Some games, Gen Chat is overwhelmed with gold farmers hawking their wares. Other games, its dead silent. And on still others, it can be a cesspool.
WoW's Gen Chat is decidedly schizophrenic. In the capital cities, Gen Chat is active and reasonably well behaved.* Outside of Stormwind and Orgrimmar (and Northern Barrens), Gen Chat is notable for its silence. Occasionally you'll see the guild recruitment posts, especially in the starting zones, but for the most part Gen Chat out in the world is merely a marker to let you know when you left one zone for another. Given that so few people actually use Gen Chat, its hard to tell if Gen Chat actually transcends the cross-server zones.**
In this post LFG/LFR World of Warcraft, Gen Chat's utility has declined. Yes, there's Trade Chat and the LFG channel, but once the queues came along a lot of in-game chat activity vanished.
By comparison, Gen Chat in Aion is very busy, but unfortunately most of it is filled with gold farmers. I suspect there are conversations in Gen Chat that are worth following in Aion, but they are drowned out by the flood of gold farmer spam. I never thought I'd say this, but in the worst days of WoW gold farmer spam (in Wrath), we never even came close to what I've seen on an average night in Aion. As much as some people gripe about the miscellaneous topics in Gen Chat, I'd much rather have that than gold farmer spam.
I think the only world where SWTOR's Gen Chat isn't that busy is on Quesh.*** Between the LFG requests and miscellaneous talk, Gen Chat in The Old Republic resembles a pub on a busy night. I'm not sure how much of this is due to people who migrated from SW:Galaxies, but it doesn't surprise me that a game built on leveling would have an active chat environment in the various game zones.
LOTRO doesn't have a true chat channel marked General, but it does have Regional and Advice channels, which are what a F2P player will mostly see. Like everything else about LOTRO, the chat channels are mellower than most. Yes, there are arguments that flare up, but LOTRO chat channels reflect the player base.
Some F2P games tend to isolate players away from the "subscribers" Gen Chat, so I can't say how much different the subs have it. Age of Conan is a prime example of the 'isolate the freebies' environment, and I can understand why. By keeping the F2P players in a separate chat channel, that eliminates a lot of the fly by night gold farmer spam in the regular chat channels. Throughout much of 2012, the F2P channel in AoC was very much dead. There were people playing the game --just going to Tortage would show people that-- but they weren't saying anything. In recent months, Funcom has done some server consolidation, and the formerly dead F2P Gen Chat is now active. Topics in AoC tend to remain tied to the game, since that is the only outlet available to F2P players, but also because AoC's servers tend to have a more global contingent than most other MMOs. I'm not sure why this is the case, but I've seen far more "pardon my English, it isn't my first language" in AoC's Gen Chat than in any other MMO I've played.
Why are some Gen Chats more active than others? I've thought about this a bit over the past few months, and I don't believe there's a single item you can point to that explains the differences. That said, here are a few of the ideas that I believe contribute to the success and/or failure of Gen Chat:
- Some of Gen Chat's activity is due to game design. A game like TOR, which has a lot of Heroic group quests in each planet, encourages activity by forcing players who want to run them to ask the old fashioned way. A game that has a strong RP player base, such as LOTRO and the WoW RP servers, will have more activity as well. Those players tend to be interested in the social aspects of the game, and will speak up more often.
- Some games encourage self-isolation, and for a social person that can be grating at times. While it can be fun to group up in LOTRO, a lot of content can be taken care of solo. The same with TOR and WoW. Blizzard used to have a lot of group quests in the Old World, but the Cata revision streamlined zone quests and eliminated most group quests. LFR takes care of the need to see end game content as part of a guild, and LFG is famous for silent dungeon runs. With TOR, you can solo quest all the way to max level and complete your class story without grouping once. And without a burning in-game need to join a guild, the outlet some people have is to talk in Gen Chat.
- The need to join a guild also factors into Gen Chat activity. Sure, guilds are optional in every MMO, but being guildless makes playing some games much harder. However, other games (like TOR) make it very easy to play the game guildless, and those games have more active Gen Chat than others. It may not be a direct correlation, since there are quite a few WoW players who create a guild just to avoid being pestered by guild invites, but the games that have huge guilds and emphasize guild oriented activity are also the ones that have the least amount of Gen Chat activity.
- Finally, in some games the argument could be made that Gen Chat has been rendered obsolete. Look at WoW, for example. You have so many methods of communication --both in and out of the game itself-- that Gen Chat is more a method of last resort. Additionally, the game design in Mists has been pushing people into doing dailies --lots of dailies-- prior to any raiding, and there isn't a centralized chat that enables players out and about in various regions on a server to communicate together. The mentality becomes "get the dailies done and then get on to other things," which isn't very conducive to chatting away either. The old "standing around and fishing at the Dal fountain" design just isn't there anymore. True, this isn't the only time that Blizz has put a lot of dailies as a gatekeeper for raiding --Quel'Danas and Firelands come to mind-- but those patches came later in each expac, not at the beginning. Starting an expac with dailies as a gatekeeper is quite different, and sets the tone for the entire expac.
Some of the funniest as well as the most vile things I've read in an MMO came out of Gen Chat. I once got into a discussion about the original Robert E. Howard short stories in an AoC session, and there was the "what events would a Star Wars Olympics have?" discussion during last Summer's Games. I've learned a bit about theorycrafting in a WoW Gen Chat session, and I found out that some people who play LOTRO know far more Quenya than I do (which ain't hard to do, really). The Gen Chat is the watering hole for an MMO, and when a Gen Chat turns toxic that's an indicator of larger problems in the game.
Here's to hoping your Gen Chat experiences are fun and interesting.
*Compared to Trade Chat, that is.
**It apparently does, but you'd never guess it.
***Okay, maybe Ilum too, but it's been a while since I've been there.
****The need to avoid being harassed also speaks to the importance of guilds in a game.