On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal

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Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applid makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Snow Crash, one of Stephenson’s early works from 1992, is a classic of the cyberpunk genre. It’s fully developed in a way that earlier entries in the genre (c.f. Neuromancer) were not, with a solid adventure story mixed in with cyberpunk distopian musings on technology. There are a lot of elements that strike false chords now from this 20-year old work – I simultaneously giggle and sigh regretfully when he talks about hypercards – but there’s a lot of really interesting predictions in there, especially about the Metaverse, an avatar-driven version of the Internet and key alternate setting for the story.

Fiction subgenres seem to go through this a lot, where the first entry is groundbreaking in idea and scope but might be of varying actual quality, subsequent entries are more nuanced but still settling in to what the genre means, until finally the formula is established and authors can churn out books in an established, comfortable setting. Snow Crash will ruin Neuromancer for you, but Stephenson couldn’t have written it had Gibson not made the first move. You should read both books, but remember that Neuromancer came 8 years earlier, in 1984, and that both the computing landscape and the cyberpunk genre were very different when these works were composed.

When Blizzard announced cross-realm raiding and rated battlegrounds would be coming to Warcraft, my first thought was of how Blizzard – by addressing the technical problems that separates players from interacting with each other – is moving towards recreating Stephenson’s Metaverse, and of how social networks on the internet are really the keys to their success.

It’s not about raiding.

It’s not about PvP.

It’s about virtual identity and social interaction.

And for all the troubles that advances like cross server random battlegrounds and LFD have caused, they laid the groundwork for something great, something unexpected. Something much bigger than a video game.

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VIRTUAL YOU

Virtual presence is a funny thing to really think about deeply. I mean, here I am – meatspace Cyn, a human being typing at a computer. Because of the pictures and words I’ve chosen to represent myself with, you – a human being reading these words on the screen – have an idea about who I am, or who I present myself as being, at least. Even in the most passive kind of relationship, author and reader, there’s a flow of information going on between two people across time and space. That’s what books do. “There is a young lady sitting in a wooden chair. A glass of water sits, untouched, on the table beside her, sweating in the humid night air.” BOOM, I have just sent you an image across time and space. That’s pretty awesome.

The internet changes this relationship by closing the feeback loop. The passive relationship becomes a potentially active one, with readers taking part in the conversation and becoming authors themselves. Personal web sites begat weblogs, which in turn begat comments, which spread to Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and a host of other ways for people to talk to each other. It can stay passive – often is passive – but the technology makes it possible to easily close the feedback loop and turn a reader into an author. Consumers become producers. Dialog happens.

Cynwise is only one aspect of my virtual self, albiet my best-known one. I exist, in different ways, on different networks – I’m a wildlife photographer on Flickr and a PvP warlock on Twitter, and those parts of me can be as separate or combined as I choose. I can blog under different names, and they’re all still virtual me, but separate and distinct from themselves. Different channels allow for different avatars. This is one of those things I think cyberpunk novels didn’t anticipate in the ’80s and ’90s, how fragmented cyberspace would be. The concept of a monolithic, single environment like the Metaverse is somewhat sunk in the techology of the time, and didn’t anticipate the wild democratization of the Internet which happened in the late 90s/early 00s. They may have anticipated Netscape, but they didn’t expect Javascript or Ruby on Rails to come along with it. The technoelite proved to be broader and wider than expected (and that’s a good thing.)

I find it interesting slotting Warcraft into this milieu of online social networks.

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IS WOW A GLORIFIED CHAT CLIENT, OR SERIOUS INTERNET DRAGONSLAYING BUSINESS?

(Or, false dichotomy.)

I’ve heard WoW called “a chat client I was paying $15/month for.” This is almost always in reference to quitting WoW, and it strikes me as both brutally honest and unfair at the same time. It’s honest because it can be just that – a chat client. That comment is often accompanied by stories of standing around in Dalaran, or doing laps in Dalaran, or doing other things that give the Dalaran Board of Tourism and Commerce hives. Something about Dalaran.

It’s brutally honest to realize what you’re doing, which is to log in to a video game to talk to people because you don’t feel motivated to “play” the game – i.e. have your avatar do things. You just want to get in and talk to folks, which, to be honest, you can do for free using a variety of other social network tools on this newfangled Internetthingy we have.

It’s a rational cost decision to quit WoW at that point. Why should you go and pay $15/month to use a chat client when there are free options? I wouldn’t, and I’m almost positive you wouldn’t, not if that’s all it was. Get on Facebook or Twitter. Visit your guild forums. Use Skype. Sit in Vent and chat with folks. All of these are zero-cost social media networks which can be used to talk with people, and while it’s not the same as doing things with them in the virtual world, if you weren’t really doing those things anyway, why spend the money?

The unfairness comes in the false dichotomy presented with the question at the top of this section, though. It’s not that WoW has to be either a chat client or serious internet dragonslaying business. It’s not like someone said, hey, we notice you’ve stopped raiding, how about you try this somewhat cumbersome text chat client with a severely limited participant pool? Hope all your friends are on this server / playing this faction / in your guild / haven’t turned trade chat off!

No, the social network is there no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing within the game, as an MMO it is designed to reward social experiences. PvP, PvE, auction housing, even leveling and questing – you are in a virtual world populated with other people.

WoW is a simple social network with a video game bolted on top of it. 

That’s really weird to say it that way. It’s an inversion of the normal way we look at WoW, and even how it was developed. WoW is a video game, right? And there are video games you play by yourself, and games you play with others. And those games you play with other have social media “tools” bolted on to them – Real ID / Facebook integration, anyone – but at their heart they’re a video game. Talking to other people is a side effect of having multiple players, not the core functionality of the game. It’s not like Farmville, where Blizzard said, hey, let’s use an existing social network site and build a video game around it.

(If they had, the flaws in WoW’s social network might not be so problematic. But I digress.)

I don’t think it was Blizzard’s intention to make a social network. I’m honestly not arguing that. But I think that what they’ve created has inadvertently become one, a powerful one at that, and that many of the changes we have seen in the last 3 years have been Blizzard and the WoW playerbase trying to come to grips with this fundamental paradigm shift.

Hear me out.

Simple video games don’t bother with an avatar. You interact directly with the controls and jack straight in; there’s no digital representation of you in the mix. If I start a game of Solitaire on my computer, I don’t go through and pick which player best represents me. That’s irrelevant to the actual gameplay and is (rightfully) discarded. These games can be incredibly complex, and even drop you into a story as an actor (like Zork or Myst), but there’s no avatar required. It’s all first person or second person.

Avatar-driven games get more interesting. You make characters, you present a face to the game. You may not be trying to represent yourself – think of all the different Shepard models – but this thing, it represents me, it is me in the game. It could be a car in a racing game, or a character in a fighting game, or multiple characters in a RPG – but as soon as you add an avatar, players are now able to say that is me.

Things get a hell of a lot more interesting when you add other players to the mix. Now, you have me and you and you and you and you. Maybe it’s just the two of you, so the avatar requirements are pretty simple. I don’t need a digital avatar to play Words with Friends on my iPhone – a username will do. But that username is an avatar. It’s important to remember that. Names are simple avatars, icons more complex, actual humanoid creatures even more complex, spiraling exponentially to the very fungible reality Second Life presents.

But for most video games, the avatar isn’t the point. The game is the point. The objectives and goals and gameplay within the game is the purpose of the game. This is startlingly different from a social network like Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or even weblogs, where the interaction between avatars is the point. That’s why Twitter seems so effing pointless when you first pick it up – what am I supposed to do with it? Talk to … who, exactly? About … what? What I had for lunch? You are given a blank tool with no real direction about how to find people with similar interests or who you find entertaining or useful or … wait, why did you sign up for Twitter? Was it to get short news updates, to keep up with celebrity gossip, or to chat about video games?

Video games provide purpose and direction. Social networks do not, letting the user determine what they want out of the service.

Avatar-driven video games provide a means for virtual projection, for assuming a virtual persona. And if they allow you to actually interact with other players, well, then they start functioning just like a social network, albiet a constrained one. Your avatar choices are limited, but perhaps more detailed. Instead of a picture of … anything, you have to pick a specific kind of wizard or spaceship captain. Your interactions can be confined in game – perhaps there aren’t global chat channels, and you have to move your avatar to places to interact with other players. Pure social networks try to reduce this interaction friction, make it as easy as possible (since that’s their sole purpose), but games might have different priorities.

Let’s take a limited interaction in WoW as an example. I logged in to my Horde priest, saw my keybinds were screwed up and that I really had to spend some time straightening them out to get the character playable again. I said hi to my guild, saw a friend of mine was online in a nearby zone – Nagrand. She was grinding rep, so I figured I’d swing by and fiddle with my keybinds in a beautiful zone, since Nagrand is seriously the prettiest place in Warcraft. I got a basic keybind settled, hit up one of the guards at Halaa to try it out (really high health, low damage, perfect training dummy) while chatting with folks.

About 10 minutes later my friend swings by on her warrior and tanks the Halaani guard for me. It was probably a second guard, they eventually die after like 15 mintues of Smite Smite Smite SCREAM Bubble Smite Smite Smite Smite WINGS, but that kind of practice is actually really good for settling your keybinds. We continued a conversation we’d had earlier over Twitter, and after a bit I needed to go so she went back to grinding Mag’har rep.

The details of the story don’t really matter – it could have been helping a friend run a lowbie through an instance, running heroics with guildmates, doing Arenas with partners – because so much of Warcraft is predicated around things like this, doing things with other people. You have social interactions all the time. The advantage Warcraft has over Twitter is that you can do stuff with people while talking to them. You can go play a video game with people while chatting with them! You can have a real avatar, one that like moves and talks and walks and can wear clothing and kill Internet Dragons! Holy moly, that’s radical shit!

I’m not being sarcastic, either. It’s pretty radical shit. You have a social network which not only allows, but encourages you to go do stuff with other users of that network. You want to just stand around and talk? That’s cool, you can do that. But you can also go run a dungeon together. You can go stage a dance contest in Thunder Bluff and get angry at the Tauren constables for running you out of town. You can go invade the opposite faction’s capitals – or maybe just Crossroads. You can queue up for battlegrounds or dungeons or even raids now with people you know.

That’s something Google+ hasn’t implemented yet. Neither has Twitter. And Facebook’s graphics engine is totally shit.

Listen, I know. Cyn, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it flies like a duck, it’s a duck for crying out loud. Saying that WoW isn’t a video game is … well, yes, it’s a video game.

But just try this the next time you log in: look around at what you’re doing, and think of it differently. Think of it as a social network that lets you do cool things (KILL INTERNET DRAGONS) while interacting with other people. Friends, hopefully, but strangers (potential friends?) too – see how much of the game is really oriented around that goal of doing stuff with other people. When you’re buffing for your first pull on raid night, realize that you’ve connected a group of 10/25 people together over voice and text chat, all to play a game together. When you log in to your guild, don’t just look at it as your guild, but as an exclusive chat channel, of a Friends/Followers list that you don’t have all that much control over.

When you take away the social aspect of WoW, it’s just a single player video game. And eventually you’ll get tired of it and move on, because there’s nothing to really keep you in it.

Your avatar means nothing without other people.

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BBSES, COMPUSERVE VS AOL, SERVER COMMUNITIES, LFBG/D/R AND WALLED GARDENS

It was 1987 and I was a BBS nerd. I knew this guy who knew a guy who ran a system up in Ridgefield with 4 (count them FOUR) 9600 baud modems hooked up to a BBS. It was a place where there were message boards about comics and D&D and computers and it was basicallly nerd heaven. I was … I was named after a famous comic book hero, let me just leave it at that. It was my first online handle and I’m not proud, but I was also 13, so I have an excuse.

The technical limitations of that server, no matter how cool the fucking hardware was, were pretty severe. That was true of all BBSes – you had to know the number to call, you had to create a user account just there, the sysop had to approve you and grant you access and then you had to check back periodically by dialing into the system. The internet was something bigger than that BBS, kind of talked about but not really known about. Accessing the internet was free, and there wasn’t a lot you could *do* there – while this BBS had stuff going on. Local comic shop news? D&D games looking for players? SIGN ME UP.

We told a lot of stories on that BBS, collaborative stories, some play-by-forum RPG games too. It may have been primitive, it may have been text based, but in many ways it satisfied a lot of the social needs Warcraft fills for me now – it let me do stuff with friends. Most of the were friends, at least – it’s not like a 4-line BBS could have thousands of users.

I know it sounds hokey, but that BBS was really cool to me. Yes, it was isolated – it served like 7 little towns in Connecticut. It wasn’t connected to other things. But there was a great little community going there, something that shouldn’t be extrapolated out to “this was BBS culture,” but “this was COMLINK, and this is a cool place to be.”

Yeah. Comlink. Don’t laugh. It was the 80s, we all get a fucking free pass for the entire decade.

Compuserve and AOL came into my life a little later, though Compuserve existed before then. Compuserve had banks of modems around the world that you could dial into and access their systems, a model that AOL copied and became huge and successful with. I used both, but mostly AOL later on when I dropped out of college. Especially early on, both services presented a walled garden to users – content hosted within their servers, theoretically vetted by their moderators, to contrast with the internet that was shaping up “out there”. In some ways they were like a BBS writ large, with forums and chat rooms and mail and content pages – holy crap, do you remember “Visit Keyword: X” before URLs became mainstream? – and there was a war going on between these two services, one being perceived as family friendly, the other more business oriented, both of them relying upon access fees and walled gardens of content to convince people to hook up their computers to their computers and give them things to do.

The internet was scary, it was difficult, but it was also the wave of the future. People were figuring out how to use it in the late 80s and early 90s, back when Compuserve connecting email to the Internet was a BIG FUCKING DEAL. Shit, as late as 1998 I was working at an place where one of our major selling points was email integration to the internet from a Lotus Notes network. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe we used to have to have clever internet gateways just to send an email outside of our little sandbox.

As time went on, however, the internet (specifically the HTTP and SMTP protocols, and the allmighty TCP/IP stack) became the de facto standards for communication between computers. Netscape changed a lot of this, to be honest. The walled gardens AOL and Compuserve provided were no longer the only places to visit on the web. People started saying, wait, why should I go through this proprietary gateway to get to the places I really want to go? Why should I have to pay for X content when it’s out there on the web for free? What about all those companies who offered their services solely on AOL (“Visit Keyword: JCPenney!”), what about the lost revenue by not having their stuff available for the wider web?

Other companies got in the act and began offering access without the walled garden, and while AOL and Compuserve managed to survive and make profits during that time (mostly by making internet access seem daunting, then providing a relatively simple solution), by the late 90s the internet was the thing, not the walled garden. The internet was where Everyone was, with global reach. All the promises of Cyberspace and the Metaverse were not to be found behind the high walls of the CIS compound or the towers of AOL – no, they were out there in the raw HTML floating around on the mutated bones of ARPANET.

The history of these services and how they connected people is entirely relevant to looking at the state of Warcraft today.

The limitations of technology restrict our individual social circles, that’s a self-evident truth. When long distance was expensive, we didn’t call across the ocean; now that we have VoIP, video calls around the world can be made for free. Technology breaks down geographic barriers in this way. When I was on a BBS, I could interact only with other geeks a few towns away. The internet’s global reach lets me talk to you, now, nearly anywhere in the world.

Warcraft has struggled because the technology for video games – how do I display this avatar, how do I display an internet dragon, how do I make them fight – has lagged significantly behind social network technology. It’s not because it’s being developed slower, games just require so much more hardware that limitations are in place which make no sense in light of modern social networks.

Pre-battlegroup servers were the BBSes of WoW. You had to have an account to play there, you could only interact with people on that server, which led (in turn) to highly specialized server subcultures. The social network was limited in size, and like any small community, standards of behavior got enforced. You knew the players you played with. You interacted with them all the time. PvP players knew their opponents because they played against each other all the time.

But there are problems with single, isolated servers. Faction imbalances are heightened, as one side may be demonstrably superior. Some servers just aren’t very good, while others are overcrowded. Instanced battlegrounds could take hours to get a game together, because it all depended on server population and playstyles.

These are legimate problems Blizzard faced with single servers. And, approaching it like a video game company, they set out to make their game more fun.

Battlegroup servers were the Walled Garden phase of WoW’s development as a social network. By bridging the gaps between servers – first with linked battlegrounds, then arena teams and battlegroups, then random bgs, then finally LFD in Wrath – Blizzard took steps to fix a huge problem with their game. People wanted to do activities, but getting a group together to do it was difficult. PvP was the place to start not only because it was lower participant population than PvE (and therefore longer queues, but because of the faction communication barrier, it was impossible for players to effectively coordinate this on their own in-game. Servers got imbalanced, factions got imbalanced, but if you could broaden the pool of players enough, then the inconsistences would even out in a statistical wash.

There were serious technical barriers that Blizzard had to work with to solve this issue, which is why the battlegroup system (based on data center) was used instead of a game-wide system. Network speeds and computing speeds had to get fast enough to allow players on different servers to interact without major latency on the server sides. As the techology improved, Blizzard could move servers out from BBSes to little walled gardens, where a dozen servers got together to bash skulls in with PvP.

The introduction of cross-server LFD was a big deal, but honestly, it was a logical outgrowth of the battlegroup innovations for BGs and PvP. Once you start connecting computers together, you can’t go back.

(Aside: I think it would be really interesting to plot out the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ chronologically against the social developments in WoW over time.)

Post-battlegroup/RealID servers are the current phase of WoW’s social network. The BBS community of each server is long gone, but RealID is the death blow to the walled garden phase of WoW – though that phase will be a long time in dying. Friend is on a different server? No problem! First BGs and 5 man dungeons, now rated BGs and old raids, eventually questing, Arenas, and current raids will be possible with RealID.

Mark my words; you will be able to do just about everything with a RealID friend on a different server as you can with a regular player on the same server. Interacting with the world – questing – will be the most difficult, because you have to figure out which server is “home” – but it’s going to happen. We’ll probably see arenas first, then questing, and then – only when people are used to the idea that the walled garden is really gone – will they enable cross-server current raids.

The trend in technology is to broaden reach and allow choice. Social networks are a bit ahead of the curve, but make no mistake – as an MMO, Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of its own social network, and it’s not just competing against SW:TOR or RIFT – they’re all competing against social media.

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BATTLETAGS, OR WHY BLIZZARD KNEW NOT WHAT IT WROUGHT

Hey, Battle Tags are coming to Diablo 3 (now) and Warcraft (soon). Battle Tags are everything that RealID should have been as the foundation of a social network. The Google+ real name fiasco showed this in even larger print than the controversy surrounding RealID when it came out – people want to have virtual avatars different from their real selves on the Internet. For a host of reasons – safety, security, branding, roleplaying, privacy, social anxiety, the stigma of playing video games – not everyone wants to use their real names.

Think back to the Metaverse of Snow Crash again. (You’ve gone and read it by now, right?) Some people use their real selves in the ‘verse – especially the heroes of the story. But many people don’t, choosing to appear more handsome or beautiful, more dressed up or exotic, or not even human at all. Those desires are real and have nothing to do with identity assumption, but rather play and whimsy.

Hey! Guess what! I like playing as a warlock, or a death knight, or a warrior for a little while. I don’t confuse that with my real self, but sometimes it’s fun to be someone else for a while!

That’s what Blizzard missed with Real IDs – pseudonyms. It’s easy to point to the Google+ scandal now, but at the time RealID rolled out I think they honestly believed they were solving the right problem – letting people play with their friends. And RealID does that, and provides a framework for doing it well.

The problem is that “friends” has different definitions in the context of different social networks, and that friends you trust with your name and email address may not be the same as friends you want to play a video game with. I might give out my real name to a business contact with impunity, but that’s because my name is my professional avatar. My warcraft avatar is established first and foremost by the characters I roll, and then by the ancilary avatars on other networks.

Does anyone else remember all the promises that RealID would be linked in to Facebook? I don’t use RealID or Facebook enough to know if that really came to pass, but I think it’s instructive into the thinking that dominated RealID development. Facebook is (in theory) all real names. The paradigm is that you sign up as yourself so that the FB network can match you up with all the connections you’ve made in your life. I went to school here, I worked here, I know this person, hey do you know that person?

Psudonyms don’t fit that model very well. While you can construct the same kind of formal and informal social network diagrams with them – Cynwise was in guild X and invited Fynralyl, she brought over Psynister, etc. – there’s not much marketing value in doing so, and there are also a lot of dead ends. Is this ths same Cynwise as the Cynwise on Lightbringer? What about that poor Forsaken Warlock who gets mistaken for me all the time? What if I delete the character and move on? There are a host of problems with pseudonyms associated with disposable avatars that are real and require thought to overcome.

RealID is the Facebook model, a walled garden of its own kind. But BattleTags is the internet model, the commenter on a blog, the Twitter account.

It’s a sign that Blizzard realizes they are really selling a social network service now, one with a cool video game on top of it.

And I personally couldn’t be happier that they finally get it.

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THEY ARE FIGHTING OVER YOU, OR HOW WARCRAFT CAN IMPROVE AS A SOCIAL NETWORK

Products live and die by their users. Either people find it useful and pay for it, or they don’t. Business models might include coercion to get people to pay for those services (record companies, telecoms, movie companies) or they might give it away (open source, many web applications), but they’re all out there, competing for your time and attention.

Blizzard is faced with a very real and serious problem. How do you keep people engaged in a video game and not wandering off to other activities? It’s not enough to say, don’t go off to another video game. Instead, the business challenge is, come visit here enough so that you think the price you pay is worth it. Keep coming back.

Websites usually call this “stickiness,” the pull that a website has to bring people back again and again. Facebook is really sticky. Wikia is surprisingly sticky. Photo sharing sites like Flickr is sticky. Once you’ve acquired the customer, keeping them around is actually quite a challenge because you’re not just competing with all your direct competitors, you’re competing with other kinds of activities, too.

WoW finds itself in competition with mobile games on the iPhone and Android platform, and is losing badly for casual gamers. It finds itself in competition with television and movies, which it actually does really well against.

It’s up against Facebook. And Twitter. And Google+.

And it’s up against turning off the computer and going and doing something else.

I think, in order to thrive in this new world, Warcraft has to embrace its new identity as the Metaverse. It has to recognize that it’s a video game and a social experience all molded into one, and the sooner it moves out of the Walled Garden mode and into the Global Internet phase, the better.

Some ideas on how it can do this.

Get rid of servers. Make everything cross-realm. The easier you make it to take your avatar to do things with other people, no matter where they are, the stickier WoW gets.

Break down the walls of communcation within the game. While a cross-realm Trade channel scares me a little bit (I’ll be honest), communication has to transcend its current constraints. If the guilds are to be important and survive, allow people to participate in multiple guild chats at once.

Grant more control over who people choose not to interact with. WoW is on the right path towards letting you group with people you like, but it sorely needs controls over the people you don’t want to ever see again. An ignore list of 50 worked in the BBS era of a single server. With LFR and LFD and LFBG and LFQ coming down the road, the ignore function should be unlimited, and it should be account-wide.

Break down the walls of communication outside the game. Why does WoW not integrate with Google+, FB chat, and Twitter yet? Why does it not support Jabber or other IM protocols? Make WoW the chat client of choice. I feel like I’m going to have to quote JWZ’s law of email envelopment: all applications expand until they can send and receive email. In this case, make it IM/twitter/FB chat and WoW wins.

Break down faction walls. I know this is controversial, and I know a lot of people will be all faction pride trumps everything, but it’s the last artificial barrier within the game to playing with people you want to play with. Give people a guest pass when grouping with cross-faction friends, transform them into the appropriate alternate race, and let them play.

Cross-server item mailing. This is one of two options in finally getting rid of the BBS hierarchy that servers impose on players. Bind things to your account, not to a server. Those things that are already bound to your account – heirlooms – the fact that they can’t be sent across servers so you can do things with friends is a serious irritation now. Yes, there’re technical reasons why this is hard. Yes, it might not be sexy. But it needs to happen. It should really be expanded to other items – perhaps mailing normal items across server binds them to your account – but let’s start with the ‘looms.

Alternately: Free, unlimited character transfers. This is scary, because servers could become ghost towns overnight, and other servers could crash. But if you get rid of the chains holding people onto a server, you don’t have to figure out how to move items around – just move toons. Perhaps they lower the gold cap to address questions of server economy. Perhaps they allow “guesting” on different servers instead of permanent transfers. Perhaps Battle Tag-enabled questing and dungeoning and PvP will solve this and make this irrelevant.

But perhaps it’s an easier solution than fixing the cross-server item mailing issue.

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THE PROBLEM OF GUILDS

Last word here, promise.

The one real thorn in all of this are guilds. I think almost every other problem can get worked out – yes, even the problems of disrupting server economies by opening a “global” market – but guilds present a real challenge. Cataclysm has seen huge changes to how guilds work, and in nearly every single way those changes have been counter to the social network development.

I think that’s actually been maddening for a lot of players. Is a guild optional, or not? What was formerly a social tie now has real in-game impact. Smaller guilds that have struggled to reach levle 25 find it hard to recruit; larger guilds find themselves packed with opportunists in it for the perks. Each and every change to guilds this expansion has been designed to get you into a guild and keep you there.

And yet, nearly every other social development has been exactly the opposite direction: get you off your server and playing with people you like.

Guilds are real, living social entities. They breathe and live through the work of their members. They sweat blood trying to down bosses or enemies in the battlefield. A good guild is a wonder to behold, and a joy to be a part of. It might be the culture, it might be that it’s a safe haven, it might be that it’s a set of die-hard perfectionists chasing world firsts.

Guilds, as they stand now, are directly counter to the social network WoW is becoming. The first clashes have already begun – cross-realm LFR is excluding current raids almost certainly to force people to stay in guilds to raid, to make their guild and server choices still matter – even though that’s not the direction people want to go in, as evidenced by the very existence of LFR/LFD. The death knell has already been struck for PvP guilds – rated battlegrounds were the raison d’être for many of them, and once Arenas go cross server it will be complete.

The writing is on the wall for guilds. And that’s a terrible thing, because I think there are a lot of good guilds out there which deserve to survive.

I have two proposals.

Guilds must become cross-server. This has to happen, or guilds will die. Guilds have to join players in jettisoning the server and living in the WoW network cloud. Maybe they’re based on one server, but membership with perks needs to be extended no matter where the character is housed. Most importantly, guild chat needs to work cross server.

Players can belong to multiple guilds at the same time. People don’t want to have to choose between good choice X and good choice Y for their social company. Don’t force people to say that I raid with X, therefore I can’t hang out with Y while I’m on the bench.

Guilds are social circles of like-minded people with similar goals. Steal a page from Google+ and let people define those circles how they like. Perhaps you have to define which guild tag you are wearing at any time, and that’s what your guild rank/perks/loot go towards. Perhaps everyone in a dungeon needs to have the same tag on for it to count as a guild run – that’s okay too.

But give people the option to define their circles without excluding other options.

I know a lot of this is … unconventional. It takes the idea of the guild as a monogamous relationship and shatters it. Why couldn’t someone join a bunch of guilds and hop between them?

Well, why couldn’t they? Why stop someone from bringing different characters to different raids, depending on the need? Why force them to choose?

Yes, there’s the possibility of espionage in top guilds, of one player going in covertly and spying on another guild. You know what? That already happens. And denying features that would help the vast majority of WoW’s player base based on the race for world firsts is downright stupid.

I think guilds are going to have to be radically reinvented over the next expansion if they are to survive.

If not, I don’t think they’re going to survive outside the walled garden.

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23 Comments

Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

23 responses to “On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal

  1. Psynister

    And with a single post, Cynwise of Stormwind did reshape the foundation of the gaming world.

  2. _Rades

    Yeah, this is one of those posts where I don’t feel adequately mentally prepared to actually respond. For now, I’ll just say Bravo, Cyn.

  3. Somnar_SWC

    First off, thank you for timing that with having to re-install my OS and WoW Cyn! Secondly, this is just a incredibly sweeping post. It is a whole lot to digest, but I’m hoping what your envisioning here is closer than we all think. Excellent, well thought out.. post (that just seems to short of a name to give it.) It was thought provoking, interesting and probably the best thing I’ve ever read on our blogging community./salute

  4. toliman

    yikes, lets go backwards to forwards to address all of this, (because it’s fun … ?)guild-hopping Vs, multi-guild subscription/membership, would be easier if there were sub-guilds, or a meta-guild that incorporated several sub-guilds, and the meta-guild shared rankings and ownership, much the same way that OpenID shares membership status, while retaining individual guild status. it does not address cross-server movement, where a player can keep identity and guild ranking.a tiered ranking system so that there’s a primary/secondary guild, or “sub-guild” system would do this, i.e. keeping guild officers as officers of the world-guild, but belonging in each sub-guild on each server. this way you could be in as many sub-guilds as you want, with officer status in each, inheriting world-guild membership status as a central identity. the problem then becomes who runs the world-guild and who is allowed to rank up and make decisions, etc. especially if that ranking will spill over into the hierarchy of other guilds on several servers, or losing that ranking in one guild will also spill over into the other guilds.and then there’s punitive measures that would lack efficacy, the /wgkicking of admins, officers and such from the child-guild in the case of guild drama, would be rendered useless, as they could rejoin the regular server guild and remove the leadership of the guild by force, as they still inherit their officer status from the master/world guild.the infrastructure for doing this is relatively easy in terms of databases, the question of implementation is much, much more reasonable, and harder to really answer, as it depends on people. people, are evil. when you create a world, you have to assume that people, are not benevolent, sharing, kind, respectful, and passive. What World/Local Guilds would encourage and does right now, is isolate friends from strangers, which is something that your post doesn’t touch on.the entire reason most games don’t have auto-matches is that it breaks the competitive sense of identity, and the reason guilds are built to remain small is so that non-guild players can still play the same game as guilded people. it’s not so much that guilds are aggressive, it’s that a larger sense of identity, leads to entitlement and empire-building, and especially that sense of entitlement will encroach on the game itself, with mercantile establishments and raid “ownership” encroaching on the game’s foundations, such as the questing areas that would become warzones, guilds using the AH as banks and overcharging/holding resources from other players to induce market shortages/floods, etc. creating guilds with 3000 people, or 10,000 people, leads to castes, and ranks and ultimate heirarchies. and much like banking cartels, and drug cartels, the power to influence the game would move where the money is, and the power to act. there are very few benevolent armies, and what a mega-guild is, is not a fiefdom, it’s an army that requires movement, action, engagement, and purpose. and it needs to feed on something, that would most likely be other people, itself, or it’s leadership.EVE is a good example of this, because it’s a unified world, but it’s also a lot less tyrranical, there are few rules and few police that can act. it’s all about holding resources and territory within spaces set up for ownership and warfare, as well as expansion and territorial mining, etc. it’s a game of empires, set in space. which is something that cross-realm transfers would lead to, players wanting to shore up their auction markets on multiple servers, jumping from server to server to server in a day, buying up pets, or ores, or BoE weapons, and selling them for unified prices, higher prices, or flipping prices, where one server sells for 2000g, another sells for 19,000g, etc. and especially if the guild alone gets free transfers between guilds, there’s no incentive to not join an empire.the reason that WoW prevents server-hopping is not because it’s mean, or trying to cash in, but for the reasons that people can exploit a percieved weakness in what is not a realistic world, it is a tyrrany with rules and while those rules are enforced either strangely, weakly, or dogmatically, on a server by server basis, the rules are there, and they are still quite punitive, and there’s nowhere to hide in a virtual world except by blaming other people.and, they will. it won’t be the gold farmers running merchant empires, it will be PvP guilds, mini-factions establishing dominance in the only way they know, territory holding and running intra-guild banks that can encompass an entire battlegroup. the simple act of buying and selling becomes infinitely less sacred because there’s no reason to sell, or buy if the market can’t be trusted, if you think the buyer will change servers to make more money elsewhere, or the seller is farming the mats using ‘bots instead of playing the game, or is flipping the prices from another server, etc.and it’s all about people. not merciless, evil and degenerate people, it’s hundreds of well-meaning players all acting to get an advantage, one step at a time. the road to modernity (and arguably, empire and capitalism, for different reasons) is paved with good intentions, decision-makers and ruthless politics, something that expansion encourages.one person does not have a lot of power against hundreds of other players. but, if in a situation where before you had 30 players, and you now have 300 players all move onto one objective, it would be impossible for the average guild to operate, let alone enjoy the game, especially in the case of preventative actions, guild level griefing and so on. i would recommend you read the story, Anda’s game by cory doctorow, http://www.salon.com/2004/11/15/andas_game/ , then, put that into the context of WoW, RIFT, SWTOR, and the modern MMO, as it was intended, and see how the egalitarian, social ideal measures against the exploitative needs of a mercantile and inevitable force of empire-building, and faction dominance.wow’s integral races, living in isolated cities and the invisible faction-wall is there to create the sense of a stagnant, isolated fiefdom, not a warfront. obviously, the eternal war is really really pointless in WoW, because it has no real victor, and without the presence of the aspects or the titans as a big-bad, it would be entirely self-sabotaging and internecine warfare, with duplicity, intrigue and assassinations aplenty, as fiefdoms are. and that’s really the point, the sides are supposed to be equal, and yet hostile, the challenge is to paint one white and one black, then change the colours around to make it “complex”, when it’s not. changing any aspect of the interface between people and the virtuality of the game world, can be immersion-breaking, as anyone who played WoW, at the introduction of the LFG system, would recall spending a great amount of time riding around in circles around dalaran, waiting for a LFG timer to pop you into a dungeon with 4 random strangers, and then being kicked out, 3 minutes later for trivial reasons. i don’t think the idea is fully-constructed on this basis, mainly because it doesn’t examine the worst aspects of what would happen. the best of intentions has to be measured against the vast world of knowledge acting as gravity for any decision affecting the interaction of people in the game.

  5. Ironyca

    I scrolled down and thought “oh god… that’ll take a while”, but I’m glad that I did read it. Very thought-provoking I must say, you built your article up as a very strong argument.”Get rid of servers. Make everything cross-realm. The easier you make it to take your avatar to do things with other people, no matter where they are, the stickier WoW gets.”The mantra seemed to be “connect more widely, burn the last walled gardens!”, like an urbanization within the rural WoW. I do however wonder if these smaller communities, when removed, could result in a loss of belonging. Maybe our online identities are made from more than being a warlock, but also which server we play on, what “village” we’re from? I’m just wondering if we as users/players are finding it easier to mentally navigate the metaverse if it’s categorized at least a little and gives us a platform to begin from and relate to?About the stickiness, the danger I’m seeing happening right now, is that WoW may well be very sticky for people already stuck. But for newcomers, it can be difficult to get in contact with other players through informal methods. Everything is becoming more and more mechanized and systematized. Sometimes it seems to me that the cross-realm-LF systems are meant to remove the talking to get to the playing quicker – perhaps a little counter to your overall message?”Give people a guest pass when grouping with cross-faction friends, transform them into the appropriate alternate race, and let them play.”I like the prospect of this, although I think it could be more humorous if this service didn’t faction change the one part. If we want to get rid of the faction barrier, then let people be the character (incl race and faction) they are even in the presence of someone of the opposite faction. I’m just seeing amazing roleplay potential here – secret romances, espionage, defection.”Players can belong to multiple guilds at the same time.”I loved your characteristic of guilds, so spot on. The proposed change is an interesting one, but people can still chat to other guilds by setting up a community channel. I see your point though, and I think it could work out. Some guilds are like a family though, a surname (look at how guild tags are displayed even), I’m afraid we are fragmenting too much and that by giving up monogamy-guild-loyalty, we’re perhaps ending up with no loyalty at all. I don’t know :)Anyways, beautiful post. I suspect you are a voice of the future Cyn.

  6. Matty

    Please tell me someone handed you an honorary doctorate for this.Your treatise on the anthropological systems and emergent behaviors is brilliant. Kind of lost me there where things went all technical and such, but you know your audience. For me, the most resonating quote was: It’s pretty radical shit. You have a social network which not only allows, but encourages you to go do stuff with other users of that network. You want to just stand around and talk? That’s cool, you can do that. But you can also go run a dungeon together.That’s what I love: social interactions and “doing stuff” besides just talking. I’m sure Parker Brothers still sells a Monopoly board or two, as well. Bravo, Cyn!PS Yes, I will keep your inbox full with a retweet or two.And, if I want to pretend I am a blonde, horned, tailed, and hooved shaman for a few hours, glad I am in good company.

  7. Cameron

    I’m kind of curious what you were trying to get at with “fungible reality”. I wonder if you meant something like… I dunno. Customizable, I guess? Pliant? Sorry, not trying to be pedantic, just the word’s definition doesn’t help me really understand what you’re saying (although I can largely get the gist of it from context).Good post!The criticism of the changes to the guild system is good. I hadn’t really devoted any thought to them, but it is true that they work against player choice pretty actively. I know my tiny little guild never has (and never will) get the fish feast recipe.On the other hand, that tiny little guild is an oasis of calm and decency amongst the waving dickhole-fronds of the internet, and I would be loathe to give that up. Any changes to make guilds less of a thing would need to include some way of building and staffing the ramparts for those of us that like our walled gardens.

  8. vitaemachina

    Absolutely brilliant post. I’ve wondered for a while how exactly they plan to reconcile guilds versus the more social network-oriented aspect of the game, and you’ve pretty much said absolutely everything I could ever say and then some.So fantastic. Thanks so much for writing this.

  9. Mitsune

    Very interesting read, and I am very curious as to whether or not Blizzard sees the future as you do. I do find myself agreeing with your visions, though, even if I do not currently play; the parallels are neat, especially with the added storytime factor for those who are too young to remember the early days of the ‘net.

  10. Rezznul

    Just an amazing post.As things were being listed and discussed, I kept identifying with it, and seeing the light more and moreYou’re absolutely correct; what keeps me going is the ability to DO things with the people I interact with. I love chatting in gchat, only to find someone needs some help. If I am able to, I’ll hop over and give them a hand, having fun all the while.Having Blizzard expand the social concept is really a huge thing, and I love all of your suggestions, including the “guest pass” faction suggestion. I mean, really, if your thing is to have faction pride, there’s no reason you have to partake. However, many people (including myself) have been on both sides of Azeroth, and enjoy them both. Sure, I could have raid-ready 85s for both factions; but realistically I don’t have that luxury right now. Plus, having Rezznul pop back to a Tauren would be a pleasant trip down memory lane.I am a bit older than you, and I recall the good old days of BBS, Telnet and Compuserve. I still recall when AOL couldn’t access the outside Internet, which made me need to go with Delphi to get my MUD and MUCK fixes on Telnet when I wasn’t at school.I agree with you in that handling guilds in this new world will be the toughest. I love the sense of community and (in guilds I’ve been in) family that I really don’t want to lose.When I first started playing WoW, I was very much server-centric. Hell, for the first year or so, I didn’t even *know* I could go to multiple servers. Then I started reading blogs, which led to Twitter, which led to me meeting some of the most interesting and creative people I’ve ever met and directly interacted with. Being able to chat in Twitter or in email is one thing, but being able to PLAY with them in game, that’s just another thing completely.A lot of the suggested changes would be huge shifts. However, I think that the majority of the gaming population has shifted towards this end anyhow, and I’m intrigued about how Blizzard tackles the real Cataclysm.

  11. gameldar

    Great post again Cyn – interestingly I didn’t have the same BBS experience (I used them to play network games – DoomII I think mainly) but I can certainly see the analogy.It was good to see your thoughts behind the reasoning and changes – I wonder how much of the changes in WoW were planned and how much was just organic change and growth. As you pointed out the Guild changes were very much opposite to the other changes being introduced – which suggests to me there were are least conflicting parties promoting both areas. Although I wonder how much the guild changes were to temper the social changes so that there was value in a guild outside it’s inherent social nature – and provide some stability for raid groups.In reality the guild perks were implemented to help middle-of-the-raid (pun intended) guilds that would previously been quick stops to higher level progression. But to some degree the value of guild reputation is less than the perks that are provided – and because a number of the perks (e.g. fish recipe) are character specific as well they can be carried to a new guild. I think we’ll see people a lot more willing to change and transfer later in the expansion. I’ve already witnessed that a bit with people that have changed guilds/started new guilds.Previously guild’s only value (outside of the social) was the prestige and making the chance to progress in raiding content easier. With the changing nature of raiding and cross realms everything – I wonder if guilds can more easily return to that nature – be one of prestige and social only – and remove the artificial binding that perks introduce (and grant them some other way… because group summon is awesome…)One of the main reactions to all the cross-realm stuff is the loss of community. Certainly there is some value to it, I remember the days of actually knowing others on my realm (and I still come across them occasionally… one join my guild recently for example) – but I wonder how much of that is a reaction to the change social dynamics that has come with the new forms of social networking. There is a growing acceptance of ‘Internet’ friends – it certainly isn’t mainstream yet (my wife would deny they are real friends for example). But things are changing – and I believe the ‘local’ community may not be as important. If you remove the local restriction then it widens you up to a greater pool. Now – would this really affect me? No I don’t have many friends outside of those I’ve made in my guild (all my current RealID friends – bar 1 – are on my local server anyway). But I can see the advantages and the opening up that occurs.Lastly, in terms of the technical issues – I think we’ll slow see them evaporate as more of a focus is brought about. MoP changes will start with more things being account bound – and I think it’ll go hand in hand with things like more slots on a realm by moving all the account information to be centrally managed rather than server specific. I think part of the problem is different parties with different aims – they mentioned one of the ‘why can’t we send heirlooms across servers yet’ threads that part of the problem is that it requires battle.net implementation which is a different team with differing priorities. As more is done on the battle.net side ala support for Diablo III etc I think it’ll be easier to implement the required functions at that level – but it’ll certainly have to compete with a different set of priorities.

  12. Rilgon

    This might be enough to get me to come back without a termination/resignation of Ghostcrawler. *Maybe.*But regardless of whatever MMO you apply the theories and mindset to, it’s very fascinating, and I think it’s the way we will see anything grown from here on as. I would be very surprised to see Titan *not* take a lot of these lessons to heart. Many of your criticisms of the guild system are also dead-on and would have been resolved quite easily by a far faster progression growth that was more tolerant of “me and a few buds” style guilds. My guild that I created for me and my friends as a chat system and as a material storage vault still isn’t even guild level 2, though that is more due to atrophy – I have quit WoW and my significant other (the other half of the Diplomacy Hat) doesn’t really play her characters in that guild. It is like many other things – my social nets are small for most things. I’ve been burned too damned often in guilds to really want a big one anymore – animosities that I’ve caused from something as off-hand as a tweet on twitter have stalked me across realms – and this, too, is an element of the social network of the game. Is it a “bad” thing? Yeah, at least from my perspective – it killed my raiding career and probalby helped put the second-to-last nail in my WoW career’s coffin – but it’s a thing that happens in human interaction all the time with varying degrees of severity. Hell, Twitter is the first real “human interaction network” that I’ve been as open as I am on, and that was mostly because I didn’t see any way it could be used to stab me in the back – ever since it was, I’ve cloistered down again (protected account, severely limited follower list, etc).That’s something that Blizzard (or anyone that approaches an MMO from this angle) will have to consider. How do you deal with these sorts of situations? With unlimited server transfers and open communication, how do you prevent slander/libel? What prevents an angry ex-guildmate or guildmaster (or an angry ex!) from stalking you server to server and defaming you when you try to “start anew”? There’s lots to think about.I think I got off-topic, though. :) On the whole, a very good and thought-proviking piece. And damn, four modems? The BBS my dad and I ran only had three. Mom wouldn’t let us have any more phone lines for it than that, hahaha.

  13. Ralod

    It is an interesting Idea about open guilds. I would think there would be a whole lot of conflict of interest and scheduling issues however. I am in 5 guilds, 3 raid on Fridays at 8pm… who do I go with and who do I say no to? Very well written post cyn, I agree with you on almost everything written :)And @Rilgon why do people hate Ghostcrawler so much? I have just seen someone professing their hate for him on a post decrying the death of wow on reddit. I really had not heard that before. I mean the guy is blunt, and does not always give the answers everyone wants to hear but I have always liked the guy.

  14. Ralod

    @Rilgon Holy shit I am talking to you on reddit.Um hi?

  15. Rilgon

    “And @Rilgon why do people hate Ghostcrawler so much?”Because he’s an arrogant fuckhead. Look to his statement about Hunters before 4.3 – “we think their DPS is fine – even a bit too high”. Then look at reality – every top-end guild is seeing their Hunters falling further and further behind, their lack of survivability cooldowns making them a liability even if their DPS WAS competitive, and inevitably, Hunters being benched for Discipline Priests.Did he apologize? Did he admit his mistake? Of course he didn’t. Help is coming in 4.3.2, but who knows when that will come? And the “race” is over – T13H is done for the Hunters that this impacted the most. They’ve been sat already. The damage is done. It’s too late. And yet numerous top-end Hunters told Blizzard and GC this explicitly during the 4.3 PTR at which point Ghostcrawler called them trolls, ignored their content, and went blithly along with his master plan, and damn the statistics and math.He is what is keeping Blizzard from doing things like divorcing PVE from PVP mechanics, removing Racials and making them cosmetic/fun things that don’t result in balance issues (sup EMFH in PVP and Time is Money/Berserking/Blood Fury/Viciousness in PVE), and many other things that he has personally decreed as “impossible” that would take as much effort, re-learning, and time as Mists’ talent revamp but would have just as much benefit (if not more) to the game’s health AS said talent revamp.But, you know, if you don’t care about balance or the health of the game, I can see why you’d like GC and Bashiok.

  16. MalchomeMoG

    WoW I was about to write a similar post to this, actually working on part of it now. Will definitely link over here when I finish it up. I agree 100% with your social network premise for wow and I see the same thing coming post-MoP. I don’t think the bomb will be ready for MoP but realms becoming environment choices rather than nodes with an environment setting are coming. If not WoW, then Titan or some other MMO.

  17. Razorstorm

    What a fantastic read. You are my freakin’ hero!

  18. Jez

    Fabulous through provoking piece. If these changes ever happen it might tempt me to play more again too. Thank to Anna from http://toomanyannas.com/ for pointing me over here!

  19. Peter

    Absolutely fantastic article. You bring up some wonderful points (and provide reasoning for all of them). Thank you!

  20. Max Narváes

    I’m at work now, but looks promising so far, I’ll read the whole thing later.

  21. Tesh

    Great article, Cyn!I’d add one tangential thing. I know, I keep beating this drum, but I think it’s important.Drop the subscription model. If you want players paying together and getting hooked on the social structure of the game, subs are an obvious place to cut. They raise the barrier of entry and make maintaining social ties costly….of course, maybe that’s the point, and we’re back to the country club/walled garden mentality. *shrug*