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.
- Your immediate community, either a guild or people you know iRL or regularly group with.
- The rest of the server/ game
We can also look at three different types of interaction:
- Gaming interaction. You’re playing a minigame with them, maybe PvE raiding or team PvP.
- Non-direct interaction like trading on the auction house. It could also be contributing individually to a communal longterm goal.
- 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.