It seems like anywhere you turn these days, you’ll find the creators of some up and coming MMO extolling the virtues of player interdependence in MMOs and how it’s making a comeback in their game. Titles like Crowfall, Saga of Lucimia, and Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen are touting the concept as something of a core design principle, promising that with it as a development objective, their game will usher in a return to the golden age of MMORPG communities.
For those of us who’ve been around a while, this is all well and good. We have a general idea of what player interdependence means because it’s something MMORPGs all used to have, and for the most part, we’re pretty happy about the prospect of it making a comeback. Interdependence may not be the biggest buzzword of 2016, but it’s certainly my personal favorite.
Newer entrants to the genre may be unfamiliar with exactly what player interdependence in MMOs really means – and who can blame them? For the past five years of releases, any reliance on one player from another has been almost completely eliminated from MMO design outside of specified, typically instanced group encounters, and if you entered the market during those years, it’s easy to think that this is representative of the way MMOs have always been and should always be, something I could not possibly disagree with more emphatically. To that end, let’s take a look at exactly what this long absent principle of design used to mean and what its reappearance means for the future of the MMO genre.
The MMO Genre’s Tabletop Roots
It’s probably not news to anyone that MMORPGs are basically just elaborate digital adaptations of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Now I’m no tabletop expert, chiefly because that requires the ability to make friends in meatspace, but from my limited experience with the medium, player interdependence was alive and well. I’m reminded of a recent Edge of the Empire game where my friends and I did a… less than stellar job of balancing out our skill proficiencies. Long story short, we couldn’t get through the campaign with our combat skills alone, and needed to have a balanced array of skills like piloting and slicing (Star Wars’ version of hacking) between all of us for our party to make it through the day.
I’ve written about content with skill requirements before in its capacity to deepen the RPG and narrative experiences in MMOs, but certain implementations can have a social impact as well. Maybe you need a mage to spellsteal a certain boss’ buff, or a rogue to pick the lock to gain entry to the next wing of a dungeon. These types of skill distinctions create interdependencies between players by encouraging them to form social connections with people who can do something that they cannot, because they have to rely on those other players to make it through the game’s content.
These types of encounters have largely been phased out of recent MMO design, with developers increasingly choosing to allow players to do everything on one character. Where in the genre’s tabletop predecessors, players had to make meaningful character building decisions with the dozen or so skill points they would have available, games like the The Elder Scrolls Online now hurl skill points at players in far greater quantities than they could ever reasonably need. When everyone can do everything, there’s no need to ever talk to another player, and group composition is essentially meaningless. While this kind of interdependence in MMOs does add complexity to getting a group together, it also introduces a level of depth to a game’s social systems and in-game community that the genre has been sorely missing (not to mention adding variety to content and encounter design).
Star Wars Galaxies: An Exceptional Case of Interdependence
Interdependence in MMOs isn’t solely limited to its in-combat applications, and there are no places where this is better evidenced than in Star Wars Galaxies’ virtual worlds. SWG forced you to interact with other players every step of the way to get absolutely anything done, and the result was an online community stronger than any we’ve ever seen.
Examples of Star Wars Galaxies‘ player interdependence are myriad. Its much lauded crafting system was fully player run, with crafting supported as a full-time playstyle rather than something everyone did in addition to combat. If you were a crafter, you probably didn’t have much, if any, combat skill at all. SWG‘s crafting system featured complexities that required crafters and gatherers to work together on forming supply lines to have access to the most desirable raw materials. Even after the items were fully crafted, players continued to work together to build and operate the player cities where their shops were located, which took some doing if you wanted your city to be competitive in the game’s economy.
Beyond crafting and combat, the sandbox title also featured a gameplay sphere for entertainers and medical personnel, who combat oriented characters would have to visit to heal their wounds and battle fatigue. These players spent their time in the cantinas and hospitals of the game’s cities, which grew into burgeoning social scenes as a result.
The part that will sound the craziest to people unfamiliar with the title is that at first, you were only allowed one character per server, so if you were a crafter, that was it. You couldn’t just roll an alt to handle your crafting; if you wanted something made, you had to find someone else to do it. As insane as that sounds in the days of ‘everyone can do everything’, the result was something magical: a community the likes of which has never been replicated.
Interdependence in World of Warcraft
Of course, talking about interdependence in MMOs that are sandbox oriented is admittedly a bit like snatching at low hanging fruit; games in that style of MMO naturally place a greater emphasis on player interaction than their themepark counterparts. While it would be easy to pick themepark examples from older titles where it was simply impossible to solo anything without a group, or point to their successors in contemporary projects like Saga of Lucimia or Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, I think it would be more interesting to instead discuss World of Warcraft. Not in its current state, where interdependence is almost completely dead, but back when the game was in its prime.
There’s no better case study for the genre’s decline in social systems than industry giant World of Warcraft‘s own development arc. Players used to meet up while questing to tackle challenging elite zones and the group quests contained within, but these were mostly systematically removed during Cataclym‘s reshaping of Azeroth’s overworld. An entire combat role dedicated to crowd control, once indispensable in endgame dungeons and raids, fell by the wayside in Wrath of the Lich King so that strangers could steamroll dungeons together in automatically assembled groups without the burden of actually communicating with one another. Instant travel via portals, once only available by finding a Mage or a Warlock player character, was made accessible to everyone via portal emplacements in capital cities.
Crafting in World of Warcraft was initially headed down the same route, but recent changes in Warlords of Draenor and the upcoming Legion expansion have restored some interdependence between crafting professions. Giving credit where credit is due, these were positive changes that I hope are the beginning of Warcraft itself responding to the trend of returning interdependence in MMOs.
Interdependence in MMOs Sounds Awfully Inconvenient
At this point, some of you are no doubt starting to think that interdependence in MMOs sounds awfully inconvenient. Isn’t it much easier to not have to rely on other players at all? Undeniably, but that doesn’t mean it’s better.
All games are, at their core, designed around placing a series of obstacles between the player and their objective, and overcoming those obstacles is where the satisfaction of playing comes from. Think of a game as simple as a puzzle. If all the inconveniences were removed and you received it fully assembled, there would be no longevity or entertainment value.
We don’t just accept these obstacles as an inconvenient part of games; in fact, they’re the reason we play them to begin with. They are what define the game, and what defines MMOs specifically is exactly what’s contained in the initialism: they’re massively multiplayer. When you get rid of that, MMOs lose the one thing that made them special. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what publishers have done over the last decade of MMO development.
Many people inappropriately characterize this issue as a divide between casual and hardcore players, mistakenly placing the blame on developers attempting to appeal to casual players; it’s nothing of the sort. There’s nothing hardcore about actually interacting with people online, particularly when it’s more or less the defining characteristic of the type of game you’re playing.
No, the true impetus of the shift came from a desire to provide more and more instant gratification. It’s about the willingness of players to accept short-term inconvenience in return for a deep and satisfying long-term experience. Having experienced the magic of strong online communities over the long-term before, I like to believe that we can accept what needs to happen for them to make a return. I want to believe it can work. I do believe it can work. And with the development zeitgeist pivoting towards bringing back interdependence in MMOs, I guess we’re all about to find out.Related: Article, Community, Crowfall, Interdependence, MMORPG, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, Saga of Lucimia, Social Systems, Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft