Back when I played EverQuest, I often described the game as a chat server with a D&D style game tacked on to it. This felt right because most of the game could be played without paying specific attention to the graphics. Most of the action happened in your chat window. People talked, the NPC text scrolled by, even damage output was all in this little window (until they allowed you to customize the UI, at which point I shoved all the damage output into a tiny window that I barely paid any attention to so I could focus more on the chatting). With World of Warcraft they put more of combat into the hotkey bar, made you care about refresh timers and started dragging your attention away from the chat window. They even eliminated the wall-sitting exp grind and forced you to keep moving around, so you had to actually watch the screen instead of just waiting for the puller to get back with a mob to fight. In Free Realms, the mini game design requires so much attention that I find myself playing for an hour and realizing that I haven’t been reading the chat window. I complain about not being able to find my friends in Free Realms, but to be perfectly honest, they might have come on and sent me tells, but I missed it because I was too busy chasing NPCs or looking for quests, or in mini games where I’m too busy playing a game to be watching chat.
The progression of MMOs that I am seeing is to get people more involved with the game, but less involved with the people. In order to socialize in Free Realms, I have to actually stop playing and stand around. In EQ, progression and socialization could happen (did happen) simultaneously. And we won’t even go into the fact that I have not once grouped with anyone in Free Realms, even when I’ve wanted to and tried, it just doesn’t seem to be something people care about… or maybe they simply aren’t seeing my area chat asking for a group because no one is reading.
One of the best things about the Xbox 360 is the built in voice chat that works by default in all games. If you play multi-player, you can chat with the other players. It would be nice if MMOs could integrate voice chat more fully since they are taking our eyes away from the chat box and using our keyboard more for play than talking. Ideally, a game would have some sort of spacial chat, similar to the way “say” worked in EQ (and other MMOs), so people within a certain distance would hear you. That way when you were hanging out with your group in a dungeon, your group hears you, and when you walk in to town you hear players within an X foot radius, approaching people you want to hear, moving away from people you don’t.
I’d love to see it happen, because the current trend of having to choose between playing and socializing is killing my interest in their games.