One of the most important aspects of our experience playing an MMO, or any online game, is the community. It is the very nature of playing games online that we get to interact with other people in these virtual worlds. Much like a story book, our travels will introduce us to a wide variety of characters. Some of these characters are noble, others are fools. These encounters can often time leave us with a bad taste in our mouths by souring gameplay.
It is ironic if you think about it, that one of the most important aspects of our MMO's might be they don't have control over when designing the game......Or is it? Me and my guild had a lengthy discussion about the various communities we have encountered in the various MMO's we have played, and I think I have found a definite link between 2 specific elements of the game design and the community you will encounter in those games.
Ever see that movie "Indepence Day" where the aliens come down and attack Earth and try to exterminate all the humans? Imagine this scenario happening in real life as silly as it may seem. With all the conflict and bickering that goes on the world, if a new enemy showed up out of nowhere that was devastating enough to wipe out the human race. I think it is safe to say that we would hopefully be able to set aside our differences and work together for our collective survival. The same thing goes for MMOs.
I think of 2 of the hardest MMOs I have ever played are EQ1 and FFXI. These are also probably the games with 2 of the best communities I have ever seen. Both of these games had extremely unforgiving difficulty, but as a result, the communities of these games seemed to have a mutual respect for the shared struggle to make your way in these harsh worlds. Maybe it was the death penalty in these games. Both games had a very harsh sting which in both cases resulted in the loss of a significant amount of exp, the possibility of level loss, and corpse recovery naked in EQ1. It could also be attributed the fact that getting anywhere in both of these games usually required you to have friends, and in a group oriented game, your reputation was one of your most valued possessions.
In the original Everquest, it was not uncommon to be killed deep in a dungeon somewhere and wake up miles or on another continent or pane completely naked. Your fate rests completely on your ability to find some person in the community who is willing to go out on a limb for your sake, sometimes with the promise of little or no compensation. There were many times where I would find myself in need of a good old fashion corpse summon and the community would always produce a good soul willing to help out someone in a bad situation.
In FFXI, the community shined in a completely different way. There are many times in the course of your FFXI career where one is forced to complete certain quests which can often times be of infuriating difficulty. Having to do quests every 5 levels starting at 50 to raise your level limit, and trying to obtain the vital piece of your classes set armor would often time put you against horrible odds, but send you to places so far away, and so horrific that you don't even dare speak of them out loud. To make things even more difficult, half of the people on your server speaking a different language can make getting assistance even harder. I was completely stunned by how selfless so many people were in this game. Complete strangers offering to help with quests without asking, and others would often times come from many zones away with no reward. Say what you will about FFXI, but they have the most helpful community of any MMO I have played to date.
Not all MMO's are created equal in terms of complexity. Some like WoW are marketed to the newcomer to the genre. Others like Anarchy Online have a staggering amount of depth that is certain to make even the most seasoned veteran struggle to wrap their mind around all of the ways to develop and advance your character. I don't know if its the staggering amount of skills, the implants, the equations that make up each stat, but there is definitely something about a game with this much depth that seems to keep the idiots far away.
I suspect that people playing complex games like AO want others to enjoy the game as much as they do. Games with this much customization can often times scare off new comers if the learning curve is too high. From my own personal experience, the community in Anarchy Online was always able to produce a person who was willing to make sure I enjoyed the game by helping to explain to me the complexity of the options I had for character customization and navigate its massive world.
Challenge + Complexity = Community ?
When you compare these examples to a game like WoW, the contrast couldn't be larger. I played WoW for a solid 2 years, and as a guild leader, I have crossed paths with some amazing idiots. Now now, before you flame me, I understand everyone has a different experience, but I am writing this from my own viewpoint and experiences.
Maybe some people out there think WoW is a collection of intellectual scholars. I personally think that the community on the servers I played on was going to inflict a permanent loss of IQ points after every log in. But if you look at the way the game was designed, it is obvious that the game is made so that a 10 year old can play it easily. The death penalty is virtually non-existent so there is no real shared struggle. In fact, on many servers I found myself hating the people on my side more then the other team because of the never ending e-peen contest to see who could kill what gimmicky raid boss.
If you made it this far, I salute you! I am curious to hear about your experiences in any of the MMOs I have mentioned here, but more importantly the ones I haven't. I'm sure many people will flame me, but again I have made this theory based on my own adventures. If there is some truth to this, it looks like the developers might have a bit more control over their community than they think at the design phase.
Co-Leader of Inquisition