In D-Mail #1, The Syndicate Guildmaster and CEO Sean "Dragons" Stalzer explained his passion for building strong online communities and reasoned that these communities and the "business brains" behind online games have many of the same interests at heart. This week, in D-Mail #2: Knee Jerk Reactions, Sean looks at how game developers can slow down ragequit-prone guildies before they do something rash through, of all things, a clever marketing gimmick?
In early April, something deceptively cool emerged from Bioware. On the surface of it, you could view it as a marketing tactic intended to generate attention for Bioware products, probably because that is exactly what it is. However, the idea they are implementing makes for an interesting discussion about how it could be used to affect MMORPGs in the future and, specifically how developers could use it to grow and strengthen the community aspect of gaming.
The core tenet of the D-Mail series is that strong communities greatly benefit players and developers alike. The longer players keep playing a game, the more revenue the developer makes, so it is in their best interest to invest more time and effort into truly supporting communities in significant and tangible ways. One of the primary things that destroys gaming communities is drama. And one of the factors that plays into drama is the fact that many players react, before they stop and take the time to think when an issue arises.
That knee-jerk reaction is unlike what we would do in a similar situation in the real world. It is not very often that a disagreement with a co-worker causes us to quit our job, move hundreds of miles to a new home, and start from scratch in a new company. That, however, happens many times every day in the online world. In the real world we weigh the pros and cons of a decision more carefully than many players do in the virtual world. So we can often see examples of ill-conceived decisions or solutions to a perceived issue that were not well thought-out. It is in those moments that communities can tear themselves apart and, once destroyed, the developer and the player suffers the results. So when I read the recent news from Bioware, it was with a mind to increasing social attachment to games that I viewed their idea and how it perhaps could be adapted to have a positive impact on MMORPGs.
BioWare's first auction bazaar ran in early April, allowing players to spend their BioWare points on Mass Effect 2 CE custom painted Computer, an XBox, and other BioWare branded goodies.
The event that I am speaking about is basically an auction that is being done with virtual currency. If you own Bioware products or refer your friends to their site you get tokens. You can then spend those virtual tokens bidding on real items that you can win. So, for all intents and purposes, it is an auction where your success is dependent upon how deeply you dive into their brand. It is a brilliant idea, in my opinion, and one that has parallels to the issue I just described above. The idea is to build "brand loyalty" which in the MMORPG world would translate into "guild loyalty" which in turn might just reduce the kind of knee jerk reactions that tear down guilds.
By no means am I suggesting a comprehensive, silver bullet fix. The challenges that face online communities are very complex. They are all based around social interactions and personal relationships. As such, the solutions will be many and varied in nature. There is no one size fits all policy tweak that makes everything perfect. I do, however, view the Bioware event as possibly being one tool that could help online communities grow.
That premise we discussed in D-Mail #1 is that the more stable communities/guilds/clans become, then the better the experience for players is and the better the return on the investment will be for the game developers. The Bioware auction supports that premise because it creates an interesting idea that MMORPG developers could steal for their games as a tool to improve brand loyalty and a tool to improve community stability and at the same time directly benefit us as players.
Creating a guild naturally supports the social aspect of why we play. However, for most players, being in a guild results in a low personal recognition factor and there exists a high availability of other guilds to be a member of. As such, for many players, there is a low incentive to work through issues, avoid drama, and create something long term. Finding a way to both improve guild stability is a key factor in player retention and borrowing the premise behind the Bioware idea could be a step in that direction.
The old "think before you speak" adage comes into play here and figuring out how we subconsciously affect player behavior to do that is one of the tools towards improving stability of guilds. The simple fact of the matter is, with so many choices out there and, for most players, no one choice being any better than another there is no real incentive to think before you act. On the side of those managing guilds, there is also fairly low incentive to work for the collective good since recruits are also fairly easy to obtain. That is certainly not true for some guilds but nearly every player I have met has several more stories about poorly led, self centered guild entities than they do about wonderfully led entities out for the collective good.
Some games have looked at ways to give guilds both recognition and tangible benefits. Warhammer Online is one of the more recent games to do this as you could level up your guild and apply bonuses to your members via choices you made with those experience points. Neat idea, but it doesnt support the core premise I keep going back to, which is that stable guilds make for better player experiences and at the same time benefit the game developer. Their system doesnt really make guilds more stable as it provides no long term incentive to avoid drama, work through issues, or think before you leap. You level up and buy all your stuff.' Once you have leveled up, you effectively win the system and it is useless from then on. At some point there is a critical mass of guilds out there all offering the same bonuses therefore there is no incentive to work through issues or think before we act within the guild we are currently part of. For many players, their guild is a commodity of convenience. There is no brand loyalty, at least not to the point it could survive a jolt or two without shattering.
The Bioware tokens/points experiment perhaps opens the door to think about ways to provide recognition and stability. If a system were designed that afforded benefits that required you to think before you quit in anger-or that reinforced positive guild focused behaviors, or that reinforced positive interactions between guilds- then you could begin to make a difference in some of the fundamental issues that cause the downfall of most guilds.
What if there was a system in MMORPGs that awarded the guild and its members points for various things done by its members? What if that system allowed you to spend those points on various in game things to benefit the guild or you personally? So far such a system is not really any different than leveling up and getting points to spend on things for you or your guild, so there really isnt anything new or inventive about the idea.
But what if you weren't leveling up. What if your personal and your guild score could fluctuate up and down based on the deeds of the members? What if your score was not hard currency that once spent was gone, but rather it was something more akin to mana (i.e. a pool that depletes and recharges at some interval of time), and what if what you bought was really more akin to a buff that existed only for the duration you had the mana (whether that be a discounted rental on a castle or guildhall, or a +5% gold drop bonus for all guild members)? What if the only mechanisms to obtain these points revolved entirely around supporting the community? And the only way to achieve the largest mana pool of points was to perform those activities consistently and over long periods of time?
If both the player and the guild were rewarded for those actions, that would develop an understanding that working through issues before jumping ship would be in everyone's best interest since the only way to achieve the top tier of the rewards (i.e. to have a big enough "mana" pool) is to be engaged and involved over an extended period of time. If you put your members through a meat grinder or if you treat your guild like a commodity then you will never earn the top tier rewards.
Take the guild membership example: Remaining a member of your guild for a long time benefits the community a great deal more than if the guild had high turnover. So if there was a rewards system that included length of membership as a factor then it might encourage groups to create policies that promoted stability and membership retention. That in turn would foster a more positive environment for each member which in turn reinforces guild stability. And by reinforcing guild stability you earn more recognition in the form of being able to spend larger and larger pools of points on cooler and more awesome things. But since you are, in effect, renting those things, you have to continually strive to maintain those points by taking decisions that reinforce the team. Other types of community-oriented actions and behaviors could be rewarded, but the idea would be that they build on positive reinforcement of the community over time. There would be benefit to working things out rather than continually starting fresh every time there was a bump in the road if the system were designed right.
You can see other examples of building brand loyalty in the industry that could be used as examples to pull useful ideas from when designing the system described above. SOE has their Station Pass program where you have a fixed fee that gives you access to all of their MMORPGs. It's an interesting concept where one buying decision gives you access to multiple worlds. With a number of major developers working towards creating a franchise of game titles, the future of MMORPGs looks to be composed of a number of related games built up over time. What if your system had memory and you could carry your deeds and actions into the future games?
Another such example includes the Steam and Xbox systems where you get points for buying games. I know quite a few of us have bought discounted games to get the points that we otherwise might not have bought. So we have the model of reinforcing some behaviors with extra rewards. So certainly the system would need to be a living, breathing organism that is tweaked over time. As the community evolves so might the incentives and you might incentivize some things more than others depending on other factors. That incentive could be both individual and guild based triggering off the collective results (or lack there of) by that specific community.
So in summary, I think there are a number of interesting examples out there that we could pull from to design a system that helps reduce the knee jerk reactions that tear communities apart every day. Is this the answer to all of our community woes? Nope! But this may be one way to help players think before they act and thus contribute to greater community stability which benefits us all. This idea clearly needs to be thought out in more detail - and some exploits and landmines must be worked out- but the overall premise supports what players want, what developers want, and what guilds need in order to have a more stable, longer-term community. This idea reinforces the social aspects on a continual, recurring basis which in turn makes for a more positive player experience, which in turn means we play the MMORPG for longer periods of time. Everyone wins when communities grow stronger and this is one idea on how that could happen. What are your thoughts on how such a system could be shaped to support communities and benefit their members?
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