Improving the MMORPG Community

  • With passions running high and patience growing thin, this week seemed as good as any for me to finally sit down and put some thoughts to paper (and keyboard) about how we as a community can help regain the classic MMORPG community feel, and how developers can stop protecting us from ourselves.  
    Before we get into that, a couple of axioms that I hold true:
    1.  The community is one of the primary elements that separates MMORPG's from every other genre.
    Without all of those additional players, the "massive" portion of our games makes no difference.  As such, it is in the best interest of the community and the developer to promote behavior and mechanics that improve player interaction and guide players towards social interaction, even if the player's initial instinct is to avoid it.  When left solely to our own devices, there's too much introversion and anonymity to build the type of community we often reminisce about.
    2.  I am a huge believer in the concept of grace.
    It's a name for a girl
    It's also a thought that changed the world --- U2

    Yeah, I just used a U2 lyric in an MMORPG community to try and make a point.  The human condition is tough enough without us complicating relationships with a lot of anger and hatred.  Particularly when I am unable to deal with someone face to face, and have difficulty understanding the complexity of their thought, the experiences that have brought them to their point, and even something as little as what type of day they are having, I try to operate with a modicum of grace towards them.  Grace is the idea of offering love and mercy, even when the other party is not exactly deserving.  When I look back on the history of stupid comments, actions, and ideas that I have had, I certainly appreciate the grace my friends, family and acquaintances have shown at times.  If we can interact with one another without the vitriol and presumption, how much closer could the community grow? 

    3.  Mechanically, MMORPGs have moved away from "community" and towards "consumer" in an effort to attract larger player bases.  

    In an effort to shorten play sessions, improve the feeling of achievement, remove elements not directly related to "fun," and other buzz-word worthy phrases, developers have inadvertently weakened communities.  While the individual experience is still extremely important, treating us as if we are the only hero in the world and expecting us to be immersed is not the way to go about it.  For a world to be real, and worth interacting in, there have to be enough players that we care about enough to want to share it with.  That interaction can come in the form of both cooperation and competition, but foregoing elements that require dependence upon one another so as to alleviate social time sinks is bad design.  

    4.  You simply cannot completely sanitize the player experience and retain a compelling draw to your game world.

    Bad things happen.  Some players will be, for lack of a better term, morons.  When you have 200,000+ members of a community, a few are going to be bad apples.  Rather than looking at this as a bad thing, and something that must be eradicated, players should view this as one of the means by which truly exceptional players and memorable relationships may be formed.  When you compartmentalize the entire player experience, you not only block out the bad, but you put walls in place that hinder positive social interaction.

    5.  We are going to have to relearn how to play together nicely.

    The impact of this type of design in the last 10 years has introduced the genre to a totally different generation and bred a totally different mindset in the players.  If a game is going to recapture the feel of an EverQuest era community, it will have to have superior content and mechanical design to keep players engaged long enough to realize that some of the roadblocks are actually just scenic detours worth enjoying.  

    So how do we actually go about improving the state of our game communities?

    From the developer side:

    Giving us back corpse runs is a start.  Corpse runs themselves are not the answer, but mechanics that require players to seek one another out for assistance is.  The fear is that players will have to wait around for a long period of time before they can get help, and that they may eventually log off out of frustration.  But in order to to achieve relationship building on the proper level, players are going to have to find ways to rely on one another - and they are going to have to be directed to do it.  

    Entrepreneurial players will find a way to make a few coin out of dragging a corpse to safety.  Gracious players will go out of their way to help a stranger in need.  Roleplayers will look upon it as an opportunity to craft their story.  But everyone will have a more tangible dynamic experience than if they had an NPC mercenary near by that auto-rezzed them into existence.  Perhaps there is a middle ground where the extreme negative could be eliminated - similar to the concept of asking your god to summon a corpse.  But those mechanics must be managed carefully, and come at some significant cost to the player.

    Beginning with EverQuest II, there was a big push for compartmentalizing combat, buffs, and various economic factors of a game to help the developers better manage content creation and avoid trivialization of encounters, while protecting players from some griefing aspects of the original EverQuest.  I was a huge proponent of this at the time, and wrote about it at length.  How wrong I was!  Compelling content is a start, but the social interaction involved in consuming that content is a variable I neglected.  Where I once thought level and group restricted buffs made sense, I am now closer to the camp that says "give us free reign to make that call."  Massive buff stacking and the fear that power leveling could trivialize the lower level content as the game ages are both legitimate concerns, but I now tend to favor the ability to more directly impact the player experience of those around me.

    For instance - as a Druid it was very rewarding (sometimes financially, mostly intrinsically) to be able to run through Misty Thicket and offer Skin Like Diamond and a short duration damage shield to a new player; or the ability to notice a fight in progress, and toss a quick heal to an adventurer in need.  It is impossible to have a good Samaritan experience when the game itself forces the player to cross to the other side of the road, just to make sure he doesn't kick the poor victim as he lays there.  

    From the player side:

    This is the hard part (because it's easy for me to tell developers what to do, but changing my own personal quirks is tough!).  We have to stop fearing the negative play session.  Your time is valuable, as is mine (and I thank you for spending yours reading this).  But one bad play session is not a reason to quit a game.  One bad group experience is not a reason to avoid the next pickup group.  One failed raid is not a reason to avoid trying it again.  One jacknut player is not a reason to never again have a conversation.

    It really does stink to log in to a game, play for 30 minutes, then have your experience wiped out by someone who made a bad decision in a dungeon and trained a group of mobs on you.  But that risk both improves your perception of the players who CAN successfully navigate a dungeon (thereby adding even more social pressure to develop that skill) and adds weight to the accomplishment that comes with actually making it to a high level.  Surviving the wilds of EverQuest felt meaningful.  I cannot say that about a game since.

    With as polarized as our entire country (for those in the US) is at this point, it is obvious that socially we have a problem with being able to eloquently express an idea, disagree with another, and not end up enemies in the end.  While I do think this applies primarily to the vocal fringes, the entire community tends to pay a price when the rational and patient are afraid to be vocal because they are afraid their voice will not be heard or they feel the interaction simply is not worth the effort, the game and community loses a valuable asset.   The same holds true in many ways for interactions within forums, particularly since we will not be adventuring together for a few more years.  Grace, patience, understanding, logic, reason, etc. -- all of the fundamental things that make relationships better, but often get clouded by all of the other prevalent distractions and emotions that come with the territory.  

    In my particular line of work, team members that work in my department deal with customers who are often quite abrasive and negative.  Responding in kind is rarely (ok, never) a good idea.  They would not do that there because they know they would lose their job.  The internet, obviously, provides a nice veil of protection in many ways.  But as I try to train them, I also try to train myself when reading all of the various thoughts of the community, and trying to structure mine:  no matter how crazy something sounds, how questionable a persons intent is, or how badly they jump to a particular conclusion, I have to remember it is just another gamer.  My interaction with them lasts 15 minutes out of our day, I do not know what they are going through, why they are reacting that way, who their parents were, what their education level is, what unique qualities and gifts they have, and what insecurities they possess.  So why take anything personally since I rarely know them personally?  

    I am a firm believer that the MMORPG community can be mature, and that the vast numbers of active members in the community can read and react intelligently to all of the fascinating things that go on in development and in game.  That's why I love the forums to begin with!  You guys are interesting!  But I encourage everyone, including myself, to continue reading and avoiding the overreaction that often comes when emotions are high.  The community can be smart enough to add the appropriate weight to a poster's argument based on the merits of their post -- and ignore those whose weight does not merit the time to consider.

    I also have to force myself to remain critical and skeptical of what we see in development, and of the ideas we hear.  To further improve the quality of this genre, we have to ask tough questions and be willing to look carefully at all answers.  Critique and skepticism do not require condescension, but also do not imply malice.  One of the most valuable insights we can receive is criticism from a trusted source.  The key for all of us is to establish a little trust, both within this community and within that of the developers.  

    All of that being said, please understand these concerns are my own -- as are the flaws!  When trying to figure out how to recapture the community element of EverQuest, it starts with my and my interaction with the community.  From there, we can all take it outward.  I would love to know the various elements of community that you are nostalgic about, how you think we can get there mechanically in Pantheon, and what, if anything, players can do to improve that experience themselves.  

    Thanks for joining and being a part of the community!

  • squid
    squid The problem, as I see it, is that the industry moved away from the Massively Multiplayer ORPG and went to a Massively Solo ORPG.

    By "Massively solo" I mean that sure, lots of people play simultaneously, but there's no real reason for them to play...  more
    February 22, 2014 - 3 like this
  • eolith
    eolith Quite true. It's the same with ESO from what I've seen in the beta, too.
    February 22, 2014 - 1 likes this
  • EvilPigBoss
    EvilPigBoss Good read. I agree with most of your statements.
    February 23, 2014 - 1 likes this
  • Tarthus
    Tarthus Like it or not, meditation time in the original EQ was team-building time. It forced groups, who may not have known each other beforehand, to make small talk while the casters got mana back. I miss this mechanic in newer games.
    February 25, 2014 - 2 like this