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.