[Response To] Dual Wielding LFG Edition: Organic Community in MMOs

I was actually invited to join in on the first LFG Dual Wielding Edition, but I’ve had so much going on over the past two weeks that it sadly slipped through the cracks. I was enthralled by these awesome bloggers who tackled the question of: “What can developers do to foster community in MMOs”…

So when I apologized for being out of the loop on the project, they graciously understood, and someone even suggested I write my own take on the topic anyhow. So this is my “grumpy old hermit super late” response post to this awesome series. Please check out the originals here for a great read:

Old Skool PoV

I come at this topic from an old skool perspective. I sat and thought about my experiences since my first MMO, Utlima Online, and what made me feel the most connected to a community in all the games that I’ve played. Here’s a jumbled spew of my basic thoughts.

I’ll preface this with the fact that I’m a MMO hermit. I will solo till the cows come home, and usually only group with friends, family, or people I somehow know. I used to never join guilds, and forced group content may have just as well not existed to me as I’d never do it. I never ran dungeons. I didn’t raid.

UO Times

But none of that really mattered back in the early days. I could still feel a part of the MMO world because the games themselves were worlds to me, and I was someone who made a virtual life and home within them. I was invested in that world, and that investment made me care what happened in that game.

Community mattered not because the developers put some kind of LFG feature into the game, but because the players made it matter. When you did cruel things to other players in MMOs, you got a bad reputation for it. People remembered you based on your actions. You chose to become a good and nurturing part of the community or a Red that people hated, feared, and put a bounty out for.

Organic Community

That kind of community made itself… it was organic. I think that when we discuss “community” in MMOs, what we’re yearning for is that missing “organic” feel.

Sure, there were PvP systems and bounty systems and things that the devs coded into the game. But what mattered was what the players did with the systems. It was the player’s viewpoints that gave these things weight and worth. It was reputation you earned from your choices, and a lot of that had to do with how you treated other players in the game.

So while I feel that devs can do things to help community grow – such as lower the boundaries between players, which helps players meet and group and make connections – I’m putting a lot of this in the players’ laps. If communities in MMOs have changed, it’s because what the players value has changed.

The Forced Group Fallacy

I don’t believe forced grouping or forced interdependence is an answer to fostering community. In fact, it may do quite the opposite for those who really do care about community – it may drive them away from content all together.

Here’s an example.

FFXIV is one of the few games I have played group content in. When I run a duty finder or a forced grouping dungeon, very rarely is anyone running that content except to achieve a goal for themselves. Do they care if they’re contributing to the team or if they’re being a burden to others? More often than not, no. Usually, all they care about is that they are finishing the dungeon… not that they’re helping other people finish the dungeon.

We group, but it’s only to get the dungeon done. Sometimes people chat or say hello, but that’s pretty rare.

Will you ever see these people again – those who may come from any server on your data center? More often than not, no. So why go the extra mile for a bunch of strangers?

As someone who cares about the people I group with, seeing this over and over and over again is really disheartening. After over two years of playing the game, while I feel the FFXIV community is pretty nice for a PUG environment, I also think it’s very, very rare that anyone makes a connection to anyone through forced grouping features.

The LFG feature is there to get people through the mandatory forced-grouping content. That’s what it was designed to do and that’s the mindset of the people who use it. It’s not there to make friends or build community. Get tomes, get loot, get done. Do it fast.

So, to me, that’s not an answer to fostering organic community.

Guild Tools

So what about guilds and such? Those are good things for fostering community, aren’t they? I think they can be.

Good, easy to use guild tools are important to building a foundation of an in-game community. But, even so, a guild is just a tiny sliver of the full population. It’s people who often form their own little group or tiny raid statics, and to the heck with the rest of the server. In fact, many games go out of their way to pit guild against guild instead of encourage guilds to build each other up.

So does that really foster an organic server community beyond your own little group of friends? Again, I guess it depends on how the players use the guild system. I know there are plenty of guilds who act as the exception to this – they host server-wide events, encourage role play, encourage a better overall server atmosphere, etc.

It’s a shame that we hear more about tiny statics that complete server first raid wins than we do about that really great social guild who consistently helps out new players or works hard to host great player-run server events!

Community Engagement

So, after 1000 words of grumpiness on the topic, what do I think devs can do to encourage organic community growth? I feel it needs to be something that engages the majority of the players and brings a server together. This is a very tall order.

One such example.

I used to play a MMO called Horizons (now known as Istaria). Back in the day, it had a lot of forward-thinking features that I haven’t seen attempted in many new games… which is a real shame. One of them were server wide discoveries/events/building.

A building plot worked on by the community.

These events were BIG. Forget your little holiday events (which usually cater to you earning something for yourself). These events reached out to everyone of every level and skill set on the server (which is tough to do). But they were so big and exciting because when that event was done… everything you contributed, every little stone you placed, piece of wood you chopped, mob you fought off… went into making something that changed the server forever.

Bridges to new areas had to be built. Crafting stations had to be built. Player-run cities and guild towns were built. Fully functioning NPC-based cities were built. New races were unlocked through server-wide participation. Players created the world over time and what they did mattered.

EVERYONE wanted to be a part of these things. EVERYONE wanted that experience, that moment of being-there. That knowledge that you were building something, along with everyone else, that would change the face of the game. And that you could look at that bridge or that city and know that YOU brought that change.

And the COMMUNITY was a part of that. You helped people, and met people, and connections were formed because you worked with them for days or weeks towards a goal that would benefit everyone. Maybe you did some of it solo. Maybe later you grouped up to help make things faster. Either way, you were important, as an individual, as a group, but most of all, as a community.

And in doing so, it was so fulfilling.

But Can That Happen Again?

GW2’s Inclusive Events Stressed “Togetherness”  – March 2014

Looking back on it, I think the original vision of GW2 tried so hard to replicate this, and that’s what drew me to the game originally. It strove to make dynamic events and dynamic grouping easy in the beginning. GW2 wanted to make these grand story events where the players changed the face of the world forever. It tried so hard to link players of all levels (level syncing to 80 used to be a thing) and skills and design events where everyone needed to work together to achieve something massive and engaging.

That should have foster community. That should have encouraged people to pull together like players a decade before did in Horizons. But it didn’t work. I don’t know why it didn’t work. It just didn’t.

So, instead of continuing to try to make community events on a server-wide basis, they resorted to packaging smaller stories folded up in instances for Season 2. And now, instead of vast server-shaking events that include everyone, they’ve given it up for raids that pretty much exclude the majority of people they originally sold the game to in the beginning.

So can that kind of server camaraderie exist again? Why did community events in GW2 fail when they were somewhat similar to events in Istaria (but with more loot)? Has the face of the player base changed so much that they can’t look beyond themselves to connect to community, even when the devs try to create inclusive content that should bring a community together?

I don’t know. But I wonder if the bigger question lies with what the devs make… or what the players now seem to value.