Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The [Gaming] Social Network

Cynwise writes a great article today, inspiring a response from yours truly. This is a topic that hits home hard with where I'm sitting right now. In WoW, I don't feel like there are a whole lot of individual accomplishments I'd like to tackle. Instead, I'm thoroughly enjoying my time in TOR. Still, I would be willing to swap between games in an instant if I knew something was going down in one universe or the other.

Some of my WoW guildies are playing TOR, but not all of them. Some are waiting for a free trial, some decided it just wasn't their cup of tea, but these are still people I love playing games with. Perhaps the most - THE MOST - important thing that has happened to me over my 5+ years with WoW and even more years with MMO gaming is having made the friends I've made. Some have literally become my best friend. Had I never played WoW, I would never have met these wonderful people in real life. Even if WoW dies tomorrow, and the servers shut down for good, these relationships are what will stay with me forever. Pixels do not define them.

Some days I feel like the only reason I keep paying for WoW is that the prospect of short changing this hard won friendships is completely abhorrent. Sure, I can email most of them now. We're likely Facebook friends. We have ways of staying in touch that don't rely on WoW, but WoW is our meeting place, our clubhouse, our coffee shop, our Monks. It would be a lie to claim that such a loss would not leave the bonds strained. Unbroken, sure, but strained nonetheless.

This isn't to say I don't have bursts of gaming fun in WoW. It is still, after all, a great game. But I enjoy other pastures as well. Not to call them greener, just different. To borrow a term, I've always been somewhat polygamerous. I don't want to be forced into monogamy because I'm afraid of losing friends. Fear has always been a poor motivator to maintain any relationship. Also, it is of the Dark Side and leads to anger and aggression (trolling?).

I would be happy as a pig in mud if I could have my cake and eat it, too. If I could play the game I want to play and still be directly in touch, in chat with my best gaming friends... that's a pixelated nirvana right there. I'd jump between games as activities dictated, never feeling like I had to remain somewhere just to maintain.

The problem with any one company developing such a capability is very obviously financial. What business sense does it make to make it easy on your customers to spend money elsewhere? Because obviously you need to keep them in your game, in your world. You need to keep those doors firmly closed, lest all the cattle stampede out at the slightest hint of fresher fronds.

Or do you? A more forward-thinking businessman might realize the truth of the old country adage: "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." That is, in putting the happiness of your customers first, you may just generate enough good will to make your game, your company the de facto Center of All That Is Gaming. You'd still have your game, but you could also be the Facebook of Gaming.

But does it even have to be a Blizzard, or a Bioware, or a Turbine? These developers are heavily invested in their own games. Let's be honest, it would be really difficult to get them to seriously consider interfacing with someone else. This is where I think a savvy entrepreneur, a new third party could come in and be the diplomat. Negotiate between these disparate nationalities in order to form a more perfect union. (The could also establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility, but let's just start with a union first, shall we?)  Yes, I'm talking about a third party "app." An addin. A plugin. Whatever you want to call it. A piece of third party code, maintained by an exterior company but vetted by the "local" governance, integrated smoothly into the UI.

It seems to me that every game has to develop it's own chat system. Sometimes they get around adding a voice chat feature too, but more likely it's just chat. What if someone developed that for all games? What if, for every new MMO from here on out, the chat feature was already solved. Just use the NerdFace app (or whatever).

It's easy to see the revenue potentials. Could be part of the sub. Could be an extra add in to a more basic chat, a "real money store" perk. Could be ad driven. I think if it became generally accepted, the entrepreneur would be able to simply charge the companies. Who wouldn't want to be hooked into the gamer network? It could be a vital step for general acceptance of your new game. And you wouldn't have to stop at MMOs. One of things I love about Steam is the ability to chat with other people playing any number of other Steam games. I can say "hey, how did you do x in Skyrim to my buddy playing Portal."

The potential is easy to see, I think. The risk, however, may be too much. It would take someone with vision, and probably deep respect in the gaming community to pull such a venture off. Still, I think it may only be a matter of time. Twitter and Facebook have proven the power of social networking. The world is shrinking even as it grows. The gaming industry needs to get on board.

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