Optimisation doesn’t belong in my MMOs

A long time ago, in the esoteric pen and paper RPG world of GURPS (don’t worry if you have never heard of it), somebody wrote a gaming supplement called GURPS Vehicles. It contained rules for players to design and ‘build’ any kind of vehicle they could imagine, from any genre, and then use it in their GURPS game. These rules were physics based and very detailed, and you really needed a spreadsheet to work it out properly.

It was written by a very talented game designer called David Pulver, but I think even he was surprised at the very specific fanbase who adored his vehicles book, given that there really wasn’t much for roleplayers in it at all. Communities grew up based around sharing their vehicle stats and descriptions with each other, without actually playing the game itself.

And many of the regular GURPS players shunned the book, on the grounds that it was way too complicated and – frankly – unnecessary in a RPG where the GM could always handwave any interesting vehicles as necessary. It was almost as if the frenzy of design and optimisation was a separate game in itself.

Why optimisation is not the enemy

There has always been a healthy player base for games or puzzles based around optimisation, where you were able to sit down and carefully design your character/ vehicle/ simulation and then drop it into a simulated world and see what happened. Then tune it a bit for better performance, maybe even make it fight against other people’s simulations to see whose was best. This is just one step away from all the cross-over fanfics you ever imagined – so what happens exactly when Doctor Who fights Dracula? Is Thunderbird 1 faster than the X-Men’s fighter jet? etc etc

Mechanical optimisation is part and parcel of a very simulationist method of playing games and resolving any conflicts.

The alternative, more narrative/ dramatic method, is to decide in advance which of the characters/ vehicles etc should win and then tell the story appropriately. If the stats don’t work as intended, then you ignore or handwave them as necessary.

So – one of these methods lends itself far better to computer RPGs (hints: it’s the simulation model.) A computer is very well able to model a fight as a set of dice rolls with mathematically modelled entities. It’s not so well able to wing a story.

However, optimisation doesn’t necessarily make for a great gaming experience, because most of the optimisation is usually done as a perquisite to the game. So for example, with GURPS Vehicles, you sat down for a few hours with your spreadsheet and designed your amazing creations, and only after that could you play with them. Plus you couldn’t easily tweak them in play without another spreadsheet session. It’s better, I think, to look at optimisation as a separate game in itself, and a good optimisation game will not be easily boiled down to a few ‘correct’ solutions.

Another challenge with a good optimisation game is that you may not know 100% in advance what challenges your model will have to face. In a fighting game, you may not know what sort of opponents you will face. In a racing game, you may not know much about the terrain in advance. Because if you did, you’d just optimise for that environment and you’d be back to the few correct solutions again.

So in a computer game, I’d assert that optimisation is more fun as a minigame when you’re facing randomised challenges. That’s what makes the hybrid designs more interesting and the specialist designs more of a risk.

Why optimisation is the enemy

I commented on Nils’ post yesterday that I thought optimisation is one of the big enemies for players in MMOs these days.

This is because they’re not really well designed optimisation games in the first place. Optimisation becomes a tedious step of looking up builds/ gearouts online and copying them semi-blindly. Now, precisely who finds this fun? Is there really any player who derives any kind of fun from copying a spec from a webpage? (Aside from the relief of not having to worry about it so that they can get on with the parts of the game which they like.)

I don’t think so. The fun in optimisation is in designing your own character, trying it out, and then tweaking to make it work better. It’s not in being told “fire mages suck this patch, noob.”  Or “if you don’t have 5 resto shammies in the raid, you might as well stay home!” And yet MMO design – particularly WoW endgame design – has become so minmaxed that players (and raid leaders) who don’t use the optimal loadouts are at a disadvantage, and are seen as a disadvantage to any group they are in. A side effect of this is the ferocious emphasis on balancing the various specs. When tools are available that can rate the performance of any given spec to within 0.001% AND content is tuned for minmaxers then what can you expect? So MMO devs have managed to create an optimisation game that isn’t very fun for the majority of players. Well done, guys.

Right now, far from having any fun with optimisation, if there was a button in the game that said ‘optimise my character’ that would tweak talent trees, inform the player of the optimal dps rotation, and assign some optimal gear for the current raid then most players would HAPPILY press it.

It used to be that part of the fun of optimising your MMO character was actually collecting your gear, which might have come from a variety of different sources. That too has been largely optimised out – a combination of gear lists, token loot, known instance and crafted loot and readily available information from websites makes even this feel more like a chore. How much fun is it really to gear up in WoW these days? It’s a combination of running random heroics (with relevant tabards for rep also) and whatever you can buy from the auction house.

On top of this has been tacked a fairly fun raiding model where how people actually play their characters during a fight becomes more important. This to me is the more fun side of gaming optimisation, where you have to react a bit more quickly and flexibly to things going on in game, and optimise your strategy/tactics, not your build.

Optimising as a part of gameplay is still fun. But optimising talent trees is not a fun part of current, tightly tuned MMOs. Sure, you can play with those talents to your heart’s content and have some fun messing around, but the choices on offer are not very real. And it can be a heartbreaker. What exactly happens in a game such as Rift if my favourite soul is not the best dps spec? Right now – nothing, my guild won’t care and it won’t stop us downing monsties (thanks Hawley). How about in 6 months time when everyone is minmaxed to the hilt and other people can check your specs?

I still think there is a lot of fun to be had from tweaking characters and character progression, but the most fun gameplay is that which happens as part of the actual session, not outside the game itself. And my ideal MMOs will be far more about how you actually play than how you spreadsheet.

MMO Rumours: New version of Ultima Online? SOE closing studios?

A couple of fairly major rumours have been doing the rounds over the last day or so.

1. Based on the fact that EA is recruiting one (1) MMO programmer for an unannounced project, there’s a rumour that they’re planning a remake/ sequel to Ultima Online. If it’s true and sticks with the strong worldbuilding focus of the original game, this could be very interesting indeed.

But chances are that any updates will neuter whatever made UO fascinating to players at the time.

And incidentally if you want to try the original Ultima Online, there’s a 14 day free trial. I would also like to give Mythic props because this is the first official newbie guide I’ve seen that offers advice on how to choose a shard/server.

2. And the other, less happy rumour is that Sony Online Entertainment is closing studios and laying off a third (!) of their staff. That’s a lot of staff. Wish them all well if it’s true.

MMOs and target audiences

A commenter on Tobold’s recent post about the future of raiding (note to self: feminism and posts about whether raiding is dead always get lots of responses :) ) as an end game encapsulated something that has been niggling me about WoW over the past few months.

Someone (I think Krisps, sorry too tired this morning to read through comments slowly) commented that after all was said and done, the Cataclysm raid model was perfect for their guild and playing style so obviously they were pleased with it and hoped that Blizzard stuck with it.

And others commented that they had preferred Wrath because raiding in that expansion had been perfect for their guild and playing style. (This was true for me also.)

And it occurs to me that there is an element of spin the bottle in who Blizzard will decide is their target audience inbetween one expansion and the next. The game that was perfect for you in one expansion might morph into something that can’t keep your attention or your guild together in the next, and largely players accept this as the price of entry. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.

And yet, there is another view of MMOs which is that they could be providing a range of activities catering to a wider range of players and preferences. I do think Blizzard have dropped the ball on this in Cataclysm to some extent – they cater for ultra-casuals very well, and solo players who like pet collecting. Tight-knit 10 man raid guilds (or 25 man) are also catered to pretty well. I’m not sure how the PvP scene is at the moment but there are certainly options for arenas and battleground play. So there is definitely a lot there.

But there’s still the notion of the expansion having a target audience. It suits some types of players more than others, and they aren’t really fighting hard to keep ‘the others’.

Maybe it’s because Rift is so new and I’m nowhere near the level cap but the game feels more forgiving for different playing styles to me right now. There are certainly activities for casual guilds to do together, plenty for soloers, and collectors, and people who like instances. It is entirely possible that all mature MMOs tend to settle out the playerbase into something less flexible (some more hardcore, some more focussed on endgame, etc) and then devs decide which segment to focus on.

For sure there will be some kind of target audience. A military MMO like World of Tanks is looking at military buffs, probably mostly male. Lord of the Rings Online was always expecting a different type of audience.

For all that, I think I prefer MMOs when there is less notion of a target audience in terms of gameplay and more of a “something for everyone” and the simple reason  is that I might feel like doing different activities when I log in for the night. If I’m stressed, I want to do something chilled out. If I want more of a challenge, then I’d like that option too. The tyranny of WoW’s model is that endgame raiders (if they’re in the right sort of tight knit guild) will tend to log in for raids at fixed times and … that’s mostly it.

5 reasons why it’s good to play multiple MMOs

I find that when a new and moderately successful MMO is released (like Rift at the moment), it shakes all MMO players up a little bit as if asking them to figure out why they are playing their current game of choice rather than the new one. Tobold for example feels that Rift is too like WoW to satisfy anyone who is bored of the latter.

I also find that MMOs in the past have tended to reward people who dedicated themselves to a single game. If you stick to one game, you have better chances to form deep relationships with a guild, to get into raiding/ end game if that is your interest, to really master the game and get familiar with all of it’s geography, theory, mechanics, tweaks and extras. Also MMOs have tended to reward people who put more time/ effort into them, if only in terms of being more elite in game.

And yet, as a player, I enjoy the perspective of having played several different MMOs. I wanted to sum up some of the reasons why I do feel it’s good to try different games (not necessarily all at the same time!)

This could also apply to playing single player games when you’re feeling burned out (or when a single player game comes out that you really want to play :) ).

1. Learn more about what you like about MMOs. Trying new games is great for helping you to figure out what you like or dislike about the genre. Sometimes, if you are burned out on your old game, this can be an overwhelming feeling, enough that you forget what you enjoyed about MMOs in the first place. This is why I disagree completely with Tobold about ex-WoW players trying Rift. If you are bored of WoW, then why not give it a go? Or LOTRO, or Age of Conan, or EVE, or Star Trek Online, or Pirates of the Burning Sea or any other MMO. Playing in a new game world, with different people, a different style of endgame, new character classes – it may relight the fire!

2. Meet new people. This won’t hold for people who always play in fixed groups but joining a new MMO and possibly a new guild is a good way to get involved with a new, enthusiastic bunch of players. Sometimes burnout is because of guild drama or old stresses and dynamics between players just blowing up. While there are other ways to meet new people (i.e. switch servers, join a different guild), playing a different game means a chance to find a bunch of people with different types of aims and goals. For example, any progression raid guild in WoW is going to have similar views on raiding – if you’re tired of that, and don’t want to join a more casual WoW guild, trying a different game with different ethos can be exactly the break you need.

3. Become a more flexible player. Sometimes burnout comes because you’ve learned to play all the classes, finished exploring the game world, and just feel that you’re done with the old game and there’s not much left to do. Starting a new game where you can be a noob again gives plenty of chances to grow and learn as a player, to practice those learning skills again and experiment with new classes, tactics, and mechanics. It can also be good for your confidence as a player, and help you feel less bound to a single game. After all, why shouldn’t you be able to pick up a new game if you want a  break?

4. Learn more about what you dislike about MMOs. Maybe it really is the other players. The more you play other games, the more you will see some of the patterns forming. Do more hardcore players always end up being more elitist? Will you always feel pressured to keep up with your friends? I have been thinking a lot about this recently. I enjoy Rift but between flu and Dragon Age 2, I haven’t been playing a lot recently. Already I feel that I’m behind, that there’s no point crafting because people in my guild will do it better, that I wonder if people will even recognise me when I get back. That kind of pressure IS inimical to MMOs.

5. Find a new home. One of the nice things about tying yourself to a single MMO is that the game can feel like home, like a bar where you log in and always find people that you know, like a world where your character belongs. But when push comes to shove, burnout hits, you aren’t happy with something that the developers have done or are doing, you can feel suddenly rootless and homeless. A new MMO can be a chance to find another home, whether it be for a long stretch or even just the equivalent of a respite break.

And the final reason is that once you have a little distance between yourself and your old MMO home, you may feel more able to offer criticisms and to explain why the burnout hit, why you had to leave, why you needed that break.

I have been mulling over a fairly insightful post that Keen wrote in which he claims that MMOs are not ‘built to last’ any more, and he calls them ‘3 monthers’. A few people in the comments said that they thought Cataclysm felt like a 3 monther for them, which I think is a fair point – a lot of players seem to have felt done with it after about 3 months. But what does it really means if an MMO is built to last, is it something players really want any more? The only way to answer these questions is to play different games, talk to players who have played them for longer, and find your own answers. This will tell you more about the general direction of the genre than any amount of kvetching on blogs …

Social Capital #2: How we make connections in MMOs

Last week I was writing about communities in games, different types of communities, and why strong social capital is a good thing for both games and players.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the challenge of building strong, long term communities.

This post is more focussed on the nuts and bolts of player interaction. The different ways by which we can make connections with other players. If you like, these are the building blocks that make social networks happen.

Buffs: the gift that keeps on giving

Abilities which temporarily make other players stronger are very specific to computer games. Pen and paper RPGs didn’t typically time combat closely enough to allow for a variety of short or long term buffs.

But mechanically, buffing is a brilliant mechanism for allowing players to spontaneously help each other. I’ve known many players who enjoyed being able to carry out drive-by-buffing when meeting another player ‘in the wild.’ Usually the convention is that if someone else buffs you, you return the favour if you have any buffing abilities handy and they hang around for long enough.

Buffs in MMOs are one of the many ways in which players can do favours for each other. You can compare this with how virtual gifts are passed around in Facebook games. A buff is something quick and simple that you can do for another player, and it doesn’t cost you anything, require spamming your friends list, or ask you  to making pointed suggestions that they should give you something back in return.

It has always puzzled me why some games are so down on out of group buffing. Limiting buffs to situations where the entire group benefits, including the buffer, means that the buffing character can’t just get to go around freely handing out buffs and feeling generous and altruistic. I don’t mean that all buffers should do this, but some people really enjoy it. By contrast if buffing only happens passively or in groups, all that happens is people whine like crazy in a group if the buff isn’t there. In my opinion, something is lost.

And you can see how a game in which it’s very common for people to happily buff/ assist other strangers could feel friendlier and more welcoming than a game where they don’t. If your first contact with a strange player is that they wave, buff you, and move on, it shapes your expectations for the game and its community.

Emotes: Is there really an emote for that?

Emotes, like buffs, are very very old school. MUDs had plenty of them, and even in a text only game where people could just chat to each other anyway, people did still use the canned emotes (they functioned like macros).

The great thing about emotes in MMOs is that they are so immersive. Seeing another character wave at you in game and being able to wave back is pretty cool. I’m now sure how many people would actually be watching the emote rather than the chat window, especially if you are in a crowded location, but it is a way to exchange greetings and simple interactions without having to get into a complex discussion.

Amazingly, given the amount of animation work required, there are way way more emotes in games than most people would ever need. And yet, when some of them catch on in the community, they take off like wildfire.

In WoW specifically, dancing has been vastly popular. This is partly because Blizzard put so much effort into the special racial dances when the game first went live, I remember everyone being blown away by the dance videos. However awful people find the WoW community, when a group of bear druids start dancing in one of the major cities, expect EVERYONE to join in.

Emoting also can be a type of minigame. You can play it with enemy players as well as friends, or with players who don’t speak much English. Occasionally you will see people communicating mainly via emotes, either for one of these reasons or just because it amuses them to try to act out their responses and try out some of the less familiar emotes.

Emotes are also great for nervous players who aren’t sure about chatting yet or are cautious of the community. You don’t really have to worry about saying the wrong thing with an emote. It can be an ice breaker. And emotes are also great for games targetted at children where there is a desire to not allow unedited chat channels. It’s a more controlled way to communicate (although players can usually find a way to simulate some sort of sex via emotes if they really want.)

Given how old school the emotes are, I’m always surprised when they make it into new games. And yet, being able to wave at that guy who you always see in the auction house at 6am and get a wave back does engender a sort of feeling of recognition and community. You don’t always want to have long conversations with people, and text based conversations do tend to take awhile.

Grouping for quests and PvE

Joining a PvE group is a step above waving at someone in a city or buffing someone as you run past. This is a form of mechanic where players have to work as a team in some way to beat a mutual challenge and reach a mutual goal.

Closed groups involve a fixed number of people. Whoever creates the group will recruit people, either from anyone in the vicinity who is interested, to members of their guild/ friends list, or directly contacting other players of the right class and level to invite them. I have memories in DaoC of paging people across two zones to ask if they wanted to group, it was how we used to do things.

The way in which groups were traditionally formed was blown apart by WoW’s random dungeon finder tool which forms groups based on role and level and dumps them into appropriate dungeons together. Being able to skip the harrowing group forming step has definitely made group content a lot more accessible. But it is having an effect on how players view the rest of the LFD community. Rather than being able to negotiate with each new player individually and decide who you wanted to group with, there’s a good chance you’ll be thrown in with players who you would never ever have come into contact with otherwise.

And unfortunately, people now view it as the equivalent to jumping into a shark tank. Maybe you’ll be lucky (in actual fact, the vast majority of runs I have done have been fine, they might not have been smooth but the actual players were OK) or maybe you’ll meet Jaws and have to bail.

The other issue with LFD is that it has become so accessible that dungeons are no longer really seen as special content that you have to really focus on because it might have taken so long to arrange. So a lot of people take a really half arsed approach, bail as soon as anything doesn’t go their way and generally act as though everyone else was an NPC with bad AI.

It’s hard to blame Blizzard for this entirely. It was a shame when so few people had access to their nicely designed dungeons and they must have been thrilled at how many more can play through them now.  How to fix LFD is a subject for another day, but it may well be that different types of instance is the answer and recognising that there is a hunger in players to play with other people and get the group rewards, but also to chill out after work, not be tied up for hours and not have everyone feel forced to play at hardcore levels.

What grouping also does is require people to play with a team at a similar level to beat PvE based puzzles/ mobs at a fixed difficulty (games like CoH allow you to vary the difficulty a bit which I always thought was an interesting idea). This team play is one of the more addictive qualities of MMOs from a gameplay point of view. It shows off how the different classes and roles can fit together and should ideally give everyone the chance to both help other players and help themselves. I am personally a fan of the class model where everyone has some buffs, heals and crowd control but not enough to solo buff, heal, or CC an instance.

Ever since Warhammer Online, we have seen a lot of interest from designers in the idea of open public groups, most recently demonstrated in Rift. In this model, when you see a group of players out in the wild fighting a group encounter, you can easily run up and join in. Having more people involved should always be a good thing in this design (this has not always been the case), and in fact EQ2 is making this specific in their next patch with better rewards given for having more players in the public group.

A great alternative to instancing for the casual players, open groups let everyone pile in on an encounter with rewards for everyone and very little chance of being shouted at for not being an expert in your class or in that particular encounter.

I’m not touching here on raiding, because in WoW and similar games it has more of a long term approach so will be talking about that next week. There are also large scale casual PvE raids which are just another form of public quest. In my experience, players always enjoyed them and I certainly enjoyed organising big public master level zergs in DaoC.

Group and solo  PvP

One way in which we communicate with other players is by ganking them in PvP. If you think this doesn’t communicate anything worthwhile, it’s worth noting that some of the strongest communities I have ever seen in games involved hardcore PvP players of several factions chatting outside the game. They had a good competitive atmosphere.

Having a competitive encounter with another player of similar skill isn’t really any different from playing chess with them, in the sense that you’re playing a game.

Battlegrounds have become the PvP equivalent of instances. They are mini zones into which fixed groups from both sides zone in and have to battle over specific objectives. To me they always feel very sterile, I prefer open world PvP or large PvP zones where you can really make use of the terrain and make good use of scouting and area knowledge to lay out ambushes. However, they do encourage tactical play and if they feel more like pocket games than actual PvP, that’s because they are. The team with the best communication usually wins, a fact that you kind of hope would not be lost on players.

One of the trademarks of MMOs is also the big open world PvP battles involving 10s of players on each side. There is a strong sense of community that you can get from fighting alongside others in your faction for your faction goals.

Other games allow economic routes to help your faction in PvP also. In Pirates for example, you can create “unrest bundles” to help either stabilise or destabilise ports that are under attack. Again I think this is a great way for allowing different types of players with different strengths to aid their faction in a meaningful way.

((Ugh, out of time here. Will finish this post tomorrow when I want to talk about economic transfers in game, in game chat, guild chat, sharing information, and out of game communications. Sorry everyone, this almost never happens.))

Creating and measuring good communities in games

Community is arguably the one defining factor that sets MMOs aside from any other type of game. You adventure in a virtual world and in that virtual world you can build a virtual community.  Oh, other games certainly have associated communities but they traditionally have been less of a part of the core experience.  This is now changing. We’re seeing a convergence with online games in which MMOs are getting less virtual world/ virtual community centric and other multiplayer games are picking up MMO conventions like in-game guilds and character progression.

This just means that in game and cross game communities are getting more important, not less.

It’s also well known that being part of a strong community (or social network, which is the other phrase that gets used a lot) is a big factor in people continuing to play a game. It also happens to be a big factor in the real world for social cohesion in a geographical area. There are theories that a strong social network encourages people to care for each other and to seek help when they need it, reduces crime, reduces mental health issues, and helps people to live longer and be happier. Good friends, good family, good local services, and good neighbours are in fact good for your health.

We may not know how well the idea of a strong community really does translate into games (especially since you have to balance it against gaming addiction), but generally speaking being part of a strong community is a good thing for individuals. And if it encourages people to play games for longer, it’s probably a good thing for devs too.

Measuring Social Capital

The notion of social capital is a way to describe the value of a social network. How good is the community? It’s a measure of how connected people are, and how willing to do things for each other and take an active role in running their local communities. It’s also a measure of how easy it is to build new links and for new people to be integrated into an existing community. A guild with good social capital will have lots of people keen to organise/ run successful raids and events, be welcoming to new players, and have a strong identity to which members are proud to belong. (This is nothing to do with whether it is a hardcore progression raid guild or a friends and family social guild.)

Not all strong communities are good for the wider community though. A gang might be great for the people in it, and still horrible for everyone around it who isn’t. We’ve had a whole dialogue of multiculturalism here lately where strong immigrant communities are variously seen as threats, unenlightened throwbacks, or potential nests of terrorists by politicians looking to tap a popular seam.

So we could look at two different types of community in MMOs.

  1. Your immediate community, either a guild or people you know iRL or regularly group with.
  2. The rest of the server/ game

We can also look at three different types of interaction:

  1. Gaming interaction. You’re playing a minigame with them, maybe PvE raiding or team PvP.
  2. Non-direct interaction like trading on the auction house. It could also be contributing individually to a communal longterm goal.
  3. Social interaction. This may involve *gasp* talking.

Chances are that if you are playing an MMO you will be enjoying at least one of these modes of interaction, even if you are not directly taking part. Some people enjoy listening to chat on global channels for example, even if it is inane and they are lurkers, just because it’s nice to know there are players around. Others like random dungeons/ PvP groups but have no interest in longer term relationships with any of the players.

Cosa nostra – the strong guild

WoW tends towards fostering strong, exclusive guilds. If you imagine each guild as a tight knit family in which the overall consensus is that “we’re not interested in anyone outside our family,” you’d be quite close to the general raid guild ethos.

Endgame also pushes people in this direction. The WoW endgame favours fixed groups and regular runs to the same instances. Once you are in a guild that can do this, there’s no real reason to build strong links with anyone outside the guild.

Random instance queues and battleground queues are great for encouraging gaming interaction, but very poor for social interaction. I think this is why people tend to feel that ‘the community’ in WoW is poor even while valuing their guilds and enjoying the availability of group content.

WoW also is very poor at offering communal server rewards that encourage the different guilds to work together. This has happened in the past. The opening of AQ40 for example required lots of resources to be gathered and at the time progression guilds who wanted the new raid instance took a pole position in encouraging the rest of the server to help. I remember raid guilds organising gathering competitions and the like that in which anyone could take part. (I think part of the reason they stopped doing this is that progression raiders on less progressed servers felt it was unfair that they would be behind when the new instance opened. It also encouraged hardcore raiders to server transfer to busier servers and swamp them.)

WoW also doesn’t encourage guild alliances, where different guilds might work together on shared goals without having to lose their individual identities and merge together.

So you end up in a game where guilds can be and are very strong, but the social cohesion between the rest of the faction/ server is extremely low. So as a new player, who isn’t in one of those strong guilds, you will struggle to see anything other than a poor community and the strong guilds have little incentive to welcome new players who might need extra coaching in any case.

Our town – the strong server

One of the features of older MMOs is that people did feel a strong attachment to their server. In DaoC for example, we had a lot of faction specific PvP goals and when our relics were in danger, everyone dropped what they were doing and headed out to the frontier together, casual and hardcore players from numerous different guilds alike. You tended to know people from different guilds because you would see them around the place, you would probably have been in PvP/ frontier groups with them, and you may have grouped with them in PvE.

This of course was before the advent of server transfers, so there was a hint of ‘work with the players you have.’ We also had strong guild alliances and it was likely that you and your guild would build up relationships with other guilds, and any friendships that you personally made would be a part of that.

The trend now is probably away from strong servers and towards the idea of either a single server, or easy transfers. In many ways this is a shame because a server with a few thousand players is easier to get to know your way around socially than a game with tens or hundreds of thousands. It’s like the in game equivalent of a small town, rather than a huge city.

Still, in smaller MMOs you can still get some of the same sense of social capital. Particularly games which may be struggling for players, as each new player is a valuable resource. I think this is what makes smaller games like Pirates and A Tale in the Desert feel friendlier.  But both of those games also feature strong non-direct interactions via trade. A new player who is keen can be a real asset to your faction even if they are (for example) not very good at PvP or PvE or play fairly casually. But – crucially – neither of these games put players in a position where they are forced to rely on newbies for rewards such as emblems or PvP points. It’s easy to be friendly when it won’t cost  you anything or hamper your own game.

In a MUSH I used to play, you could bring up a list of the last 20 new players to enter the game and existing players (especially if they were bored) often used this to mentor new players or try to make a special effort to include them in RP. This is the kind of mechanic that makes new players feel welcomed – just having someone going out of their way to include you.

I mention RP advisedly because even in non-roleplaying types of games, RP servers do always seem to have better communities than non-RP ones, such as it is. I think this is because they tend to attract players who value social interaction more highly, whether or not they actually roleplay in game.

I have mentioned above the notion of server goals and rewards, and using gameplay such as open groups, public quests, and faction based PvP to bring server communities together. If I could pick on one aspect of social capital where I think MMOs are currently failing, this would be the one. It potentially ties together the disparate guilds with common goals, gives guildless players a framework on which to meet and interact with guilded ones and works on a large enough scale to remind people that they are actually playing a MMO and not a squad based PvE game. Plus it is possible to foster server cooperation with non-direct interaction (such as the communal resource gathering) as well as huge PvP// PvE battles that require multiple guilds to work together.

Our society – the strong game

It is extremely rare to find a MMO where you could honestly say that the entire game had a strong community. Most of the games where I’ve experienced this have been smaller ones (or in beta), with a small single server that would have felt more like towns than vast cities.

However, if you look outside the single game to resources such as the WoW or EVE blogosphere you can get an inkling of how this could be fostered. Players on multiple different WoW servers happily cooperate on blogs or bboards to build a community that is in its way stronger and more stubborn than anything in game.

The WAR blogging community was and is still extremely strong for the size of the game. Whereas LOTRO in comparison really doesn’t have that strong of an online presence, even though it is probably more successful and most people would consider the in game community to be far better.

One thing that is key to understanding the importance of blogging communities is that they are entirely based around both social interaction and non-direct interaction, there is no direct gameplay involved. You don’t have to comment on blogs to feel part of the community. If you do comment, you don’t have to feel tied into a commitment.

Building better communities?

I personally do enjoy games with strong guilds, strong servers AND strong game communities, even if I may not choose to be part of all types of social network myself.

I think much of the debate about how game design can strengthen communities tends to focus on gaming interactions, and goal based communal achievements. There’s very little on increasing social interaction, which is a shame because it may well be key to building strong game communities, and strengthening ties between players who may have a lot in common and yet not really share common in game goals (possibly due to lack of time, etc.) I’m hoping to see more emphasis on social interaction and politicking on WoD Online when that comes out, it would suit a vampire based game to really pick at what makes virtual communities tick.

Interplayer links such as facebook, twitter or realID (battle.net) help tie players together without linking them to specific games. Are they a good thing for gaming communities or do they just make people more likely to parochially stick with players they already know and hence raise the bar for interaction with newbies? We still don’t know the answer to this.

Blizzard said yesterday that they value players being able to play with people they already know. This undoubtedly does create a sense of community which crosses real world/ online lines.  But how welcoming will this type of game be for a new player? Maybe they’ve decided that gaming now is so mainstream that everyone will know people to play with. Time will tell if they are right.

Can talking to NPCs ever be fun?

Justin Achilli (a name that’ll be familiar to Vampire tabletop players since he was line developer for White Wolf, now working on CCP’s new MMOs) wrote this week about task resolution systems for conversation.

The vast majority of computer roleplaying games are designed with combat first and foremost. “Roleplaying” in a computer game context really means “advancement,” not “you take on the persona,” and as such, fighting stuff to level is your primary gameplay.

He’s pointing out that dialogue in computer RPGs isn’t fun gameplay and the rewards are usually either a bit more text or a slightly more convoluted path to the same scene that everyone would be directed into next anyway.

These are not “social interactions.” These are more obstacles to click through to get to the big fight at the end that you’re going to have to have anyway.

I’m not really sure how much I want actual social interactions with bots in my game, is the only thing. That’s just a little bit creepy and leads to people falling in love with characters in their Japanese dating games. I might be happy with an interactive fiction with cut scenes, like a film in which I can decide what sort of person I want my character to be and then stand back and watch them get on with it.

I actually liked Mass Effect’s dial that lets you roughly guide what sort of response you want to give and then let your character get on with it. But I’m glad people are thinking about how to make this side of the game world more fun and involving.