Guilds are a subject I am quite interested in analyzing from a political and sociological perspective, especially in terms of the things designers think about when it comes to designing guild systems.
t seems to me there are two ways to think of the guild's place in an MMO, and by "guild," I mean player made and run organizations (as opposed to factions, which are developer made and self-running organizations). I think it's important to note though that just because the organizations are player owned and operated doesn't imply that guilds create greater accessability for players. In fact, I tend to think player made organizations can create accessability challenges for the line subscriber.
One philosophy is that the game should center around guild membership, and pursuing guild goals. Guilds get exclusive content written in the game specifically for them, and only players that are members of guilds get to access the content. This is what I call the "strong guild" system. Examples of "strong guild" systems are CoH, EQ2, and EVE. In CoH/CoV, base building and crafting is limited to supergroups only. EQ2 has writs, status systems, and exclusive content available to guilds only. In EVE, player made organizations can own in a quite real sense large chunks of territory. In a strong guild system, in order to get access to the content, a player needs to join a guild.
Another philosophy is that the game should center around the player, and not the player's guild. There is nothing that guilded players get in terms of content that isn't available to non-guilded players, except maybe a mutual guild war system, maybe a community structure, and some communications tools (guildchat). This is what I call the "weak guild" system. Examples of weak guild systems are Star Wars Galaxies, and Ultima Online. Now I don't mean to imply that the guilds in weak guild systems can't be important to the player's experience, and to the game atmosphere. What I mean by a "weak guild" system is that they don't get exclusive content that is unavailable to the non-guilded player.
Now my thoughts on "strong guild" versus "weak guild" systems is that in the strong guild system, guild recruitment and membership cannot help but be critical to a player's game. You are either in a guild, or you are not getting the full enjoyment out of the game. It makes guild membership and recruitment a serious affair, and in a certain respect, a player's game is to a large extent in the hands of the guild bosses in a quite real sense. My thoughts are that it creates strong bonds within the guild, but weak bonds with those outside of the guild. In a sense, the player's community is not the server at large, but the guild.
In a weak guild system, guild recruitment and membership is more of a matter of choice, rather than necessity. One can enjoy the game in the fullest sense with or without guild membership, and so the guilds tend to play more of a supporting role, rather than a central one (a convenient place to find group members, or get supplies). Guild membership and recruitment is rather casual, and in a certain respect, guild bosses are nothing more than "clerks," not power brokers. I'm thinking from my experience in weak guild systems, the players have a more loose relationship within the guild when compared to the strong guild games, but a greater network of relationships with those outside of the guild. In a sense, the player's community in the weak guild system is not so much centered around the guild hall, but with the server as a whole, or with the factions.
Now I've come up with four basic "rules of thumb" when it comes to the relationship between guild quantity, and player accessability.
1) The larger the guilds become, the fewer guilds there will be.
2) The fewer guilds there are, the fewer choices players will have.
3) The fewer choices players have, the more the guilds can afford to be selective.
4) The more selective guilds can afford to be, the more players will not be selected by any guild.
It seems to me that in a situation where there are a small number of large guilds, the ability of the guild to provide for all of a player's needs are greater. However, it also seems to me that when the guilds are larger, the number of guilds cannot help to be fewer, which imples fewer choices for individuals, and less competition between guilds for members. If there are only six guilds on a server, the chances of finding one that will accept a player are less than if there were six hundred guilds.
Therein lies the accessability problem with guilds, and the more developers rely upon guilds to do important game functions, the more accessability problems arise. I think its because of a lot of bad assumptions on the part of developers about the relationship between guilds, community, and accessability. Four bad assumptions come to mind:
1) There is an assumption out there that "a strong guild system makes a strong community." In other words, without guilds, there will be no interaction and cooperation between the players in the game.
I think that the stronger role a guild plays in a player's experience, the stronger their guild community will be; and the weaker their ties to players outside the guild will be. So instead of having a strong community atmosphere, what you end up having is a bunch of strong communities in an antisocial atmosphere.
2) There is also an assumption out there that MMOs need to stress gaming with people, and guilds facilitate this. In other words, you can't have an MMO without having guilds in the game, and even if there were no guilds, people would form groups that resemble guilds on an informal basis.
I think that people will spontaneously find friends, enemies, and find a home on the server without the guilds telling the player who their friends an enemies are. In fact, I personally believe that guilds stifle game relations between players, and moreover, make people who aren't even playing the game part of the player's game. You could be on Ventrillo with a guild member playing EVE, while you are playing City of Heroes. You can get kicked out of a guild in City of Heroes for saying something that doesn't go over well with a person who never played City of Heroes, but plays EVE as part of the guild in EVE. Likewise, you could choose to ignore all the players in City of Heroes who use TeamSpeak, or who don't use voice chat at all, because you and your guild rely on Ventrillo exclusively.
3) There is also an assumption that all players in an MMO are already in guilds, so by adding "guild only" content, nobody is excluded.
If everyone is running around in a guild, it could mean one of two things. Either the guilds aren't that important to enjoying the game, and therefore, they are open to all; or the guilds are crucial to a player's success, and therefore, only the ones who are able to get into guilds are playing. It seems to me that the addition of content given exclusively to guilds creates the latter circumstance, far more than the former. If guilds become crucial because of content, then getting into a guild that can facilitate the content now becomes more of a game requirement.
4) Facilitating a strong guild system gives guilds an incentive to recruit, so if one guild denies a player, another one will.
This is perhaps the most dangerous, and the most widespread assumption. Guilds have their own criteria which determines who they recruit, and who they do not. Nor is a guild going to take in people they do not want to take in, merely because the game encourages them to do so. If major chunks of the game rely on other players admitting you into a guild, then those major chunks of the game are outside the control of the subscriber, and the provider who gets paid by the subscriber. I think the safest assumption to make is that if content is determined on the basis of belonging to a guild, then there will be people who will not, and may never participate in the content, because they are not in a guild, and never will be.
You see, when you have a guild system, you give players the power to include and exclude others based on preferences that are ultimately beyond the ability of the developer to influence. The only thing developers can influence is what being part of a guild entitles you to get, from a content standpoint. If it means an enhanced game with special content, then developers cannot ever guarantee that their subscribers will ever experience the content.
Somewhere along the line, the MMO devs just thought guilds are essential. Probably because guild members keep forcing the issue in every game they want to play. Many MMO devs today have come up through the guild system, and many of them have members in customer service, as GMs, and as media people from sites like this one.
Seeing as how games these days are smaller, and more niche, they oftentimes need to get support from the guilds to hype, or even fund, the game. The relationship between the guilds and the games have become so strong, it is hard to even know where one ends, and another begins.
From my perspective, subscribers pay the provider. Subscribers are invited by the provider. Providers actually have a real vested interest in the satisfaction of all their subscribers, whether they have tags, or not.
Guilds and clans though are unwilling and unable to be responsible for the welfare of all subscribers. They are for their own interests, which may conflict with the interests of other subscribers, and by extention, the MMO provider. The subscribers as a whole do not pay them, nor are guilds held to the same legal and professional standards as an MMO provider to provide an enjoyable entertainment service.
Not that any MMO has even tried to design a game without a player guild system. It is one of those things that got implemented in UO, and really hasn't ever been dropped, or reconsidered. Frankly, if a game revolves around the guildhall, then the providers cannot guarantee an enjoyable experience to every subscriber, as it may very well be the case that not every subscriber will be welcome in a guild that has the ability to facilitate the fun.
So then, if a subscriber cannot or will not find a guild, then the provider will lose the subscriber for reasons wholly unrelated to what the provider is able to correct. It costs a guild nothing to reject a subscriber. It costs the provider revenue if guild recruitment is interfering with a subscriber's enjoyment.
If 60% of your subscribers are in guilds, and 40% are not, then if you make guild membership more of a factor in the ability to enjoy content, you'll lose the 40% that are not in guilds.