After 5 pints of beer, everyone looks like their character

This weekend found me nervously sitting on a train running through the glorious Oxfordshire countryside on the way to our alliance/ guild meet in Bath. The weather was fantastic.  Lambs bounced around in fields, pale blossoms studded the darker trees, the grass was that particular vibrant shade of green that  you only get in countries that have a lot of rainfall, and the train was full of people travelling to visit friends for the long holiday weekend. It probably would have smelled nice too if it hasn’t been for the diesel fumes.

England can actually be very pretty if you catch it on that one sunny day in late Spring. But that still doesn’t excuse Wordsworth (I still have issues from having to study him at school). Bath is also  beautiful, all built from the same sandy-coloured limestone and elegant Georgian architecture. On this occasion, we were there for the company and for the beer. Both of which were consumed in abundance.

There is no word for the feeling you get just as you walk into a room in which there will be several people you know very well even though you have never met in person. Maybe in the past it might have been like this for people who had spent years as penpals, pouring out their hearts to each other on paper. In the internet era, it happens more and more often.

There’s a brief pause as you look over at the guys in the corner (do they look geeky enough? do you look geeky enough?), then suddenly everyone is talking at once and you sit down — among friends.

Maybe it crosses your mind briefly as to whether people look the way you were expecting. Some will, some won’t. But miraculously, about 30s after everyone starts talking, it completely ceases to matter. I’d love to say more about what we actually talked about, of course much of it was about the game, about our alliance raids, about our character, and then it drifted and we were talking about ourselves,the news, the beer, and I just remember looking up to see that suddenly it was eight hours later and we were discussing what to do for supper.

More things I learned from the guild meet:

  1. People often will gossip about the guys who aren’t there. But if you aren’t there you will never know if you were the one they were talking about, so it probably doesn’t matter.
  2. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to poke the raid leaders for raid leader gossip.
  3. People are much more relaxed when they have been drinking.
  4. You will never be angry at someone online again after you have hugged goodnight drunkenly at a guild meet. Well, not until the next time anyway.
  5. You will feel closer to the people you have met iRL.
  6. If you get a chance to go to a guild meet, do it!

Gossip! How are easy raids affecting servers?

I was writing last week about keeping in touch with server news, but I did miss out one way that I track guild moves on my server.

I check bboards of other guilds.

I can never decide if this is fair game or whether it is just one step up from cyber-stalking. In either case, it’s a habit I got into back in the days when I was the priest officer in a 40 man guild. The guild leaders used to get on my back any time we weren’t able to field five priests on a raid night so I spent a fair amount of time trying to second guess how many I needed to recruit and who might be planning on leaving and need to be replaced.

You can see where this is going. Initially I tracked the application boards of more progressed raid guilds so that if a good priest applied to them and was rejected, I could contact the player in game and ask if they were interested in a tryout with us.

But sometimes what you found was that a player from your guild had applied to ‘move up’ without letting anyone know. We were never a guild who took punitive measures when this happened. It sounds wacky to read now but some guilds would boot a player just for applying to another guild. Maybe some still do. If you do, you’re a bunch of nutters by the way …. just saying. Anyway, we didn’t boot people for that, but I took it as a sign to start looking for a replacement.

It was quite common for officers to scan other guilds’ public bboards at the time. ie. not just my freaky gossip-herding habits. So word got around. A lot of the more hardcore guilds started to take private applications – they knew that some of the players they’d want to recruit didn’t want to risk punitive action from their own guilds if they applied and were rejected. But fortunately, on my server this was not the norm so I was able to enjoy keeping tabs on guild movements in peace.

From the non-officer point of view, keeping an eye on the public forums of guilds which you aspire to join can also give you an insight into what they are like, and what they look for in recruitment posts. eg. If guild officers mock applicants who don’t write in full sentences and use good grammar, it’s a very different type of guild from one where everyone uses txtspk.

It isn’t just a WoW phenomenon either. Scanning guild boards in other games is just as useful a way to keep up with what’s going on. If nothing else, it’ll tell you whether the guild tends to use its public boards or not.

That was then, this is now

These days, we care less about the application boards. Also, there are more raid guilds around in WoW. It’s harder to know who the more influential guilds are. People in general fuss less about ‘server firsts’ and more about who runs raids on their preferred schedule, or which guild likes or dislikes achievements,  because they assume that most raids will be running most content. Sarth+3, whilst the hardest encounter in game at the moment, is not one that everyone cares about.

And even just scanning bboards from the older hardcore guilds, you can see this in the applications that they receive. There was a time when a server first guild never had a shortage of applicants for any class. That time is gone, at least on my server.

Partly I think most people don’t know or care which of the various raid guilds is better or worse. This comes down to Blizzard having scaled the Wrath raids such that most organised raid groups blitzed through them.

But I know what I’m seeing is guilds listing which classes they are looking for, and getting some … unimpressive applications. I’m not talking about hilariously bad here. Just people who wouldn’t normally be applying to high end guilds — new 80s, people with no previous raid experience. The kind of people we’d take if they had friends in our guilds! And I mean no disrespect to my alliance (who rock), but one of our strengths has always been in teaching new people how to raid. It’s not so much what I expect to see from the more hardcore groups.

So my scuttlebutt at the moment is that easing the difficulty of raiding has smashed server coherence. There are very few gradations between a hardcore and a midrange raid guild right now. And no reason at all for anyone to be raiding more than 2-3 days a week (I see people advertise 5 raid nights – WHAT DO THEY DO ON THOSE 5 NIGHTS? I really want to know! Or maybe I don’t.).

What’s worse for the hardcore guys is that because they have fewer ways to demonstrate their skill/organisation, regular players cease to care. And without any external pressure to funnel more hardcore players into those guilds (why bother, when you can raid all the content in your current guild), they’re struggling to replace turnover. This may be healthier for individual midrange guilds. I know it is more comfortable for us to not be losing our best raiders at a continual drip. It’s probably also a much better situation for individual raiders. It’s nice to be able to raid with friends and not be frustrated because they don’t progress as fast as you’d like.

But if Ulduar isn’t hard enough to let the hardcore guilds pull ahead, expect them to start dying.

How do you get your server news?

Do you care what other players are doing on your server?

Part of the appeal of MMOs is the whole massively multiplayer setup. Even when you are playing solo, you know there are many others online. You run past toons who are actually real people and not codebotted NPCs. You hear them chattering and arguing on world channels. Maybe you are one of the tiny minority who reads your official realm bboards to get the lowdown on the latest ninja looting scandals, or to see which raid guild is recruiting?

Maybe you get to recognise some names, some guilds, some server personalities. Is there that one guy who always organises the Wintergrasp raids, or fusses at people for not roleplaying in the trade channel (news flash: On RP servers, you do not have to RP in the trade channel!)?

Even if you never group, never utter a word on a chat channel, and never talk to anyone, the gameworld around you feels alive with real player activity. You would notice if you were on a silent game or server. You’d wonder who sucked all the life out of the world.

I think it is a huge boost to immersion in game if players have a way to keep up with the gossip, guild recruitment/ drama, raid achievements, world PvP, and other player initiated events on their server. Even if you just watch passively, it is immersive to feel the gameworld changing.

There are three sides to server news. Gathering news, reporting news, and broadcasting/ publishing the news.

Server news and RL news

It is very immersive to feel that you can do something that affects the gameworld and that other players will react to it. Conversely, most people are not all that interested in what others are doing unless it affects them personally.

We see this with the real life news also. We read the news, focus on any stories concerned with our personal interests or hobbies, gawp at anything that affects people we know, glance over news in our locale, ponder wider ranging political/ financial stories because they will also affect our lives. Anything else … is pure entertainment, only vaguely more real than fiction.

So to get people to be interested in what others are doing, the ‘news’ either needs to match one of their interests or affect them directly.

Matching Interests

Raiders in hardcore guilds are fascinated by guild rankings, news about server first kills, lists of who killed which boss the fastest, and other sports-style statistics.

PvP junkies might like to know the current state of any player-ownable areas (eg. keeps in Warhammer), numbers of kills, writeups of any particularly exciting battles, and news about any PvP events that are being planned by their faction.

Server gossips want to know all about the guild drama. Which guild split up? Which guild just started? Who left who for who? And was there any cybering involved? What’s the big scandal of the week?

Regular players want to know about things that impact them directly. If they are looking for a guild, they want to know which guilds are recruiting. If there is an in-game public event coming up, either programmed or player organised, they want to know when and where it is (and why they ought to go).

Where current games fall short

Just going through the list above, it’s easy to see how few MMOs really provide good channels for this information in game. And yet, these represent a lot of the ways in which players can impact and interact with each other.

They could certainly start by publishing lists. And some games do post lists of top guilds, top PvP kills, and so on. But that in itself is interesting but not immersive. Posting the lists in game, attaching them to a town cryer, letting interested players subscribe to the in game ‘PvP Newsletter’ — that would be more immersive.

A lot of the time players will happily take up the job of being in game journalists, but they need the tools to help them gather information. It’s phenomenally difficult to find out about things that happened when you weren’t online  unless you are very well connected or have a super information gathering network.

And yet, finding out about things that happened when they weren’t online is one of the lures that could make a game (and in particular, a social game) very compelling to people.

What do we usually get in game? A guild message of the day, restricted to a couple of sentences. And chat channels which wipe when we log off.

Guild Recruiting

Finding a guild that matches your interests and playstyle is the single biggest random factor in whether many people decide to stick with a game. Given that, it’s plain crazy to me that so many games have such dreadful channels for guild recruitment.

If there was one single thing a developer could do to increase player retention, it’s making it easier for people to find guilds and make it easier for guilds to find people.

What do people do now? External websites, spamming global channels to recruit, hope to randomly bump into nice people while wandering around, wait for players to come to you?

Better in game tools for guild advertising and recruiting could help hugely. Even if it’s just a searchable list with a few sentences of description and a contact for each guild, it’s better than nothing.

In Game Gossip?

I’ve never really seen a gossip mechanic in game, but imagine if every player had a gossip rating. And they could add gossip messages to the network (number depending on rating) — maybe short twitter style messages that would time out after a few days, based on gossip rating. And then others could vote the gossip up or down depending on whether they agreed with it.

Sure, it could lead to social cliques. But servers have those anyway. What it might do is create a very dynamic, very exciting gossip mechanic that would have people excited to log on to see what happened since they were last online.

And if players did want to take on a gossip columnist role, they’d have the information they needed to do it.

And if there was demand for a more newsy channel, why not encourage players to gather news from their server? It might require a specialised mailbox (maybe people can send anonymous stories to the editor). Might need some thought on how best to publish an in game newsletter — would regular mail be too spammy? But if players have the tools, someone will take up the challenge.

To my mind, the key to keeping players interested in what others are doing is to make it entertaining, and to make it all part of the game.