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.


6 thoughts on “Do MMO Control Schemes Discourage Player Interaction?

  1. GW2 is incredibly conversational. People talk *all* the time. They talk in map chat and in /say to anyone that can hear, in team, squad, party and guild to the various sub-groups they’re in, and frequently in several at the same time. From the moment I log in to the moment I finish a session I hear nothing but chatter and I contribute a good deal to it myself. It’s every bit as lively as it ever was back in Lake of Ill Omen in 2001 and a great deal better-humored than Paludal Caverns in 2002.

    EQ2 and EverQuest aren’t quite as insanely conversational as that but there’s still a constant buzz of conversation going on. When I play various Eastern import F2P MMOs there’s usually plenty of conversation there too. All of those games use WASD movement and hotbar/tab target combat. GW2 is the most actiony but it’s still a traditional MMO in most of its controls.

    When I play DCUO, however, which uses full action controls, it’s only the people standing around at vendors and banks who seem to talk. Everyone else who’s fighting needs both hands on the controls. I have noticed that there, at the end of a group instance, when I have attempted to say “Thanks, good run” or some such platitude, by the time I’ve worked out where my chat window is and got the UI to behave everyone else has left!

    However, DCUO has integrated voice chat and it’s set ON by default. Everyone can chat in voice if they want and lots of people do. I have it OFF because I find it distracting but before I found out how to toggle it I heard plenty of people chatting away.

    I very much agree that the biggest change has been the advent of social media and the main streaming of online access. In 2000 it was pretty amazing just to find yourself grouped with people from around the world and chatting to them seemed like magic. Now chatrooms are utterly ubiquitous and ordinary so no-one feels a need to chat just because they can.

    I don’t think it’s particularly good or bad. It’s just the evolution of the media and the social milieu. I do think you’re right about the controls, though, and to an extent the gameplay. People are naturally social and while they may not feel compelled to chat out of sheer amazement or boredom, if there aren’t too many barriers in the way a lot of folk are going to chatter away endlessly regardless. And in the MMOs that make it easy, they do.

    (WP is playing up again – apologies if this comment duplicates).

  2. In my opinion, yes. WASD and always-going action makes me less chatty, personally. I type walls of text in a longer form setting like blogs and comments, because I can pause and think about sentence construction. I say almost nothing in the MMOs of today because stuff happens at too fast a pace for me to catch up, talk and still react sensibly.

    Add to that the culture of the younger players used to voice chat who simply do not read or look at text chat, and you start feeling like it’s mostly a waste of time attempting communication.

    Voice chat is useless for me, I can’t frame my thoughts that quickly and verbalize and still focus on in-game action and still hear what other people are saying. Often, just the latter two are distracting enough – one or two panicking screamers while I merely listen… and my hand-eye coordination goes out the window.

    I chatted the most while playing A Tale in the Desert. Point and click controls, slower pace of game, in-game motivation to be friendly and cooperate (or at least -not conflict-) with one’s neighbors all contributed to more willingness to take the time/trouble to express myself.

  3. The control scheme doesn’t help certainly, but actually the content design is also a big factor for me. In games like GW2 I’m rarely inclined to chat because the group content tends to so manic – always on, always dodging action. Where is there time to chat, except read the instructions from the leaders? In older non-action games there’s time to chat in global/zone while waiting flying or waiting on respawns.

    I would say that global chat seems to be more “business focused” in games thesedays – some people still try and start random conversations, but in games like GW2 the constant chatter you see is majority group calls and event-related. Perhaps that is down to the social media factor mentioned above. Even in EQ2 I see, from my personal perspective and at my times of playing, less general chat and more focus on group calls and mechanics Q&A type stuff.

  4. There are certain maps in GW2 where non-stop random conversations are virtually guaranteed. Queensdale is notorious for it and Wayfarers is almost as bad/good. Anywhere there’s a World Boss event will also usually generate a wealth of quips and one-liners and often a lengthy random discussion. The higher maps do tend to be more task-focused. Team chat in WvW frequently breaks into endless discussions on mechanics, tactics and occasionally what people are having for dinner, usually followed eventually by increasingly irritable demands for the channel to be cleared for actual team-related intel.

    EQ2 general chat on Skyfire has a weird subculture of quizzes and competitions. There are a few people who regularly spend anything up to an hour firing questions and giving away prizes. It’s a very cliquey server, where everyone seems to know everyone else and there are almost soap-opera style grudges and rivalries playing out in chat month after month. I often have to turn it off because its so distracting.

    Whether any of this counts as “conversation” in the way we used to chat to people fifteen years ago is another matter altogether.

  5. Just a side note…. sometimes people say things to me (or around me) and I don’t even notice because it a) gets lost in among all the other text scrolling in the chat window, and b) I wasn’t looking at the chat window for the short while that it was visible there.

    Also I have to say I’ve turned off a lot of channels in my main chat tab as the contents are often not very interesting and spam out the more useful gameplay info msgs.

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