Communities & Online Games
by Shannon Appelcline
As game designers, most of us focus on a singular aspect of online games: the gameplay. How do the mechanics work, how will they keep players interested, and how will they scale to the various levels of players?
As an author, I often focus on a singular aspect of online games, the storytelling. How do we create meaningful characters, backgrounds, and plot, and how do we move those plots along without railroading our players?
However, neither of these aspects of online games are necessarily what keep our players coming back week after week, and thus this week I want to talk about a third, singular aspect of online games: community.
Pontifications on My Experience in Online Games
The first multiplayer online game that I ever played was an AberMUD, circa 1989. I'd logged on because I'd had good experiences with text adventure games, mostly Adventure: The Colossal Cave and this seemed like more of the same. However, what caught my attention when I started playing the game wasn't the fact that you could run around, collect claymores, gems, and other treasures, and dump them in a pit for experience points; rather, I met one of the "gods" on the game (Thor, The God of Thunder, if I recall correctly) and we talked for a while online.
Later, though it was the experience treadmills that took up much of my time, it was chatting with other players that actually kept me in the game. When I gained my own godhood the exciting bit wasn't necessarily that I could add my own title to my character name (Dinthiar, The Elven King), but rather that I could now easily talk with people all over the game.
I stayed with MUDs for a couple of years, playing for a while, but later building, and the community aspect was always an important focus--whether it was with the other players, with the administrators with whom I was building and running a game, or in the end with the fellow students at Berkeley with whom I was trying to build a totally new game system.
Community in Game Systems Today
Clearly we game designers do recognize to some extent that community remains an important reason (perhaps the reason) that people stay in our games for any length of time. After all, we put people all in the same world, and let them chat, socialize, and otherwise interact within that gameworld. However, I think that most games could probably make it a more important aspect of their gameplay.
Just to generate some further thought on the subject, here's five methods to increase community within an online game, in order of ascending difficulty, and also with some points on potential pitfalls.
Forums: The most ubiquitous method of expanding player community is also the simplest. You use vBulletin or your other favorite forum program, and let people create accounts and talk there to their heart's content. Most forums are out-of-character (OOC), though they could be in-character (IC) if desired.
Pitfalls. The greatest pitfall with forums has always been that they have the possibility of acquiring a level of toxicity that you don't find in the game itself. To be honest I don't entirely understand why this happens, but it does.
Perhaps it's the fact that players can usually talk OOC, and thus it's the only legitimate location to air grievances. Perhaps it's that they're in a different state of mind when they browse forums then when they play the games. If I had to guess, I suppose, I'd say it's a result of an overall Internet culture and the somewhat deplorable rudeness that it encourages because of our inability to understand that there are real people on the other side of our computer screens.
Other pitfalls with forums include: the need for a good set of moderators (to resolve the aforementioned toxicity, but also to deal with spammers and other troublemakers); and the fact that it usually is an innately OOC discussion area, which only expands the community encouraged by the game in a somewhat orthagonal manner (players talk together rather than characters do so).
Mail: Forums tend to have two benefits: they're point-to-multipoint (meaning you can communicate with a large portion of a community at once); and they're offline (meaning that other players don't have to be around when you are). The point-to-multipoint capability might be part of the problem of forums, however, because it means that one outspoken critic can create a firestorm.
Mail, conversely, allows a point-to-point communication method: one-person to one-or-a-few-people. It allows the same benefits of offline communication to keep a community together, however (and that's something that can be entirely critical in a worldwide network like the Internet). Like forums, mail can be OOC or IC; I've probably seen more that are IC, built straight into a game.
Pitfalls. Mail can never replace the instaneous communication that's at the heart of most online games, but as a second-class substitute, it isn't bad. Especially IC mail can do a lot to expand a community. The pitfalls are probably those that you'd find in almost in non-sychronous communication system: conversations can take a grossly long time; as a result you sometimes can't wait on a mail conversation completing; and you often can't be sure if a message has even been received.
Information Resources: My last out-of-game community expansion method is one that's made uniquely possible by the World Wide Web: web pages. Game administrators (or enthusiastic players) can create web pages that maintain lots of information about a game, ideally with ways for privileged users to easily update that information. Like forums, this method is point-to-multipoint, but unlike forums it keeps tight controls over what is transmitted, which dramatically improves signal-to-noise. (On the one hand an information resource could be a static web page and on the opposite extreme it could be a heavily moderated forum.)
For current games, we've built simple news systems into game portals, such as those found at Castle Marrach, The Eternal City, and Grendel's Revenge. The upcoming Lovecraft Country is going to be the first Skotos game with a slightly wider look at this sort of community building; its dynamic pages currently contain simple new items but will build out in the future to be more complete resources.
Pitfalls. The largest pitfall with this sort of information is maintaining staff to keep it up to date. At the moment, the three games I highlighted above haven't had any news entries in December. Players still will see new news when it comes up, because it's linked in on a couple of crucial portal pages, but that posting frequency won't be enough to keep drawing players back in, for the information itself, whereas forums or mails do, in and of themselves.
Guilds: Moving into gamespace properwe find a method of community building that's almost as widely spread as forums; guilds has long existed as a way to encourage players to communicate in-game, usually for some clear in-game reward. Strategy games like Space Federation make joining a guild almost a condition for victory, because of the added defense (and sometimes offense) that they provide, while RPGs such as Asheron's Call can make them very important through sped-up experience gain.
Pitfalls. The importance of guilds in a game can ultimately be their downfall. If a guild has been built with an important in-game effect, then that in-game effect can sometimes (perhaps often) be abused by players and something that started out as a tool to encourage community instead becomes a game design problem.
Another common problem with guilds is often their conservatism. If a guild is already powerful, it often doesn't have sufficient incentive to let in new players, creating sandboxing issues wherein new players don't really have methods by which they can achieve advancement in the game. (See also The Mummer's Dance #19, It's a Small World.)
Dynamic Player Connections: Something I've seen developed less often in online games is the idea of dynamic player connections. Think of it like a big online database. A character has something that he wants to do in-game--buy a rare item, get a guide to a rare location, find a really good seamstress, etc--and the game suggests an appropriate character for him to meet.
City of Heroes, often at the cusp of innovation in the last year, has a system of "sidekicks" which does this sort of thing (at least, it does the matching; I'm not sure if it provides any search help, which is much of the crux of this sort of community development). A less-trained hero can sign up to be your sidekick, and he gets a little more powerful when he's around you, while you have the benefit of a relatively component friend to help you out.
Pitfalls. The real trick here is to help a player make a permanent connection (which is to say, form a community) rather than a temporal one. This can possibly be overcome by matching up not just appropriate skill sets, but also appropriate play levels and online times; I'm not aware of any games which currently does this to this extent.
As if often the case, I'm not really trying to draw conclusions here, just to open up the topic for thought & discussion. Community should be one of the (many) important elements that you're considering when you're developing your game. How will your encourage and build it? As has been discussed here, there's a number of possible methods, some in-game, some out-of-game; there's doubtless many others not discussed here as well.