[Edit as of the 27 of July 2011 this entry has been followed up and expanded on in my new Video and gamplay blog, "Promoting Thought" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myBy_JLuReU&list=UUTZm1YLjvPdM please watch and give some feedback and love]
The Fifth Pillar - Community
Hello and welcome to my first Entry, I wont bother doing any kind of self aggrandizing introduction at this stage, simply I will get right into it.
So the Fifth Pillar, we have all heard Developers like Bioware, Funcom and Arenanet talk recently about Story, the so called fourth Pillar of gaming, this goes nicely with the traditional three Combat, Progression and Exploration. By now I am sure we are all giving just a little groan every time Mr D.E. of Bioware utters the word story.
What I want to look at in this blog is what I think is the pillar the developers have the least control over and yet is the most important to their success, community. By Community I mean the players who just play, the people who form guilds, the ones who post on forums, fan sites the works. I want to look at the role of community in the growth of a game, it should not come as a suprise to anyone to know that the community as a whole is very valuable to game companies. While individual people having a bit of a moan might not register on the radar, you can bet that mass complaints by the people who pay to play (be it subscription or cash shop payments) can and do register with every company.
A vocal community can be the most powerful advertising tool a game needs, just look at the millions of Minecraft fans for an example of how word of mouth or "Going Viral" as its called these days can spread a product from being a cute niche to a mainstream hit. League of Legends enjoyed a lot of similar early success, I was in the beta for that game and have played it on and off since and most of its players in the first few months got there through being told of the game by friends. There was no big marketing, no mass advertisement just a solid game and a community that wanted to share it.
Communities can influence change, as seen with Blizzard, who often alter key features due to community feedback (The much maligned real ID forum issue was one such example), more recently we can see how community pressure forced CCP into something of a climbdown with Monoclegate.
Likewise though, a community can lead to a games failure or at the very least impede it to a level where it will struggle to do well. Though due to the strange nature of brand loyalty in humans very few games have failed to this degree. However look at the way Cryptic and even Funcom are often put on the defensive in interviews when their past failings are brought up. This would not happen without the pressure of the community, they are challenged to alter the communities perceptions.
However this has yet to address community WITHIN a game, which is the real meat and drink of what I wanted to talk about. Lets look at an example of a game that got it wrong first, DC Universe.
When DC Universe first shipped 2 friends of mine recommended the game to me, after a couple of days of listening to them I bought a copy and I loved the game, the combat was fresh, the progression was fun the exploration elements and investigations were interesting. After a week I bought a lifetime subscription (I had a bit of extra money and figured why not). A third friend joined us and we had a 4 man group so we leveled up and did the hard mode instances together.
Great fun so far, more friends came through recommendations and soon we were 7 looking for an 8th person to make the raid group that would cement this as our MMO for the time being.... That ladies and gentlemen is where it all went wrong.
The lack of social tools was so big of a gap it made the game a very unattractive prospect, it was difficult to talk to anyone (Literally you would have to spam the / or enter key before you were allowed to type). inviting people was also difficult, the whole UI and game were built for a console, quick keys and pre-typed phrases like text messaging. The ingame voice chat was hit and miss once it was activated (It was missing all together at launch). This from a game that was delayed for "polishing" was frankly inexcusable and as quickly as they came, the community, shorn of any glue to keep it together left.
It will go down as the biggest missed opportunity in the history of MMOs, in the first weeks they doubled the number of servers and were looking to open more. Now they are merging them into "super servers" due to them being ghost towns. There are many theories but the biggest and most compelling one is the lack of community tools, MMOs are still at heart a social venture, take that away and the building topples, and that is why community to me is the fifth pillar of MMO gaming. One which companies should be looking to harness just as much as the other 3(4 if like me your a Bioware fan).
Give a community glue and it sticks together, it took the hacking and destruction of the old NWN forums to bring that community down over 10 years after the game launched, even after that it is still alive, homeless but alive. Give people the tools to build communities and you ensure your games longevity.