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.