Despite the fact that I love playing MMOs I will be the first one to admit that I am not an extremely social player. You will not find me approaching random strangers for conversation and I absolutely hate being forced to group up to complete content. Likewise, joining a guild is very low on my list of priorities when I start out a new character. Maybe it’s because I have this preconception that most people become royal jerks when they are safely hidden behind their avatars and, in my defence, I would rather play with people I know than on my own if given the option .
Yet, apart from my personal issues, there is another very important reason why investing time in the social aspect of an MMO does not sit totally right with me and that’s the fact that once I stop paying my monthly subscription I am prohibited from interacting with other players through the in-game chat. I am very conscious that most guilds have their own forums and third party programs such as Skype, Ventrilo and (increasingly) Mumble which allow players to keep in touch with friends and guildies without relying on the game itself. I find the former too impersonal since very few people use forums and message boards while they are playing and only use them to coordinate activities and discuss decisions. On the other hand voice chat is the exact opposite: It feels too personal since you actually have to speak to communicate.
So, am I the only one who thinks that MMOs should allow players, both current and old ones, to access some chat channels, including guild chat, through a separate IM program, even when they are not subscribed anymore?
I can think of many advantages to this. First and foremost players will benefit. It would allow them to keep in touch with the community even though they are not subscribed to the game. This would foster a stronger sense of community since buying a particular MMO would not only mean getting involved in the game, but also having easy and unlimited access to a social network of like minded people. Moreover, having a separate IM program has its own advantages. Players would be able to set it up so that it loads on startup meaning the moment they turn on their computers they are in touch with guildies and in-game friends. It takes much less time to load an IM than it does loading a game. Furthermore it takes considerable less system resources than running the game minimised or in a window. Some people just want to keep in touch with their peers while doing something else other than playing. A separate IM would allow them to do just that.
In the long run I believe even the game would benefit. I do think that allowing players to remain involved in the community, even while they are not actively paying a subscription, is more likely to bring defaulted players back into the game. Seeing their (ex)guildies discussing a newly released instance or talking about a new game system might be just enough to get them to re subscribe for just one more month. It is a well known fact that enthusiasm within the community is a big pull for defaulted players and keeping ex subscribers exposed to that enthusiasm can have a huge impact on their decisions to get back into the game.
Some might argue that the opposite is true. Jaded and unsatisfied players may use the chat to alienate more players, get their friends riled up against the company or try and convince them to move to this new game that they just started playing. These are legitimate concerns, however these things already happen through the aforementioned forums and third party chat programs. You regularly see people get onto the forums to throw mud at the developers or try and promote a new MMO. More often than not the great majority of players tend to either ignore these kind of posts or vehemently protect the game they are loving.
At the end of the day I truly believe that the benefits of such a system far outweigh the negatives. More people are likely to be sucked back in by the enthusiasm of the community than be persuaded to leave by disgruntled ex players.