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Social Gaming and the Fear of Missing Out

Destiny's loot cave has come and gone, and if you weren't there, you missed out. The game is counting on our anxiety.

The loot cave has been stressing me out, and it's not because Bungie patched a fruitful exploit for many Destiny players disappointed at the game's regular (or not-so-regular) drop rate. It's because I hadn't experienced the loot cave, and I never will. This has been a running theme with me and Destiny.

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This touches upon an idea I was recently kicking around regarding multiplayer-centric video games that pretend to include robust single-player options, despite evidence to the contrary. I suggested these games would do better to ditch the concept of solo play entirely, as it better represented the design goals. It would ease the mislead frustration of some players.

What's happening here is a bit different.

In my social circle, we have a few friends we jokingly refer to as individuals with a rabid case of FOMO -- fear of missing out. The rest of us, especially as begin to systematically close out our 20s, have no problem spending a Friday night inside with a good movie and some beers. These other people cannot fathom it. Stuff is happening, and taking a break from the world's events is to miss out on potential fun. I'm okay with stuff passing me by because keeping up with stuff can be an exhaustive affair.

This has never really been the case with my video games--well, mostly. To some extent, my job demands I'm keeping up with the steady drip of new game releases, as my readers are looking for me for insight and commentary about them. This means I'm often forbidden from, say, playing a game a second time.

But until very recently, the majority of my game library has been static. This is fueled by my general avoidance of MMOs and multiplayer-centric games, experiences I've purposely dodged because of the time investment required to make them worthwhile. While I pride myself on constantly trying new things, there are some game types I've drawn the line on, simply because reality won't allow for it.

Destiny is weird, though. It's wrapped in the familiar, but it's different. And though we're technically talking about Destiny right now, I suspect these feelings are only the beginning of a common thread coming for many more games. Destiny is the first game where I've felt the gaming equivalent of FOMO, a tangible level of anxiety derived from knowing I'm not participating in events that won't exist in the future.

It's not just about the loot cave, though. When Destiny came out, my first weekend was already booked up. So was the next weekend. My nights have been full of social, work, and familiar engagements. I've been able to squeeze in a few nights when my wife has gone to bed, but when I'm looking for someone to mess around with for an hour or two, my lowly level 17 warlock just can't hang. That's what matchmaking is around for, but matchmaking in Destiny is there as an alternative. It's a second-class experience.

With an hour to spare last week, I hopped online and started completing some bounties, one of the easiest ways to stack experience while playing. Two friends joined up, and helped me grind through what amounted to little more than fetch quests and shooting galleries for an hour. Even though our actions were hardly engaging, the act of doing them together was tremendous fun, if only a glorified chat room.

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Once the bounties were cashed in, though, my friends were debating the next move. All of them were well past level 20, though, which meant the content I was playing through couldn't help them meaningfully advance their equipment. Even though I was the party leader, I was the one who had to leave, forced to venture out on my own again. I hopped into a nearby strike, got myself assigned to a few random players, and went to it. We won. Some stuff dropped. But it wasn't the same. There was only silence.

Granted, none of this is Destiny's fault. To the contrary, it's what Bungie wants, what these games thrive on. You could argue the existence of a loot vault, a void in which players shot mindlessly for hours, says more about what Destiny gets wrong than what it gets right. But that would be missing the point. These collective experiences, even when driven by exploitations of code, are entirely the point. These marks in time wouldn't be possible in single-player. Individualized watercooler moments from the night discussed at the office the next day become shared experiences given more power from the group ownership.

There's a genius to this, of course. If there's a chance a player might miss a one-time event, it generates FOMO. Who wants to be the person who reads about it on Kotaku the next day? Don't you want to say you were there, too? By designing a game around these moments coming and going on a regular basis, you create players who want to keep hopping back in, desperate to become participants, not observers.

How Bungie humorously responded to the loot cave in a patch update shows they recognize this:

"The Hive of the holy 'Treasure Cave' have realized the futility of their endless assault on Skywatch and have retired to lick their wounds and plan their next attack."

The studio made this more explicit in a blog update:

"The social experience of a cave farming run is amazing: the herding to get a team of Guardians all behind the line and firing in the right direction, the rush to grab the loot, the scramble when the panic wave starts, the beckoning glow from inside the cave. The speed at which the community organized around this activity was inspiring and humbling to us.

But shooting at a black hole for hours on end isn't our dream for how Destiny is played. Our hope is that social engagement in public spaces is only one part of the Destiny experience. Expect changes soon which decrease the efficiency of cave farming and correspondingly increase engram drops from completing activities."

It still bums me out. It feels like huge parts of Destiny have passed me by--FOMOrealized. It feels like a whole game, one that I want to enjoy but can't because life's getting in the way, is passing me by. That's an exaggeration, but it feels true. In other words: I can't imagine what this will be like when I have kids.

Patrick Klepek on Google+