Game jargon: When is a group not a group?

When is a group not a group? When it’s a party, fellowship, fleet, team, gang, etc.

New MMOs often flood players with a tsunami of jargon, using new words for old, familiar concepts as well as thinking up terms for new gameplay or lore which is specific to that game. It isn’t just the humble group that gets the makeover treatment, games use different terms to describe guilds (kinship, corp, legion, supergroup, society, etc), raids (warbands) and even different types of spell (mez, sleep, incapacitate, blind).

It can feel overwhelming when you jump into a new game. As well as the official jargon, players have probably adopted their own abbreviations and nicknames for different locations, instances, bosses, quests, items and each other. A general chat channel might as well be in a foreign language for the amount of sense it makes to a newbie – or at least an unfamiliar dialect. Learning the local slang is an important part of learning a new MMO and joining that game’s community. Many of the wackier pieces of jargon are purely emergent — the player base thought them up to represent something they wanted to talk about.

So why think up different names for groups and guilds in every game?

Names have power. By renaming a familiar entity, you can change how players perceive it. For example, in D&D the player who runs the game is known as the DM or Dungeon Master. Later RPGs renamed this role as Game Master (showing that a game wasn’t really centred about dungeons), Storyteller (White Wolf trying to focus their games on stories and storytelling), and … infamously … Hollyhock God (I think this was an attempt to make Nobilis even more way out than it is anyway). Most pen and paper games settled for some version of GM — after all, players knew what it meant and it did describe the role.

Guilds and groups don’t really fall into the same category though, because a guild in most games serves the same function. It really is just a case of swapping the name to something more immersive. And immersion is another reason to pick different names. Would it make as much sense to talk about a group in EVE as it does to talk about a fleet? Even if they are functionally the same? A fleet implies a group of ships, after all. Using the name reminds players of the setting and of what their ‘group interface’ represents.

LOTRO in particular really went hell for leather on renaming just about everything in game to be more Tolkienesque. As well as Fellowships (groups) and Kinships (guilds), they even reimagined character death as representing loss of morale. It made for a very immersive experience, even with the exotic and unfamiliar naming system. Even when the name is not particularly immersive, different words have different connotations to players. A ‘party’ just feels more fun than a ‘group’.

Then there is the issue of trademarks. If a company thinks up a lot of new jargon for a game, they can trademark it and prevent others from using it inappropriately. If you look through the list of registered trademarks for a company like White Wolf/ CCP, you’ll see that they have trademarked a lot of the game jargon for this reason.

Players are more amenable to some kinds of jargon than other. The different names for guilds have been enthusiastically embraced in games I have played. LOTRO players jumped immediately into ‘kinships’ and started happily referring to their ‘kinnies’ (instead of guildies). My friends who play Aion are chatting about their Legions. There was no confusion, no resistance, they were happy with the new name for a player organisation.

Groups on the other hand are usually referred to as groups. It may be different in space settings where the players represent ships, but my experience is that people have been more resistant to adopting different terms for a group. Perhaps the game jargon for groups was either awkward or didn’t add enough in the way of immersion to really catch on.

But still I wonder how upcoming MMOs will name their groups and guilds. I’m thinking that fleets will feature in Star Trek, but I wonder how Star Wars (yes you can sign up for beta now) will choose to portray guilds in that game. It’ll be a challenge to think of guild jargon that could apply equally to a player organisation for sith warriors or for a group of smugglers. Perhaps they’ll decide, in the end, that the easiest way is just to call a guild a guild.

How to get people to read bulletin boards

Every MMO guild I’ve been involved with has used a bulletin board to pass on information and let members chat outside the game and in non-real time. They’re fantastically useful mechanisms.  You can post something in the morning and when you get back later, it’s spawned a multi-page thread, inspired your entire guild to get really enthusiastic on the topic, and gotten you banned.  And as well as threaded discussions, many bboards also allow you to send private messages to other players which is great when you want to bitch at people privately.

They really are a fantastic, simple solution as to how groups of people can communicate when they aren’t all present at the same time. In fact, bulletin boards may be the apex of human achievement.  They solved a very real and very human problem – without them, the internet might be possible but it could never really work. Also, flamewars: the second apex of human achievement.

And what are facebook and twitter if not clever tweaks to bboards?

There is a downside though. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but most people don’t care about your bulletin boards.

It doesn’t matter if you are running a guild, or a RL company, or a voluntary organisation. Even if the bulletin board is a crucial part of your communications strategy, most people ignore it, don’t care about it, and won’t read it unless you force them to do it. I used to work for a company that used bboards extensively and we had regulations about which boards we were supposed to keep up to date with. The fact they provided a ‘mark all as read’ button meant that you never had to actually read the things. Most people never read official forums. They won’t read your guild forums either.

The reason they don’t care is that the information isn’t always well organised, it’s a time consuming hassle to read the boards, and they aren’t all that interested in anything going on outside the game anyway. So they’re lazy and disinterested: welcome to the player base.

If you’re reading a blog, chances are that you may also read bulletin boards for your guild, for a really good game related site (eg. elitist jerks), and for the game itself. You’re in a small minority. You have the power of information, and it is at your fingertips. Yet with great power comes great responsibility. If you are the one who is often telling your guildies about what’s coming in the next patch, you are doing your bit to share the knowledge wealth. If you are the one who lets them know when there’s an interesting class Q&A on the official forums that is about their class, you’re doing your bit for the community.

And this is how bulletin boards typically work. They’re read by a few people, but the people who do read them disseminate the information. This is also why you have to take what players write on bboards with a pinch of salt; sure they are an influential minority but it’s not really clear if they pass information back the other way from the playerbase.

So you’re running a guild, how do you get people to read the boards?

This can be very frustrating if you are running a guild. Maybe you’d like to use bboards to let people know about upcoming raids, or to discuss class issues. You realise that a well used bboard can become a living community of it’s own, and you’d like that for your guild.

But how do you get people to use the boards?

  1. Create an atmosphere right from the start that is centred around the boards. Make them the front and centre of your community.
  2. Force people to use the boards regularly. Maybe use them for raid signups, so that you can make board usage a kind of gatekeeper for content the players want to do. (eg. if you don’t sign up, you can’t come.)
  3. Appoint an unofficial community manager. Companies have them, your guild can too. You just need one person who loves bboards (I know, I know) to keep thinking of cool ways to get everyone else to use them.
  4. Invite a few members who have fulltime jobs. They’ll be much more likely to use the bboards – it’s their way to keep in touch while they are at work.
  5. Reward the people who do use the boards. Be proactive in posting links to interesting news, blogposts, and other things they might be interested to see. Run competitions (I know we’ve had some cool screenshot competitions in the past). Have consumable giveaways.
  6. Most games let guild masters edit a message of the day that is shown to people when they log on. Use it to advertise the guild bboard, or any interesting threads up at the moment.
  7. Make sure all new members are informed about the bboard. Requiring all applications to be posted on the board is a good way to make sure they know where it is.
  8. If you’re the GM or an officer, then engage with the guild members. Answer their queries, listen to their issues, be available to chat on the bboard. Don’t make it a top down affair where you post instructions and they go away and do what they’re told. The baseline of a community is communication and it goes both ways.

Soloing, going casual, and the tragedy of the commons

People talk about soloing in MMOs as if having the option to solo to the level cap was a recent innovation. Actually I remember playing MUDs mostly solo. As long as there have been virtual worlds, there have been both players who just wanted to quietly get on with their own thing and those who wanted to play with others.

However it’s the players who want to play with others who create the in game community.

MMOs are all about options. You can have soloers, raiders, hardcore, casual, explorers, achievers, et al all playing in the same virtual world. And that means you can play different sides of the game depending on how you feel.  I used to be in a guild with a Finnish guy who occasionally would /gquit for a couple of weeks to get away from the world (including guild chat). He referred to this as ‘going on holiday to his virtual log cabin’. He could have just not logged in but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be alone in the virtual world.

Sometimes you’ve had a rough day at work and don’t want to be hassled. Other times you really want to be around other people, and I love that the game provides these options.

But, aside from the regular flow of people who switch between soloing and grouping as their mood dictates, there are a lot of players who never have any intention of grouping with anyone they don’t know. I’ve always felt that they were a large but mostly invisible segment of the population. You don’t ‘see’ them because they don’t talk, they don’t join guilds. I remember being surprised when a guy joined our WAR guild and commented that although he’d played MMOs for years, this was the first time he had ever joined a guild. He’d just been playing with friends and never needed nor wanted the guild.

So who needs who, really?

A soloer, or a small group of RL friends who only ever group with each other, is a self contained unit. They don’t need anyone else to play in their preferred way. They don’t really need access to a guild bank or guild crafters because there are Auction Houses and trade channels.

Some may choose to join guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere, and to share information, loot, and skills. But it isn’t really clear what the guild gets from having soloers as members.

Players who like to group, on the other hand, need to be around other social players. You can’t run group content on your own, by definition. And so social players tend to cluster into guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere and to share information, loot, and skills, and also so that they can more easily find people to group with.

There are two types of successful guild, really. One is the very focussed one in which every member wants to do the same type of activity in game. These would be like raiding or endgame guilds. Over time they may ease the focus, let in more alts and social members, and evolve a more casual tier alongside the hardcore centre.

You can have a guild that is focussed on supporting casual members who are mostly soloers. But it’s very difficult to keep that kind of community together unless there’s a core of the guild who is a little less casual than the rest or unless you prearrange set times to play.

The other type is a larger social type of guild which is more of a broad umbrella under which members do what they like. And this kind of guild can carry a few soloers, maybe even a lot, but it absolutely must also have a critical mass of members who like to group because otherwise the guys who want to group won’t be able to find guild groups.

This isn’t just about grouping for instances or raids or PvP. I’ve been in RP guilds where we organised little RP events and were struggling to get people to come to them, while seeing half the guild online but off soloing somewhere else. Those are players who went to the effort of joining a RP guild but then when it actually tried to organise something that they could easily have joined in, they preferred to keep farming. They didn’t really want to be part of the guild or interact in any way beyond the chat channel.

And let me tell you, when you are trying to organise anything in guild and people flip you off for no real reason other than that they can’t be bothered, even though they are online and not busy, it will quickly put you off trying to organise anything else in future. This is why social guilds need to keep the number of soloers down and the number of social members up.

If the number of social members falls too low, then the rest MUST leave too for a guild with better grouping opportunities or else they’ll be very very miserable. And you can guarantee it’ll be the guys who mostly solo who will be tutting and complaining that people aren’t loyal to their guilds any more these days when they go.

The only guild that truly benefits from soloers is the solo-centric guild, made by and for other soloers. And ironically, most soloers who want to join a guild for the chat channel and crafters are not looking for that kind of guild.

Note: Yes, when I say soloers I mean people who have no intention of ever grouping with anything they don’t know iRL. I don’t have a problem with the playstyle. I still think it’s great that MMOs can cater to all sorts. And I do have friends in my guild who mostly solo because of RL issues, and we love having them around. But don’t join a guild just for its chat channel without telling them that’s all you want.

Just bear in mind that if I want to group, I need to have people around who want to do the same thing. If I want to solo (or play with a partner or fixed group), I don’t need anyone or anything. And a social player can provide all the same things as a soloer, but they’re also helping to build the community.

So why are you soloing in an MMO anyway?

Syp is tired of being asked why he would want to solo in a multi-player game. That’s a fair point, it’s no-one’s business what you do in the game as long as you aren’t harassing anyone (and by definition, soloers are very unlikely to be in this situation).

But he then goes on to explain that soloers may not really want to be alone, and thinks it’s reasonable to join a guild anyway. I beg to differ. It MAY be reasonable to join a guild, if you can find one that it copacetic with your playstyle.

He also comments that solo players may appreciate the support network that other players can provide. And they’ll provide you with this for no return why exactly? How is that not leeching? And why do you need a support network anyway if you are soloing?

But if you join a social guild, every time you are online when someone is trying to organise a guild activity and you could have taken part but you decided not to bother, you are breaking a piece of someone’s heart. But of course, you’re solo, so you’re not interested in being anyone else’s support network. Why should you care? Why should you help to support the guild, you’re only there for the chat channels? Maybe they’re the ones who  should  chill out and remember it’s just a game.

(I’m not convinced that MMOs offer more bang for your buck than single player games, though. I suppose it depends which single player games and which MMOs.)

Relying on the more hardcore

Actually, a lot of players do rely on more hardcore people to provide their player-generated entertainment. A guild leader or raid leader puts much more time and effort into the game than a rank or file member. Both types of player need each other, but one is definitely working harder.

So maybe a casual player wants to not be tied to a schedule, but still be able to log into a friendly guild and find competent groups whenever they want. In order for a guild to provide that, they need to have a core of more hardcore players who will be around more often, will play enough to become competent, and will want to group whenever the casual player logs in.

I don’t think people always see that side of things. In order for me to have my great casual friendly guild, officers and raid leaders need to want to put in a lot more work than I do. It isn’t that I’m not valuable, but I am relying on some people being more hardcore.

So … tragedy of the commons?

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?