At least for me, the big appeal of participating in a MMORPG was the fact that you could interact with other people online. Not only could you band together to defeat monsters, you could also communicate with and get to know your fellow players.
There was something magical about being able to log on with your avatar and join up with other adventurers located in other parts of the real world and explore the dark secrets of virtual worlds. The shared online experiences made possible by those new worlds helped to redefine and transform the video game experience and those of us fortunate to climb on board.
Why Chat Used to Matter
Not only did we learn to master our classes and figure how to survive in strange new worlds, we also were faced with the prospect of cooperating with people online. The social aspect of learning how to converse with others, making friends with people, and navigating the unique social systems of each MMO community were indeed a game unto itself.
Play that game poorly and you could not find a group or a guild. Play that game well and you could easily join groups and guilds — in fact you could even leverage your social skills to run a guild or you could even fall in love and get married to a player in real life.
The ability to chat mattered because due to the challenging environment presented by those early MMORPGs, communication was essential in order to play at the top of your game and defeat enemies. One could draw the same conclusion to the importance of good communication within the military during combat with regard to communicating strategy, issuing orders and reporting back the information gleaned from reconnaissance.
In any serious team game or sport, communication should matter and it should affect the outcome. When it stops mattering and becomes inconsequential, then there is something seriously wrong with the design of that game. The problem is that MMOs are fluid organisms and the rules are not cast in stone due to the propensity of game designers who love to tweak, tinker and fiddle.
The design of a MMO has many fathers and some of them such as the shareholders don’t necessarily have the best interests of the MMO and the players at heart. The erosion of the importance of chat has been one of the casualties of that complex reality.
Enter the Dungeon Finder
In late December of 2009 something fundamentally changed about the MMO experience for millions of players. Blizzard introduced the much ballyhooed Dungeon Finder system that enabled players from different servers to join random groups for various instanced dungeons adventures.
Initially this new mechanic was seen as a good thing as it enabled players to find groups so they could upgrade their gear and more importantly keep subscribing. But something strange started to happen. As the dungeons themselves became more of a predictable and routine grind for badges and tokens, the people in groups created by the Dungeon Finder matchmaking system stopped chatting altogether.
To illustrate how absurd it is for people to stop chatting in a MMO, imagine for a moment going into a restaurant and the patrons are there are mechanically eating their food and not saying a single word. Wouldn’t that be bizarre? Dining and eating have been a social and communal experience since the beginning of mankind. So too has chatting been part of the MMO experience since the very beginning.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t fault the players for not chatting as people always choose the path of least resistance. I’m going to be honest here but it needs to be said: MMO players have become like trained Pavlovian dogs that react to the carrots and sticks that MMO designers lay before them. Players are just playing the cards they have been dealt with by a careless group of designers who have little respect for the importance of communication and social cohesion within a MMO.
After all, why bother to chat when chances are you’ll never see your fellow players (from other servers) again? Why bother to chat when the dungeon content has become so trivial and transactional that most players can walk through them blindfold?
It took a little over 10 years from the MUD inspired EverQuest to the EverQuest inspired WoW to finally have no need for group members to chat to each other to complete a dungeon. That’s a very impressive accomplishment!
Years from now when MMO historians ponder who was responsible for the death of chat within MMOs, they might point their fingers at the unwitting game designers at Blizzard who ushered in this ignominious age of a chatless virtual world.
But let’s turn our gaze at another type of video game platform has been growing these past years: consoles. Whether it’s the Playstation or the Xbox, MMO developers have been salivating over this huge untapped market. Part of the problem has been due to the social nature of MMOs it would have been hard to recreate a quality MMO experience on a console due to the fact that they have no keyboards.
From PC to Console
If players can now perform the main task in a MMO — which is combat in dungeons — without speaking to each other, then there is really no need for chat anymore in MMOs. Combine this with the increased solo-friendly nature of MMOs where chatting with players is not even necessary or required, we are now a step closer to the day where a console MMO could be conceptually and financially viable.
In 2009, Rob Pardo the VP of Blizzard and the true architect of today’s mass-market MMO philosophy talked to IndustryGamers about the lack of a keyboard as a problem for making a console MMO:
But as far as MMOs on consoles, there’s a lot of challenges. I’d say challenge #1 is the input device. So if you’re going to port a game like WoW how does that work? Do you ship a keyboard and a mouse? Do you try to make a game that [adapts] to all the different controls and buttons? That’s a porting issue.
Regarding the primitive input device of a controller versus the sophistication of a keyboard, there are 2 distinct advantages that a keyboard has:
- An almost unlimited combination of keys that allow the complexity and nuances of control over an avatar within a virtual world
- The ability to directly communicate with another player using text
Companies like Blizzard have been simplifying the MMO experience for the last 6 years. It is entirely feasible to reduce the current glut of abilities and spells in a typical MMO for use with a standard console controller like the used by the Playstation. Combine that with the recent phenomenon of a chatless MMO as exemplified by WoW and we are one step closer to the development of a console MMO.
More Reasons Why Chat is Dying
One of my first articles published way back in 2005 warned about the impact of voice chat in MMOs. The need to verbally communicate as complex raid encounters are attempted has ensured its survival. At least voice communication within a MMO is better than no communication at all.
Still, I’m concerned about the diminishing need to chat in MMOs and the isolation the comes with it. One is left with with the sense that MMOs are becoming more and more like single-player games. Your fellow player is nothing more than a NPC — just with better A.I. This is not what MMOs were supposed to be about. Even the nature of community itself which has been a huge part of the appeal of MMOs, has deteriorated in the grand scheme of things and has taken the quality of chat with it into the sewer.
Even if you were to risk chatting with someone in a MMO today, you’d probably have better luck having an intelligent discussion in a mosh pit full of wasted punk music fans. So why chat at all?
Many people frustrated with the lack of policing of general chat channels — thanks to feeble and impotent customer service from companies like Blizzard — have turned off chat channels completely and are experiencing MMOs all alone with minimal interaction with other players.
While chat may not be quite yet dead, its days are surely numbered. Chat in MMOs has about as much chance of surviving as a feature as cigarette lighters do in new automobiles. Besides, chat seems to be a relic from a different MMO age — a bothersome barrier to a new design ethos that’s all about attracting more subscribers. Chat is so yesterday as it actually requires the ability to actually type which would prevent many new illiterate subscribers in untapped markets from playing. Even in the realm of the so-called “innovative” social games on Facebook chat is nowhere to be found.
Now that chat is on the decline, every potential console MMO developer can now point to the current state of WoW’s chatless core gameplay as evidence that the conditions are becoming more opportune for the production of mainstream console MMO.
Given the current state of player expectations and developers who pander to them, it is only just a matter of time before console MMOs take over and exert their design conventions over the industry. When that eventually happens, this genre will never be the same.