Creating and measuring good communities in games

Community is arguably the one defining factor that sets MMOs aside from any other type of game. You adventure in a virtual world and in that virtual world you can build a virtual community.  Oh, other games certainly have associated communities but they traditionally have been less of a part of the core experience.  This is now changing. We’re seeing a convergence with online games in which MMOs are getting less virtual world/ virtual community centric and other multiplayer games are picking up MMO conventions like in-game guilds and character progression.

This just means that in game and cross game communities are getting more important, not less.

It’s also well known that being part of a strong community (or social network, which is the other phrase that gets used a lot) is a big factor in people continuing to play a game. It also happens to be a big factor in the real world for social cohesion in a geographical area. There are theories that a strong social network encourages people to care for each other and to seek help when they need it, reduces crime, reduces mental health issues, and helps people to live longer and be happier. Good friends, good family, good local services, and good neighbours are in fact good for your health.

We may not know how well the idea of a strong community really does translate into games (especially since you have to balance it against gaming addiction), but generally speaking being part of a strong community is a good thing for individuals. And if it encourages people to play games for longer, it’s probably a good thing for devs too.

Measuring Social Capital

The notion of social capital is a way to describe the value of a social network. How good is the community? It’s a measure of how connected people are, and how willing to do things for each other and take an active role in running their local communities. It’s also a measure of how easy it is to build new links and for new people to be integrated into an existing community. A guild with good social capital will have lots of people keen to organise/ run successful raids and events, be welcoming to new players, and have a strong identity to which members are proud to belong. (This is nothing to do with whether it is a hardcore progression raid guild or a friends and family social guild.)

Not all strong communities are good for the wider community though. A gang might be great for the people in it, and still horrible for everyone around it who isn’t. We’ve had a whole dialogue of multiculturalism here lately where strong immigrant communities are variously seen as threats, unenlightened throwbacks, or potential nests of terrorists by politicians looking to tap a popular seam.

So we could look at two different types of community in MMOs.

  1. Your immediate community, either a guild or people you know iRL or regularly group with.
  2. The rest of the server/ game

We can also look at three different types of interaction:

  1. Gaming interaction. You’re playing a minigame with them, maybe PvE raiding or team PvP.
  2. Non-direct interaction like trading on the auction house. It could also be contributing individually to a communal longterm goal.
  3. Social interaction. This may involve *gasp* talking.

Chances are that if you are playing an MMO you will be enjoying at least one of these modes of interaction, even if you are not directly taking part. Some people enjoy listening to chat on global channels for example, even if it is inane and they are lurkers, just because it’s nice to know there are players around. Others like random dungeons/ PvP groups but have no interest in longer term relationships with any of the players.

Cosa nostra – the strong guild

WoW tends towards fostering strong, exclusive guilds. If you imagine each guild as a tight knit family in which the overall consensus is that “we’re not interested in anyone outside our family,” you’d be quite close to the general raid guild ethos.

Endgame also pushes people in this direction. The WoW endgame favours fixed groups and regular runs to the same instances. Once you are in a guild that can do this, there’s no real reason to build strong links with anyone outside the guild.

Random instance queues and battleground queues are great for encouraging gaming interaction, but very poor for social interaction. I think this is why people tend to feel that ‘the community’ in WoW is poor even while valuing their guilds and enjoying the availability of group content.

WoW also is very poor at offering communal server rewards that encourage the different guilds to work together. This has happened in the past. The opening of AQ40 for example required lots of resources to be gathered and at the time progression guilds who wanted the new raid instance took a pole position in encouraging the rest of the server to help. I remember raid guilds organising gathering competitions and the like that in which anyone could take part. (I think part of the reason they stopped doing this is that progression raiders on less progressed servers felt it was unfair that they would be behind when the new instance opened. It also encouraged hardcore raiders to server transfer to busier servers and swamp them.)

WoW also doesn’t encourage guild alliances, where different guilds might work together on shared goals without having to lose their individual identities and merge together.

So you end up in a game where guilds can be and are very strong, but the social cohesion between the rest of the faction/ server is extremely low. So as a new player, who isn’t in one of those strong guilds, you will struggle to see anything other than a poor community and the strong guilds have little incentive to welcome new players who might need extra coaching in any case.

Our town – the strong server

One of the features of older MMOs is that people did feel a strong attachment to their server. In DaoC for example, we had a lot of faction specific PvP goals and when our relics were in danger, everyone dropped what they were doing and headed out to the frontier together, casual and hardcore players from numerous different guilds alike. You tended to know people from different guilds because you would see them around the place, you would probably have been in PvP/ frontier groups with them, and you may have grouped with them in PvE.

This of course was before the advent of server transfers, so there was a hint of ‘work with the players you have.’ We also had strong guild alliances and it was likely that you and your guild would build up relationships with other guilds, and any friendships that you personally made would be a part of that.

The trend now is probably away from strong servers and towards the idea of either a single server, or easy transfers. In many ways this is a shame because a server with a few thousand players is easier to get to know your way around socially than a game with tens or hundreds of thousands. It’s like the in game equivalent of a small town, rather than a huge city.

Still, in smaller MMOs you can still get some of the same sense of social capital. Particularly games which may be struggling for players, as each new player is a valuable resource. I think this is what makes smaller games like Pirates and A Tale in the Desert feel friendlier.  But both of those games also feature strong non-direct interactions via trade. A new player who is keen can be a real asset to your faction even if they are (for example) not very good at PvP or PvE or play fairly casually. But – crucially – neither of these games put players in a position where they are forced to rely on newbies for rewards such as emblems or PvP points. It’s easy to be friendly when it won’t cost  you anything or hamper your own game.

In a MUSH I used to play, you could bring up a list of the last 20 new players to enter the game and existing players (especially if they were bored) often used this to mentor new players or try to make a special effort to include them in RP. This is the kind of mechanic that makes new players feel welcomed – just having someone going out of their way to include you.

I mention RP advisedly because even in non-roleplaying types of games, RP servers do always seem to have better communities than non-RP ones, such as it is. I think this is because they tend to attract players who value social interaction more highly, whether or not they actually roleplay in game.

I have mentioned above the notion of server goals and rewards, and using gameplay such as open groups, public quests, and faction based PvP to bring server communities together. If I could pick on one aspect of social capital where I think MMOs are currently failing, this would be the one. It potentially ties together the disparate guilds with common goals, gives guildless players a framework on which to meet and interact with guilded ones and works on a large enough scale to remind people that they are actually playing a MMO and not a squad based PvE game. Plus it is possible to foster server cooperation with non-direct interaction (such as the communal resource gathering) as well as huge PvP// PvE battles that require multiple guilds to work together.

Our society – the strong game

It is extremely rare to find a MMO where you could honestly say that the entire game had a strong community. Most of the games where I’ve experienced this have been smaller ones (or in beta), with a small single server that would have felt more like towns than vast cities.

However, if you look outside the single game to resources such as the WoW or EVE blogosphere you can get an inkling of how this could be fostered. Players on multiple different WoW servers happily cooperate on blogs or bboards to build a community that is in its way stronger and more stubborn than anything in game.

The WAR blogging community was and is still extremely strong for the size of the game. Whereas LOTRO in comparison really doesn’t have that strong of an online presence, even though it is probably more successful and most people would consider the in game community to be far better.

One thing that is key to understanding the importance of blogging communities is that they are entirely based around both social interaction and non-direct interaction, there is no direct gameplay involved. You don’t have to comment on blogs to feel part of the community. If you do comment, you don’t have to feel tied into a commitment.

Building better communities?

I personally do enjoy games with strong guilds, strong servers AND strong game communities, even if I may not choose to be part of all types of social network myself.

I think much of the debate about how game design can strengthen communities tends to focus on gaming interactions, and goal based communal achievements. There’s very little on increasing social interaction, which is a shame because it may well be key to building strong game communities, and strengthening ties between players who may have a lot in common and yet not really share common in game goals (possibly due to lack of time, etc.) I’m hoping to see more emphasis on social interaction and politicking on WoD Online when that comes out, it would suit a vampire based game to really pick at what makes virtual communities tick.

Interplayer links such as facebook, twitter or realID (battle.net) help tie players together without linking them to specific games. Are they a good thing for gaming communities or do they just make people more likely to parochially stick with players they already know and hence raise the bar for interaction with newbies? We still don’t know the answer to this.

Blizzard said yesterday that they value players being able to play with people they already know. This undoubtedly does create a sense of community which crosses real world/ online lines.  But how welcoming will this type of game be for a new player? Maybe they’ve decided that gaming now is so mainstream that everyone will know people to play with. Time will tell if they are right.

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23 thoughts on “Creating and measuring good communities in games

  1. Great blog post. Very thought provoking. What would happen if an MMO was to be developed that forced you into grouping with random players? And you had to learn to cooperate to survive.

    It’s an idea I’ve tossed around for sometime. For fun, let’s say that Earth could no longer sustain human life. We sucked out and depleted most of the resources, and greenhouse gas was about to turn it into the next Venus.

    Lucky for you, there are a chosen few that could afford to escape, through space, to a solar system that has been discovered to have a liveable planet.

    The landing pod you’re in has seven other players, chosen by the game (*gasp*), and you are about to land on previously unexplored terrain. With the tools available, you now have to quickly eek out an existance. You not only need to work together, but you absolutely will need to rely on each other for survival. The nearest landing pod of other players is a hundred kilometers away…and in which direction you have no idea…because traditional navigation doesn’t work on this hostile planet (something about different magnetic forces).

    You can’t just roll an alt and hope to get in a group with your buddies. You can’t get yourself killed so you can re-roll, unless you’re willing to wait 24 hours and then suffer an increasingly harsh stat penalty for each time you try and die to be with your friends.

    Ultimately, if you choose to keep playing and begin to sucessfully colonize the planet, you’ll most likely reunite with your real life friends. I wonder, at that point, how the communities would interact with each other? Would players simply go back to their RL mates, would a much larger, harmonic community be created, or would all of the newly found relationships quickly devolve into an MMOD (the last initial standing for ‘Drama’)?

    That said, you know for certain why I’m never going to be a game developer. Like you, I had similar DaoC experiences to yours, and I wish that MMO’s would somehow find a dynamic in which players would interact more..even if complete strangers. Still, because of the risk involved, I’m afraid the major MMO releases of the foreseeable future will cater to the solo and static group player.

    • That’s a really interesting idea.

      Actually I’m now reminded of various web and PBM games I’ve played in the past which did toy more with this sort of setup. There was one space empire game where you were randomly thrown into a group of about 12 players and had various group and personal goals to do, starting with electing a leader. I remember that being quite cool because more experienced players were encouraged to take the leadership role and advise everyone else on what to do.

      • I did a PBM Lord of the Rings Second Age game and the guys playing not only rang me up and mailed me to offer advice, but also took me to see a ballet! Rar! All random strangers with a mutual love for the Cloud Lord or Witch King ;p

  2. I just want to touch on the New Player Experience with the community. I remember when I first started playing everything was new and shiny. I spent way more time than necessary hanging around in Goldshire doing basically nothing. General chat was often peppered with people forming new guilds, and random guild invites would pop up on my screen multiple times a day. (I wasn’t ready to join a guild. I always prefer forming my own opinions on things before joining in on the group mentality.)

    After moving into Stormwind, it was a similar situation. Guild announcements scrolled by declaring that there was a new leveling guild forming, as well as ones detailing how progressed they were. (I was a n00b during late vanilla into early BC) I bounce around a couple leveling guilds before I found one that fit my personality, and I learned how to play the game with them, only finally leaving when I was ready to stretch my wings in some raiding content.

    This hasn’t changed! There are still leveling guilds advertising in Trade. My kids, when I let them play, are chronic re-rollers. They have sub level 20 characters in multiple leveling guilds because new player interaction has not stopped. The established members just don’t see it, because we already have our ready made social network when we make a new character.

    • That’s good to hear.

      I wonder if there is an element with some of the more experienced players of just being reluctant to go back to being in ‘noob guilds’ and wanting to skip that stage of the socialisation when they switch from one game to the next. Kind of like, “Oh I was a real pro in my last game. I want to log in and go straight to hardcore endgame progression with other pros in this game too. I don’t want to be bad while I am learning and need help from other people, I want to immediately be perfect.”

      And I suspect this wanting to skip normal stages of socialisation into new games is probably damaging to new games’ communities.

      • Perhaps this is one more good reason to try new types of MMOs, rather than just the Same Old sort of game. (Both for players and devs, really.) Give players something new instead of giving them something that they reflexively equate to their old game and thereby short-circuit the learning curve.

  3. I’ve been interested in how players have reacted to the zone invasions in the Rift beta events recently – they’re the closest thing I’ve seen in a long time to DAoC’s “OMG we’re being relic raided!” People are pulling together into public groups to fight them, at least. There’s not a lot of talking going on (at least not yet) and we’ll have to see what happens when the new and shiny wears off… but at least it’s a step towards an inclusive, community-building activity and away from the trend of “self first” or “guild first, screw everyone else” that other game’s design seems to have fostered.

  4. This one really got me thinking. One thing I hadn’t considered before as a design point is that tight guild communities can in some ways be bad for server communities. I’ve always just assumed it’s axioimatic that you want good guilds.

    Of course as you go on to say it is possible to have both. I wonder to what extent that was an accident of history in WoW. If we consider Vanilla as a game designed for excellent server community then maybe they had excellent guild communities not because of design but as an inheritance from earlier more guild-friendly games. (for example in Galaxies we had a guild base which was a feature in the world, a guild city, we could declare guild war on other guilds and go hunt them if they accepted – and pvp guilds will always accept a consensual war if you taunt them on the forums).

    I’m looking forward to part 2. I’d like you to address the convenience of features like LFD as opposed to their de-communitising effect and whether there is a Golden Path that can offer convenience with sociability. (Public quests maybe?). Of course maybe that will have to wait for part 3 :)

    • What I’m thinking for the next part is to talk a bit about the currency we use in games to help each other and where the mechanics come in. Like how can one player help other players (or receive help), how can a guild help other guilds (and receive help), and so on. ie. compare buffing other players, boosting, giving money/ crafted goods, raid/ group invites, to gift giving in social games. Just to show that actually in an MMO you can give (and receive) TONS more social help to players than in so-called social games.

      Can totally discuss LFD in that context. I guess where I see it is that LFD makes it very very easy for players to interact on a very pure (if short term) gaming sense, which should be good for community building really (and I suspect in a global sense it actually is) but it’s so automated that there’s actually no negotiation, even mechanically, so it will never actually feel like giving and receiving gifts of other people’s time and help. And bizarrely, if it works, you’ll feel grateful to the game/ codebase as much as to the actual people in the group (eg. I had a good group, isn’t Blizzard/ LFD great?).

      So to give an example. In CoD if you play co-op and your partner dies, you can give them first aid to revive them. When you do, the character on screen will say thanks (or something like that) and the helping player will probably feel ‘yeah! I helped them!’. Now ask how many healers ever get thanked for saving in-game lives. Note: I am not suggesting that healers deserve more thanks than anyone else, but wouldn’t it feel cool if the character who had been saved said thanks?

      Then maybe if there’s a part 3, will talk more about socialising and longer term relationships, and attachment theory. Or will take requests or something :)

      • Very much looking forward to this article.

        The reason LFD is so interesting in the context of the social economy is it seems to have been deliberately designed to minimise social transactions.

        Ofc one could argue that that’s an inadvertent side effect but I think people in general are too quick to assign stupidity to the company who after all are the most successful MMO makers.

        What if social and gameplay can be seen as sitting on opposite ends of a see-saw and Blizzard have deliberately minimised social bonds to maximise gameplay?

        Anyway I await your article with great interest.

      • “What if social and gameplay can be seen as sitting on opposite ends of a see-saw and Blizzard have deliberately minimised social bonds to maximise gameplay?”

        That wouldn’t surprise me at all. There certainly seems to be a give and take there if only in how one spends time.

        Interestingly, perhaps that means they have found, using their metrics, that socialization is less sticky than the addiction-heavy progress quest sort of gameplay.

      • I don’t think Blizzard are experts in social bonds or creating online communities because … pretty much no one is. It’s that new. Anyone who tells you they are an expert is mostly guessing. It’s like saying ‘Well, old games like EQ created strong communities so we just have to copy what they did and it’ll work.”

        I do think they are experts in creating gameplay and they’ve had plenty of time to observe how the community behaves so they’re probably building up the expertise though.

  5. I’m relatively new here, so perhaps I’m asking questions for which the answers are easily accessible, but I wonder from your topic how familiar you are with Putnam’s book Bowling Alone or the works of Bellah or (on the fictional side) Daniel Quinn. My wife is a political psychologist, and I’m a teacher, so we’re both heavily invested in the idea of social capital, which I’ve been espousing to my students for years, and I found it fascinating how you’ve applied this concept to WoW and MMOs in general. My wife and I have discussed this idea before, so I’m sure she’ll be very interested (as I was) in reading this.

    At any rate, if any of this stuff sounds interesting to you, feel free to contact me (or her via me at this point); I’m sure the conversation would be quite illuminating.

    • Welcome, both of you :)

      I have read Ishmael many years ago, and I was struck by it back then (in a good way). My thoughts on this at the moment are heavily influenced by the fact I’m studying to be a social worker at the moment as a mature student, so I’ve been studying sociology, psychology and some social work theory in college last term. And I’ve been involved in virtual communities for ages so it’s fun to see how theories about real life communities can apply. At the same time, our local political lords and masters here in the UK are banging on about ‘the big society’ so it’s quite a hot topic at the moment.

      I haven’t read Bowling Alone but I do want to, and more than happy to talk over this. Would love to know what more knowledgeable theoricians feel about it.

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