[GW2] The Automation of the Social
I want to discuss an specific aspect of GW2 which I have seen praised but not enough scrutinized around the blogosphere. The social aspect of it - how it delivers the "massive multiplayer" part of an MMO. It's of course still a beta, and thus some of the initial observations cannot be as accurate as in the real game, but the features are still there, and it is possible to extrapolate a possible trend out of those.
I'll start saying that it is indeed a massive multiplayer game, perhaps the most genuine iteration of this genre. In GW2, for any grand-scale activity to succeed there has to be a contingent of players. PvP sieges, PvE events and I suppose that end-game encounters, they all need a raid-like size number of players. Throughout the game you are encouraged to team up -in the abstract, because no actual grouping is required- to overcome challenges. What is more, there is an inordinate amount of incentives to do so, in almost all of the activities that in previous titles used to demand a traditional group and a particularly helpful personality. In GW2 you can do these social things seamlessly, without the inconvenience of arranging a group. Without the benefits of being forced to group. Yes, you've read right, benefits of being forced. I can put it more lightly so it doesn't sound that ominous: being compelled to group up is a positive thing.
But in GW2 we don't have such compulsion. What we have is an automated system that rewards "social" activities.
My argument is as follows: by providing incentives for certain social activities, they are no longer indicative of a social attitude. By automating what used to require an effort -which in turn provided an equivalent satisfaction-, no links are formed between the players partaking in said activity; that is regarding grouping. Regarding other social gestures, such as resurrecting a comrade or helping her through a hard pull, the social aspect is muddled up by the incentives that they provide.
It's much easier to explain through examples. Let's see. Regarding grouping: I haven't played the GW2 beta, but I have tried Rift for a few weeks, to check out those dynamic events. For what I've seen, they are pretty similar in concept, although the delivery of the older game might not be as innovative. Both in Rift and GW2, you step into a zone which has an event, and you can participate in it along with everybody who is around. In the former you'd get into a "public" group by just clicking on a panel, if I remember correctly. No strings attached, no fooling around asking to get into the group. In GW2, they've accelerated the process even more - there is no such thing as a group, you just contribute and get your portion of the cake. In Rift, after the event was over, everybody parted ways. Sometimes it would be less alienating when the group was having a hard time, and some actual conversation was required to strategise. I don't know how it will be in GW2. Not having any clear roles established may end up being even more of a zerg-fest where the numbers and common-out-of-the-fire sense will prevail. I know Doone has more faith in this role-less system than I do ;).
On the other hand, we have the tradition of grouping for elite quests, dungeons and the like. I'm going back to the EQ, pre-LFG WoW times, which is what I'm now playing. By the way, I'm happy as a lark :). Well, grandma Milady in TBC has been doing some elite chain quests with random people, and ended up adding one or two of them to the friends list. Not just necessarily through elite quests, I had also stumbled upon a mage who was going to kill the same mobs as me, and grouped up to speed up the process and not trampling on each other's progress. We ended up farming the spot for reputation items, then grouped for a while, then added on friends, and finally we reach each other out when we need help or just want to talk for a while. I had to give up some comfort (playing alone, at my rhythm, not having to make conversation), to group up with an stranger that perhaps would have been not as nice as he turned out to be. There's always the risk. But I am glad I took it. Now, if in GW2 my loot is independent of the group I'm in, and I don't need to talk to that stranger to play with him, I will not meet this person. I wouldn't have met this nice lad.
As for the other social gestures, such as untagged mobs for all to attack, I argue that they are not social at all. If my neighbour is playing alongside me, helping me with my mobs, in TBC WoW I know that she is actually helping me out. In GW2, she might as well be just doing her objectives, looting her mobs, with coincidentally are yours too. Getting resurrected is always nice, but it is nicer when the caster doesn't have anything to gain from it. I am able to appreciate much more the gestures that are not done out of personal interest (getting an achievement or whatever the incentive was). Despite this wariness of mine, there's at least one feature which I regarded as very positive, as Dusty Monk reported: "Additionally, the big thing is any time a player dies, a marker goes over their head and a marker appears on the minimap. And any player at all can go over and revive that player. And because you see them on the minimap, it makes them easy to find. It's hard to describe just what a huge thing this is. But more than any other MMO I've played in, you are encouraged to help each other out". As for the other features - the area buffs that reach everybody, the lack of "penalization" for working together, etc, I regard them with suspicion. They are not working together as in group-together, they're all there, doing the same things, but they don't talk to each other. Well, some of them might; they haven't sworn a vow of silence. But if they are not even grouped together, there is no need to reach out to each other. They might as well be playing with bots.
I am aware that WoW has a certain reputation of "pitting players against each other". Dee even states that "Players are scum. WoW taught us that, and we turned insular." But I believe that this was the last generation problem of WoW (post-LFG), when server community became inconsequential, and the game became easier and more accessible to certain types of players which no longer had to behave themselves (pre-LFG, you wouldn't go very far in group-content/dungeons if you had a reputation of ninja or jerk). Nevertheless, there are douchebags everywhere. What GW2 does is hiding them behind a veneer of incentivized cooperation. I prefer to take my chances with people behaving their own way.
I am also aware that traditional group-content is a manner of forcing an attitude. Psychochild had commented on a previous post that he believed in "forced" social interaction. But this is exactly the difference between GW2 and older models where this worked: doing an event along with other players can be thought of as interaction, but it is not social, as nothing occurs on a personal level. Nothing is gained, except virtual currency. I also believe that unless you "force" people to group up, their deeply rooted social shyness will prevent them from interacting with their neighbour. In a society where talking to strangers is almost a sin, where only individual success is lauded, we develop a certain mindset that carries on to our games. We set up a barrier which, when we are conscious of it, we often desire to lower down, so we can reach to other people. I'm not talking just philosophy here, I believe that MMOs can be a vehicle through which a community may thrive, a way to overcoming our barriers.
You have to give players the opportunity to behave socially, or unsocially if they wish so. If you completely remove the choice, the system that you create is an artificial construct of apparent cooperation, where everybody is still going on their own, playing alone together more than ever. Oh, it is much more comfortable, indeed. Dealing with people is such a hassle. But what are MMOs for, then?
Eliminating the competition factor seems beautiful at a first glance, it is one of the few things that ought not be that outrageous. Still, it forfeits the possibility of behaving socially for real. I have competed for veins a lot of times, but I have also stepped out for a low-level character to get her skill up. I have at times competed for a mob, at others I have teamed up and ended up questing with a prospective friend. I still need the system to force me at times to get into groups, but I do not abhor the system, I am usually grateful for the opportunity it grants me.