Little Chats, Big Friends
Socializing is important to people. Being recognized by others and feeling like you are part of something bigger than yourself is desirable. This goes doubly so for when someone is playing a game. Whether or not the action is supported by the game, people are going to find a way to interact with one another while playing. Developers supporting this interaction not only makes the experience more enjoyable for players, but increases the chances for longevity and community within a product’s life in and of itself.
This idea was given some early support in the days of the Xbox 360 by Microsoft. The Xbox Live “Party” allowed players to join what was essentially a chatroom and voice chat with each other regardless of what else they were doing with their Xbox. The members of a party could all be playing different games or even not playing a game at all and still remain chatting with one another. It also streamlined the process of inviting or joining friend’s games, as this was possible from directly within the party window. With a party, players could invite others they had met into a more personal space and keep up with them over a longer period of time than if they had just met in a single game. By making the party system console-dependent and not game-dependent, Microsoft opened the doors for more consistent and painless socializing.
This system has evolved over the years to be almost fully platform-agnostic with software like Discord. Discord is a chat and socializing client that runs on most computers and mobile devices. I have played several sessions of console games in which I opted to use Discord on my phone rather than go through the hoops of using the console’s online chat service. In some ways, it is simply more convenient. No need to find a headset compatible with your console or fiddle around with setting up a party. Discord, being built for the ground-up with this in mind, provides certain quality of life improvements. Assuming you use it somewhat often, you can join a voice chat with the click of a mouse, bypassing the necessity of setting up a party and inviting your friends every time. Some games on PC also support a Discord overlay in-game. This lets players see who else is in their chat as well as who is speaking at any given time, along with some sundry other functionalities. These sorts of small Quality-of-Life enhancements can make an experience that much more desirable for players. Discord not only provides these incidental delights, but is also a platform for longer-term socialization. It has become a hub for gaming communities of all shapes and sizes.
Steam also recognizes the value of in-game socialization. The existence and functionality of its own in-game overlay makes that clear. This is a screen that is accessible during any game and the press of two buttons. From it, you can view achievements, screenshots, some various other things, and, most importantly, your friends list. You can see who is online, chat with them, and even join their game from this menu. This ease of access to one’s friends is a large part of why Steam is still so prevalent to this day. When all of one’s friends are on a platform and it is consistently the place to go to play with them or find new people to play with, it is a no-brainer to stay there.
Up until this point, I have been discussing services provided tangentially to games that facilitate socialization between players. However, some games do a good job within themselves of that facilitation. Obviously, matchmaking systems for online games are a godsend all by themselves for automatically finding others to play games with. Some games, however, go a little bit farther in trying to find interesting ways to have players engage each other. Team Fortress 2 (TF2), for example, features a system in which players can hit a few keys and have their character make various canned remarks. These vary from taunting opponents, giving advice to allies, and even requesting medical attention. A similar feature is seen in some popular games today, such as Overwatch. This is an effective feature in more ways than one. Not only is it fun to have your character spout funny lines of dialogue, but it enables a basic sort of social engagement for all players. Even those who are too shy to speak or do not have a microphone at all can join in the discussion to some degree by having their character do the talking for them. They can point out vital bits of information or join in on some light-hearted yelling by just clicking a few buttons. The sense of camaraderie that this can build in such a short time is surprising, to say the least, and something that should not be overlooked.
Another impressive stride at providing players some more interesting ways to interact in game comes from Guilty Gear. The typical lobby system of an online video game is not much more than a screen listing the names of the players and the state of the game they are all waiting to play. Guilty Gear went a step further and made the lobby more like, well, a lobby. Players can see each other’s little avatars walk around the virtual lobby space, make little emotes, talk with each other via text chat, or even play Soccer. This small amount of freedom can provide at least a modicum of engagement where staring at a list of names and waiting can be utterly dull. Walking around the virtual space and mindlessly playing around with a soccer ball can instill more of a sense of hanging out with people than you might think at first glance. Guilty Gear eliciting this interaction between players makes the game that much better.
Socialization when designing a gaming ecosystem cannot be ignored. Even single player games can sometimes be more enjoyable when players are given the option to chat with each other while playing. Facilitating this back and forth between players has been some companies entire claim to fame and has propelled some games from being good to being great. There will never be a time when features of this nature go out of style because there will never be a time when humans stop enjoying each other’s company. Studying how these are done well is therefore a valuable way to spend one’s time.