Do MMO Control Schemes Discourage Player Interaction?

It is widely agreed that MMO players are less social than they used to be. This is a very complicated issue, and people have suggested a lot of reasons. A common scapegoat is the advent of dungeon/raid finders, which disincentivize players from forming long term relationships in guilds and such. Some blame the casualization of the genre, with players pushing for systems that allow for fast and furious consumption of content, with no reason to slow down and talk to the other players around them. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that Internet culture has simply changed. It’s no longer novel to be talking to someone in another city, another state, or even another country while playing a video game like it was when I started playing MMOs in 2005. Of course, there are always those ever-present rose tinted glasses that players tend to wear when looking back on their early days in gaming.

Then a tweet from blogger (or, sadly, ex-blogger) Braxwolf, got me thinking:

My immediate reaction was that, while I think he’s correct in saying that this is a general trend in MMOs these days, I’ve had that same experience of people snubbing me in chat in Elder Scrolls Online more than in any other game I play. I think that this is, in part, due to the minimalistic UI that the Elder Scrolls series employs. It wasn’t too long ago that we didn’t even have nameplates above characters’ heads, and chat bubbles still don’t usually seem to work for me. It might also be that the players have hidden chat, either to increase immersion or block out whatever political flame war is going on at the moment. But for me, I think the biggest discouragement to interaction when playing ESO versus other MMOs is the control scheme, which is something I had never really thought about.

Back in 2005 and for many years thereafter, I played RuneScape extensively. For those not familiar with the game, it’s an oldschool style game that involves a lot of grinding out levels by clicking on stuff and watching while your character does some action repeatedly–chop a tree, harpoon for sharks, swing a sword, whatever–until the thing you were doing got used up/moved/died. I know that sounds terribly boring, and… well, quite honestly, it kind of was most of the time, but that’s what we did for fun back in my day and we liked it, dangit. But all of this waiting around while your character did stuff allowed for random conversations to pop up. Yes, the average age of the playerbase was probably barely in the teens at the time, so half the time you didn’t want to hear what was being said, but every so often you found someone really cool, added them to your friends list, and talked to them whenever you were bored with no one around. I made some of the best Internet friends this way, and I’m still really sad that I lost touch with some of them.

Later, games moved away from point-and-click controls to more WoW-style controls, and now we’re seeing more and more games (like ESO) with shooter-style action combat controls. In these games you can’t really type without bringing your gameplay to a grinding halt, or at best running the risk of autorunning off of a cliff. ESO takes this a step further, by enabling gamepad support. I’m not sure how many players use gamepads, but I know that if I was, there would have to be something really important to say to get me to put down my gamepad, reach over to my keyboard, type out my message, and then pick up my gamepad again. I’m certainly not going to hold a conversation going back and forth this way.

There are, of course, methods of interaction other than typing. Most notable is voice chat, which has become more accessible than ever with the advent of free platforms like Skype and Discord. But these communication methods are limited to persistent groups like guilds, not organically formed parties or random passersby, and they can be very finicky to set up. Honestly, I think it would be a huge turnoff to have voice chat enabled for just anyone, partly because I hate the sound of my own voice and want random Internet strangers to hear it as little as possible, but mainly because that would make the random obscenities and vitriol that so often crop up in zone chat all the more intrusive and draining.

I don’t really have a good solution for this problem. I don’t really want to go back to point-and-click games, but I think that modern controls schemes, along with all of the other factors mentioned at the opening of this post, have increasingly dragged down social interaction in MMOs. Is there a middle ground? A solution that wouldn’t just be annoying and inconvenient and simply push players away? Probably not. We’ll probably never be as social as we were back in the olden days, and that’s a reality that we’re just going to have to live with.