The Deafening Silence of Today’s MMO Chat

by Wolfshead on May 23, 2009

For the past few months I’ve noticed a marked decrease in people chatting in Blizzard’s WoW.  Of course I haven’t enjoyed general chat in WoW for many years now because of the immaturity of the discussions — the trolling, the outbursts, the idiocy and the incessant begging. In most cases I just leave all chat channels. But occasionally I summon up the courage to have faith in humanity and I turn on general chat.

I have found that rejoining general chat channels is a way to pay it forward by helping other players and occasionally I have met some exceptional people. The problem is that chat is so dead that I mistakenly figure that I’ve turned off the chat channel when in reality I’m still there.

Is chat as a MMO activity on the decline?

Are We Chatting Less Now?

At first I thought it was just my own anecdotal observations then I came upon this interesting thread on the official WoW forums entitled: Less Chatting Now? Here’s what the original poster says:

I was away from wow for the last 5 months of BC and the first 2-3 months of Wrath. Now that I’m back, one thing I’ve noticed is that it seems people are a whole lot less chatty. People seem to log on, do their thing, and are watching TV or surfing, or whatnot while playing for most of it, focusing when they need to. Is this just my own curse, or are people less social now that they are a bit jaded by the game?

(General and Trade tends to be just as chatty – but that’s bad chatty!)

He may be referring to guild chat. But I submit that the same observation applies to general chat from my personal experience on the server where I play. For whatever reason there seem to be significantly less people chatting in public channels.

Here’s a portion of a thoughtful reply to the OP of the thread:

The game, and mainly the community, is so drastically different from the Vanilla WoW days that most of the real hardcores (most…some of you are still playing, and good for you to stick it out) are long gone.

What’s left is a new player base and new behaviors. In TBC, it was a bunch of non-mmo experienced players jumping on board. What did we get? A new game (not more WoW) to appease them. In WotLK, you are now dealing with some very, very new players. I would venture to say that a good 6-7/10 players on every realm currently, never played before TBC.

They’re not chatting because a) they don’t know what they’re talking about and would rather listen and learn (smart) b) they are new to the genre and fail to grasp that community is the most important thing in any mmo c) they’re extremely impatient, low attention span players. They don’t have time to chat with guildies and form relationships that will pay off in raids later, they don’t have time to study websites and learn their class, they don’t have time to research a high level dungeon or raid before running it, etc, etc, etc.

The bottom line is this: Players who have FUN, but also recognize that part of the fun is being the best you can be for yourself and other players, are in the mass minority at this point in WoW’s life. Back in the pre-bc days, I would say that the majority of even casuals were more talkative and attentive than the hardcores today.

People today just want to log on, get into some quick action, and log off. They’re not “living” in the game world the way they used to and as a result, they’re not forming the relationships that they once did.

New MMO Demographics

Much of what the poster is saying is true. To expand on what he is saying, I think much of the problem lies in the quality of the shifting demographics due to “churn” that constitutes the WoW player base. The average WoW subscriber of 2009 is much different then the WoW subscriber of 2004 — younger, immature, short attention spans and weaned on over-stimulation and the current reward reward reward philosophy of game design.


Quite frankly the caliber of new MMO players is much lower despite some rare exceptions. Chances are they probably aren’t as educated and have a lower soci0-economic status than the early adopters of MMOs back in the day. Consequently the quality of conversation that these new players are capable of will also be much lower. One only has to join General and Trade channels for evidence of this. This may be having the effect of driving elder players away from general chat which makes the situation even worse as the chat even further deteriorates.

Lack of Chat Enforcement

This is an issue I’ve dealt with on many occasions. Due to a reactive rather then proactive enforcement on the part of MMO customer service it’s quite possible that players have become more insular and retreated into the solace of  the privacy of themselves, guildmates and friends. It could be that many players have decided to avoid altogether public chat channels. After all, who needs the aggravation?

If Blizzard was truly committed to the notion of community instead of paying it lip service then they’d start aggressively policing general chat channels.

Casual Friendly Design Discourages the Value of Chat and Socialization

MMO players have shorter gaming sessions compared to the good old days. Due to the casual friendly design of WoW — where you can log in and feel like you are making progress in a short period of time — it has created players who are more transient in nature. As the poster said, they don’t feel connected to the server community as players did in the golden age of MMO’s like EverQuest.

Even the veteran players have changed. MMO elders that eventually grew up found that they could no longer play the long hours they were accustomed to. As the poster says, they want to log on, have their fun then log off. Given these time restrictions and the fact that MMOs are so achievement focused there seems little room for anything else — especially when you are running around like a madman killing things to complete your 25 daily quests.

It’s much harder to get to know people and develop relationships with them when your play sessions are shorter.

It’s also worth mentioning that the solo friendly nature of WoW where group interdependency is not important also has created an environment where communication with other players is no longer necessary. If you don’t need other players then why would you ever want to chat with them? Fellow players become little more then animated, fancy NPCs.

The Frenzied Pace of Combat

Eager to appeal to a new generation of gamers raised on fast paced FPS games Blizzard sped up combat considerably and reduced all of the “down time”. Mobs die noticeably much faster in WoW then they did in previous MMOs like EverQuest.

Back in the days of EverQuest the designers had the wisdom to pace combat so that players had time to socialize via chat in between battles. Many players objected to the down time and eventually the devs caved in and reduced it. Little did they know that fewer opportunities to socialize would be the unintended consequences.

Players Socializing More Outside then Inside the Game?

Maybe this new breed of MMO gamers likes to socialize about the game outside of the game via forums, blogging, Twitter, texting, etc. It could be that people want to spend their limited time just “playing” and to exclude everything else.

No Public Chat in Free Realms

While I find Free Realms delightful and fascinating it’s a virtual world devoid of public chat channels. The only way you can communicate in chat is if you are in proximity of another player which is very similar to the “/say” chat channel in most MMORPGs. According to a MTV interview with John Smedley a console version of Free Realms will be released in late 2009 which could explain why there is hardly any general chat features in the PC version.

While I can understand the reason that a kid friendly MMO wouldn’t want some idiot spewing hateful speech in a general chat channel it’s troubling nonetheless. When these kids grow up and graduate to a more adult MMO they are more likely to bring with them with a non-chat mindset.

Nostalgia

Chat in MMOs and virtual worlds is vitally important — at least it used to be. When I made the migration from single-player games to massively multi-player online games like EverQuest the fact that I could talk to actual players blew me away. Being able to communicate with fellow players and share experiences, stories and memories was a fundamental underpinning of the magic of virtual worlds. Getting to meet people from all over the world was for me a major selling point of MMOs as it changed the “game” experience and into a “world” experience.

It could be that I’m just being nostalgic for the golden age of MMOs where talking to players actually had a measurable effect on your enjoyment of the game. Back then being a friendly sociable person meant that you could get a group, get a guild, make a name for yourself — a players reputation actually mattered back then. Sadly none of that matters now as today’s MMOs have become orgies of achievement leaving other valid play styles (explorers and socializers) far behind.

Conclusion

The future is not looking bright for player communication as an integral part of mainstream MMOs. Consider that in the next few years both Blizzard and Turbine will be releasing big budget MMOs for the growing console market. Consoles don’t have keyboards so you can expect chat in those MMOs to be minimal.

As this industry becomes more mainstream chat seems to be a feature that is falling by the wayside. MMO designers need to take a step back and stop the “coolness” arms race and focus on the basics again. One of those fundamentals should be to create MMOs and virtual worlds where people value communicating with each other once again. After all wasn’t that the point of being part of a massively multi-player online world in the first place — interacting with other players?

-Wolfshead

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