Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 May, 2010

Factors for community quality
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:37 PM

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.

Community Management

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.

Community Size

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.

Community Age

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?


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19 Comments »

  1. Two posts in one week? Surely the apocalypse is not long now.

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 May, 2010 @ 6:37 PM

  2. The first thing that comes to my mind is like you said that whatever the community looks like they have still much more players than a lot of MMOs that by the time they reach the current number of players of say EQ I doubt we’ll be able to blame community for it. That will be just the game getting old. So I’m not sure community really matters much in WoW. From my point of view I always considered this game to be an online single player game with an optional hidden feature to interact with others.

    About game design decisions it seems to me that a lot of games with stronger communities are mostly games with frequent downtimes or games that don’t have a clear path to follow. In the early days of SWG that was exactly what we had. No clear quest path, no real competition that mattered besides for “honor” and huge downtimes watching dancers and getting buffs. Surely not everyone was enjoying that but it gave the opportunity for a lot of people to interact together. Much of this disappeared the day people figured out they needed to grind professions to unlock jedi. The path was clear and there was “no time to waste”.

    It’s a bit the same in Golemizer actually. There’s nothing to “hurry” for and there’s nothing you can grind to gain a significant advantage. Players are then much more open to participate in chat which leads to some interesting group initiatives. Sure that do not please the WoW type of crowd but that’s not the point either.

    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.

    The worse troublemakers are not those who are obviously making trouble but those who seem to always be about to cross the line and never crossing it. If you take actions then you create two clans because the situation is not clear enough for everyone to understand it so you always end up being the loser. Banning someone spamming chat with obscenities was always something I was praised for. But when I had to deal with people being annoying but not really breaking any rules (no swearing, no sexual innuendos, no religion, no politic, … the obvious stuff) then you always end up being blamed from one side or another whatever the decision you make.

    In larger communities it’s much harder for a single troublemaker to polarized opinions into 2 distinct groups. In fact you can probably just not bother arguing with him and take immediate drastic measures and in the end only a small percentage of the whole community will be aware of it and there won’t be much backfire on you.

    About community age:

    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.

    Indeed and that’s why I don’t think it’s much of a real issue in the end. The game will probably follow a similar “community curve” similar to other games but the difference is that they have so much more players that it will take quite a long time before we consider the game dead or can blame the “bad community” for it’s downfall.

    Could anything be done to “save” WoW’s community?

    If I’d be Blizzard I wouldn’t bother much about it. Can anything be done to “save” any game’s community? I think it’s much better to build slowly a community than spend efforts trying to save one that in the case of WoW count so many players that by the end it really becomes a real threat the game will be part of the “old stuff” we don’t expect to do good for much long. I could be wrong but they just have to not do anything too drastic and do more of the same and I feel that might just do it.

    Would you be interested in playing a more niche-focused game with a smaller community to get a better community?

    Reversing this question is funny (approximate guess here) “Would you be interested in playing a more typical popular theme game with a lot of players and a bad community?”. I’d answer no to that. But if we indeed say that WoW’s community is getting worse each day then it means there’s still a whole lot of people who would answer yes …

    Would you be willing to pay more for this to support the niche game?

    I’m not sure that’s the kind of question a lot of people are able to honestly answer though someone truly interested in playing a more niche-focused game with a smaller community to get a better community would probably answer yes with his wallet which is the best answer you can get.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 28 May, 2010 @ 8:48 PM

  3. Great article, Brian.

    I honestly don’t know what developers can do to stop the “destruction” of their MMO community aside from try to enforce politeness by making players more interdependent on each other. For instance, if a player simply cannot level by themselves then they are forced to group and thus conform to a certain standard of etiquette less they be ostracized by the community and are no longer able to advance. Older MMOs, like EQ, unknowingly had this sort of thing just due to the way they had been created and some MMOs (i.e. Vanguard) tried to create it on purpose. The problem is that in a post-WoW genre where players are so used to quick, solo progression it’s almost impossible to attract and maintain a large subscription base with these sort of gameplay mechanics.

    I also feel that enforcing behaviour via game mechanics is kinda like punishing the entire class for a couple of badly behaving kids. I like the idea of freedom of choice and being able to play an easily accessible game.

    One idea I do like was suggest my Mycroft in a comment on my post that you linked to: he suggested that Blizzard create “premium” servers and charge more for them. I know that this becomes a bit elitist and would probably cause a ruckus amongst the community but, don’t forget, SoE did the same thing with Everquest and their Legends server. Aside from probably outpricing a lot of the jerks, it would also give developers the resources to hire more GMs and help police the server, hopefully reducing the amount of spam and bad behavior that goes on.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 29 May, 2010 @ 4:26 AM

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  5. In real life there are jobs for people who are stupid or lazy or whatever other negative traits you can think of. They don’t pay well. But like all jobs, they need management of some sort.

    If real life was WoW, the CEO of McDonalds, a corporation which effectively does raids for noobs, he’d be making $15 an hour and eventually realize it’s pointless and go get a new job that actually pays for his ability. But instead he is quite well paid. His management, even of noobs, is rewarded.

    Could a MMO have the equivalent? Can there be incentive to run guilds which only do the entry level raids and exist for people to get their feet wet? It has to be something beyond just desire to help the community, because clearly that is not enough.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 30 May, 2010 @ 7:48 PM

  6. I played a WoW clone for almost a year that featured:
    1) every 10 levels you were stymied from further progression until you got a gang together to beat up a boss dungeon
    2) the boss dungeon was HARD – getting a group of same-levels together wasn’t going to cut it
    3) everyone in the group who beat the boss got an item of e-penile extension that was useful mostly at top levels – and in large quantity. You had to have hundreds of these non-transferable widgets or else you couldn’t step into the community shower for fear of everyone giggling at your smallness.
    4) the boss had a scaling-per-player XP award which made it a decent level-grind mechanism at any level

    So basically, you could hardly get to one of these stopper dungeons without being harangued by mobs of top level players offering to help… it seemed like a community building thing, and it almost was.

    I quit around level 85 and still couldn’t solo the level 10 dungeon, so I had a “community” (of three) and we’d assist players with their level 10 dungeon. But that was it. That was my community – my two friends who I did these dungeons with (and one of them, incidentally, was redundant – we couldn’t solo the dungeon, but we could duo it with ease, and we kept the third around mostly for historical reasons from our level 60 days when it took all three of us to beat it). The players we tried to be nice to, but mostly their game concerns were of such a pittance compared to ours that we’d just say, “try to remember us at level 20″ and we were nice to them only in hopes they’d do just that.

    But I remember being the level 10 player on the other end of that deal, as well, and it was in no way community enhancing. Here came a group of high level heroes who basically told me “stay out of the way and try not to get too far behind” as they sped through a dungeon with no explanation or reason – they knew the dungeon’s ins and outs by heart, having conquered it hundreds of times, but I wanted to explore. Well, it sucked to be me, because they weren’t stopping. They ignored loot drops and got impatient if I tried to pick them all up, they whizzed through the boss fight and I barely got to see the darn thing before it was dead. Then they were gone – they didn’t even have the niceness of my group, taking down my name and checking on me to see when I was getting to level 20 – they didn’t care. In a way I couldn’t blame them, it took about 20 levels to decide if you liked the game, and most people were gone by level 15 or so.

    So… even through they tried really hard to make a community feature, they basically failed. But they did better than most, I guess.

    The game also featured massive PvP (but without loss of gear or xp) battles for control of land, and if you were lucky enough to be allowed into one of the four guilds that were big enough to succeed at those, there was a massive amount of cooperation required to seize and control land. Great community experience for the 5% of the players powerful enough to get into it. You simply couldn’t be a jerk and get in on those battles (except, well, there was a whole guild of jerks that eventually leveled up enough to make grabs at the land. we crushed them a couple times, but they kept coming back – it was primarily a PvE server and their jerkiness allowed them to grief attempts by other people to level up without fear of retribution except in the land battles, and they simply out-leveled most guilds. I guess they were a tight knit community, which says something for community in games, but they were tight-knit to the point of spitting on anyone outside their community).

    —–

    On the other end, I knew a game with AWESOME community, because it was so small and everything in the game required community to advance. A Tale in the Desert. I tried really hard to break it (mostly because I took the authors comments that no one could top All 7 Disciplines as a challenge), and as a result, once my methods became known, I was a pariah and I couldn’t advance any of the Disciplines requiring others to help (like Art and Leadership) – people still respected me because I had accomplished some great and often rather generous things, including organizing a huge number of free machines for people to use and stacking up over half the required goods for opening some techs at the university, and monopolizing a tin field to its maximum potential, but then giving away the individual mines (to prevent someone from monopolizing it and then NOT giving away the results, or, worse, building their mines a little more spread out so that the maximum number could never be placed there) – but despite their respect, it was a grudging respect and they never voted well on my Art works. Still, the friends I had on there I was rather close to for quite some time.

    It’s hard to define what made ATitD’s community so awesome. In some ways, it’s easy to define “it was small, and everything required cooperation – and there were new crafts introduced constantly with no documentation so we had to figure out the principles of operation our selves” but it also purposefully included many griefing mechanisms because the author was running some kind of experiment where he was hoping to turn us into the police and law makers to solve some griefing problems. So it easily could have gone the other way – no one able to accomplish squat because of the constant attempts to get ahead. The smallness of the community helped there – the world was just too large for the population and even if Every One was a jerk, we could simply relocate somewhere and ignore them. And my methods of “defeating” some of the community mechanisms (effectively, I could play 4 characters from a pool of 15 at once), while not popular, ensured I could get by some challenging game play mechanics even if no one liked me (though many did before they learned about the sheer mass of the fake player pool I was running to try to defeat the author’s Unintended challenge to master everything in a game he tried to design for specialization).

    Comment by silver — 30 May, 2010 @ 10:22 PM

  7. As to the question of “can the WoW community be ‘saved’”?
    It depends on what you mean by ‘saved’.

    If you mean alienating the current player base and hopefully replacing them with different players by changing all the rules – then maybe.

    If you mean turning their base of misanthropic soloers into a thriving community, then “no”. You might as well try to turn my cat into a dog, or black into white.

    Comment by silver — 30 May, 2010 @ 11:37 PM

  8. Sure, I’d be interested in playing a more niche focussed game. But it would have to be a niche I was interested in and with enough players on my timezone (assuming it involves synchronous play) — without that I wouldn’t look twice at it.

    And that’s the rub. A game with more players gives a much higher chance that a random player will be able to find other compatible people. The direction WoW needs to go in is in making it easier for people to do this. OK, we can find random people who want to run an instance, that’s a start. But how could it be easier to find people who want to raid in the same timezone, or are in the same age group, or share similar interests or gaming styles? Could the game make it easier to find people we’d enjoy hanging out and playing with? Could it become a social network?

    I don’t think it helps that most community managers are absolutely rubbish. They are effectively being employed to do social work. So get people who have studied something relevant, not just random gamers who’ve moderated a bulletin board or two.

    Comment by Spinks — 31 May, 2010 @ 12:05 AM

  9. Another factor to consider is to build community type activities into the game itself. This is more than simply chat and grouping mechanics, but instead think “barn raising”. The opening of the AQ Gates and the unlocking of the isle of quel’danas were both open community activities that galvanized a sense of community. Not a whole lot of community of course, because those two events weren’t specifically designed for that particular aim. Similarly the zombie invasion also advanced the sense of community (while also driving many crazy).

    From these I can see a number of principles: shared benefits of results regardless of individual participation; solo contributions counted for the community while also being rewarded at the solo level; open grouping to the community (contrast to the epeen gating of guild membership); and visible progress and world impact. Build activities like that into the game and the theory is you’ll foster a sense of caring what others do, and subtly shape underlying attitudes in the process.

    Ettiquette etc will then follow.

    Comment by Garumoo — 31 May, 2010 @ 1:36 AM

  10. Spinks wrote:
    I don’t think it helps that most community managers are absolutely rubbish.

    I think one problem is that for too many people, community manager is seen as a stepping stone to a “real” development job. Kind of like QA testing, the really good testers get “promoted” to a direct game development job, so all you have left are the people who aren’t quite good enough to promote. Even if the community person isn’t just angling for a designer position, their insight can sometimes make them attractive to get involved more on that side of development.

    Speaking to the issue that Wolfshead brought up, one would assume that Blizzard would have the resources to hire quality people with relevant backgrounds and training (or spring for good training). So, why is their community seen as being so poor?

    Garumoo wrote:
    …think “barn raising”.

    Good point. Although, barn raising isn’t just about helping the community, it’s about helping a specific person with the understanding that they’ll help you later. I think you have to have a good community to start with before you can do this, but it can help strengthen it.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 May, 2010 @ 9:22 AM

  11. “Speaking to the issue that Wolfshead brought up, one would assume that Blizzard would have the resources to hire quality people with relevant backgrounds and training (or spring for good training). So, why is their community seen as being so poor?”

    That’s a very very good question. The only answer I can think of is because Blizzard place the community at a very low priority. So in that sense they deserve every bit of flack they get about the WoW community. It’s not especially worse than any other game, but they had the resources and the playerbase to make something better.

    Comment by Spinks — 31 May, 2010 @ 10:19 AM

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  13. Forced cooperation isn’t the same thing as genuine community goodwill. Not by a long shot.

    If you force people to cooperate to proceed, they will, but they won’t do it because they like it. They will play nice because they are forced to. The only way to keep that sort of population functioning is with a heavy hand; griefers will find any outlet you allow them. It’s also been my experience that forcing players to do something a certain way tends to build resentment, even if it’s not a conscious thing.

    As with government, freedom brings idiots. There’s simply no way around it. This is why soloers aren’t the problem, and soloability isn’t the issue. Those who group because that’s how you progress are just as selfish as any “misanthropic soloist”, they just hold their tongue because the loot dictates such. They use other people, pure and simple, and no amount of forced socialization will make them magnanimous or loyal. Jerks are jerks, no matter the rules imposed on them… and sometimes, jerks can be *created* by stringent rules. Why else do we have these curious vigilante streaks in popular entertainment?

    It’s like the difference between charity and welfare; real social good has to be built on individual choice, not Big Brother’s dictates.

    How to fix WoW’s community, then? It will never be fixed, much like real community will never be utopian, but you can do more than Blizzard does. Maybe one way would be to let the players self-police like Puzzle Pirates; a player that is “black spotted” rapidly in short order is automatically banned, GM-free. Captains and Senior Officers (Guild Leaders and top officers, effectively) can issue black spots. Autobans are later reviewed by GMs, and any officer found abusing the black spot mechanic is also banned. We’re also talking IP bans, by the way, a bit of a heavy hammer, making it so anyone from the banned IP can’t even make new accounts. Banned computers are “tainted” as well (though I’m not sure how; maybe a cookie or something).

    Subscription fees, elite servers, F2P servers… it’s not about the money, and those won’t solve the issue; it’s about the behavior. Some of the most caustic jerks I’ve met were also some of the richest people I’ve met, and some of the most humble and generous people I know are those who have very little. Until the people playing the game change, the community won’t change. Blizzard can do more to combat jerkiness with heavy sanctions against jerks (say, autobanning anyone who is /complained about over a certain threshold or who posts certain forbidden words or variants thereof), and they can make PvP ganking less prevalent with countergank mechanics. Still, the question becomes one we always deal with; the balance of freedom and control.

    Internet anonymity goes a long way to making freedom annoying… but if the alternative is a police state gated community, that’s what you build, not servers with a higher sub fee.

    Comment by Tesh — 1 June, 2010 @ 1:54 PM

  14. …or forced grouping. Fees and forced socialization aren’t really solving the issue of people being jerks. People getting along because they have to isn’t the same thing as people getting along because they want to and have fun doing so.

    Maybe that means changing the focus from the loot/level paradigm, by the way; it’s a terribly selfish core game design, especially with loot rolls instead of DDO’s “everyone wins” loot distribution. GearScore doesn’t help either. I agree that a core game design of competitiveness will naturally attract jerks, just like PvP servers attract gankers and their particular brand of sociopathy.

    Comment by Tesh — 1 June, 2010 @ 1:59 PM

  15. I think community is a function of your subscriber base, not of community managers. You design game catering to certain audience (whether you realize it or not ) – broader appeal , less quality overall.

    Community of chess players is different than one of street basketball, community of f1 fans different that those of nascar. And so on. WoW is beyond the point where community matters -its mass consumption product, its at the point where all what matters is marketing spreadsheets and demographics data

    You want great community? -design a game with high barrier of entry (IQ wise) – if you manage to interest those picky nerds you will have relatively great community (with pitiful return on investment though). Or you can make HALO M or Gears of Wars N or whatever other console FPS du jour suits your fancy and enjoy broad appeal

    Comment by Max — 1 June, 2010 @ 3:21 PM

  16. Tesh wrote:
    Forced cooperation isn’t the same thing as genuine community goodwill.

    No, but how likely are you to get spontaneous genuine community goodwill? Not very likely, in my experiences. So, then it becomes how best to form a community that isn’t toxic to newcomers.

    Those who group because that’s how you progress are just as selfish as any “misanthropic soloist”, they just hold their tongue because the loot dictates such. They use other people, pure and simple, and no amount of forced socialization will make them magnanimous or loyal.

    While I believe that games can make people better (I’m better at socializing because of early experiences in MUDs), I don’t think the goal here is to imbue people with magnanimity or loyalty. Rather, it’s to create an atmosphere where people don’t view others as the enemy, an obstacle to be dealt with in the most efficient manner. Yes, this can happen in a group-centric game just as easily, but the true misanthropes generally have a harder time thriving in such a setting. Knowing you have to rely on others and forming groups means that people are going to be encouraged to play a bit nicer.

    Allow me to give an example from my current MMO of choice, Dungeons & Dragons. The other night I ran an adventure that required a group (Kobold Assault on Elite). I did it with members of the guild I’m part of, some of the people who participate in the Massively events in the game. It was a tough battle and we were all mostly at an appropriate level for the game, but we managed to defeat the content without any deaths (for a nice XP bonus). Contrast this with my later experience with a PUG running another group instance (Irestone Inlet on Elite). The group was less focused, even though I tried to give advice. I ran out of power healing people, especially the other cleric who preferred to do DPS. When the party split up and then wiped, half the group left.

    What was the difference? In the guild group, we would run into each other more often and had reputations to protect. I had motivation not to slack off, since I’d prefer people not going around saying that, “Psychochild can’t play MMOs!” In the second case, people didn’t care. Now, I’m sure people would say that both are forced group, so it proves nothing. But, if the game is primarily group-focused, then it’s going to be more efficient to join a group of like-minded people. So, a lot of the reputation issues are going to kick in and make people at least outwardly polite. In addition, you’ll have people worrying about how they reflect on their group, and giving a guild a bad name when it has to play nice with others might find you suddenly outside that group.

    Of course, group-focused gameplay isn’t a cure for all ills. EQ1 still had it’s jerks and assholes, despite being the first game that really focused on group-based gameplay. And, obviously some people are still sore from the experiences there. The question is, does it generally provide a better community? Hard to say for sure, but the theory is that it would. No empirical evidence, though.

    Some thoughts.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 June, 2010 @ 8:16 PM

  17. As one more data point for the conversation, from what I’ve seen over the years the general level of jerkishness in a community can be expressed roughly as follows:

    J = (A + S) ^ ((1-M) + C)

    Where A is anonymity, S is the order of magnitude of the size of the community, M is the visibility of active community management, and C is the degree to which competition against other players is rewarded.

    In other words, if you’ve got a lot of anonymous people interacting, the jerkishness level is likely to be high. (Try driving in any major metro area.) And this can be exacerbated by failing to frequently remind people that their actions are being observed, and by designing the environment to actually reward people for doing negative things to each other.

    Note that these two things — anonymity and size — are related in that together they determine the likelihood that any two players will reliably recognize each other over multiple interactions. That’s a key component in Robert Axelrod’s “evolution of cooperation.” If you don’t expect to ever see the other person again, you have no extrinsic incentive to cooperate with that person. You may still do so; it happens — just not enough to establish a self-sustaining colony of mutual cooperators.

    Being more visible in a player community and designing the gameworld to promote cooperation over competition can also help, but they don’t seem to be as crucial to the “reliable recognition” goal as anonymity and community size. So I’d suggest that you’ll get the most bang for your game design buck by addressing either anonymity or community size, both of which directly affect the expectation that someone you interact with today will be able to recognize you in a future interaction.

    For community size, one thing that’s being tried is limiting the number of people on a server to something well under Dunbar’s number, which was usually the case in MUDs. That’s a relatively quick/easy fix, but it addresses the actual problem of jerkishness only marginally because server populations are determined dynamically — the people with whom you share a server today will be a completely different set of people tomorrow. It also winds up destroying some of what’s most interesting about a game being “massively multiplayer.”

    Reducing anonymity might be a better option. You can (as Brian noted) sort of improve matters by creating opportunities and incentives for groups of people to work together with each other over time, allowing them to get to know each other as people. If I were going to try to design a game to minimize jerkishness, that’s where I’d focus my attention — on providing extrinsic (but in-game) incentives to people to voluntarily cede a little of their anonymity.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 2 June, 2010 @ 10:13 AM

  18. I think you need to ask first how bad WoW’s community is compared to other games. I know in Aion for one despite having a much smaller community where I often saw the same faces we had the same if not more problems. In Final Fantasy XI which was a tight-knit community focused on group pve we had huge angry debates about what level of gear was acceptable for party play, and whole classes often were excluded from play due to weak dps.

    I tore a bit into wolfshead on my blog, but I think his problem with community is that he just wants to go back to when only computer geeks played MMOs, because when the community is much smaller, and homogenous, of course it will be better. WoW’s community sucks to him because he is exposed to a lot of people he simply can’t stand.

    Comment by Dblade — 4 June, 2010 @ 7:29 AM

  19. A very interesting read! I’m really happy to find this blog and the community of blogs associated with it.

    Regarding niche games, at present, I’m playing Darkfall Online and I’m considering Mortal Online and Dawntide. These are “sandbox” MMOs.

    The Darkfall community is quite interesting and Bart Stewart’s equation provides good food for thought.

    J = (A + S) ^ ((1-M) + C)

    There is certainly a lot of jerkishness in the DFO community. On the positive side, it’s good that there can only be one player per account (though this does not stop many people from buying additional accounts for harvesting resources, etc. due to questionable game design choices IMO).

    Also, there is no real naming policy. For example, you could see a player named Fr3ak Na5ty and a clan/guild named WTFMOM IMPWNING STFUGTFO. This lack of naming policy certainly invites the LCD into a heavily pvp oriented game that rewards jerkish behavior. Yet, I still find this the best MMO available for me, in spite of a dreadful community and many game design issues. There are certain members of the community that are quite decent. The dreadful elements make finding these decent individuals very rewarding.

    Mortal Online is only a hope for the re-emergence of the sandbox mmo as is Dawntide.

    So yes, I am willing to support a niche game. I believe there is still potential for a great game/community experience from an indie developer with good ideas and persistence in iterating their game. I have high hopes for a revamped gamed with the Darkfall 2010 expansion scheduled for Q4.

    Comment by Joe — 5 June, 2010 @ 5:52 AM

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