The massively multi-player online industry is a great leviathan, a massive beast that has its own lifeblood, pulse, and breath. If any gaming sub-industry could be so inclined as to learn to gain its own sentience and live freely of its first creators, it would be this one. A good dozen or more theories could be posed as to why MMOs have gained such life over then ten plus years that they've existed, but my personal belief is that it all boils down to the players, the communities that thrive even when games seem doomed to die.
Many people with shiny titles at game companies are quick to thank and praise their game's community for its love and dedication. Some, as time and observation have taught us, are doing no more than spitting out canned speak meant to appease fans and delude the player base to think they're being heard. Others, however, are more genuine. They have seen the impact a community – each player – has on a game, not only in its financial success, but also in its development and sustainability. It's the community that can keep a game going beyond its prime, that can maintain a small game through the worst of times, and that can turn a disaster into a success.
A community doesn't simply appear out of nowhere, nor does its existence mean a boon for the game publishers and developers that keep it alive. To use a tired metaphor, a community is very much like a garden, with a variety of plants, flowers, trees, and creatures living in its midst; many are good for the gardener, some merely pretty to look at, and others pests and weeds that threaten all the hard work if they are allowed to survive. The success of a community doesn't merely come from its being there. It comes from successful tending to the garden: removing weeds and pests, while nurturing the plants best suited for growth. Nurturing comes from listening, adapting, implementing, and turning what once was the developer's vision into what has become the player's vision.
Unfortunately, some developers are better politicians than they are gardeners, preferring to drive their own agenda in attempting to force things their way. Some are exploitative, banking on a few psychological weaknesses or the successes of other games to draw in players for themselves, only to drain the players dry and then abandon them for other ventures. This, too, is where the strength of the online gaming community comes in: awareness of the worse tactics that are used in the industry helps the community spread warnings to avoid those publishers or developers who really do only care about cold, hard cash in the end. For every fanboy, there's a skeptic, and the community as a whole remains balanced, centered, and strong.
If the MMO industry is a beast, then the community is its innards, not its skeleton. It is the community that helps give the beast its life, its ability to rise from inertia to greatness or slowly suffocate it in despair. When in a whole, working system, the MMO community is intelligent. While parts of it may speak wanting different things – just as the heart wishes blood to pump while the lungs desire oxygen – in the end, the community knows what it wants, and doesn't need a spokesperson to get it. The community is capable of slaying its own dragons from the inside.
In the past, I have said some disparaging things about the community. I've implied that it was incapable of getting through to developers without organized effort, that it was confused, that it sent mixed messages to developers, that it was even hypocritical at times. Yet as I have listened to your comments and feedback, as I have watched the way the monster lives and breathes, I have learned that I was in many respects wrong.
The community doesn't need a spokesperson, or to figure out what it wants, or to speak up any louder than it has. No, what the community needs is only one thing: recognition. This goes beyond PR speak, beyond developers listening, and even beyond respect. This means involvement, of a realization that the community combines with all the parts of the game to give it life, and better utilizing and enabling that relationship. It means nurturing the symbiosis between developers and community, between product and consumer. Ultimately, it means functionally adding players as part of the development process (as a few MMO developers and publishers have already dared to do) – of incorporating players into the development by making player councils, holding public feedback and conferences, and rewarding players for feedback that ends up utilized in the game's development.
So keep doing what you're doing: be vocal, be assertive, be picky. You're part of the most unique gaming industry out there, and though sometimes it may not be evident, you're the ones changing game design and driving innovation. Corny though it may be, you really are the future.