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Tearing Down Barriers: How to Bring MMO Players Together

February 15, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

What makes MMOs special? Other players. Lots of other players. Whole communities of other players. While I may semi-seriously joke about other players being the biggest problem in MMOs, they're also the genre's greatest asset -- some might say even say their only redeeming feature. Why pay a monthly fee to play the same game, experience the same content, over and over, week after week? Because you're doing it with other real people.

I've long held that the most important feature in any MMO is to build a strong player community. It doesn't matter how shiny or content-filled your game is: if it lacks in community, players will leave. Community makes or breaks an MMO: games that have leapt off the starting block full of praise and high review scores fell flat on their faces when they failed to build strong player communities, and games so bland they ought never have been made in the first place are still running today thanks to player involvement.

More and more companies are recognizing the importance of community management. They hire community managers to lurk on official forums all day and interact with players; they build in-game systems to help players interact more easily and more meaningfully; they design content that drives players together rather than apart.

But not every company is on board with the new way of doing things, and time and time again I see games fall apart because "marketing" or "balance" decisions have driven players apart.

A Contemporary Cautionary Tale

One such bombshell was lobbed out of Square Enix's office last Thursday (Feb 9, 2012). Final Fantasy XIV, its MMORPG sequel to the successful Final Fantasy XI, has struggled since launch with poor design choices and lack of content that upset many players. Nevertheless, the game kept running on indefinite free trial and retained a strong community of hopefuls (about 12,000 simultaneous logins just before subscriptions started in December of last year).

Based on this, Square Enix appointed a new producer, and swore it would turn things around. Then it started charging a monthly fee, despite the fact that the announced re-launch was more than a year away. Granted, that turned away the less dedicated fans, but it didn't completely tear the community apart, as the Final Fantasy faithful paid up and kept playing, hoping their unsubscribed friends would one day return.

(Caveat: This graph of player population numbers is based on player-generated estimates. Orange is pre-subs, red is post-subs. However, unless Square Enix wants to provide data showing the contrary, I assume these numbers are pretty accurate.)

In other words, despite the problems with the game, the strong game community kept things going, and Square Enix's response has largely been "We'll get it working for you; stick with us until then."

This makes the company's most recent announcement all the more confusing. Square Enix announced server mergers for FFXIV, but not the normal "two into one" procedure most gamers are familiar with. Instead, its original plan called for the elimination of all the previous servers, forcing all players pick one of 10 new servers to move to. Well, not all players. Only active subscribers get to pick where they go. The rest will be relocated randomly.

In other words, Square Enix was looking to completely shake up the remaining population and, in the process, isolate any lapsed players from their prior in-game friends. They were also going to delete every Linkshell (guild) and wipe every friends list (and blacklist) clean.

Current subscribers were being told their non-paying friends are being taken away from them. Current non-subscribers were being told they were barred from sticking with their friends. Both groups are upset, and rightly so, because playing with friends is what makes MMOs so special.

Thankfully, the lead producer for Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki Yoshida, rapidly backtracked on the original announcement. The original official announcement was taken down, though it can still be read in its entirety here. The issue is still ongoing, and will doubtlessly develop further, but the recent event is a prime example of what I want to discuss in this article:

If you're going to get people paying for your massively multiplayer online game, you have to LET them play together.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Matt Robb
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I disagree with the idea that the level capped "free trial" doesn't work, it's just that it doesn't work to solve the particular problem you're describing here. I played virtually every western MMO that was released until the last year or two, but anymore they often don't add enough to the genre to justify shelling out *any* money to try them out.

If your game doesn't have a way to try it out for free, I just won't bother.

If your game is free to play but every time I try to do anything remotely interesting it asks me for money, it will annoy me and I'll drop it.

If your game will let me play but I'm at some severe disadvantage compared to people who pay, I'll drop it.

If your game lets me play just like everyone else, but I have to pay to unlock chunks of content, that's fine...but if you're going to charge $10-$15 bucks for each piece of content, it better be worthwhile, otherwise it'll feel overpriced and I'll drop it.

The key to getting the conversions is for the grass to really be greener on the other side. Of course, the grass has to be at least somewhat green on the free side. Like any sample, it's about showing you what it would be like to have the full product.

Jonathon Walsh
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I think the problem with this article is that, while most of what it says is somewhat true, it's striking at a branch of the problem rather than the root.

The root problem, in my opinion, is that MMOs have moved away from creating adhoc communities and friendships and towards isolation and insulated relationships only (you, your friends, your guild).

Older MMOs, while incredibly flawed, did not have this same problem. A game like DAOC, for example, brought players together under the common goal of strengthening the realm for Realm vs Realm combat. Everquest and other games forced party leveling from an early level so players needed to mix with the server population and maintain a good reputation from very early on (good contacts and reputation made it easier to find groups and level).

Modern MMOs, while they have better systems and leveling curves overall, are little more than a single player or co-op (Diablo-like) game until maximum level. Even at max level the game isolates players into their guild with little reason to think about other guilds at all. PUG is no longer a term reserved for a style of grouping, but rather it's used as a title for specific people ("This PUG in my group was so bad...") which effectively shows the amount of de-humanization that these games promote for people outside of the player's pre-existing social circle.

While changing or joining a guild represents a a change in the player's social circle, this activity seems to often be done outside of the game, or fueled in part of a player's existing relationships. You join guilds your pre-existing friends are in or guilds that have a former guild member in them. Besides, generally you either switch guilds infrequently, or you don't make a large # of meaningful relationships within a guild on account of switching around. The important thing about it too is that the dedicated players are the ones who have the greatest potential to form social cohesion. Be it someone who unites a large part of a player base, a renown PvPer, or someone who plays tons of practical jokes, it doesn't matter. However, in modern MMO design these dedicated and hardcore players are precisely the ones that become the most isolated in the game. They are now the ones who spend all their time with their highly skilled guild or in an instanced battle ground against players that might not even be on the same server. They have 0 incentive to form any sort of external relationship with other people on their server outside of those in their guild that they need.

Anyways, the point being that the real root cause of this issue is the arbitrary and inane situation most modern MMOs have where you play one game from 1-MAX_LEVEL that's barely even multiplayer then play another game that's either centered around a guild-like structure or in an automated structure that is setup to de-humanize everyone you interact with by turning them all into "PUGS". The more you divide the world up into instances, 'raids', 'battle grounds' and daily quests the more narrow focused the social draw of your game will be.

I know that personally I meet and form relationships with people way more often in games like DotA than I do in modern MMOs. The # of people outside of my guild that I remember from my 3 years playing WoW is far outdone by the scores of people I remember from old style MMOs that force more interaction. I might still remember the name of a jerk in Everquest from 1999 (Mishra, damn him), the leader of an allied guild from Lineage 2 prelude (Beliar, he was a great leader), or a good minstrel on an enemy realm even though I only saw his name when he killed someone (Choco, I was always jealous of his skill). Yet I can't even name a single guild on my server from WoW besides the one I was in.

Matt Robb
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Well put. EverQuest especially caused (forced?) the social aspect, though based on where things have gone it may have been largely by accident.

They've made everything soloable because people had trouble finding groups in EQ. Side effect - Little to no social interaction needed for early (leveling) gameplay.

They've made everything group-oriented instanced because people sometimes (often?) had trouble getting to content due to others already doing it. Side effect - The conflict over content actually caused social interaction and allowed one to establish reputation amongst peers based on how you behaved in the conflict. In the upper end, the raid content lasted years rather than months because you needed gear from the earlier content to be able to compete with raids doing later content. The competition itself caused additional social interaction, alliances and cold wars between guilds. Good times.

Simon Ludgate
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I don't agree that guilds isolate in the way you describe. I think there is a limit to the number of meaningful relationships people can maintain, and when all those with which one builds relationships are members of the same guild, that is not necessarily a bad thing. I, too, can't really remember many people outside my guild from the days I played WoW. But I also can't remember the people outside my guild from DAoC either, or my Kinship in LOTRO, or my Monarchy in AC. In each of these cases, the number of people in the social group I was a part of exceeded the number of people I could maintain relationships with (my comfort zone is around 12 to 18, so in a guild of 30 or so I only really get to know half the people).

I think most people have some kind of "comfort zone" too. If they don't know enough people in their zone, they try to establish more friendships. Once their zone fills up, they're much less likely to make a new friendship, and then probably only by abandoning an existing one first.

Raid mechanics have generally forced guilds from relatively small groups that don't completely fill a person's comfort zone to relatively large groups that exceed most comfort zones. As a result, most players in raid guilds don't completely get to know everyone in their own guild, let alone establish numerous relationships with outsiders.

So modern guilds give people more friends than they can handle. No wonder, then, they don't seek out more friends outside the guild.

If the social building block for the modern MMORPG is the guild, then it should be fairly obvious that the goal of every MMO designer should be to get players into a guild that they like and build strong relationships within. Many games provide incentives to join guilds, like guild halls, perks, shared banks, and so forth. But, ultimately, they rely on other players to create and lead them.

As far as "dehumanizing" behavior, I think that's inevitable when the number of players you interact with goes beyond a certain limit. After about 20-30 people, I can't help but dehumanize. When I was raiding 40-man WoW raids, there were at least 10 people there who were just "mages" or "priests" or whatever, just names filling in slots. At some point, my brain simply couldn't operate all the people-recognition-skills. The same thing happened in Planetside: when I was leading a group of platoons, was I really thinking about all 60 or 80 or 100 people? Or was I just interested in the key squad leaders and letting them humanize the rest of their groups?

I don't think it's necessary - or even plausible - for everyone to humanize everyone else. The important thing is for everyone to have an opportunity to feel like they belong. You point out the problem with arbitrary limits due to levels, just as I did in my article. So long as level limits segregate players, they won't be able to attain that belonging that will bind them to the game. In particular, level-limited trials prevent players from overcoming the level-based segregation, which means they can NEVER find the belonging. This is just made worse by the indefinite length of the trial.

I think time-limited trials are the best way to give people a taste of the game (like Matt Robb asks for) without leaving players mired in a murky no-man's-land of isolation. No, they probably haven't made a meaningful lasting friend in those 7 days, but they also haven't been disabused of the notion of ever actually making one either.

John Corey
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And Everquest's way of going free is probably the worst. You can only play 4 classes of 4 races, can't have many quests,items, money, etc without paying and paying. If like to revisit my old EQ characters next month, but it sounds like it will be more pain than I want to deal with.

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Jeremie Sinic
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Interesting piece, thanks, even (or especially) for a non-MMO player like me.

Jeremy Reaban
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My experience in MMORPGs is that the "community" is largely a myth. You basically have people segregated into guilds, rarely interacting with anyone outside of them. And even within guilds, you have cliques.

I also think that you are overlooking why people play MMORPGs - it's not about the community, it's the game itself. Very few PC RPGs exist outside of MMORPGs, and most only last 30-40 hours of playing. It's no longer the glory days of RPGs, when you'd have a Ultima, Might & Magic, Wizardry, etc published every year or so.

I would argue that the single worst thing MMORPGs do is try to force players together. What they should be doing is catering to solo players, who I feel are the silent majority. Instead, they get bullied and harassed and treated like second class citizens, by the more vocal members of the community, as well as the game design itself - being excluded from many quests (very infuriating are quest chains that are mostly solo, but the finale requires a group), not getting decent gear (raiders always get the best), in some cases like City of Heroes, not even able to gain levels past a certain point (the Incarnate levels).

Instead, solo players should be given a path to everything groupers get, and on an equal basis. And things like dungeon finders and such should have several raids/instances designed for PUGs - that is, ones that can be completed successfully by a random group of strangers that likely won't talk to much to each other or have any idea what stuff they should do.

Designers need to realize and accept that not everyone is a social butterfly - indeed, that's a big reason these people are spending time on a computer, as opposed to doing something out in the real world. Trying to force people together is just going to make those people unhappy.

There should also be events where players can work together as an informal team, or just show up for fun. GM run events are great for this sort of thing, but strangely, it seems like only the very small MMORPGs can have live events, the big games have too many servers (and of course, the lag when all the server gathers in one spot can be awful if there's more than a few hundred players)

El Winchestro
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I totaly agree with you. Even though I still think there is much more in "community" then just people who are forced to play together. In my opinion the far more important part are great figures with many supporters and even more fans and followers. They contribute so much to the mmorpg culture. I'm still waiting for the first mmorpg that will realize the importance of this great personalitys and start implementing them more into the gameplay, maybe by giving them special roles depending on their fame.

Paul Lenoue
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One suggestion I could make for increased player interaction is to make the MMO run on Macs. Cross-platform MMOs report that Mac players make up 30% to 40% of their player base _and_ 50% to 60% of the active community. Despite this we see most MMOs come out windows only, then listen to them complain about how hard it is to get enough people to make game popular instead of a ghost town.

You make the suggestion that they goc ross-platform and they recite old and inaccurate cliches, such as Macs only make up 3% of the computer market, that people who own Macs don't play games, that Macs "lost" the computer wars, and so on. You try to point out that the majority of Windows computers are owned by businesses so that 3% is very misleading, or the reasons Mac users don't play as many games is because game companies don't _make_ as many Mac games, or that Macs sales have been increasing for the past few years while Windows computers have been declining, but they ignore you, delete your forum posts and continue whining about lack of critical crowd growth.

As far as I can see, if you don't include Macs in your MMO you're effectively eliminating half of your potential community.

Chris Proctor
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Guild Wars does this right: low level cap plus free to play.

If it only takes 20 hours or so to get to level 20 (the level cap), and after that you're collecting new skills and increasing the breadth of your character, you can totally play with your newer friends.

David Lindsay
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This article was extremely helpful, and well written. It is really going to help me put the polish on the MMO I am currently working on. :-)