Populating Ghostville Part 3: The Long Haul
by Heather Logas
You’ve gotten the word out, players have started to trickle in and your game is starting to be populated by players who are “hooked”. Now the trick is to keep them around long enough so that the game starts developing a long-standing player base which will in turn help to hook new players.
Once your game is released and people are playing it, being a game dev is no longer enough. Now in order for your game to thrive, you need to become a community manager as well. You need to foster your community of gamers, keep an eye on problem players, and encourage the sort of behavior you want to see in (and around) your game. If you are not interested in the community management part of the job and prefer to sequester yourself building stuff, then you had better recruit some folks you trust to look after things on your behalf. Your game simply will not survive without someone who is paying attention to community matters.
More eloquent and studied writers than I have devoted whole books to topics of online community, but I will give you my own perspective as a LARPer who watched a long-term LARP from its beginnings to its near demise, through many phases of membership peaks and droughts.
As with all communities, virtual or not, the “feel” of your game’s society begins with the community leader. If you plan on acting like a snobby jerk to your players from day one, you are either going to chase people away or else wind up with a game full of snobby jerks. People have to be able to feel comfortable and feel like they’re welcome. You also will want to attract people who are good socializers, full of pep and energy and good-naturedness who can help you keep an eye on the community. If you are positive and excited about your game, and are involved in the community, then you will attract players who will also be positive influences on your game. You’ll attract idiots too, but if there is a strong sense of community the players themselves will help enforce codes of etiquette on these (hopefully) few and eventually either convert them or else drive them off.
It will help you a great deal to set up a code of conduct that you can have players agree to when they join the game. The code of conduct can outline the way you expect players to behave and serve as a great reference if anyone chooses to misbehave, both for yourself and your players. When creating one, think about the other games you’ve played. Consider what made the games you found the most enjoyable. Most likely the people involved will have been a huge part of that. How did they act that helped keep the game fun? Consider also your worst interpersonal experiences in online games. Is there a way to generalize the behaviors that made those moments unpleasant?
Along with these expectations, outline the consequences for breaking etiquette. Think of what would be fair. Having this in writing before hand will help immensely when someone decides to act like a lunatic and destroy all the hard work you’ve put in to fostering your community.
As an online game developer, you do have several advantages over a LARP ST. For one thing, you can place information in spots where all your players can (and even must) see it. This can be very helpful in setting standards of etiquette and the overall tone of OOC interaction in the game. If the first thing a player sees every time they log on is a note from the dev/ST that is something that sets the tone for their evening, they will be able to get into the game right away and remember some of the basic rules. It doesn’t have to be any sort of sanitized list of “dos” and “don’ts”. Just something game related in a nice tone that makes people feel good to be logging in. Remind them every time they show up why it is they DO show up.
Monitoring your Game’s Health
Your most important job as a storyteller/MUD dev, beyond implementing new features or week to week upkeep is to keep tabs on the health of your game. This can be tricky work and requires you to keep your eyes and ears wide open. If storytellers of my LARP had been more aware of their surroundings, they would have seen the signs of the game going downhill. Don’t rely on the opinions of a few players you trust. They may have completely skewed view-points on how things are going. Ask for their opinions, sure, but don’t take them as your sole barometer of the game’s health.
Watch the people during the game. Is everyone engaged? Do some players look bored out of their minds, or not sure what they should be doing? Is there a cluster of folks off to the side talking about OOC matters for several hours?
Pay attention to in-game communications. (We used several email lists for different in-game and out of game purposes). Is whatever forum/email list/in game mail/etc. active? Are people discussing things IC? Are there signs of any OOC nastiness creeping in?
And very telling, but perhaps harder for the online ST, what is going on outside of game? We used to gather after every game at a local bar for a wind-down and drinks. In retrospect, I could have monitored the game’s health solely on how these wind-down sessions went.
When the game was healthy and thriving, most everyone (who didn’t have to get up in the morning) would come up for at least one drink or a half-hour of socializing. Every week people would sit wherever there was room to sit, conversing happily with whoever happened to be at their tables. People going to the bar for drinks might take up to half an hour to return to their seats, because they were busy socializing on their way there and back. If someone’s character died that night, people would offer to buy them drinks to cheer them up.
On the other hand, when the game was shriveling in upon itself, the bar was another scene altogether. Not nearly as many people stuck around after game. Players would cluster in firmly defined cliques, and new people would often find themselves on the outside looking in. And if someone’s character died that night, you’d better believe they tore off in a huff instead of chumming it up afterwards.
As an ST of a digital game, it probably won’t be possible to watch how people interact at the bar. But you can take advantage of other methods. Set up a bulletin board that you can keep an eye on, for example. You can have in-character sections (that represent actual in-game communication methods) and out of character sections as well. Put one whole section dedicated to communicating with the STs/Devs and pay attention to what people have to say, then skim the rest of the boards to make sure it isn’t just the opinion of a few. The more time you can spare to communicate with your player base, the more community-oriented everyone will feel, which will have noticeable benefits for the health of the game.
Dealing with problem players
Sooner or later, someone is going to start causing problems in your game. Combine online anonymity with an open invitation for anyone who wants to play to drop by and it is a sure thing. So try to decide up front how you are going to deal with it, before it happens. This is where having things in writing will really help. If a player has agreed to the code of conduct before hand and then breaks it, they should expect the consequences that were set forth, and your other players will have to back you up.
It may help to have, before the fact, your definition of what a “problem” player would be. My definition would be “anyone who is imposing on someone else’s good time.” This could range from harassment, to griefing, to even just being such a pill that no one wants to play for fear they will run into the person online.
One of my “favorites” is the “But I’m just playing my character!” griefer. This is the person who will act like an ass IC and defend whatever actions they are taking by declaring that it is just what their character would do. While having an antagonist in the game can add drama and tension, having a psychopathic murderer who consistently picks on smaller characters and chases the players of those smaller characters away from the game only adds frustration and annoyance. In our vampire LARP I played a character who worshipped death and had no problems inflicting it on others. I “broke” character on countless occasions to let some newbie vampire live when my character knew she shouldn’t have. I did this because -- let’s face it -- it sucks to have your character killed on your first night of game. The new player won’t understand and appreciate the depth of my character’s motivations. All they’re going to know is that they spent a long time thinking up this nifty character concept that they were stoked to play and now it has been ripped out of their hands.
Remember, and remind your players when necessary, that this is supposed to be a FUN activity. If people are taking the game too seriously OOC, do what you can to help them chill out. If people are hoarding all the fun for themselves, remind them that this game is supposed to be fun for everyone, not just them. It may be possible with some players to “pull them aside” and talk to them before you have to enact whatever consequences you have previously outlined. Someone may be a jerk without realizing it, or may have interpreted the code of conduct differently then you had intended. If you can talk to these people and get them to understand how they are negatively impacting the game, it is possible they may try to change their ways. But do yourself a favor and don’t give them too long a leash. If you talk to them and only get attitude and stubbornness back, or they continue to act in a misanthropic way, dragging things on will only hurt your community and your game.
Dealing with Power Cliques
It’s bound to happen. A group of players has been around awhile, and has formed their own little “clique”. This isn’t necessarily problematic, but can become so if the cliques transfer to in-character interactions and are stagnating the game, effectively creating a power ceiling that newer players can’t break through.
A clique of players who want to keep all the fun for themselves can completely destroy a game if nothing is done about it. This one I do know from personal experience. But what are they doing wrong? They aren’t harassing anyone, all they are doing is conspiring both IC and OOC to keep all the “goodies” to themselves. The result? They spend all game only talking amongst themselves and freely acting dictatorial towards all other characters without any chance for reprieve. The players not in the power block can’t find any way in, and since all the “cool stuff” is reserved for the “cool kids” the outcasts either spend all night playing card games in character to amuse themselves, or else they start drifting away. And drifting and drifting. Until one day the clique looks up and finds there’s no one left to lord their power over. And that’s game over, dude.
So how do you fight this? It is unlikely that the clique is doing anything against your code of conduct. You have to find ways to break up the power block. Creative storytelling techniques might be called for. While I personally prefer a mostly “hands off” approach to storytelling, occasionally drastic measures are called for. Cut these guys zero slack. They want to sell their soul to a demon for more power? Great, let them. And then make that demon make their lives living hell. Make the game hard for them, because the harder it is, the less time they have to push the little guys around and maybe there’s a chance some of those little guys will be organized enough to make a power play while the big boys are distracted.
If all else fails, appeal to the players themselves. Explain the situation. Explain to them what I call the “Angelina Maxim”: the responsibility of players of powerful characters in a role-playing game is to add to the enjoyment of the other players. If they really refuse to buy this and the game continues to stagnate and lose players because of them, you may very well have to take even more drastic measures. If you get to this point, these guys are going to be very angry. Other players may also be confused and angry at why these players suffered (whatever) consequence when they weren’t obviously “doing anything wrong”. You are just going to have to suck up the criticism and get on with the game. Your game has a much better chance of recovering and becoming fun again without these people than with them.
If I had one rule I could enforce to all players and STs everywhere, of any kind of role-playing game whether it be digital or otherwise, it would be this: “Don’t be a dork.”
Thinking about it though, this would also be the one rule I wish I could enforce on all people everywhere.
You have limited control over who comes to your game. Your number one goal as an ST/Dev/Wizard/what have you is to provide a fun playing experience for your players. This goes beyond mere planning and coding. We create virtual worlds to provide a unique escape from everyday society. On this new frontier we have the opportunity to create a new kind of space where people can come and feel welcome and respected. If you can succeed in doing this not only will you be rewarded with warm fuzzy feelings, but you will have the possibility for a wickedly fun game.