Chat’s Not Dead (It’s Just on Time Out)

Welcome to the 5-ma... er, chat graveyard

Wolfshead’s latest post talks about the failing state of chat in MMOs today. Like all of his posts, it’s an enjoyable read and is delivered with all of the experience and eloquence we’ve come to expect from him. In it, he postulates that the current silence dominating 5-mans is an early indicator of MMOs losing the need for player’s to communicate entirely. I have to disagree this time.

Why’s it so quiet in here?

As a root cause, Wolfshead points to the Looking For Dungeon tool. He’s spot on in a side-effect of its introduction, too, in that people don’t see much point getting to know players they’ll probably never see again. The most polite among us will offer our hellos and congratulations, at times, but seeking out friendships with these players just isn’t feasible. Short of giving out your real name, there’s no way to talk again and little hope of ever being matched through the tool again. Still, that’s not the reason no one’s talking.

The lack of communication is a result of two things: it’s late in the expansion and strategy is no longer required in most dungeons. I firmly believe that if dungeons offered more challenge, players would be forced to talk and strategize. Today, not only have the majority of players memorized the strategy for every 5-man encounter, but, that strategy is made moot by the fact that each is little more than a DPS race. This wasn’t the case at the launch of WotLK. Dungeon Finder or no, when players face cooperation or failure, communication happens.

The difficulty curve and penalty for failure was so harsh in the EQ days that players had to communicate. Players running 5-mans in the Cataclysm beta are talking and planning again – today, in WoW. It’s unfortunate that 5-mans are the quietest they’ve ever been but I don’t think we can lay it at the hands of their original conception.

Chat still happens

The most puzzling part of the article is that it doesn’t touch on raiding. Communication is, and always has been, the biggest factor in success. I don’t think it’s much different from vanilla WoW, actually, because when people don’t talk, they fail. Unlike 5-mans, raiding isn’t something players can do whenever and however often they want. Fights are longer, more complex, and can’t just be steamrolled without ever changing position. Groups who don’t talk take the risk of being unprepared and face a much higher chance of failure – repair bills, downtime, and peer pressure are usually enough to ensure players talk it out beforehand.

Granted, most communication is done over VOIP these days, but is that really so different? VOIP works because you can communicate more, quicker and addresses the main limitation text chat has always faced: when you’re typing, you’re not playing.

The fact that players still talk in these larger scale encounters seems to prove that the reasons for talking are timeless: when strategy is required, people talk.

Wolfshead’s article highlights dungeons in-particular, but I think it’s still important to note that chat is still widely and frequently used in guilds, tells, and in cities. Friendships are still being made in WoW every day, people have just given up trying to do so with momentary strangers.

WoW is no example

There are lots of ways in which we can judge WoW’s impact on the larger genre, but I wouldn’t count talking among them. Apart from gear inflation, WoW is unique in a number of ways that impact the player’s need to communicate. Foremost among them is just that WoW is so damn huge.

WoW is supported by a number of communication killing resources. Database sites, strategy forums, YouTube tutorials, and dedicated class blogs all remove the need for in-game strategizing. While similar sites exist for other games, the sheer size of WoW’s fanbase ensures that these are more readily available than anywhere else. When I first started WoW, just before The Burning Crusade released, in-game questions were often redirected to thottbot. These days its WoWhead. When those same questions are asked in LotRO, there’s no such well known site for players to be pointed towards. Inter-reliance is much more prevalent outside of WoW and, as a rule, chat is still important and well used.

The console shift

I agree with Wolfshead in one of his biggest assertions: console MMOs will most likely remove chat entirely. Short of using a keyboard, it’s just not feasible. At best, we’ll see pared down versions and quick-phrases similar to FFXI and XIV. More likely, I think voice chat will become the norm – but only if consoles MMOs take shape as their PC counterparts, and I’m not totally convinced that’s going to happen.

In the end, I see Wolf’s point and personally find the 5-man silence a bit depressing; it highlights that no one really cares that you’re there, it’s just a badge run. Even sadder is that this will probably become the standard for single-group dungeons once the initial newness wears off. Still, for a little while right at the start of Cataclysm, there will have to be a comeback. We’ll be slowed down, in the dark, waiting for the scales to tip back into “everyone but you knows this fight, so you’d better just go with the flow.” After that, we’ll go back to talking in /guild and /say. I used to really enjoy meeting new people in PuGs. I guess those days are done – but I still don’t think chat will ever really die.

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