The big challenge in building in game communities

Everyone who plays MMOs knows already what the biggest challenge is in building in game communities. We have known it for years. And it is to do with what happens when you feel that you need to choose between playing with your friends, and playing for some other goal (like progression).

And it happens because endgame has tended to become so demanding that there comes a point where you have to decide whether to focus totally on that. And that has increasingly meant (in WoW) seeking out other people equally focussed on endgame and abandoning anyone else you know in game. MMOs never really used to be like this, EQ may have been, but other same-gen games like DaoC were really quite relaxed about letting everyone raid together in huge groups. As we know WoW took the EQ model and made a huge success of it. But could Blizzard be about to rewrite the rulebook for their next outing?

So let’s look at this as a design issue. Particularly if the next generation of MMOs (like Titan) is going to be keener to encourage people to play with RL friends.

If it is important that people should be able to play with RL friends then they will need ways to interact in game which don’t require them all to be equally hardcore or skills. In fact, having a couple of core players able to carry a group would be a good thing.

Or else an assumption needs to be made that the majority of players will have ‘gamer’ friends who are roughly the same level of skill. In actual fact, most MMO players probably do have MMO playing friends who are reasonably good players. Actually, any player who is able to look at their character skills, roughly figure out how they work and go kill some monsters is already ahead of the game. There are many groups who run fixed groups in lots of different games successfully who show this – mostly because they have no interest in endgame.

No the real problem is this elevation of endgame into a sort of quest for the holy grail where dedicated questors are expected to place progression as their sole goal. This is what forces people to join guilds where they basically have nothing in common with other players than a common interest in loot, and shared raid times. For some, this is enough. And if you spend long enough in a community with other people, some sort of a long term community will grow, particularly if people are able to meet up outside the game.

But friendships in these kinds of goal based communities can be very conditional. Miss a few weeks of raiding, or perform badly for a few weeks and see whether you still feel as close to the other players as before. Being a member of a community where your membership is so conditional is always going to be a hotbed for stress and drama. No one can ever really feel comfortable with their position. (btw this is not an attack on anyone’s raid guild – I just think that raid guilds in themselves tend to be unstable organisations. As the constant recruiting would imply.)

And what it certainly isn’t is a recipe for the sort of TF2/ CODBLOPS clans who happily shoot the breeze together every week, which I think is the model Blizzard would like to go for in Titan.

There’s nothing particular about FPS which encourages communities more than MMOs. And certainly my mate from work is very open about the fact that his clan (which he adores) are tolerant of him being a bit older and slower, and it doesn’t stop them all having fun together.

But what they do have is good voice chat outside the matches, the ability to work as a team (and gank enemies together) and the fact that they’re all more about having fun and shooting shit than about press button x when y happens and get out of the green flame and target add A and interrupt when I say but not before to within 0.00001% timing accuracy.

If I sound as though I’m saying raids are a dead end, that’s not the case. But I fondly remember the DaoC raids where there were no upper limits on raid groups. If you wanted to take the whole server into ML4.2 then you could do it. Rifts, in another way, offer a way for a random number of characters to play together and cooperate on the same objectives. There’s an element of the same ‘shooting the shit’ feeling.

And making playing with your friends an experience that is fun rather than stressful is going to be key to forming communities in the MMOs of the future.

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14 thoughts on “The big challenge in building in game communities

  1. “In fact, having a couple of core players able to carry a group would be a good thing.”

    Seconded. This unfortunately does not work in most MMOs.

    Especially raids are designed to punish failure, not to reward doing exceptionally good.
    For example, it still haunts me how I wiped the entire Tempest Keep raid three times in a row for being too dumb to get aggro from Capernian. My failure alone doomed the entire raid which did very well.

    Guild Wars 1 love incoming!
    For almost all areas/missions it is possible to drag a weaker player through. A strong healer allows the newbie to make more mistakes and still do it, a good target caller makes things die faster, a good team setup for the mission can make it much easier and all that, just a few examples.
    There are only few areas where a single player can doom the entire group/raid.

    For example “The Deep” is a 12 man elite mission where the team starts in 4 groups of 3 players each that have to solve the particular challenge of their starting zone before they can form up with the other three groups. If one player fails, this particular group is doomed. But if one of the other groups makes it through, they can rez an help the others, so it is not a fatal failure.

  2. What you miss here is the self-defeating success of the MMO. You can “shoot shit” with your friends in an FPS, because the outcome does not matter.

    In a SUCCESSFUL MMO on the other hand there is social relevance of progression. There are toplists that remind you that you and your friends are just world #40000 and even that total dick Gevlon is #18000 not to mention the real HC.

    There is no place for “fun” in a peer-judged social environment. After a game reaches a certain size, community will form, with sites and blogs and you no longer play a game, you participate in a socially relevant space where you are judged.

    As soon as one starts to worry about his appearances, friends go out of the window and only progression (and gearscore) remains.

    • The question of why progression matters so much to so many people who really aren’t bleeding edge is a really interesting one, I think. Or rather, why so many people have convinced themselves that it matters.

  3. You mention something here which I can only second and find one of the big issues about MMOs, especially WoW; this very achievement- and efficiency oriented mindset in the playerbase. raidguilds are obviously king here, your entire existance within them is subject to conditions and the success of your performance. I can’t rule myself out here, I’ve always been in raidguilds like that and I’ve added my share of progress drive, but I was never happy with the fact that WoW made us choose ‘either -or’ as much as we had to at times.

    Performance is not entirely unimportant in other games – but in WoW we’ve probably seen it done more excessively than ever. the raid/loot-centric gameplay, the min-maxing both have played into this a great deal. instead of having fun killing stuff together, like the FPS clans do while trashtalking on vent and being silly, WoW raids are ‘SRS BZNS’!

    I wonder still who’s more repsonsible for it; the way Blizzard went with the game and designed classes and encounters, or the community going overboard.
    all I can say is that right now I greatly enjoy Rift for the lack of these min/maxing aspects and success orientation, although nobody can say how the soul diversity or gear is really going to play out in endgame. these things, as strange as it may seem, will influence how the community will play this MMO and how social or fun, rather than performance-centric it will become for everybody. I hope Trion puts focus a little different than Blizzard.

  4. I’ve always thought that it’s a shame that we are limited to one and only one guild membership per character.

    Being caught in the nasty decision of progress vs friends is a unpleasant place to be in. Wouldn’t it be lovely if guilds could be categorized, and we could belong to one guild in each category?

  5. It would be interesting to open up 10 man raids to be 10-15 man raids. Balance them for 10 members, but allow up to 15 in. (or 12, 13, 14… whatever feels right)

    Several things could be done to balance this out:

    1. Bonus loot only drops in pure 10 man runs (orbs, legendary parts, etc.)
    2. Hard modes could only be done in pure 10s.
    3. Limit the number of valor points (boss only drops 500, split between all members) or split valor and justice (each extra member converts 10 valor into justice).
    4. Of course, any competitive standings would be based off 10 man kills only.

    25s could be adjusted the same way.

    I think this would be extremely fun, and allow groups that want to be competitive to remain so, and those that prefer casual fun can do so without having to turn it into work.

  6. Excellent post. I never had the chance to play the older MMOs, being both ignorant of them and resistant to them prior to WoW (and even then for a year or two). I agree, though that the game polarizes people between “casual” and “hardcore,” and many of us working professionals want something in between, a place where we can raid, shoot the shit, have a good time, laugh, but also feel we’re accomplishing some goal together: a Part-Core guild (way to drop a new term subtly there).

    I think, in addition to raiding, Cata itself created difficulties in playing with friends. Since the zones are so linear, if one person gets a head or late start, it becomes difficult for a group of people to level together. I’ve been experiencing this recently.

    As to your question “Why is progression important / or have people convinced themselves that it is?” I think there’s at least two (this is off the top of my head so there may well be many more) ways to get to that belief. One is, as your previous commenter put, the belief that your social standing in the game matters: you want to be the best. The second, and I fall into this category, is the idea of completion. I want to complete the content; it doesn’t matter so much to me how long it takes or hard it is, but I want to be able to look back and say, “We did it. We finished that.”

    I think the second mindset is harder to deal with; the people who just want to be the best are easily going to make sacrifices to do so. The people in the second group, though, has to make choices about what they value in the game, and making a trade-off like that can hurt a gamer’s relationship to the game.

    This was a really excellent topic and has given me a lot to think (and potentially post) about. Thanks!

  7. Pingback: Gamer Motivations « Sheep The Diamond

  8. “In fact, having a couple of core players able to carry a group would be a good thing.”

    This happens to me all the time in StarCraft 2. I’ll be playing in a group with friends and one person may be pretty bad and the rest of us are good, but we all end up having fun together anyway.

    We are playing the game to have fun as a group, not with the intention of getting to raid boss x. Not having to worry about the progress we make helps us just enjoy the time together.

  9. Random thought – the obssession with raid progress and maximising DPS might be a symptom of something else. WoW players strive for raid progress and optimisinig their raid performance because they believe that’s what the “best” players do and they want to be just like them.

    In DAoC there was this notion that 8 vs 8 RVR was the “best” way of playing the game and “zerging” (or fighting as part of your realm’s army, depending on your point of view) was inherently inferior. A lot of players strove to form 8-man RvR guilds and adopted leeter-than-thou attitudes. Is this the same thiing manifesting differently?

  10. Everytime there is a simple way of measuring performance, there will be a competition. For some reason or another, some people need the gratification for being the best in anything, if not in their real life, then in the virtual ones.

    This competitive spirit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the glorification and making it the most important thing in the MMOs is, I think. The mere thought that the end game is where the game begins is strange to me, perhaps due to the fact that I’m from the old pen and paper roleplaying era, seeing the group content as more of a social fun rather than besting others.

    As long as there is the possibility to measure performance, as long as there are leaderboards, as long as there is the glorification of any sort of activity, this disparity will be around the corner.

    So far I’ve been enjoying Rift exactly for this reason (among other things): no measurable successes except the downing of the boss, closing the rift or fending off the invasion.

    I hope it stays like this for a long time.

    C out

  11. “But what they do have is good voice chat outside the matches, the ability to work as a team (and gank enemies together) and the fact that they’re all more about having fun and shooting shit than about press button x when y happens and get out of the green flame and target add A and interrupt when I say but not before to within 0.00001% timing accuracy.”

    This.

    This is full of WIN! *cheers fullofWIN*

    This is exactly why I play with friends *or* random PUGs in GW, when I feel like being sociable.

    When I want to do what you said in that paragraph above (which I do often want to do), I used Heroes + Henches (and now just Heroes). But you have defined what for me is the basis of good, social gameplay within a genre involving squishing lots of imaginary things with pretty lights, for fun. XD

    Fun.

    Not gear. Not progression. Not loot. Not status. Not Achievements.

    Fun.

    YAAAAAAAAY SPINKZ!

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