It's always been fascinating to me why big online games have stuck to developer controlled servers. I totally understand why they would want to keep all of the hosting, and control in house; but I am still puzzled why they've never allowed players to control access - even in a very restricted way. After all, wouldn't handing some administrative power to the players allow us to police ourselves?
Examining the Potential
When you look closely at the online indie giant Minecraft - which boasts both Mojang-hosted servers as well as player-hosted ones - there is one thing they all have in common: player-managed whitelists (and blacklists). Although it is far from perfect, there is certainly something to be said about what can be achieved under this system. From everything like the massive projects of Minecraft Middle-Earth and Westeroscraft to the simple collaborations done between a groups of friends on tiny home-based servers... we can see how extremely healthy communities and gameplay experiences can thrive.
It allows for like-minded players to come together and maintain their own sets of rules and nuances as to how an individual community go about experiencing a game together. Depending on the availability of modding - it even allows players to create entirely new game experiences. There really isn't anything quite like it, especially when you look at games produced by the biggest of publishers - which feature comparatively toxic communities. The reason those communities are so toxic is because players of any make and model are mashed together and forced to "get along" and enjoy the world together - when such a demand might well be impossible.
After all, some players have vastly different gameplay experience, tastes, and goals than others.
Big publishers of most massively multiplayer online games have historically done very little to guide players into an enjoyable experience - from a community and server selection standpoint. That failure to properly group like-minded players has led to intense friction within these massive game communities to the point that conflict is inevitable (and I'm not just talking about in-game combat). Players often get crossed in intense verbal warfare, intentional griefing, and a wide array of other exploitations aimed at undermining each other's desired gameplay experience.
This has led of course to an increase in overhead for developers who now have to implement chat filtering, in-game community moderators, and various other tools and restrictive mechanics to mitigate it all. Unfortunately, players are constantly finding new ways to cause each other grief - and developers are constantly playing "catch-up".
Like a persistent, mutating virus - toxic gameplay from in-game disagreements is arguably incurable, and has at times led to games seeing a mass-exodus of players such as what happened with ArcheAge. This toxicity is exponentially greater the more agency a developer chooses to give its players - which has led to more and more restrictive gameplay (which to many people, makes the game significantly less enjoyable).
So What is the Solution?
Well, that's a great question. I honestly don't know if I have one, but I do know that a great place to start would be in granting players administrative power over their local communities. Now don't misinterpret what I'm saying here. I am not trying to say that all servers should be privatized, nor am I saying that players should be able have supreme power over one another's access.
What I am saying is that private servers should be an option (even if those servers are being hosted by the developer itself). I see no reason why developers cannot set up a system where players can collaborate prior to game-launch based on their particular tastes and personalities to group up and vie for admin control of individual servers. With enough thought and iteration, developers should be able to come up with a way to allow players to police themselves and collaborate for the type of game-experience they want.
For instance, Role-Players should be able to assemble in mass and receive one (or more, depending on the game and populations) "restricted servers" with a unique blacklist. The ideal system would allow any player to join in on the experience - so long as they operate under the clearly-defined expectations and rules of that server. If they start trolling RPers and griefing the experience, then there should be an in-game system of voting that player into a "banned" status (perhaps temporary at first, and working its way up to permanent). Keep in mind this would not be a ban from the game itself. It would only prevent the player from joining that specific server.
Also the banning authority should not belong to only one player, but rather a group of players or perhaps a player-voted panel for that particular server. To prevent the game experience for those governing players from getting swamped by case-reviews - banning should likely include the most advanced forms of tracking like IP bans, and Hardware-ID Bans. (An important note here would be that players don't have access to this information, they merely see the character name in the report case and submit that character for blacklisting - at which point the developer will track the character to its parent account and all IPs and Hardware associated with that account).
The above model would work for any type of play-style or intended game-experience, as giving the power to the players would enable for much healthier communities overall. The entire player base will be policing itself and making any and all necessary bans to provide the highest level of enjoyment possible.
More Food For Thought
On the other side of the equation, developers should also experience increased revenue as they could reduce their moderating expenses for behavior-management. Additionally developers will continue to make money from toxic players, cheaters and even hackers that are allowed to continue to spend money on their game by finding themselves servers that allow for that type of gameplay that would not normally be tolerated by most people.
What better way to teach cheaters and hackers and toxic players how painfully they affect the game by quickly forcing them into the few servers that don't ban them (which would likely be full of other toxic players and cheats and hacks).
Let them create their own hell and play the game however they wish. Such a system would also allow for players seeking a fun and enjoyable game experience to find it too, essentially creating their own paradise.
Another very important element of player-ran servers and the ability to create unique server rulesets is the potential for players to craft any game to their liking. What I mean by this is that players will be able to slightly mold the actual game experience, and in turn take a game that they otherwise would not enjoy or invest themselves in and make it very attractive and enjoyable. That only heightens the number of players sticking around in the game - which is very essential for MMOs in particular. Additionally, players contributing to a bigger community of like-minded people will only increase their attachment and immersion in the game itself, creating more enjoyment and making them more likely to purchase things from the game store or fork over the money for that monthly sub.
Of course there would need to be a lot of thought and effort put into designing such a system, as my simple armchair design above is merely a rough concept - if even that. The whole purpose of this article is just to enlighten everyone and make them aware of a few very important aspects of MMO communities:
They are enormous and attract such a wide variety of players that having conflicting play-styles is guaranteed; and as a by-product, griefing each other's experience is inevitable.
MMO games are best experienced when the population levels are in the range of those intended by the designers (which so many mechanics revolve around). Keeping populations high and more players actively engaged should be paramount for developers of these massive-scale games.
Allowing players to police themselves and set unique server standards should stratify the player base in the most natural way possible - allowing players to truly find the experience they want, regardless of what that might be.
Toxic play can be heavily mitigated if traditional server setup sees significant revision and players are better guided to finding a place to play that matches their interests and play-style (which is currently non-existent in most games).
One Giant Leap for MMOkind
Daybreak Games (formerly Sony Online Entertainment), has taken a step in the right direction by instituting private servers for their upcoming zombie survival MMO: H1Z1 - though their plans aren't nearly as aggressive as the one I've layed out above (at least from what we've seen and heard thus far). I would love to see more big companies move in the direction of having player-determined server rulesets and increased guidance getting players in a server that fits the game experience they are seeking.
It's a crucial element that has been overlooked for far too long. Neglected so long, in fact, that toxic gameplay has become a rampant problem and is the most powerful factor pushing players away from brand new games.
After all, who wants to spend money to get harassed, annoyed, irritated and exploited? That's not a gameplay experience anyone wants to pay cash for. It needs to be fixed, pronto.
Thanks for reading everyone and I would absolutely love to hear any and all thoughts, opinions, and comments about such a system. How would you see something like that working out? Would it be something you'd like future games to pursue? What specific changes would you like to see made to the above model or other models currently out there? Let me know in the comment-section below!
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