Social Capital #2 pt2: More on how we build connections in MMOs

One thing that’s clear about the forms of interaction I discussed in the last post is that they all date back to the very earliest days of MMOs. Emotes, buffs, cooperating or competing with other players in game  all go right back to the start of the genre. It was a time when devs would throw some interesting stuff into the game and let players decide what to do with it. Now they’re present because people expect them, even if they don’t know why.

And players now use these social transactions in very different ways. You probably wouldn’t expect other players to wave at you as you were out questing somewhere unless you already knew them. It’s the players who seem to have decided that they prefer to interact less rather than more, and in more controlled, goal oriented ways. That, and the game world is that much smaller, teleports tend to be more freely available, and it’s just not that big of a deal for people to see an actual other player while they are gaming. And as I’m going to say below, I see a trend for less and less communication to take place actually in game and more and more communication to take place outside it.

I suspect part of this is because as MMOs become more game-like and less virtual world-like, the in game ‘magic circle’ which values immersiveness and inclines players to want to get to know each other as characters in game has faded out. People are likely to be more interested in players who are already part of their guild/ raid/ circle of friends and they’ll have other ways to interact with them outside the game anyway.

And the other method of interaction that I forgot to mention while talking about groups earlier is being able to invite other people to your group, or kick them if you’re sick of them. (This seems oddly relevant given that WoW are still tweaking the kick rules for random groups to try to make people think twice about it.) The power to invite someone to be part of your special group or to reject them from it is a very powerful social tool.

Direct text: Talks, Shouts, Whispers

A step up from the emotes in terms of communication is actually talking to the other player. Traditionally this has been via text. In the case of MUDs it’s because text is all that there was, and since then it’s because voice chat to strangers has never really taken off enough for any dev to experiment with flexible chat channels which automatically include anyone within range.

But for all that, text channels have always (if my memory is right) been limited by in game geographic area. A /say has a short range, a /shout (when was the last time anyone heard another player shout in game?) a little longer, and it’s also standard to offer region chat, and some form of worldwide general/ faction chat channel is also fairly common. If you want to talk to other players via text, you can do it.

And yet, how many people do regularly talk to strangers? Fact is, if you have someone chatty and friendly in your guild, they are probably already your best recruiter because if they group with a good player who is looking for a guild, they will already have made friends with them and recommended they apply by the time the group winds up. Some people are that friendly, yes :)

Others will rather queue for 20 minutes for a quest mob rather than talk to the other players in the area and ask if they want to group up. I think there is more resistance to talking to other people now than used to be in MMOs. And I suspect this is because text based conversations can drag on, it’s like an invitation to form a relationship, however brief. And one thing that a lot of modern players do not want in any way shape or form is a relationship with a strange player who they don’t know.

This may be because they’re just chilling out and don’t have any energy to spend in being nice to people, they might be scared of talking to strangers, or it might be because they think all random players are losers. Whatever it is, I think people are shunning forming these relationships in game with people they have actually met in game. It seems rarer and rarer that I read of people in WoW who met up with a random stranger, hit it off, and ended up levelling together. (Partly because you don’t need other people to level with and phasing actually makes it tricky anyway.)

Whispers, as another option, let you have a more or less private conversation with another player. Mischannels, or comments which were meant as private whispers but accidentally broadcast over the guild channel instead have always been a prime source of in game amusement.

Guild chat and other private channels

The beauty of private chat channels is that you can control who else is listening. So if you don’t want to expose your personal thoughts on Garrosh’s hygiene to the wiles of general trade chat, you don’t have to. And you don’t need to be grouped with them or even playing in the same zone.

It’s a way to talk to a group of people anywhere in the game, and the group is free to set its own rules on what they want to talk about and how they want to do it (eg. no swearing, or conversely we have a private raid channel just for trash talk to keep it out of raid chat).

What this also means is that you can never really be sure how many conversations another player is having at the same time. Or in fact if they’re bad talking you to their mates in a private channel you don’t know about. MMOs are a paranoids dream in that respect. In fact, I recall past guilds in which some officers had a private bitching channel alongside the normal officer channel – a recipe for crazy amounts of  guild drama.

Still, a private chat channel goes a long way towards making the game feel like a private space just for you and your guild/ friends. Being invited to someone’s private chat channel means not only that you made it to being part of their group, but also that they want you to be privy to their conversations.

I’d go as far as guessing that as far as relationships between players (and I mean anything from a professional raider/ raid leader relationship, to friends, or anything closer) the majority form after exposure to chats on guild or private channels. I think of guild chat as the equivalent to sitting in a coffee shop, you can get to know the regulars without having to commit yourself.

But the trouble with text based chat is that you can’t actually do it while playing the game (ie. fighting mobs or other players), unless you are a very fast typist, use lots of macros  or are slacking in group. This is one of the reasons why RPers got a reputation as bad players. Too much typing, not enough healing. When there was plenty of downtime or people hung out in groups to camp spawns and had to wait for respawns, there was plenty of time to chat. In the faster paced atmosphere of the modern MMO, a lot of players just want to get on.

Voice chat, on the other hand, doesn’t interfere with keystrokes but does need everyone to have headsets and be careful not to talk over each other.

Economic Transactions

The in game economy definitely follows the general trend of requiring less personal interaction between players. From a time when players had to bark their wares over a general channel and then arrange to meet up in order to exchange goods, now most players will use some variant on an auction house to buy and sell.

But still, there’s no reason players can’t trade directly, give gifts of gold or equipment, or help new guildies out with bags (the traditional gift that keeps on giving!) or money towards mounts. In fact, guilds giving some kind of joining gift to new players used to be more common than it is now, probably because games are getting more accessible so new players are more likely to have all the resources that they need already.

The downside of this is begging, less common than it once was, but still rife in a lot of games. This is where new or low level characters whine pitifully to be given stuff for free. (In WoW they’re probably more likely to beg for powerlevelling, another form of group transaction.)

At the same time, I’ve noticed in my WoW guild that guildies have really enjoyed contributing to some of the achievements that required us to gather various amounts of fish or herbs as a guild. Collecting and gifting items towards a joint goal is clearly something very meaningful as far as feeling part of the group goes.

Helping other members of the group in general is another way in which players seem to enjoy showing their group credentials. In my guild, being a sensible bunch, officers emphasise that people who ask should accept no as an answer, and that no one should feel they are bound to do anything they don’t want. (I think it’s more associated with needy newbies these days to throw themselves into a new guild and want to do everything for everyone even if they really don’t want to, and then burn out and get really upset.)

Information (wants to be free)

Gathering and exchanging information with other players in game is another traditional way for people to both improve their own game skills and to help the rest of their group or guild.

Where this might once have been done through trial and error, or listening to someone other more hardcore player who was in your group and passing their comments on, now most of the best information is easily available via blogs, bboards, and external websites.

But still, not everyone has the same hunger to find all this information and put it into a neatly available form. So the people who do can help their guilds by posting links and summaries to their own private forums.

There is a point at the bleeding hardcore end of the game in which players will prefer not to share their information and tactics. But other than that, the trend is towards more and more accessible information. Guilds are proud of their kill videos which usually now contain full strategies on new bosses.

Providing good information earns the respect of other players, and in many ways this has become the new hardcore currency, even more than downing bosses (since more people care about good strategy sites  on ‘how to play your death knight’ than about who got the world 3rd kill on some boss they may not have heard of yet.)

For this to be a way of community building, there has to be a lot of hidden information inside the MMO (or as part of the mechanics) which are not obvious to players. Players from around the world can then put their heads together and work out any optimal strategies. And information seeking players from servers and guilds (again all over the world) can then disseminate it, building stronger links for their guilds in the process.

And then it continues. Once you have read something on your guild board (eg. a good heroic boss strategy), you can pass it on to people in random groups, and so on.

Unlike the various forms of direct communication, information sharing goes from strength to strength in each new game and patch that is released. Players evidently love this side of MMO gaming, from the theorycrafters and hardcore raiders right down to the guy who passes on to randoms what he heard on his guild channel. It has in many ways become the new currency of MMO status.

Bulletin boards, facebook, battle.net and out of game communication

A lot of players have no interest at all in communicating about the game when they aren’t playing it, probably the majority. They log in, play a bit, maybe try an instance or a battleground, and then log off again.

More than anything, this is what separates the true casuals from the more hardcore players (and I use hardcore in the widest sense of the word). If you regularly read blogs, bboards, gaming news sites, and/or your guild board, then there is a limit to how casual a player you really are.

But also, out of game communications have always been a part of MMOs. Even in DaoC, we had guild boards, unofficial server boards (which were VERY busy and well used), and IRC channels. They’re an important way to schedule discussions with players who are not all logged in at the same time. This asynchronous type of forum has always been sorely lacking in MMOs themselves, aside from the odd message of the day which everyone probably ignores anyway.

And in many ways, the out of game communications cement any relationships which are formed in game. You can chat at length on a bboard, without worrying about how you are going to heal the next pull and omg he just pulled1111!!!1111

Like information sharing in general, I think out of game communications have increased to take up the slack where in game communications has slown down. The rise of the blogosphere and social networking in general is one sign of that. And devs are still uncertain about how to harness this new interconnectedness to try to build better links between players whilst still keeping them stuck to the game. With out of game comms, there’s always a danger that the entire player group will up and move to a new game …

Sharing achievements, showing off gear(score)

The one new form of interactions in games is being able to more easily prove what you have accomplished in game. Players in WoW and LOTRO at least can easily share information about their titles, achievements, and gear with other players.

Interestingly whereas in WoW this has led to the gearscore culture where sassy players refuse to get out of bed in the morning if their team mates don’t yet have kills on the hardest heroic mode raid boss in the expansion, in LOTRO no one ever seemed very bothered, and people were more interested in sharing their cool looking cosmetic gear.

Still, sharing achievements at all is an indication of how achievement based, rather than interaction based, the MMOs have been becoming. In an achievement world, the only reason to bother making connections with other players is so that they can help you get more achievements.

Or is it? Some people certainly are that narcissistic, and yet as I’ve mentioned above, I have seen players in my guild really enjoy cooperating on guild goals. And it wasn’t just so that the guild could get some achievement, it was because they enjoyed cooperating with the rest of the group, with people they’ve come to know via guild chat and guild bboards and guild meets over the years.

Somehow somewhere in there is the secrets of building communities and however much modern game designers try to make this harder by designing around the assumptions that players hate forming relationships and will do anything to avoid it, people are still people, and humans are social animals.

Conclusions

So next week I want to talk more about building long term communities in games, but it should be already clear that this is less and less likely to happen. Already people are preferring to minimise their in game interactions with anyone they don’t feel that they need to know. The game is not so much a meeting place as something to do after you have met people. And yet only wanting to play with people you already know has other gameplay implications, not least that games need to offer ways for players of different skill levels to play together.

I will argue that community building requires people to be invested in the game, and that we’re less invested in general these days. But also that we can’t go back to the days of offering punishing group content, painful death penalties, and forced downtime and expect a community to magically grow. That was then, and this is now.

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.

Thought of the day: More on social responsibility

I’ve been quite interested in the debates Tobold has been having with all and sundry lately on the subject of social responsibility in MMOs.

My personal view is that the only ‘social responsibility’ any player has is just not to go out of their way to chase anyone else out of the game. I will talk more about this later this week, because I’m interested in the notion of building social capital in games and I think devs should be also.

But for now, I have to wonder how many of the people who come out of the woodwork to argue that it’s socially responsible to play support classes or to only queue for randoms if you are ‘a good player‘  (but how are newbies supposed to learn? Not everyone learns best from reading written guides …) actually consider social responsibilities like helping newbies to integrate, or  care about their social responsibilities in real life …