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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
I remember back in the 1st (or so) year of WoW how you knew peoples names even if you didn’t know them or interact with them. The community hadn’t become toxic yet, I don’t remember any LFG tools etc. Thats what made it so much fun. You weren’t focused on getting to endgame because it seemed so far away and you’d take screenshots of the raiders with the cool gear in IF.
I watched that community rot, and when I left I figured it wasn’t possible to ever experience something like that again. For as much the mechanics as much as the attitudes of the players.
I sometimes wonder about EVE in this regard. And smaller MMOs where people know you’re name (Aion).
But yeah – those were good times.
When people knew your name in MMOs, I think you were much more inclined to be kinder. What you did in those communities had social consequences, and I think that was a good thing.
The scale of MMOs has ballooned so much that it’s hard to recapture that kind of community. Sometimes bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Totally. I remember hanging out in scarlet monastery looking for people to group with. Parties usually weren’t ideal (running dungeon without a healer is the real hard mode), but it was fun and you made friends who you would probably see the next night.
And, even though you might only manage to do a couple runs in a night, this to me is more memorable than the thousands of LFGs I’ve done since.
I agree with most of the detail of this and all of the sentiment. My feeling is that, when it comes to trying to foster community in an MMO, forced grouping is almost the worst thing developers can use. Almost as bad, though, I feel, is something that;s very rarely held up as problematic and that’s the attachment of individual rewards to group content.
Every time the discussion turns to how to make some aspect of group play more popular or well-used the suggestion is to make it “more rewarding”. That almost always means better drops or more xp or some other mechanic that benefits individual group members. Not surprisingly the result is almost always that a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t consider doing the content without the incentive come and do it just for the incentive. They begrudge having to do it and their presence sours the atmosphere for everyone who was already doing the content because they enjoyed it.
Grouping in most MMOs these days is exactly as you describe it, whereas grouping in my heyday (2002-2007 aprox) was primarily about socializing. The dungeon was the thing you did so as to have something to do while you hung out with your friends, who were often not your friends until you’d hung out with them in a few dungeons. Drops and xp were bonuses, icing on the cake. The cake was chilling out, trying to out-one-liner each other and seeing what, collectively, you could pull off as a team.
I have found more of that in GW2’s open grouping system (and Rift’s before it) than I have seen in closed, instanced small-group settings for a very long time. After three years I know scores, maybe hundreds, of players by name, and, in WvW at least, I know many of them by reputation in the way you describe. It’s not as intense as the server communities of the olden days but by god Yak’s Bend *has* a community!
It isn’t a lost art, this building of looser, broader, less materialistic ties within MMOs. It could use some care and attention from the developers, though, that’s for sure. All these Megaservers, instances, phasing and automated cross-server match-making services haven’t helped at all.
I agree. I think that’s where newer MMOs have lost touch. They think forced grouping with the carrot on the stick is the answer, but all that attracts are the people who are after the carrot. Some of us just want to be there for the experience, but we can’t be… because our experience has now turned into “GOGOGOGOGO!” by those who are after that carrot.
I totally miss when the world itself and being in that world with other people from all around the world (gasp!) was the amazing thing that attracted players to MMOs. I guess there’s not a lot we can do about the fact that we’re all so overexposed to the concept of online gaming that the magic and wonder that is the game itself has been lost on too many people.
I really do feel that GW2 at launch tried to recapture a lot of that, which was partially why I was a huge fan of it. I was heavily involved in the community during beta and launch, even though a lot of those folks were only in touch through Tumblr since I wasn’t on the same server and cross server guilds didn’t exist then.
I do feel that instances, phasing and Megaservers has dampened that server and community identity some. I also feel like the game’s strayed so far away from that at this point, which is part of why I, too, strayed from GW2. 🙁
I’ve never thought about LFG as forced group content, but it is. And you really make a good point that it may not be in the Devs power to create community, but I wonder if some design decisions, like LFG, don’t actively work against it.
It’s interesting you mention loot in GW2 in that context. I’ve wondered this too.
There is a good TED talk on the negative psychological effects of extrinsic motivators. In one study two groups were asked to do a puzzle, one group was paid. That group performed worse.
More interestingly, they were asked to come back for a follow up, and that same puzzle was in the waiting room. Those who had been part of the control completed the puzzle just to pass the time, but those who had been previously paid wouldn’t touch it.
I hesitate to make grand conclusions, but I feel like GW2 could totally be a case study. So many shineys! When I returned to GW2 I found those left in my guild were completely loot obsessed. Which is kind of insane, because the rewards in that game are plentiful, but close to meaningless. We would be grouped up for a guild puzzle, challenging content requiring coordination, and the whole group would elect to follow another guild through looting as non-participants rather than pug the few players we needed. So. Amazingly. Nap inducing.
That’s a very interesting study! In the end, you just can’t buy fun and happiness.
When loot becomes the motivator for everything, that’s a fast track to frustration (especially when that loot isn’t dropping). It’s also a fast track to content that gets tossed aside as soon as the new shiny is won.
There’s still content that I’ll do in a game just because I find it fun, and because I WANT to do it. But I agree that some of it falls on the devs to make content that fits that bill and to lay off the loot pinatas and LFG, LFG, LFG…
It makes me sad for the devs, because I know that they make these worlds for people to enjoy. And so many folks miss out on so much because all they can see is “how does it benefit me?”
Aywren, I would so totally disagree with you on the original GW2 community building features. It WORKED. It so worked. It is exactly why people LOVED the Marionette. It was conquered within server communities, which were fostered by seeing the same people and guilds within Lion’s Arch and within WvW.
The original guild missions added on to this, by a) allowing guild members to congregate together in one place (the more the merrier, the more easily it is done) and b) putting them in the open world so that the same server guilds could encounter each other and say a friendly ‘Hi’ to build that bond further.
Megaservers was the beginning of the death knell. That separated server communities, turning everyone into a bunch of strangers you’d never see again. Now everyone is an immigrant, map-hopping and taxing desperately to find that one successful map that will get them what they want in LFG style, because why waste time teaching if you’re never going to get the same or a similar arrangement of players in a map again?
WvW stagnated. Edge of the Mists added more mixed server stuff, reducing possibilities of seeing the same player faces again.
Then -something- possessed them to tweak guild missions so that guilds are instanced off into their own personal playspaces, and making it so that solo or small groups are faster and more efficient than a big guild group doing it together.
I can only go ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Sorry, I should have been more clear on what I meant. Yes, I agree that in the beginning, events did work. Living World Season 1 did bring folks together on the server to do events that set out to change the game world for good. I honestly did enjoy most of those large events… even if I didn’t always agree with them wiping out cities and things. The idea behind the events was to rally and bring people of the server together.
Until they, for some reason, decided to tie Season 2 up in tiny solo packages. Something must not have worked internally because the devs dropped these big events like a rock (sadly). Eventually, I did watch the player attitudes shift as it became less about just showing up, contributing, and having fun than it did: “Oh, I didn’t get all my treasure chest rewards!” “The loot’s not good enough!” “This event gives garbage for my time!” “People are only farming the champions!”
GW2 devs also seemed to feel like they had to constantly design things to combat the “zerg” or something. I never cared about zerg, I just had fun bringing my upleveled characters to help defend Lion’s Arch and things like that. The loot was just the icing on the participation for me.
Not long after, they introduced Megaservers and things started going in this direction. Now upleveling is a thing in the past, and content is being instanced off into raids rather than large events that brings people together for a common cause on the server.
If you want a reason for why GW2 went the way it did (and I share your and Jeromai’s interpretation of what happened) I can give you one in a single word: money.
Sadly, it seems that the demographic that appreciates the gameplay you’re describing and that I want is not sufficiently large, or sufficiently willing to spend money, whereas the more goal and status oriented demographic that demands direct, material rewards and progress that can be measured against the progress of others, is. That demographic is also much, MUCH more vocal and organized about demanding that its needs and desires be catered to, which just compounds the problem from the point of view of anyone who isn’t part of it.
Anet moved to where they believed the money was. They then did such a very, very bad job of serving that demographic that many of those players also became dissatisfied and disillusioned and left as well. The boss, who seems to have been asleep at the wheel for most of the last three years, finally seems to have woken up. Whether there’s still time to steer the rusting hulk away from the rocks we will have to wait and see. I would say we’ll know for sure by this time next year.
I absolutely agree with you. And I could sense it big time when it became all about the money and the cash shop.
I used to buy gems from time to time simply because I believed in GW2 at launch and it was a game I wanted to support. As Season 2 rolled out, I struggled to maintain interest in the game. Eventually, they lost my money all together due to their money chasing… and I have been an Anet customer since the original GW1 Prophecies.
My faith in Anet used to be very strong and Tyria was my home in some form since I followed Prince Rurik out of Ascalon. Now, I have a hard time believing in anything they produce and didn’t even consider buying the expansion-that-was-never-going-to-be-made. I don’t feel like I missed out at all. It’s more like I dodged a bullet. And that’s a shame.
Huh… I’d never thought about keeping servers small as an important part of building community, but I can see your point.
It’s part of the reason why I’m not interested in building a huge Free Company in FFXIV. Smaller groups make for tighter community.
I started this whole MMO (read: mmmoooo) thing back with Final Fantasy XI, So perhaps I’m not as dry aged of a steak as yourself. That said, I still agree with a lot of your points. In fact, I believe we share a few of them.
Systems only work so far, but the players are the ones who push it forward and make it a community. Even the barest of bones can become something that players flesh out. There just has to be a way to think of adding this stuff in and making it a system that can’t be gamed.
Loved your response. I’mma add it to my post.