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.

A day in the life of cross-server PUGs

twilight_zone-rod-serling <<twilight zone music>>

Imagine that you have had a flash forward in time, to an alternate future. In this future, Blizzard’s planned LFG changes have gone live. How will your game change?

You level up through a series of levelling zones, queuing for level appropriate instances as you go. You’ll likely not find one immediately you start to look but hopefully it won’t take too long, and when your instance comes up you will immediately get ported there with your 4 new friends who could be from any server in your battlegroup. You may never find out where the instance entrance actually is in the gameworld, if it even has one. You don’t need to talk to the other people in your group if you don’t want to – you won’t ever meet them again.

When you reach max level you can sit in the expansion-appropriate city for the rest of your endgame. Every day you can log in, queue up for the random dungeon daily quest and the random daily battleground and mess around with the auction house while you wait for the group to fill. Again, you’ll be ported directly to the instance or battleground when the group is ready. You can even queue for the random weekly raid instance if you have a bit more time and feel like a change of pace – in patch 3.3 the random raid group will only work for people on your server but surely if it is successful then it will also be expanded to the battlegroup.

If anyone in your random group turns out to be a jerk or a useless twat then the other four can vote to kick them out.

Maybe in each patch Blizzard will add in a new area with some daily quests if you feel like a breath of virtual fresh air. And if you’d rather do things old style and group with people on your server, there will be a LFG global channel (in cities) where you can compare achievements and put together those 10-man class PUGs.

My current thoughts in summary: A lot of people will benefit from this (people who don’t like feeling forced to be part of a community will be cheering). The game will be improved for many. And it could be so fundamentally game changing to the community that I don’t know where it will lead. We’ll have to wait and try it out and see. So my thoughts right now are phrased as questions.

Is this virtual heaven?

For some people, this will be a dream come true. While the LFG can never be greater than the sum of its parts (ie. you’ll still have the same people in the pool), it could benefit anyone who:

  • Likes PUGs and would like a bigger group of people to PUG with.
  • Don’t want to be part of a community but still want to do group activities
  • Don’t like travelling outside your city of choice, either because you think it’s a waste of time or just don’t like it
  • Wants to run lower level instances but finds that there aren’t enough people on their server — but there might be enough people on the battlegroup

So really, most people could benefit, depending on how good the group matching tool is.

The new system will now work to match at least one experienced player for the assigned dungeon with less experienced players in the group.

This quote in particular makes me nervous (call me harsh but boosting other people’s undergeared alts through heroics isn’t my idea of a fun time, friends excepted), but at the end of the day you’ll still be able to arrange groups old-style using the LFG channel if you want to know in advance who you will be with.

Those of us on servers who have really good PUG communities right now will lose out, though. I’d comfortably say that 9/10 of my PUGs are really pleasant experiences at the moment. Argent Dawn is a great place to run a PUG. That can basically only get worse if we introduce more battlegroups into the mix. But I suppose that’s what happens when you even people out – a lot of other players will benefit from having well behaved AD players in their groups now.

Or is it the end of the virtual world and the server community?

Server communities have the same issue as social players in general. They work because some people love them and work very hard to pull them together, and lots of other people don’t care but will participate if the work is done for them and the rewards are there. Together, the people who do care and the people who aren’t bothered but will go along with it make up the server community.

So what happens if all the people who aren’t bothered are given an easier way to get to the group content that they want? (Remember, they don’t hate the server community, they just don’t care either way.) But server communities have been valuable for people. By running server-based PUGs, new players can mix with existing ones. It has been one of the standard ways that people find guilds (or guilds find people).

Do most players even care that their game takes place in a virtual world or would they really rather sit in Dalaran and bitch on the trade channel until their next instance or battleground or raid comes up?

The sad thing about the players who say that they don’t care is that they won’t find out whether or not they really do until it is too late. Maybe the most hardcore gamist won’t miss seeing sunrises over the Grizzly Hills, or watching protodrakes swoop down and carry off woolly rhinos in the Storm Peaks (they totally do this, btw). Maybe they don’t enjoy the feeling of soaring between mountain peaks or experiencing the virtual world around them. Maybe they don’t have an attachment to the little starting village where their character first learned how to bind and use a mailbox.

But the experience would be less for a lot of other people without those things.

And what does it mean to be in a guild?

For a lot of people, a guild is their passport to group activities in game. As well as an in-game community, the guild provides a pool of people with whom to run instances. The guild may also have organised activities such as PvP or raiding.

But what if you could do all those things without a guild? What does the guild mean to people then?

And again, back to the social conundrum. The people who enjoy being in a guild will still guild up. But the people who didn’t care and were only tolerating the guild in order to get to the content may find it easier not to bother.

If the random raid PUG really takes off on a server, a lot of raid guilds will find it increasingly difficult to recruit. Why would you sign up to a guild with a fixed raid schedule when you could just log on when you had some free time and find a raid then? Maybe if you are really committed to the hard modes it would still be necessary (until Blizzard include a hard mode looking for raid interface with extra checks).

Ultimately, this really is a good thing. People shouldn’t feel forced to join guilds and work at their schedules just to get to the group content. They should join guilds because they want the community and feel of being in a guild. The game will be much more pleasant for everyone if the people who prefer not to be part of a community have the option to opt out.

Some things never change

One thing is for sure though: no matter how many servers are thrown into the mix, there will still never be enough tanks or healers to go around. But at least the random dungeon won’t have to be the Oculus.

I’m planning to keep a diary of my PUGs after this feature goes live, to see how it goes. I’ll run at least one random dungeon a day. So if nothing else, you’ll be able to see how I cope with the unwashed PvP-server masses … and vice versa.