Social Ties and the Online Time in MMOs

I wrote a little about the “hardcore vs casual” market and the donut model of Blizzard recently. In part I think the point there is that customers do get a form of classification that goes into game design. There is a underlaying model of the people and the market segment they belong to with the assumption that people from segment X won’t raid and people from segment Y will.

What is missing in this assumption, beyond what I wrote earlier in terms of fine detail are social ties. People who play MMOs may not be strangers when they start, and they may form social ties even online while playing. I know a great number of couples who play or have played WoW. I played a lot of my WoW time with a real life friend, who moved elsewhere. In fact I bought the game on because we were looking for something to play online together.

What is important for people is that when you log on, you can pretty much immediately play together and further that bringing your friend in doesn’t pose a real restriction to what you can do in the game.

This concern isn’t restricted to WoW but it also surfaced around rumors and announcements of the subscription model of Hellgate London prompting Bill Roper to write an open letter to the community to explain Flagship’s stance on the question. While the core of the discussion is about the subscription cost and access to the online game in principle, let me quote the parts that talk about social play directly:

We want as many players as possible to find and group with their friends online, regardless of when or where their characters were created. Gone are the days of worrying about making sure your new character will be able to play with your old friends. Everyone gets access to our secure multi-player game servers. Players can party and trade with other players and play through the entire adventure to save London from the grip of the demons.

This is one important aspect. Unlike my case where my real life friend and I started the game together, often this is not the case. Some friends join later. If they do, how big is the penalty to get to a state to play together? A second but ultimately related phenomenon is that of divergent online times. Some of my friends have more real life commitments than me. Whereas I may be able to be online at least four hours a night, just under two hours may be typical for them. Will the difference in available online time create access barriers between people with social ties?

This wasn’t really so much a question in the original WoW game but for me personally got amplified with the TBC release.

WoW does have content access restrictions and there are two types:

  • Buddy friendly access. If one player gets the key your buddy can come.
  • Buddy restricting access. Every player has to get the key to come.

As said earlier the restrictive second type of access model was reserved for 40 man raids in the original WoW. These needed long planning regardless and the question too is what was the actual cost to get your buddy access. With exception to Onyxia that cost was low. Hence even though there was Buddy restricted access it was possible, for a lot of content to overcome it with managable time investment. Naxxramas attunement could be sped up by an extra ingame material cost.

Some content, like Zul Gurub, Ruins of Ahn’Quiraj and the Temple of Ahn’Quiraj were open access hence had no buddy restriction. In other words there was buddy accessible raiding at the 20 and 40 size in the game.

TBC has spread Buddy restricted access. Now 5-man, 10-man and 25-man can have buddy restricted access. There are three encounters of 25-man instanced raiding that can in principle be reached without restrictions – these are in Gruul’s Lair and Magtheridon.

All heroic instances are buddy restricted, the first 10-man instance has a more time-intensive attunement that both Molten Core or Blackwing Lair had. Access to later instances require clearing previous ones.

If a friend reaches 70 to join his buddies who are in the middle of Serpentshrine Cavern, what is the time needed to get that friend access and allow buddy play in TBC as it stands now?

Karazhan attunement:

  • Rescue Thrall (5-man instance run) 90-120 minutes
  • Shadow Lab to Murmur (5-man instance run) 120 minutes
  • Steamvault to first boss (5-man instance run) 30 minutes
  • Arcatrasz to key fragment (5-man instance run) 30 minutes
  • Black Morass clear (5-man instance run) 50 minutes

Then Serpentshrine Cavern attunement:

  • Offset Missing Cenarion Expedition reps with Armament if available
  • Heroic Slave Pen to before the second boss (5-man heroic instance) 60 mins
  • Raid kill of Gruul (25-man instance)
  • Raid kill of Nightbane in Karazhan (10-man instance)

Compare this to Molten Core:

  • Attunement to the core run (5-man) 120 mins

and then Blackwing Lair:

  • Upper Black Rock Spire clear (10-man) 180 mins

Times are rough and I probably overestimated 0ld attunement times. Especially MC attunement had a backdoor patch allowing stealth classes to solo it and small groups (3-mans) to complete the attunement in very short time (less than 30 minutes). A good group could certainly clear UBRS in 120 minutes.

In the original WoW if buddies logged on there was no question that they had access to all 5 to 20-man content if one of them had it (i.e. keys to the instance door).

In WoW TBC buddies can log on and not have this. One may lack reputation to join heroics, or lack instance runs to join Karazhan. Even in the path 2.1.0 there is new content that isn’t immediately accessible. Specifically the Netherdrake quest hub requires the completion of a group quest first to get the base reputation for access.

Overall TBC seems to have more restrictions of Buddy play and it’s a real problem for people who want to play with real life friends and partners, or even just bring an online friend up to speed to join a raid.

Did Flagship initially overlook the reactions of folks to a model that looks like it separates friends in terms of access? Did Blizzard overlook social ties when designing the new access model in TBC?

This is intriguing because in the concept MMOs are about allowing people to play together, so the question of accessibility versus tiering access (for say, a “hardcore vs casual” customer base) should remain an interesting one. Was it wise for Blizzard to restrict access more in TBC than before? I think it’s yet to be seen.

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