MMORPG developers have a crap load to learn from the social networking movement that is currently swarming the internet. Heck, they have a lot to learn from the internet itself and how people communicate and mesh. If you really sat down and looked at it, MMOs are just sad when it comes to human interaction which is actually kind of funny considering that realistically MMORPGs have long been ahead of the game. They were getting people together even before the advent of ICQ. Yet here we sit, behind everyone else.
The whole thing started with Ultima Online really, after all everyone says it is the father of modern MMORPGs, coining the term even. Yet the game took some serious steps back when it came to player interaction. Previous to UO, there were private messages and groupings, but in Ultima Online they wanted a more realistic approach so both were removed. Obviously Ultima Online had learned some of its lessons because they have since returned Instant Messaging to the masses, however this is what started a trend of being too little too late for the entire genre of games.
Some games since then have mistakingly done without the chat room atmosphere that has been around forever in the form of IRC such as Asheron’s Call. This also was a mistake that even they have since rectified.
The latest addition to the MMO community has been email. This was popularized by World of Warcraft but I think the first game to do it was really City of Heroes.1 Did this revelation strike anyone else as a “really?” moment? I mean really? This was a big innovation in community building? Something that has been on the internet since ummm… well… the internet was born?
Don’t get me wrong here, having access to e-mail is great in game, but it strikes me as a bit odd. It isn’t even an open system. I have friends in EQ2 currently that I haven’t talked to in awhile. Wouldn’t it have been great had they created a system where I could have emailed someone from outside the game and they got the message inside the game. Such as me emailing Razakius@mistmoore.com. I don’t think it would have been a hugely difficult proposition. Furthermore, they could have then allowed people to tie that account to their real email boxes like say gmail. I could then read that email at work, or on vacation and be able to respond to someone about an upcoming raid. How great would that be? But no, just simple in game only email. And email with really bad spam filters and macro capabilities at that.
Another newer idea came from EQ2 which was a personalized page on their eq2players site. Which is a really great concept actually. I mean imagine a MySpace game for your MMO pleasure, except that the page updates with your latest worn items, accomplishments and other in-game information. It really is a great idea. Except that EQ2 forces you to pay for so many of these features that the player pages are almost worthless to see in their own right which takes away the point. Also, unlike MySpace, you have no ability to customize the pages or add news or events or even comment on someone else’s page. Again, taking away much of the fun of this type of page, they could really make it a destination for players. And then they could even take it a step further and allow people to see friends and friends of friends much like facebook which would help people meet other people which I think is part of the point.
This brings me to the last thought on social networking and online gaming. What really needs to happen with these games is to bring the game outside the game. To make it much more pervasive. To make you want to be in the game by giving you more ways to see what is going on inside it. For instance, I don’t think twitter in itself is that great, it is that they opened up the API that made it great. So given that the API is open, why not have MMO updates sent to your twitter account? You could have all sorts of fun with this from allowing you to make a tweet to having the game automatically tweet when you’ve finally killed that big boss mob. Even better what if you could post an in-game tweet of an item you found that is cool that links back to your web page that displays what the item is? This is a great way of bringing it back to the game.
But this sort of stuff I don’t think will ever happen largely because game developers are extremely closed-minded in nature. Not in that they aren’t open to new ideas, but they want the outside world barred of from the world that they create. While you are in their world, they don’t want you to see what is going on outside. And while you are outside, they don’t want you to see what is going on inside. There is a huge wall between these. I’m sorry to sound cliche though, that is wall that needs to be torn down.