The Community Divide: Modern MMO Communities Are Different, Not Worse
If you've played MMOs as long as I have and been around the games for a while, you hear a refrain over and over: the games just aren't as social as they used to be. People don't talk any more, everything is about instant gratification, people just want to play the game solo and no one wants to team up for things any more.
This isn't just rose-tinted glasses, either. It's kind of true. MMOs definitely have a very different emphasis on community than they did back at the turn of the century, when the genre was still finding its sea legs. Heck, it's even changed within given games; back in the day, I'd have to shout for groups when playing World of Warcraft and leveling. Now, questing pretty much never requires me to group up with another player; I only have to join a party when I actually want to or I feel the urge to do a dungeon, which is also easy to reach at this point.
So there's no space to argue that things haven't changed. But have they changed for the worse, or is this just... different?
You no longer need the community
Let's be clear about something right off -- in the first MMOs, we had a term for people who didn't engage with the community at all, and that term was "former player." It wasn't just something that was detrimental, it was something that actively shut you out of the game. I started playing in Final Fantasy XI, and if you acquired a reputation as a toxic and unpleasant person, you just wouldn't be invited into parties any more, and that would be it for your time in the game. There was no content you could complete solo, no options for leveling solo, little to be done except beg and plead or find people who didn't yet know you by reputation.
As a result, everyone who was in a given game was part of the community. You had to be. It also meant that you had to put up with a lot of people you otherwise wouldn't give the time of day. Sure, Dale's a racist jerk, but he's a good tank and he likes you, so you should stay on Dale's good side. Your personal distaste for Dale doesn't enter the equation. The community needs to be respected.
This is no longer the case. I can play World of Warcraft without forcing myself to get invested in the community, and in fact I can get invested in communities that are entirely separate from one another. The larger WoW community is mostly just united by its shared game of choice; within that community is a lot of smaller subgroups. There are certain things you can say are true about the majority of players, but very few of them come down to personal taste outside of certain content that is or is not well-loved. And that's a pretty big difference.
Different communities exist as contemporaries
My main game, at this point, is Final Fantasy XIV. I'm a part of the roleplaying community there, I'm part of the high-end non-raid community, I'm part of the housing community. I have friends that are part of the roleplaying community and also part of the raid community, or the ultra-casual community, or part of the PvP community, and so on. There are, in other words, a lot of different little communities that all exist simultaneously.
When World of Warcraft exploded in popularity, one of the things that quickly happened was that the game got too big for a single community umbrella to cover everything. This was unusual; when you were dealing with games that had smaller populations and were built to handle smaller populations, you could reasonably expect that everyone playing your game was cut from a similar cloth. Heck, if you were playing Ultima Online in 1997, you had a gaming PC with a reliable online connection; two decades ago, that was a very dedicated hobbyist setup, not something that you could get for a discount at dozens of big-box stores.
The result is that unlike classic MMOs, modern games have lots of different communities running at the same time. The communities still work like the communities used to work, of course; they're based around social need. You can't be part of the roleplaying community if you have no one to roleplay with, after all, and if you acquire a nasty reputation within that community, people won't want to be around you any longer. But even so, there are parts of the game that just aren't subject to the community any longer.
The game is much more accessible
There will never come a point in Star Wars: The Old Republic where the community can prevent you from doing dungeons. It's not possible. I don't mean just that most of them have solo modes now; I mean that I can always hop on, queue up in the group finder, be matched with a group, and get dropped into the content. That's a pretty big change, and it's the sort of thing that can easily lead to a feeling that the whole thing is much more fire-and-forget now. After all, if you can just hop into content from anywhere, instantly, you no longer need to talk with people, slowly work your way through things, work together... you just go and forget about it.
Except -- and I say this as someone on multiple sides of this community gulf -- the difference is not between "do content slowly" and "do content quickly." Because that "slow" method was the sort of thing that could, and did, eat up entire days of time.
People talk about how certain dungeons in WoW used to feel large, and that's entirely true, but Blackrock Depths was a dungeon that I never saw in its entirety. It was so sprawling that it was, functionally, an entirely new zone that could only be explored with a group, filled with no clear path and misunderstandings about where to go next. It was exhausting. Every death meant a long run back, every misunderstanding meant a death, and it was very easy to sign up for a group at noon and have to log off for dinner hours later without having accomplished any of your goals.
For a lot of players, this was death to any dreams of playing an MMO. If you didn't have hours of free time, you just... wouldn't see any of this. That got you kicked out of the culture, which meant you couldn't do anything more. The community was stronger and singular, but it was also far more insular and mercenary at the same time; you either played the way the community did, or you just didn't play.
And herein comes a big chunk of the divide. The people who played the game back in the day see all of these people playing and not being part of the community, wondering why this is necessary, because the people who used to play in the older games were part of the community and enjoyed it. It's easy to miss that this is a self-selected bias, that by definition the people who thought things were just fine were the people not locked out by the time investments necessary.
That's not even getting into the sheer simplicity of mechanics when the main challenge was "getting people together and make it through to the end," like the fights in WoW where your healer either cleansed a debuff or the party died, and that was it. We sure as heck don't see that any more.
I'm not going to say that the old days of MMOs were horrible, because they weren't. They fostered a love of the genre in me that's lasted to this day, making up nearly half of my life and having an enormous impact on my career. Clearly, those games were doing a lot of things right. But they were also doing a lot of things wrong, and over the years, accepted design consensus has steadily changed to the point where things like group finders are expected, not unusual.
And I think it's a good thing. I no longer need to be a part of a community just because I need to get content done; I can be a part of a community because I want to be. If I spend five hours in dungeons in a game, it's because I've done lots of dungeons on a given day and I'm having fun. I spend less time fussing around and calling people and more time actually doing things.
It's easy to miss all of this if you're in one of those communities. If you always were perfectly happy with the old way of doing things, the fact that you no longer need the community feels slightly off. But it also means that more people get to enjoy the game and experience what it has to offer. Some things have been lost in the exchange, but ultimately, it means more people can have fun, and that's a positive thing if you really love the game.
Sure, it means that casual grouping is less necessary than it was before. There's a mid-tier range of content that largely doesn't exist any longer. But I think that, ultimately, some of that comes down to how you cultivate the communities you are part of. There's no longer an endless pool of people to draw from who have to be part of a given community, but that change means the people who do want to be there are going to be there for a long time.