Free to play MMOs (Massive multiplayer games) were recently a topic of discussion at the Austin Developers Conference. There's a fairly interesting round-table discussion on the nature of the MMO, its business model and its evolution moving forward from that conference. One sentence from that point form summary resonated very strongly with me. "But the only thing you can’t buy is social merit." This is a specific reference to the subscription based MMO, yet I wonder whether it is applicable to all forms of online interaction. Xbox Live, for instance, has had its fair share of social problems leading to a poor perception of its "social merit", whatever that really is.
I've spent a little time with both subscription and free-to-play MMOs and in many ways they're very similar experiences and in many ways entirely different. Their relationship with their player is very different. In a subscription based game players prove their worth to their peers by committing time to the grind and to the "scripted game moments". In a free-to-play game the commitment is more varied and very, very rarely related to time commitment. At its most insidious the free-to-play game is about wealth and the social merit derived from having more stuff than the guy or girl next to you.
The very notion of free-to-play is misleading. The free part is a glorified demo that is designed to lead the user toward the pot of gold at the end of the pixelated rainbow. You don't get the full game as a player, but you are exposed to those who have more of the game than you do (practically anyone who is still there after a week, presumably) and the desire to keep up with them is compelling. I appreciate the notion that I can test the gameplay through a demo but I dislike the idea that I can dip my toes into the wading pool without actually getting to swim around in the waters defined by the game. The pursuit of loot is both an ancient, well known practice and an addictive one that links to our limbic need to feel worthwhile. And while that scares me, it's not why I'm here.
I'm very comfortable with my ability to say no, regardless of how pushy someone may be, or how desperately needy. It's not so much that I wish to be cruel, it's a fundamental belief of mine that I have a responsibility to the universe to make sure that I put my own house in order, before attempting to help, interfere or be the victim of another's. Thus I feel no particular need to extend my demo like (without the full game experience) explorations into the worlds of free-to-play MMOs. My personal adventures are probably not representative, yet I wish to include them as an exploration of the social merit of such games.
My first free-to-play experience was a little awkward, ultimately driving me away from the game. Wandering around relating to the world, poking at things mechanically and thematically I began to meet people and make friends. It was not too long before I had a decent sized roster of opportunities for interaction. At some point I met a lovely, if needy, lesbian couple with a deaf daughter who required supervision because that person over there was a child molester who was hunting their daughter for reasons I'd prefer to know nothing about. The text based interaction environment was ideal for the deaf girl apparently. We chatted. I lamented their plight. The youngster was dumped under my supervision after our third meeting and the couple went off to play while the nominated molester followed my ward and I around with religious zeal. I really wish that I could say this was a form of role-play that was part of the game. It soon became apparent that these new friends of mine had cast me into a role that I would rather not have as part of my participation in this virtual world. I rejected the world and ceased attending.
Refusing to accept that this freak occurrence was representative I endeavoured to initiate a new experience in the same vein. I found that I had soon become embroiled in a serial online dater who sought a sympathetic ear and a new lover. She stalked me beyond the game and sought access to my real life. While flattering, it was more than a little harrowing as I felt that I had done nothing to encourage the belief in her that I was interested in her in that way. I left the game to escape her and soon discovered that this wasn't enough.
These highly personal experiences are echoed through retelling of friends who share their own stories of weirdness and general horror. Social merit indeed. I bear no ill will to those individuals who are mentioned above and in the former case do not know if it was some extremely elaborate joke designed to drive players from a competing product. What concerns me about this sort of thing is that many of these free-to-play models are a form of institution that will encourage players to become something. Precisely what is dependent on how the environment handles itself. If the environment is designed to make a profit for its distributor then its motives may be less than ideal and the social impact of such devices could be very deep indeed. Games influence players at least as much as the players shape the community.
Any tales from the world of MMOs you'd care to share with me?