Updated Fri, Jan 02, 2009 by Shayalyn
The Role of the Community in MMOG Game Development
There are two things that define an MMOG: its game mechanics, and its community. The game mechanics are what cause me to initially choose one game over another. I'm looking forward to Vanguard because I would like to see the challenge put back into games. I want a game where tactics are important, I want tough penalties so my accomplishments mean something, I want choices, and Vanguard seems to promise this. Looking at the various games I've played, EQ remains one of the best--because it offers players more choices. Even today, with all of the "handholding," even with all the things that frustrate me, I still find EQ by far and away one of the best games out there. As a caster, the spells I have memorized can make or break an encounter (what do you mean I only have eight spell slots? I have pages and pages of spells!), and this, to me, is a large part of what makes it so fascinating.
All of this leads me to wonder a few things. As can be expected from my above commentary, I personally believe that a game is only as good as its community, a stance that I have been incredibly pleased to see Sigil taking, but how is such a community started? How does a playerbase as a whole take on the characteristics of a "good community"? I think that the playerbase of a game has as much responsibility for the success of a game as the dev team, but how much responsibility should be expected from a game's community? The playerbase is, after all, a collection of customers paying for entertainment. There is a sense of entitlement that is brought along with this--I'm paying for the game, I'm here to entertain myself, why should I care about the community and the game as a whole?
The simplest thing to look at, in an attempt to answer to what forms community, is the game's mechanics. Does it provide a means to assist a player in finding other like-minded players? A game, particularly a game that promises a lot of choices like Vanguard, requires a good LFG system, and places where people will cross paths. I need places where I can go if I am looking for a group, and places where the odds of my running across someone else while hunting are pretty high, particularly at the lower levels where I'm really starting to meet the people around me. In most games that I've played, I've met the people who end up being my usual groupmates within the first ten levels. Wherever people end up meeting, be it well-traveled crossroads, cities, or dungeons, a good game needs to subtly direct its players in such a way that they have the ability to find places to hunt without feeling too confined, and end up encountering other players now and again. A large world is an excellent thing, I like being able to get lost, to wander for hours without seeing another soul, but if the game is nothing but large tracts of empty land, it can become boring pretty quickly.
Class interdependency is one of the most vital pieces of the ways a game encourages social interactions. It's a difficult balance to strike, however; I want to be encouraged to look for other players, but I don't want to feel that I can't progress unless there's a specific class logged in and near me. That interdependency also must run in both directions--if one particular class is required above all others, then the game begins to feel rigid. It's for this reason that I have always objected to resurrections providing a return of some of the XP that was lost in death.
Healers are perhaps the most sought after class in an MMOG--many people believe that adventuring without a healer is impossible. When looking at simple health gain and loss, there is little difference between holds, stuns, and slows and healing--healing covers the loss of health after the fact, but stuns, holds and slows prevent that health from being lost in the first place. Good tactics can overcome the lack of heals; other classes can fill in with damage mitigation. If clerical resurrections are the only way to regain lost XP, however, there is no way to get around the lack of a cleric. No amount of the use of good tactics will return that lost XP.
Another problem is making a class depend upon others, but not providing reasons for it to be desired by other classes. To my mind, this is where City of Heroes often fails, for the various archetypes tend to get in each other's way, leaving some archetypes needing other people more than they themselves are needed.
When discussing community, however, I'm not merely discussing groups, but the level and quality of how people interact with each other throughout the game. Whether that interaction is taking place in groups, on the chat channels, when they meet hunting, in the streets of cities, or during trading, the level of respect that players give to one another is an important aspect of a game's health. Much as my initial interest in grouping with someone is determined by how they choose to approach me, new players, especially players new to MMOGs, will often judge a game by the conversations that happen around them. I've left servers because of the conversations on the OOC channels, so I can easily see how some of the conversations I've seen over the years that I've been playing MMOGs might drive away new players from MMOGs entirely. I'm often a fan of the line of reasoning that says if I don't like something, I don't have to look at it; however, I also believe that public behavior should reflect a respect for those around me, and do we really want to be convincing new players that MMOGs are hostile places?
I was advised a while ago by an old EQ player that when choosing a server, before settling in to the point where leaving becomes a question of investment, I should spend some time watching the OOC conversations, and perhaps ask a question to see how people respond. Some of the best advice I've received, but let's not forget that not all players are savvy enough to know that different servers have different environments. A player new to MMOGs might very likely just assume that there is little difference between the servers other than name, and when encountering a hostile community--simply leave the game, or MMOGs altogether.
Care is really what it comes down to. When I'm logging into an MMOG, I'm not merely logging into a game, I'm joining a community a community where, unlike day-to-day life, I can be assured of having something in common with everyone I meet; we're all interested in having a fun experience in the game we've chosen. Even if I'm soloing in an MMOG, it's not all about me. Soloing still means I'm logging in to experience the community, to take part in it. The very act of purchasing an MMOG over a single-player game says that the buyer is looking to join a community. Shouldn't we all then, as a part of a game's playerbase, take responsibility for making the game the best it can be? I'm looking forward to seeing the community that forms within Vanguard upon its release. I've enjoyed being a part of the communities that have sprung up around the official site and the fansites, and I'm eager to see the fruits of Sigil's attempts to influence the growth of Vanguard's community.