Even 12 years after its release, Facebook remains one of the most popular MMO’s of all time, with 1.5 billion users logging in each day to continue leveling their characters up (or down). The game has seen a multitude of changes since it was initially launched in 2004 by developer Mark Zuckerberg, who has stood by his game through both good times and incredibly lucrative times. I first got my hands on (what was then called) The Facebook in 2005, at a time when I was living with three of my best college friends in a haunted house in South Central Los Angeles (another story altogether). Having never really played an MMO, my friends and I were excited to see what Facebook had to offer. I named my character “Compton Ass Snake,” and chose the only class available at the time: student.
I think it’s fair to say that the early game involves a fair amount of grinding: uploading pictures, filling out a small ‘about me’ section, adding a quote you think is sexy and defines you, etc. But once your avatar is out of the tutorial section, the world really opens up. It was at this point that my friends and I found ourselves instantly connected with every player in a ten mile radius, unlocking the opportunity to form foreign alliances through mutual friends. Even in its early stages, The Facebook offered a lot of decent side quests such as group discussions about college courses and a varied amount of events that could be played co-operatively with friends if you were lucky enough to receive a party invite from a group leader. And while trophies earned from those events certainly helped to level up your character and keep you engaged, it was the main story quest of stalking one’s acquaintances in the hopes of finding romance that hooked us from the get.
Although the graphics at launch time were pretty sub-standard when compared to other MMO’s, the vast openness of the game-world more than made up for the lack-luster art direction. Unfortunately nothing much has changed over the course of the last 12 years of development, and in many players’ opinions, including my own, the situation has actually gotten worse. The UI felt far more accessible when the game first launched, with other player’s stats posted right next to the picture of their smiling, red-cup holding avatars. I found it much easier in those days to min/max my Weezer Fandom skill based on whether another user was also a fan of Weezer, or if they were even interested in my gender at all.
In the MMO’s first iteration, most of the character progression revolved around friending acquaintances you were attracted to in the hopes that this might result in moving the conversation from groupchat to local (via the popular AOL Instant Messenger mod). Not sure if you met a high level student at the house party on Thursday? You could log in the next day and look at their screenshots, check out what kind of gear they usually had equipped, and if anyone else in their guild might have a compatible build. Endgame content revolved around arranging meet-ups with that elf from the party and building up enough mana to execute a make-out spell with the potential of healing 800-1400 hitpoints (most of the damage done during everyday questing and grinding).
As The Facebook got older, so did its audience. Over the years, the MMO has become muddled with political agendas, social slacktivism, micro-transactions, and a general sense of discontentment amongst its bloated user base. Players lashed out at the developers when they introduced a more risk/reward driven loot mechanic of ‘likes’ and ‘shares.’ In my opinion, the mechanic encouraged a different, less exciting type of in-game progression that rewarded posting pictures of collected items (mostly meals obtained at hard to reach social hubs). Rare loot like baby and vacation pictures became increasingly more common, and much of the interaction between players revolved solely around making their guild members aware that they habitually traveled to a variety of different zones. What kind of consumable shops should they take pictures at once they got to the epic land of Portland? How impressed would other players be at their knowledge of airport abbreviations (including the legendary #HNL)?
Once the MMO evolved from being The Facebook to the totally console-ified Facebook and opened signups to parents and relatives, the experience really seemed to take a turn for the worse. Suddenly I was hesitant to post screenshots of the rare bong I had picked up during a group raid in Venice Beach because, although my guild would be really excited about the drop, my Uncle Martin’s guild would almost certainly report back to the Parental guild that I was now on drugs, and that he was like, totally worried about me. In the Los Angeles Zone, a harsh area for mid – high level players, a nefarious guild of actors seemed to dominate the MMO, posting in the public forums about a callback they had received or bragging about totally shitty items like the ‘movie pass’ unlocking access to the Batman Vs. Superman opening night.
The endgame content no longer focuses on players finding meetup opportunities in real life. It’s now all about maintaining a well manicured representation of it (a transformation from going out and raging with the Joneses, to simply keeping up with them). They’ve integrated a massive map (The Feed) dedicated solely to ‘show and tell’ and a fuckton of mini-games seemingly meant to played by Kindergarteners. No, Jason from my 2012 improv class, I don’t want to fucking play Farmville with you. The older player-base has stopped searching for old guild members from their graduating high school class and now spend their time in the forums informing everyone of the results of their latest lengthy survey: it turns out they’re Arya from Game of Thrones.
I still log in everyday, but I’m finding less and less to do in Facebook’s ever-changing landscape. The MMO still seems at war with itself over whether it wants to legitimately connect other players, or keep them firmly planted at their computers. More and more, Facebook seems to want to keep its players busy consuming the same articles, photos, and touching videos showing selfless white people ‘pranking’ the homeless by giving them money (in the hopes that seventeen thousand shares will garner them enough XP to level up). With the acquisition of Oculus Rift, a wearable virtual reality headset, perhaps Facebook’s most exciting days are still ahead of it, but I can’t help but feel sad that a game which once encouraged players to highlight their uniqueness is now urging them to be the same as everybody else.