28 May, 2010
Inspired by Wolfshead's latest rant, I wanted to take a look at game community. The article got me thinking about what really makes a good community. Not that I'm a good community manager, but I sure do have opinions!
That's why you're here, right? So, let's take a look at the factors that affect the quality of a community from a developer's point of view.
Wolfshead complains that the community in WoW is terrible, and that Blizzard is to blame. He then gets upset that the core of the problem is that WoW's design has undermined the community, and that games that try to blindly clone WoW are falling prey to the same problems. He also laments that the MMO audience has been accepting this corrosion in community. Finally, he advocates a "real cataclysm" to shake things up and try to go back to the good old days.
Reaction has been mixed. I won't go into that right now, so let's assume that Wolfshead is right and the community is worse than it has been in the past. What could cause this? I can think of five different issues to discuss.
Game Design Decisions
This is the core of Wolfshead's argument, which I interpret to mean that the solo-friendly nature of teh game made it so that people didn't feel the need to form bonds. If you could find quests and the quest objectives by yourself all the way up to maximum level, there was little reason to play nice with others. This materializes in the game in the disconnect between "casuals" and "raiders" in the old game.
Recent design decisions have seemingly accelerated this process. While the Dungeon Finder was heralded as a major advancement, it seems that what it's really done has made it so that you don't even need to form bonds to get into group content. People point out that the most common phrase you're likely to hear is "Go go go", or that your group mates are more likely to treat you as a glorified NPC or a gearscore number. Even a WoW developer has said it's acceptable to bail on a group if it doesn't live up to expectations. It's hard for players to push back against this change in community standards; as Gordon asks in his post, "what exactly can you do against a rude player from another server?"
The problem I see is the old conflict between short-term good and long-term good for the community. Taking the example of the Dungeon Finder once again, we see that this was indeed a short-term benefit for the game. It allowed a lot more people to consume a lot more group-focused content, and was widely lauded for that effect. But, for anyone looking for deeper social interaction or to be able to make a mistake without people leaving the group, this was a negative thing. In the long run, we're starting to see the harm its doing to the community.
Ultimately, I think that game design decisions can make a big difference in the community. But, the problem is that sometimes the decisions that are better in the long term are unpopular in the short term. Retaining players with a better community doesn't really work out well if you don't attract those people in the first place.
But, let's look at some other issues people have brought up in other posts.
Type of Gameplay
This is kind of related to developer decisions, of course, but this affects games as a whole. I'm not just talking about PvP here. Any form a competition where an edge over others gives an advantage will end in crying when a degree of anonymity is involved. It shouldn't be a surprise that misanthropic goblins thrive at bilking the morons and slackers from money in the auction hall of an otherwise team-focused game.
But, PvP does bring out the worst in a community. In traditional MMO design, players are weaker at the beginning, so you have people who will prey on the weak. The last thing you really want is some inexperienced player walking into an situation they can't escape from as one of their early experiences. You also have the problem that new players are seen with suspicion. I know in Meridian 59 new players were more likely to be seen as possible moles rolled up by guild enemies rather than the lifeblood of keeping the game alive. As such, a new player not only had to deal with PvPers preying on them, they also had to deal with being ostracized from the community for fear of being a spy.
One game that did this right was Asheron's Call, where players could mentor other players and get part of their experience. Even though this was ultimately a pyramid scheme, it made players see newcomers as valuable resources to be guided and cherished. Yes, new players could still be exploited, but this fueled an initial social contact with people.
Here are the people that the developers simultaneously love and despise. They do an impossible job, something that no sane developer should want (or be allowed) to do. But, without a deep knowledge of the game and a good working relationship with the developers, it can be hard for them to do their job well.
Part of managing the community also means establishing the baselines for the community's behavior. A community manager is vital for establishing what is and is not appropriate behavior. But, this can turn problematic if the community manager gets too close to the community. Community managers want to be seen as the champion of the players, so it can be hard for them to be the harsh disciplinarian when required.
This is definitely an issue I face with Meridian 59's community. It was hard to set boundaries for some of the players who probably should have been put on a leash for the benefit of the community. But, there was the concern of the cries of favoritism if we temporarily suspended the account of one of the best players in one guild because he kept insulting other people's mothers in global chat. With a small team, we really always have "gentle parent" and "disciplinarian parent" roles well-defined. Plus, it kind of wears on you to always be the asshole that smacks others down for being naughty and never being the person who shares in the small in-game triumphs.
This is one of the common issues people use, usually to defend games with larger communities. The comparison is between the community of a small town vs. the community of a large city. In the small town, everyone knows everyone. People feel a bit more safe, and do things that seem crazy like leaving car doors or even house doors unlocked. The big city, on the other hand, makes it harder to get to know others by sheer volume of other people. Screams in the night will go ignored, not merely because people are callous, but because the bonds aren't there.
I think there's some truth here, of course. Going from playing Meridian 59 to trying out EverQuest for a bit, I was struck by how much less friendly people were. People were running around and didn't take the time to really chat with others. I tried to wave or say hi to people, but they were always out of range. A big change compared to the definite "small town" feeling that M59 had. (This makes it even funnier when people refers to EQ's community as better than WoW's; a matter of perception, I guess.)
We also saw this on the internet. Some of you old-timers might remember the September that never ended. This was the one year when there were so many new internet users who came online (mostly from universities that started in September) that they could not all be taught proper "netiquette". Some of the dinosaurs thought that this degraded the level of discourse on the internet irreparably.
The problem, from a developer's point of view, is that it's hard to say what can be done if you want to run a traditional subscription-based MMO. You could try focusing your game on a niche to attract a smaller community, or perhaps going with a different business model. Larger subscription-based games have always tried to attract a larger audience in order to get more revenue and more profits. This is how they work. We would have to make some changes to the way these games are made on a fundamental level before this works. But, this is one reason why I think new business models are exciting, because they allow you to make more money without having to cater to the lowest common denominator.
One other factor is the age of the community. As communities grow older, the start calcifying. Cliques that formed early on become inflexible groups who are wary of outsiders not indoctrinated to their way of thinking, even if there is no external pressure. As an exercise, think about high school: by the time you get to the upper grades, you know who belongs to which group: the jocks vs. the nerds vs. the rich kids, etc. You couldn't just go from being a nerd to a jock overnight without changing schools.
It makes sense that the community issues are starting to become more prominent in WoW now, because that's been the same in every game. EQ's community changed over time, especially as the game matured and and raiding became the premier activity. The community was a lot more open at the beginning; but as the different tiers of guilds settled out, you had more restrictions. Being a top tier guild on a server meant that you could be restrictive about who came into the guild. Of course, every wannabe top tier guild organizer would only want "the best". Eventually you have a situation where it becomes hard to break into the community at all.
What can a developer do?
Unfortunately, this is one of those issues that's long on problems and short on solutions. If I had the magic bullet, I'd be doing it. For me, I think the most appealing possibility is to try to focus more on niche games with smaller communities. As I said, this is unpopular with investors because it carries a lot more risk. But, it's one of the reasons why I've long been a fan of microtransactions.
But, could anything be cone for WoW's community? I'm not sure. Perhaps the genie is out of the bottle and you can't just take away some of the design decisions, like the dungeon finder, that got the game into its current situation. Given that WoW hasn't grown for several years now, at least in the western markets, this might be the time for Blizzard to try something radical. Given their history of being able to generate a seemingly endless supply for short-term beneficial design decisions, there's not a compelling reason for them to make a radical change. Sure, the community may not be great, but they're still sitting on millions of more players than other games in the same class.
What do you think? Could anything be done to "save" WoW's community? Or was it always terrible? Would you be interested in playing a more niche-focused game with a smaller community to get a better community? Would you be willing to pay more for this to support the niche game?