Engineering Relationships


The effects of game mechanics can be explored on many different levels. On the lower tiers, we can look at how the rewards system enhances or diminishes the appeal of the game. On the higher tiers, we can look at how game mechanics influence community-wide behaviors or phenomena. For example, it is probably fairly obvious that the game mechanics of an MMORPG affect the economy that develops within the game. If there are limited ways for the currency to leave the player market (through NPC vendors, death penalty, etc.), then inflation will eventually overtake the economy and be difficult to control. But it may be less obvious how the game mechanics of an MMORPG affect how relationships form and develop within the game. By comparing the game mechanics of EverQuest (EQ) and Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC), this essay explores how these game mechanics can shape the relationships that form in MMORPGs. While more theoretical than empirical, the ideas presented are all testable hypotheses. An understanding of the effect of game mechanics on social phenomena has an impact on the design of future virtual environments, as well as helping us understand how social context affects us in the real world.

Encouraging meaningful relationships is much more than just enhancing the communication interface. While clearly a necessary part of building relationships, having a communication channel doesnít do any good if players arenít encouraged to interact with each other. It also doesnít do any good if players only interact for superficial reasons. To foster strong relationships, a game needs to provide players a large potential to interact and increase the likelihood that each interaction creates a relationship between the players involved.

Downtime During Fights

Forcing players to group to fight a tough mob is a typical way to get players to interact, and most MMORPGs make it very difficult to solo as the playerís level increases. But perhaps the amount of downtime between fights is also a crucial element in player interaction. DAOC streamlines combat and minimizes downtime during grouped combat. Mythic does this by making most buffs consume no mana, and by having fast HP and mana regen among other design elements. Typical grouped combats in EQ, on the other hand, are separated by pronounced intervals of downtime. Among other design elements, HP and mana regen are slow, and buffing a group consumes most of a clericís or druidís mana, after which the group has to wait until the cleric or druid has regained that mana. Also, typical battles with a mob are shorter in DAOC when compared with EQ, and the rate of mob encounters is higher in DAOC than in EQ. In effect, what typically happens in EQ is that a group fights for 5-10 minutes and then has to rest for 3-5 minutes, while in DAOC, a group can fight continuously for long periods with relatively short rest periods. Even though players are together in a group and might be inclined to talk to each other, they canít really develop meaningful relationships easily if thereís not enough time to talk. By streamlining the group combat experience, Mythic may be shortchanging themselves in terms of potential relationship formation in DAOC.


Apart from situations where players are already grouped, game design elements can encourage players to interact with each other on a one-on-one basis to differing degrees. EQ, when compared with DAOC, has a system where players are more dependent on each other. For example, a lot of crucial or useful abilities in EverQuest are utility spells that only certain classes can cast on others. Among these are Bind (safespot creation), Resurrection, Clarity (mana regen), Spirit of Wolf (movement enhancement), Teleports, or Invisibility. In DAOC however, Bind is an ability all classes can perform by themselves, cheap public horses take the place of Teleports, Resurrection is a low-level spell that several classes have, and most utility spells can only be cast on the character or on group members.


Facilitating Altruism

There are several reasons why player dependency encourages relationship formation. On a superficial level, it increases the possible interactions two players could have. But itís much more interesting than that. First of all, it increases the number of ways that players can help each other. Very frequently in EQ, you meet someone new by asking for a Bind or a Clarity. The asker is humbled, the giver is empowered, but both players usually come away from the encounter with a sense of mutual benevolence. Asking help from a stranger or being asked a favor from a stranger are far rarer occurrences in DAOC because of the relative independence the game mechanics give each player. These encounters, which are frequent in EQ and rare in DAOC, help create debts of goodwill on an individual level that foster future encounters between these two players. The following account highlights these kinds of relationships:

"My primary character is a Cleric, so on one occasion my guild was on a raid in a dungeon area and I came across one players corpse. This was unusual because of where we were and how deep we were in the dungeon. I sent this person a "tell" to see if she needed a res. She replied and was very excited that I was there to res her. After she gathered her equipment she tried to give me some Platinum pieces, which I refused since I didnít go out of my way to help her ... I was just there. A month later, my guild was performing another raid and we were wiped out by some unexpected baddies .. The person I ressed happened to be in a group near the beginning of the dungeon where we were wiped out, and before I knew it, most of her guild was there to help clear the dungeon and get our corpses back. I mean about 30 other players went out of their way to come and help my friends out just because I helped one of their friends a month before. I donít know many people who would do that in real life Ö All I can say is ... Thank you Ostara" [m, 32]

Random Acts of Kindness

A variation of this theme is the random acts of kindness that many players experience. By increasing the number of ways that players can help each other, it increases the chances that altruistic individuals help lower-level players. Individual altruistic events promote trust at the community level which is crucial for trust at the individual level when two strangers encounter each other and could potentially form a relationship.

"One of my fondest memories of the game was having my first buff cast upon me by a level 19 Shaman. I didnít realize this could be done and it was at this point that the level of player interaction became apparent. A random act of kindness that one rarely sees in real life these days that has encouraged hours/days of play since." [m, 25]

"Those random acts of kindness really make online games a pleasure to play in. Whether someone has tossed me a heal, SOW or other useful spell for no reason, or given me a nice item without asking. I've tried my best to return these acts to others whenever possible." [m, 28]

Some EQ players were vocal about the annoyances of the player dependencies in EQ, and DAOC was consciously designed to make players more independent of each other than in EQ. However, these minor annoyances may actually help encourage and sustain strong social relationships in the long-run.


The Mechanics of Death

Beyond specific game mechanics, the world of EQ is also more dangerous than the world of DAOC. In EQ, when you die, your items stay on your corpse and you must travel to your corpse to retrieve your items. There is the chance you may not find your corpse, and also a chance that you may lose all your items if your corpse decays, apart from the frustration of having to retrieve your corpse instead of gaining XP. Both teleports and resurrection can only be cast by one or two classes, so dying is a very "expensive" event in EQ. DAOC is much safer in comparison. Your items stay with you instead of the corpse when you die; everything is a horse-ride away; you canít de-level because of experience loss; and resurrection is a low-level spell that several classes have. Trust is forged through dangerous and high-risk situations. You donít ever need to trust anyone except when the situation is dangerous, and EQ does this much better than DAOC. The game design decision to make death easy in DAOC also makes players more nonchalant about dying. Dying is a trivial event in DAOC. But because trusting friendships are forged from dangerous encounters, the mechanics of death actually have a huge influence on how relationships develop.


Of course in listing all these differences between EQ and DAOC, one has to keep in mind that game design is about compromising among multiple objectives, and Mythic purposely chose to streamline certain game features while Verant streamlined others. One might get the sense from the above contrasts that Mythic made poor decisions. This is not meant to be the case at all, and it must be pointed out again that game balancing oftentimes leads to compromises such as the ones mentioned.

In single player and limited multiplayer games, system rules and game mechanics mainly have an impact on how fun and engaging the game is. In MMORPGs, game mechanics have more far-reaching effects. Differences in game mechanics influence how an economy develops as well as how social relationships form. As upcoming MMORPGs provide integrated real-estate and player-elected governments, one could imagine using these worlds as social or political simulations in an attempt to understand large-scale human behavior without the fear of inflicting real world consequences. Or perhaps, we might come to realize that the rules of social interaction in online environments are so different from those in the real world that we need new theories to understand these phenomena.

Questions for Readers: Are there other game mechanics that influence the formation and development of social relationships or social networks? What other interesting large-scale behaviors or phenomena do game mechanics affect? (comment below)