competition and cooperation. Both are I think fundamental forms of play. Both, I suspect, pre-date the human species. If you throw a stick for a dog that's cooperative play, if you play tug-of-war with the stick when he brings it back that's competitive play. Animals combine both forms in their play - there are even scientific studies about the proportion of each type. As humans we've had both for a long time and we'll always have both, at least for the rest of our lifetimes.
In MMOs the balance between them has not been quite so straightforward. The ancestors of MMOs, MUDs, tended to be more freeform more sandbox. So what happens if you let players do what they want? Well in MUDs you got the Bartle types, that is, you got 4 distinct types of play: Killer, Socialiser, Explorer, and Achiever. Let's look at the two social ones - killers which is interacting with people by trying to make their game experience worse and socialiser which is interacting with people by trying to make their game experience better.
Many people who aren't killers simply can't understand the motivation. Why follow another player around killstealing their mobs or nicking their drops until they log out in frustration? My answer would be that some people are intensely competitive and want the feeling of beating someone else. In a game where pvp is limited or non-existent some people may derive more satisfaction in making another person log out in frustration than in killing them within the normal expectations of the game. Killing someone in a WoW battleground for instance is fairly meaningless as killing someone doesn't do any damage to them, it just moves them and imposes a very brief time-out.
Some people regard competitiveness as extremely unhealthy. An article from a writer on this states:
"Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily."
In addition to damaging participants the competitive instincts of players can be very damaging to the businesses of the companies running games. If someone's personal playstyle is to get people to log out and never log back in that's clearly an uneconomic player.
One player describes an event in WoW that unexpectedly turned out to be a great time for griefers:
"Yesterday, I spent some of my limited game time to log into WoW, and work on a new Dwarf character I started about a week ago, so he’s still hanging around Ironforge for the moment. So I run up to Ironforge to check out a couple of vendors, and I discover a scene of griefer ecstasy in front of the auction house. Hundreds of player corpses littered the ground from high level zombies killing anything that moved, especially low level people which they seem to get a perverse joy in ganking repeatedly. They chose the auction house because that area is by far the most crowded area of the city. One of their favorite tactics is also to kill off the flightmaster NPC, so that no one can get a griffin out of the area, causing additional people to bottleneck."
Cooperation on the other hand in addition to being a playstyle a lot of people find fun is intrinisically beneficial for the people running online games. Raph Koster says:
"Community ties are the single biggest predictor of retention. And in the subscription game (really, in the microtransaction game too, though the effect is more complicated), retention = money. Therefore, community ties = money."
The direction of the last decade
So if community = extra money and griefing = less money then one would expect designers to design for community and against griefing. But they don't always and the reasons are complex. I'll try to give a brief overview.
One of the big strengths of massive online games is emergent gameplay. Players do unexpected things that turn out to be better and more fun than what the designers had originally foreseen. This happens quite a lot and many designers deliberately encourage it. In Eve while people have achieved spectacular acts of in-game criminality people have also done amazing and benign things. One player circumnavigated the universe over a period of years, one player founded a graveyard. In fact the company has created a site specifically to archive and document the amazing and emergent stories the players have - if you have a look you'll quickly see it's not all corp theft and can flipping.
The next element is personal progression. I'll let you into a secret that many players either never knew or forget. The numbers on your character sheet, on your gear, they mean nothing. A weapon that does 200 damage is neither intrinsically good nor bad. A 10 damage weapon hits a 100 hit point monster every bit as hard as a 1,000 damage weapon hits a 10,000 hit point monster. Numbers are relational and only relational. And since they are relational, it doesn't matter how much damage your weapon says it does, what matters is if it does more than your friend's weapon. The only meaningful metrics are "Am I better than him?" and "can I kill stuff easily?"
And players have become very attracted to personal progression. WoW beat EQ, SWG and UO for market share because it was more fun. Fun mainly being a matter of my character feels cooler. It did this by much faster gear upgrades than earlier games.
Personal progression is always competitive rather than cooperative. The only way to tell if you have a good sword is to see if it kills things faster than the guys with you. So the shift from the earlier model of highly challenging encounters where you cared more about doing everything you could to help the group win to relatively easy encounters where people care more about topping the meter is a shift from cooperation to competition.
What does the future hold?
I think two things are going to happen in the MMO gaming space. In fact they already are happening, in the future they will just get more obvious.
Firstly we have been getting and will get more types of games. Case in point, SWTOR is a highly directed theme park space PvE MMO. Launching in the same quarter against it is Prime BFD, a sandbox old school PvP MMO developed mainly by guys who loved Dark Age of Camelot and wish to re-create that experience in the modern market. Years ago you simply didn't see that diversity - a MMO was what it was and if the style didn't suit you then tough. You need to liberate yourself from being swept up by whatever is the most hyped game but if you can do so then you can play just about any type of game you like.
Second, there's a rubber banding effect. Games are very often a reaction to what was bad about the games before them. WoW was an immensely liberating experience after the forced grouping of EQ and the sandboxy aimlessness of SWG and UO. The horrible aspects of WoW are going to drive game development over the next decade. Expect to see games designed to address the problems of tank shortages, horrible rude pugs, gearscore epeen measurers and people who always stand in fires.