Series Info...#12: The Fourth Block

by Travis S. Casey
July 13, 2001

So, where was I before villain's week interrupted me? Oh, right...

In recent columns, I talked about what I called the building blocks of RPGs: scenario, setting, and system. But there's a fourth element that a successful RPG needs – one that you can't design and build, but which any game will fail without: community. A game with no players is one of the saddest things of all – and it's even worse when the game is a good game.

Communities are made up of people, of course – so before you can build a community, you need to get people into your game. To do that, you need to get the word out about the game. To advertise, in other words. How and where to advertise depends on what kind of game you have... and on how much money you have to advertise it. One thing you might want to consider, though, is advertising in media other than those aimed at gamers.

Hardcore gamers will read gaming magazines and the like, but there aren't a whole lot of them, and they already have other games they're interested in. By advertising in places other than gaming magazines, gaming websites, etc., you can start to make your game known outside the hardcore gamers.

Where should you advertise? Well, that depends on your game. If your game is a mystery, advertise in magazines and on web sites aimed at mystery fans. Similarly for other genres.

Ok. Let's assume you've been able to get some players – now what do you do? Well, a bunch of people sitting around isn't a community. You need to get them to talk to each other; more than that, you need to get them to start connecting to each other, and to your game. To do this, there are several things you should do:

1. Give them things to share. That is, things within the game. People love to share 'secrets', and to be in on them. More than that, shared experiences, and especially shared hardships, create a sense of community. Military organizations use this in their basic training programs – everyone has gone through it, so it becomes a shared experience, something that they all have in common. Anyone who's ever been in the military can (and most will, if you ask them) tell you plenty of stories about boot camp and the things that went on there.

You don't have to put your players through a boot camp, though. Even simple, incidental things like quests that many people go through and organizations that the characters (or the players!) can join become points of shared reference. Even things like points in the game's history become shared things among many players.

2. Make sure there are places for players to meet and mingle. In the physical world, designers of planned communities, downtown renovations, and such often plan natural gathering places into them – outdoor squares, food courts, and the like. The basic requirement is that you need to have an area where people will naturally come, and then give them places to sit down, talk, wait around, chat, and do other such activities.

Such spots become places to meet up with friends, to catch up on the latest gossip, and just to hang out. In online games which have a single entry point for everyone who logs in, that spot or a point near it often become gathering places, because everyone has to come through there. Places where people have to wait for something also often become gathering places – for example, the smithies in UO.

It doesn't take a lot of effort to think about what places in your game are likely to naturally become gathering places, and then subtly encourage it. As people get to interact with each other, the sense of community will grow.

3. Help people stay in touch. Many players clamor for things like a mail system within online RPGs. Why not just give out their real email addresses to others? Well, some people want to keep their "fantasy lives" in games and their real lives separate. But from a game administrator's point of view, there's another important difference – people have to use the game to use in-game mail. This often requires them to log in, and even if it doesn't require that, it still makes the game become a way for staying in touch with their online friends... which builds that sense of the game being a community that they belong to. Even something like a regular mailing list, outside the game, can help.

4. Help not just characters, but players establish a community. Some online games have web sites or in-game boards where players can put up pictures of themselves, info about themselves, stories they've written, poetry, and other such things. All of this is incidental to the game itself, but it helps to create the sense of community.

5. Recognize the community. Give the players things to do as a community. Some of the things above qualify – for example, the web sites and board described in the previous item. But you can also do things like organize get-togethers for the community, use community leaders as "liaisons" to the rest of the community, let the community discuss proposed changes to the game, and so on. You do have to be careful in doing this sort of thing, though – if a change or a leader is too controversial, you run a risk of fracturing the community.

6. Rivalry can be a way to build a community as well – people may come back to your game because they want to "go another round" with someone.

For example...

On SWmud (, we had (or "have", I should say, though I'm not very active there any more) "Imperial" and "Rebel" teams that characters could join – using #1. There were also guilds, and you could be in the Navy (allowing you to participate in player-vs-player space combat) or the Army (allowing you to participate in player-vs-player ground combat). Characters could become jedi, and there were quests involved in that, and once you were a jedi, you could be light side, dark side, or neutral. (The neutral jedi were often the tightest community, simply because there were few of them, and neither of the other two groups really liked them.)

There was no planning of places for people to meet, but the game entrance and, to a lesser extent, the docks on the different planets became meeting areas. There were some attempts to establish cantinas, but those failed, since none of them were in a place where characters naturally had to go.

SWmud had in-game mail and bulletin boards from the start, and had mailing lists at several points. Most especially, there was a period of about six months when the game was down, during which a mailing list was the only thing that really existed to help hold the community together. That transition in itself became a shread point of experience for the community, and those who stayed felt like they'd helped keep the game alive – which they had. It was enormously encouraging to us to know that we had players out there who wanted us to bring the game back.

The fourth point we didn't do ourselves, but our players did. It didn't take long for people to start having get-togethers, and after a few years, someone established a web site for people to post their pictures on. When the game's "official" web site was created, we made sure to link to it.

Many of these things your players will do on their own – if your game lasts, it will naturally form a community. What I'm getting at, though, is that you can encourage that growth of a community, and that the growth of a community can be a good thing for a game.

And I'd like to note that this doesn't just apply to online games – "paper" gamers form a community as well, and have their own community-building experiences. Even for a paper game, such things as establishing a mailing list, having a party at a convention, or circulating a newsletter can help build a community of players, and contribute to the survival of your game.

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