17 August, 2015
Blaugust, day 17
As part of the potpourri theme this week, I’m going to public a post I had sitting in the drafts since early this year. I rarely keep drafts around, so it was a bit surprising to find this lurking as I was posting this month. Warning: this is one of my long-form posts and not the typical shorter posts I’ve been doing this month.
As I said before, please leave a suggestion on what to write about tomorrow in the comments below. Thanks!
A question of guild membership limits
I’ve participated in many discussions over the years about the role of guilds in MMOs. Specifically, is it better in a game to restrict membership to a single guild or allow people to belong to multiple guilds?
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of multi-guilding in MMOs.
A history of guilds
My earliest experiences with game guilds were in LP-MUDs. In most games, guilds were in-game organizations built around specific classes. So, you would join the “Cleric’s Guild” and get healing powers and often a shared chat channel with other people playing the Cleric class. Since most games only supported single-class characters, you could only join one guild.
I remember most of those guilds fondly. In the first MUD I played, joining one of the guilds required killing this amazingly difficult monster that likely required friends to help you out. In another MUD I played, the Clerics were a fairly tight knit community. We’d chat, share tips, even complain about class (im)balance. We complained about how utterly unpopular one helpful spell we had was in groups to the point we offered on global chat to cast that ability for free and got few takers. I had other friends in the game, including those I knew offline, but it was the guild that I remember most fondly.
Later games kept the social elements while removing gameplay. No longer was your guild your class, but you could form an adventuring guild with other players as you saw fit. In early games with PvP, this became the people who relied on for defense and to attack your enemies. In PvE games, it became part social club and part group for focused game activities, particularly raiding. For many people, their game time became associated with their guild which aided them in their accomplishments. Or, at the very least, was where their friends were.
What is a modern MMO guild?
In a text MUD, it was rare for the total number of players to even approach Dunbar’s number, so there was little need to sub-divide the playerbase. But, as games grew, you wanted to keep track of the people you truly cared about. Guilds sub-divided the much larger playerbase into something a single person could more easily manage and understand. For MMOs, the guild became the defining unit of interaction for almost all players, the foundation of the social fabric of the game.
The mechanical definition of a guild is simple: a structure that allows players to become members with a shared identity and sometimes with shared abilities (often a chat channel) and resources. But, given the social aspects, this simple definition leaves out the emotional aspect of guilds. For many people, a guild is something much more than a shared chat channel and bit of text next to your name in the world.
For some people, that shared guild identity is important. In a PvP game, your guild tag might inspire fear in someone else, for example. Or, it might label you as an eternal enemy to some other guild. in a PvE game, there might be a lot of history associated with your guild. Maybe your guild was once on the bleeding edge of progression raiding, but now you’ve fallen. Perhaps your guild is a feisty up-and-comer, talking progression faster than others ever thought possible.
For others, there are bonds that were forged in guilds that transcend the game. Friends you look forward to chatting and playing with, no matter what the game is. Sometimes the guild name stays the same or sometimes it changes. What’s important is the friendship.
Guilds as gameplay (redux)
Add to this mix of emotion some gameplay. MMOs eventually added gameplay back into the guilds similar to how the original MUDs originally had. Some games let you gain guild levels, and thus gain perks as your guild grew. This usually depended on participation, where doing things in the world would give the guilds some sort of experience or currency to spend. Once certain thresholds were reached, the guild could do special things or enjoy specific perks, such as guild housing.
This had the positive effect of giving a guild a shared goal to strive for. It also made older and larger guilds more powerful and therefore more desirable, which has good and bad effects. Having a guild with advancement associated with it was more more thing that gave the players a stake in the game.
The problem with single guilds
Restricting players to single guilds has run into some problems. Mostly, it ignores the modern realities of online games. First, most players come to a game with their social groups already defined, and for some people those social groups don’t fall neatly into a single organized unit. You might have existing friends you play with differently than you want to play with other people you meet in the game.
And, as has been pointed out in many places, the MMO playing population is older now. Most MMO players can’t dedicate the majority of their waking life to a single guild like they did in the past. You might have unpredictable play times, which means that if you only belong to one guild you might not have friends on when you finally do sit down to play.
Let me bring this to a personal level. As a busy person and someone who ranks high on the Socializer motivation, I have a diverse set of friends who don’t all play the same way. I might have my group of friends who want to do more hard-core stuff, another group who wants to do low-impact stuff, and yet another group of people I know who do something specialized in the game like crafting. Being able to keep track of these different groups and play with them as appropriate is useful. Yes, sometimes the needs would conflict, but I’d have to deal with that just like I’d have to deal with having conflicts in the offline world.
Enter multiple guilds
Recent games broke out of this single guild restriction, most notably Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online. Both these games have similar setups, where when someone joins a guild all their characters join the guild. This reflects the current reality that people are more likely to play a lot of alts rather than focusing on a single character but are likely to want to maintain their social contacts between characters. But, few people want to be bound to just one guild for all their characters.
I have much more experience with GW2′s system, so I’ll speak to that in particular. GW2′s guilds also had advancement, meaning that while you were doing things your guild gained currency that could be spent to upgrade the guild. Most notably, a guild gave access to more storage if you spent some of that currency. In GW2, I had a personal guild that I abused as more bank slots to store my crap not bound to my account.
But, there was one big disadvantage: you could only “represent” one guild at a time in GW2. So, all points you gained had to go toward the guild you were representing at the time. This had the effect of the larger guilds demanding “100% rep”, meaning you couldn’t represent other guilds while you were a member of that guild. This behavior is an obvious consequence from current perspectives, but it really limited the usefulness of the multiple guilds. But, the 100% rep requirement made some sense: why should you benefit from the points the guild spent if you weren’t contributing points to the guild?
Given the implementation, I was disappointed in GW2′s multi-guild design because it essentially boiled down to a single guild system due to how the mechanics were designed.
In defense of multi-guild membership
With only flawed implementations, an understandable reaction might be to champion single guild memberships. Especially as modern MMO identity has become more and more tied to guilds, it can be tempting to fall back to single guild membership as the best and only way to do guilds.
But, as I said above, I think the modern realities of MMOs is better handled by multiple guild membership. People have different groups of friends who might not all fit together in a single guild. Those good friends you met in one game might clash with those friends you met in another game or with friends you know from outside any games.
From a developer’s point of view, allowing players to join multiple guilds gives the player more social ties to the social fabric of the game. When a guild implodes (probably due to guild drama), it is often a time when players will leave a game as they have many of their ties to the social fabric. Even if one guild goes away, there are still have friends who will keep the player interested in the game.
Multiple guilds also help alleviate the dangers of a “mega-guild” that comes to dominate a faction or server. If players can participate in more than one guild, this creates additional forces that can keep a mega-guild from being a monolithic powerhouse. Different factions within the guild have their own agendas, and could provide natural tension to splinter a mega-guild and make the game more interesting.
The flaws of multiple guilds
Of course, there will be problems with multiple guilds. The most notable is probably conflicts between different guilds. What happens if you join two hard-core guilds and both want to raid on the same nights? Well, now it’s time to make a decision. This requires actual social interaction to either negotiate between the different guilds. It could be you are forced from one of the guilds. Or, you might not enjoy as many benefits as people who are more committed. I would also argue that these same conflicts could happen even if you have single guilds. You might just start informally raiding with another guild. Or, you might have friends who join the game and want you to play with them on raid nights. These conflicts will exist whether a player can only join a single or can join multiple guilds.
There’s also concerns that people who join multiple guilds might lack loyalty or dedication to their guilds. For me, loyalty is something a group earns, not something that is granted by default. A guild leader who wants loyal guild members needs to do things to ensure their members’ loyalty. And dedication is something that arises not because you have no other options, but because you dedicate yourself to some of the options you do have. A casual player who joins a single guild because the guild leader wanted a warm body is not likely to be more dedicated than the person in multiple guilds who is an enthusiastic supporter.
Really, most of the concerns I could see about allowing people to join multiple guilds happen in a single-guild environment as well. When I raided in WoW, I was part of a “feeder guild” where people would get geared and get flagged by our guild, only to have many people leave the guild to go to a more progressed guild. Having to formally join our guild didn’t stop people from dropping our guild when it was convenient for them to do so. There was no enforced loyalty or commitment. If anything, seeing other guild tags on a player might have given us a better hint at what the players goals would have been.
What about identity? In GW2, it was easy to swap your guild tag and thus change your group identity. But, I think the big problem in GW2 is that you rarely interacted with people in PvE. And, in the WvWvW stage, your enemies and allies were “single-serving” and temporary. The combat was so fast-paced and the tactics relied so heavily on masses of people that any identity was lost, whether individual or group identity. But, if group identity were to be more important, a way to let other players know all of a target player’s guild affiliations with ease might be important.
Good multi-guild design
What would make a good multi-guild design?
First, the reality is that multiple guilds aren’t for everyone. A good design would work to allow a player to join one guild without feeling penalized. A player who wants to dedicate themselves to one group should have that option and shouldn’t feel forced to join multiple guilds for increased benefits.
The next consideration is if guilds have gameplay elements tied to them, particularly advancement, then how does the system split rewards between the guilds? In my opinion, the best answer is to either not have gameplay elements tied to the guild, or allow a player’s gameplay to benefit all guilds equally. This is similar to modern sensibilities where experienced gained as a group benefits each player more than if they earned a proportionate amount of experience alone. The right mix of benefits would have to come through testing.
A game that wants identity to be important will probably want to emphasize individual identity first and group identity second. In Meridian 59, you got to know the individual. Knowing what kinds of spells or abilities a particular enemy might bring to bear was more important than what guild they belonged to. Of course, guild membership mattered was when you were in a guild war with a specific guild! And particularly notorious people had a shared reputation as well.
Is multiple guild membership the only option? No, but I think it is an option that should be investigated more closely. I believe multiple guilds suit players well because it reflects current realities for how players approach our games. And, from a developer’s point of view, multiple guilds gives the player more connections into the social fabric of the game.