It takes a world to raise a village

Lots of bloggers have been discussing MMO communities this week, with Blizzard’s recent announcement on premium services for being able to play with friends on other servers.

And I was musing on which games are ‘known’ to have better communities. Of the AAA games, LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) is probably the game with the best community reputation, and I wonder how much of this is connected with:

  • The IP. Maybe Tolkien fans are just less likely to be smack talking fanboys
  • Minimal PvP, so little appeal for ‘killers’

We know that there are other factors affecting the quality of in game communities, such as the size of the game, and how much players are encouraged to interact. But I wonder how far the IP itself affects things. Some are likely to attract an older crowd, due to when the original IP was written/ popular, others have a reputation for just being more mature in general because of the themes involved (imagine a historical Roman Empire game compared to a Pokemon MMO.)

And some fandoms have enough of an identity in themselves that fans will come to the game expecting to find fellow fans and hobbyists. Being a Tolkien or a Star Trek fan means something; there are conventions, websites, magazines, a whole fan community out there.

And then, some types of playing style also skew older. Typically puzzle and strategy games will appeal to an older set than twitch games. Other styles are more likely to draw in a mixture of male and female players (roleplaying games, in particular) rather than skewing quite so strongly male.

My theory is that a more diverse player base probably leads to a more polite community. So an IP like LOTRO which has huge and widespread geek appeal married to a fairly chilled out game design which doesn’t skew too strongly towards hardcore achievers at the loss of the roleplaying set was always going to encourage a better community.

And I wonder what this implies for SWTOR. Star Wars is an IP with a pretty broad appeal – not as much as Tolkien but still pretty broad. But how much room will there be in their gameworld for people who just love the world itself to wander round and explore? How much for the roleplayers? We’ll have to see.

How did you find your current guild/s?

I’m planning to write a longer post this week on different ways to find guilds in games. One of the things that stands out to me is that you may need to search in different ways, depending on what you want from your guild.

For example, WoW offers recruitment forums on the official boards. But at least 90% of the guilds who use those forums are looking for raiders to take on hard mode ICC. So if that wasn’t what you wanted, there’s no point searching those forums even if they were widely publicised (which they aren’t). And  there’s also no easy way to filter out the guilds which are on awkward schedules for you, even if you were a hard mode raider looking for a home. Other websites attempt to plug these gaps, but that still leaves the potential recruit with a lot of work to do. Recommendations from a friend is another time-honoured way to find a guild, especially if you know people who raid on multiple servers/ characters.

I’m hoping that someday, some enterprising guild or game takes the Facebook approach and lets people recommend guilds to their friends. (This would actually be a useful battle.net feature but I don’t think that Blizzard is socially savvy enough to do it.)

Another way is via other communities. For example, maybe you are a member of a bulletin board or group of bloggers who decide to start a guild and you join it because you want to play with them.

Listening to recruitment chat in games is yet another way. People disparage the guilds who recruit madly via game chat, but it’s one way to meet people. And just because a guild recruits publically doesn’t mean that they might not be good company.

Running lots of random groups is another time honored way to meet people in games. If you find yourself frequently in a PUG with people from the same guild and you like them, asking if they are recruiting is a natural next step.

And the most traditional way of all, although maybe the hardest – is to start your own.

So how did you find your current guild/s? And do you think the same method would work for a new player starting now?

Bring out your dead: Profiting from the demise of other guilds

otters

In which we pore over new recruits from dying guilds like otters waiting for their fish.

It is a sad day when a guild or a raid community dies. Not just for the players involved – although by that time, many of them will probably be relieved to be free to find new homes – but for the wider community and even the game itself. A guild can represent so much combined effort from so many people. It isn’t just an in-game identity, it’s also a virtual home. And when a guild fails, all that effort goes to the wall.

Some guilds have an actual end day when everyone ceremonially leaves and the (ex)guild leader does the equivalent of falling on their sword and dismantling the guild. Others simply fade away over weeks or months of fewer people logging in, fewer events being organised, more raids being abandoned due to lack of interest, and players drifting off to join other, more active communities.

On a tight knit server, others outside the guild will notice the loss too. Some well known guilds spawn long, surprisingly sympathetic threads on realm forums where other players (including past members) voice their memories. A long running, well known guild is simply a part of the server history, a history that could be measured in the rise and fall of guilds, with all the associated drama ….

When my first raid guild in WoW split up, I was gutted. I was an officer at the time, and a class lead, and I’d ridden through both the high and low points with the rest of the guild. But by the end, I was so very tired of it all. I asked if the GL at the time minded if I left my character in the defunct guild, while I took a break from the game. When I logged in several months later to take stock, I had several whispers from people who just wanted to reminisce about my guild tag even though many of them had never been members themselves.

So when a guild dies, what happens to the now homeless players? If players had been very invested in the guild, it’s a time of grieving. Some will transfer servers to be with other friends, others will look for other guilds on the same server, and still others will spend some time as free agents, or even take a long break from the game altogether. Occasionally new guilds spawn from the ashes of old ones, but it’s never quite the same.

Good news everyone! Applications are looking up!

In WoW at the moment, things are winding down towards the next expansion which will not be for several months (no, we don’t yet know the release date). Many raid guilds are struggling for numbers as players get bored and decide to take a break until Cataclysm.  The ennui is hitting guilds which I had thought to be immune. Maybe things are really worse now, or maybe just older guilds have hit the point where the game itself has changed so much from when they were created that the leaders don’t want to keep changing with it. Or in other words, they don’t much fancy the idea of raiding in Cataclysm anyway if it carries on the way it has in Wrath.

In any case, we can tell that other raid guilds on the server are breaking up because we get an influx of new applications. And since the hardcore raid guilds on AD are … well … more hardcore than we are, those applicants are generally well geared, well disciplined, well spoken, and any raid guild would be delighted to have them.

It feels like a reward for hanging in there, because we’ve also been struggling for numbers but (much credit to all the comm members and to the long suffering raid leaders) have still managed to keep raiding and keep the progression just about going. But raiding has definitely slowed, and if we take on some of these guys, it would be a shot in the arm.

It is a risk also. Can someone who was a mainstay of a hardcore guild really be happy to raid on a more casual basis?  Maybe they can, if what they really wanted was a virtual home.

One thing is for sure, whenever one raid splits up, many other struggling raids will suddenly get an injection of much needed raiders. They died so that others could live.

Perks for the Old Timers

Star Trek Online recently announced a slew of perks for lifetime subscribers.  Cryptic liked the idea so much that they offered similar perks to Champions Online players as well.

Customers who are dedicated to being with either of these games for the long run get a special chat channel, VIP lounge in game, title, costume piece, and the ability to skip to the front of the queue any time the game has login queues.

I’m not a lifetime sub holder for either of those games, but I think it’s a great idea. After all, the lifetime players are potentially the core of the player base. They are the people who liked the game so much that they put up a lifetime sub up front, which is a kind of pledge to say that they are interested in seeing how it develops and will be inclined to keep dropping in. If you are a committed player, one of your big issues up front is knowing that so many of the people you meet when the game is new will not still be there in a month or two’s time.

It’s very easy to put a lot of energy into forming guilds, making friends, laying down foundations for long term game relationships and then find … that your guild and group of friends has vaporised. So having a chat channel and meeting room for other players who are in for the long term can at least offer the option to hang out with other people who are less likely to just vanish.

City of Heroes took another approach. They offered  account rewards to players who had subscribed for different amounts of time. On your characters three-month/six-month/etc birthday, the new item would appear, as if it was a kind of gift. Here’s the list of CoH veteran rewards – they include titles, pets, costume pieces, wings… and towards the longer end of the spectrum, extra abilities and perks are also included.

I’ve always been dubious of this scheme because I see how keen my husband is to keep his sub active even when he isn’t really playing much CoH, and it’s because he’s keen not to lose any possible future veteran rewards. But it doubtless works well for NCSoft.

(Note: I have nothing against gambling. I just don’t see the point in paying a sub for a game you don’t play. If these perks could be bought from the cash shop, I’d think nothing of it.)

EVE Online is notorious for its real time training system, which means that a new player will never have as many abilities as an older one. They cannot catch up. A new player can still be effective, they just won’t have the wide range of skills to choose from. So in a sense, flexibility is the EVE veteran reward. And after a point, either CCP start to put in new abilities (where everyone starts to train at the same time) or else diminishing returns means that the effect isn’t very marked in most situations.

Old vs New, Lifetime vs Sub

As I play LOTRO, I wonder if the player community is fragmented between lifetime subscribers and regular subscribers. The lifetime group know that they all will probably keep coming back, although they may also take long breaks, whereas regular subs might get bored and decide to quit at any time.

Lifetimers, because they’re more committed, are also more likely to pursue some of the grindier endgame options. They’re more likely to have maxed out crafting, more likely to have several alts, more likely to be raiding. I know that if I need crafting done, it’s likely to be one of the lifetime players who I will ask, because they have the maxed out skills.

Of course, there will also be lifetime players who later went off the game. Maybe they felt they got their moneys worth and lost interest, or maybe they just took a long break, forgot to come back, and then felt it wasn’t worth the effort. But you won’t generally meet them in game (because they aren’t there!)

I’m not entirely sure what they think of transient me. Even my recent three month stint is probably a drop in the ocean to lifetime players, who think more in terms of years than of months. (It’s kind of like being a hobbit in amongst the elves!) This is not to say that they aren’t all very nice, they are. But I like the sense that the community has different depths, and that there’s a place for different levels of commitment to the game.

What is a good veteran reward?

It is generally assumed in MMOs that the more time you put in, the more your character will progress. So there’s always been a vague notion that people who have played longer and put in more hours deserve to have better characters.

Unfortunately, if this was actually true, it would be difficult to attract new players. It’s not impossible; a design like EVEs which rewards old timers with more flexibility still leaves room for a newbie to play alongside the rest of the playerbase.

So the best of the veteran rewards compensate the vets for the fact that they are not actually immortal demigods compared to newer players, and for the fact that endgame is often reset with each expansion.

Probably the best ever veteran rewards came with MUDs, which allowed longterm players to become imps (implementors) and help create new areas and quests in the game. Others included new veteran classes, that could only be started if you had one character at max level (Death Knights in WoW are a similar type of reward).

But it is an interesting and ongoing issue. MMO Devs would like to reward longterm players, if only because it encourages people to keep playing. (This is irrespective of whether the game is paid by subs or a cash shop.) But they have to find a way to do it that won’t put off the new blood which they also so desperately need.

In that context, I think Cryptic has done a good job with their lifetime rewards. Time will tell.

How to get people to read bulletin boards

Every MMO guild I’ve been involved with has used a bulletin board to pass on information and let members chat outside the game and in non-real time. They’re fantastically useful mechanisms.  You can post something in the morning and when you get back later, it’s spawned a multi-page thread, inspired your entire guild to get really enthusiastic on the topic, and gotten you banned.  And as well as threaded discussions, many bboards also allow you to send private messages to other players which is great when you want to bitch at people privately.

They really are a fantastic, simple solution as to how groups of people can communicate when they aren’t all present at the same time. In fact, bulletin boards may be the apex of human achievement.  They solved a very real and very human problem – without them, the internet might be possible but it could never really work. Also, flamewars: the second apex of human achievement.

And what are facebook and twitter if not clever tweaks to bboards?

There is a downside though. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but most people don’t care about your bulletin boards.

It doesn’t matter if you are running a guild, or a RL company, or a voluntary organisation. Even if the bulletin board is a crucial part of your communications strategy, most people ignore it, don’t care about it, and won’t read it unless you force them to do it. I used to work for a company that used bboards extensively and we had regulations about which boards we were supposed to keep up to date with. The fact they provided a ‘mark all as read’ button meant that you never had to actually read the things. Most people never read official forums. They won’t read your guild forums either.

The reason they don’t care is that the information isn’t always well organised, it’s a time consuming hassle to read the boards, and they aren’t all that interested in anything going on outside the game anyway. So they’re lazy and disinterested: welcome to the player base.

If you’re reading a blog, chances are that you may also read bulletin boards for your guild, for a really good game related site (eg. elitist jerks), and for the game itself. You’re in a small minority. You have the power of information, and it is at your fingertips. Yet with great power comes great responsibility. If you are the one who is often telling your guildies about what’s coming in the next patch, you are doing your bit to share the knowledge wealth. If you are the one who lets them know when there’s an interesting class Q&A on the official forums that is about their class, you’re doing your bit for the community.

And this is how bulletin boards typically work. They’re read by a few people, but the people who do read them disseminate the information. This is also why you have to take what players write on bboards with a pinch of salt; sure they are an influential minority but it’s not really clear if they pass information back the other way from the playerbase.

So you’re running a guild, how do you get people to read the boards?

This can be very frustrating if you are running a guild. Maybe you’d like to use bboards to let people know about upcoming raids, or to discuss class issues. You realise that a well used bboard can become a living community of it’s own, and you’d like that for your guild.

But how do you get people to use the boards?

  1. Create an atmosphere right from the start that is centred around the boards. Make them the front and centre of your community.
  2. Force people to use the boards regularly. Maybe use them for raid signups, so that you can make board usage a kind of gatekeeper for content the players want to do. (eg. if you don’t sign up, you can’t come.)
  3. Appoint an unofficial community manager. Companies have them, your guild can too. You just need one person who loves bboards (I know, I know) to keep thinking of cool ways to get everyone else to use them.
  4. Invite a few members who have fulltime jobs. They’ll be much more likely to use the bboards – it’s their way to keep in touch while they are at work.
  5. Reward the people who do use the boards. Be proactive in posting links to interesting news, blogposts, and other things they might be interested to see. Run competitions (I know we’ve had some cool screenshot competitions in the past). Have consumable giveaways.
  6. Most games let guild masters edit a message of the day that is shown to people when they log on. Use it to advertise the guild bboard, or any interesting threads up at the moment.
  7. Make sure all new members are informed about the bboard. Requiring all applications to be posted on the board is a good way to make sure they know where it is.
  8. If you’re the GM or an officer, then engage with the guild members. Answer their queries, listen to their issues, be available to chat on the bboard. Don’t make it a top down affair where you post instructions and they go away and do what they’re told. The baseline of a community is communication and it goes both ways.

What makes a good games shop?

First up, thanks all for the discussion yesterday. It’s been interesting and I know I’m thinking about my assumptions.

Second, thanks muchly to Ixobelle for cleaning up the header here.

Back to the topic, I had a really unusual experience yesterday in a games shop. Ever since I was a teenager buying comics and RPGs, I’ve felt like an outsider in games and comic shops. The token female. Even when I knew lots of other women were into this stuff, somehow they never seemed to be in the shops. Games shops themselves have always been a small corner of male-dominated geekery.

Truth is, since I started playing MMOs I don’t buy other games all that often – I have to be very sure that I’ll want to play it enough to find the time. Or else it has to be cheap in the sales, or else maybe an old, classic game that I’ve wanted to play for ages but never got around to. Or a DS game.

The DS is actually the only current gen console that we own, because it’s just perfect for train journeys, of which I make several a week.

So on this occasion I was in GAME because I wanted to pick up a couple of copies of Puzzlequest Galactrix. Puzzlequest (ie. the prequel) never sold well in the UK, but surely part of this is because it was hard to find  on the shelves in shops? I don’t know how many people buy from brick and mortar shops rather than online,  but guessing still a majority.

I don’t know what went wrong with the promotion. A good puzzle based DS game with a fantasy theme really shouldn’t be a hard sell. It’s not like GTA: Chinatown which failed to sell because the people who own DSs don’t want to play GTA.

So I was happy because not only did I find a copy, but it was also in the sale (presumably because it didn’t sell as well as expected – perhaps the total lack of promotion was a factor there too?). So I went to the counter to ask if they had another copy and the guy behind the desk asked if I was buying it for myself. I said I was, and he brightened; we had a quick chat about how great Puzzlequest was and how disappointing that it hadn’t been more popular.

Do you know how unusual it is for an employee of a games shop to treat female customers over 30ish as if they were actual gamers and not just buying for a child or partner? VERY.

Funny thing is, I had to go to the other branch of GAME in town to pick up the second copy  since I’m not buying a copy of Galactrix for myself without getting one for my husband, that would be a cause of minor household friction, and the guy behind the counter there was pretty much the same. So either

  • they’ve all had solid diversity training
  • all GAME employees like Puzzlequest (to be fair, it’s a good game)
  • or if a woman over thirty comes into the shop and buys a puzzle-based DS game, odds are it’s for herself. (ie. games shop employees have a good knowledge of gamer demographics and this was a shoe-in).

Whatever it was, I like it.

Now of course, we can buy over the internet, where no one knows you’re a dog. So we can avoid those pokey little holes stacked high with shelves of games for consoles you don’t own, where people act like you don’t belong. But if they can make me feel more as though I’m part of a community of hobbyists, I’ll be more likely to spend time there and if I spend more time there, I’ll spend more money there too.

Are older servers just different?

I was amused to find out earlier this week that my WoW guild is one of the oldest in Europe. I’m not sure how they knew, but it sounds plausible. It was a day 1 guild (ie. formed on the first day the server went live) on a day 1 server (opened on the day the game went live in Europe), and it’s still going strong. Credit for this goes mostly to a variety of guild leaders and officers but also to all the players who have ever been part of ARC.

(‘grats to us, and now we just have to sabotage the others.)

I hadn’t really thought much about Argent Dawn as a server until some friends of mine transferred over a couple of months ago. They were astounded by the differences they found – partly because of moving to a RP server and partly due to the server having an older community.

- They felt as though everyone knew each other, all the guild leaders did too. It’s not that we don’t have a lot of new guilds too, but some people have been around the block a few times ;)

- They felt as though the server had a very specific need/greed custom in groups. Which is true, it drives me nuts but people on AD like it if everyone passes on loot and then rolls on it later. Dates back to original WoW, before need/greed was implemented.

- They were amazed at how many raid groups we had. ie. raid groups which included players from more than one guild. This is a common trend in the day 1 RP servers, I’ve no idea if other servers with older communities do this also. It dates back to 40 man raids, and people wanting to stay in their friendly RP guilds whilst still raiding. And a few very talented organisers.

- They found the standard of PUGs to be higher than they were used to (again, this is plausible to me, I don’t see any of the real horror players I hear about)

I’m not sure at what point a server becomes ‘mature’, it would be interesting to compare notes or figure out some way to study server communities changing with age. But there is definitely a different feel to an older server than to the manic jostling for status in a new server.  On a newer server, the whole game can feel like an extended PUG. Sometimes that’s fun, it’s a chance to get to know new people and make your mark. Sometimes it is a nightmare. Older servers feel more settled. But does that make it harder to fit in if you don’t know anyone?

Do you notice the difference?