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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

5 Ways to Improve Sociability in MMOs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 31 2015 at 12:48PM
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Last week, I talked about how we might improve community in MMOs, and these were pretty broad principles, based on perhaps some examples seen here and there in older MMOs as well as some (hopefully) common sense thinking about how people like to interact.  But I thought this week, I might talk about some more specific ideas for improving sociability.  That is, improving tools and ways that reward players to interact in a positive way such that a supportive community eventually arises.  At the same time, I’ll try to keep the suggestions to things that won’t blow the development budget, or penalize players that prefer solo gaming.

Most of us know the current in-game tools for interacting and grouping, but here’s a brief rundown:

Chat: The most direct way of interacting with other players globally, in a group, or individually.  Chat functions are something that operate pretty much the same way in most MMOs, and in the user interface generally sits in the bottom left corner of the screen.  Global chat tends to be a jungle of comments, running the gamut from friendly and helpful, to rude and insulting, to wayyy-politically incorrect.

Group Content: Dungeons, Raids or any difficult content that’s not possible to do solo.  Grouping up for this kind of content typically involves either getting a group by using chat, or grouping tools such as “looking for group,” dungeon or raid finders.  Grouping can run the gamut from a great time with good friends to an impersonal speed-fest through dungeons with the single-minded goal of getting-your-loot-and-getting-the-hell-out.

Guilds: Tools for groups of like-minded players to band together into (with any luck) a cohesive and friendly team.  Guilds provide some ways to promote teamwork: guild banks, guild chat, guild rewards for achievements done individually or as a group.  Guilds, can be small or huge, and can be friendly units or politically charged nightmares.  Often guilds will complement in-game features with out-of-game tools such as forums, websites and social media.

Friend/Ignore Features: Most MMOs have the ability to designate folks as a friend or block less-than-friendly players.  These sometimes are combined with the ability to teleport to another’s location to group up.

Most games have out-of-game forums as well, and often community will form over discussion of the game, and real world talk, so it’s important not to leave those out, but for my 5 suggestions, I’m focusing on in-game sociability and interaction. So let’s get on with it!

1. Extend the Global Chat Channels

The Secret World community introduced a couple of custom global chat channels (Sanctuary and Noobmares) specifically for players with general questions and for those just getting started on the harder dungeons in the game.  Those channels skyrocketed in popularity, and have become gathering places in-game for troll-free chat, newbie questions, and even announcements of community events.  Developers could take note, and either provide admin tools to players for creation and moderation of such channels, or if they liked, moderate the channels themselves.  Player-hosted I think works better as it puts power in the hands of players and lets them adapt to the needs of the community.  TSW has one of the strongest and most friendly in-game communities around.

2. Add a Reputation Feature

Provide a simple way for players to give a “Like” or “Helpful” to a player that is helpful or friendly in game.  There would not be a way to “downvote” a player, so only positive feedback could be given.  Player likes should not be advertised in an overt way, but if a player inspected another, they’d be able to see their Reputation.  A player could only be liked once per account to prevent spamming Likes, and to prevent guild spamming, guild members could not Like other guild members.  It’s a simple way, used in many external forums, to provide at-a-glance feedback on positive behavior. It could, I suppose, be made more comprehensive by adding other types – “Friendly,” “Instructive,” “Roleplayer” but that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

3. Allow Players to Volunteer for Community Roles

Create a number of community roles that are available to players who wish to volunteer – the roles are purely optional and can be left at any time, but the kinds of roles could be Newbie Trainer, Veteran Trainer, Roleplaying Trainer, PvP Trainer, Event Coordinator.  These might be extended into other areas of the game such as crafting or the economy, but perhaps best to keep it small These roles apply both inside and outside of a guild, and are considered cross-game – there could be many players in the same role.  These are simple titles, but those designated in those roles could make the title visible to other players either in chat and perhaps as they walk around, indicating they are approachable with questions or for a dungeon run, or for setting up a community event.  Perhaps tie it to the reputation system, but maybe not to promote the most volunteers.

4. Add Style Preferences to Group Finding Tools

I’ve mentioned this before in other blogs, but repeating it here because it makes a lot of sense for improving the fun for pick-up-groups using dungeon finder tools.  Add some radio button selections for Speed/Loot Run, Socializing, Roleplaying, or Lore/Story when you queue for a dungeon, and then select groups based on preferences as well as on the trinity role.  Those wishing a more casual run through the dungeon and possible socializing along the way would be paired with other players of like-mind.  While grouping with friends or a guild is another way to go about this, adding this simple selection to the tool brings back sociability (or not, if you don’t want it) to the PUG when friends aren’t available, and possibly could introduce players to new friends.

5. Host Sporadic Community Events

This is one that many developers are reluctant to do because it requires devoting resources to in-game events.  But Ultima Online would on occasion have GMs in game, coupled with some special mobs or powerful abilities and wreak havoc in an area of the game until players banded together to restore order.  These kinds of uncommon events not controlled by a computer, but rather by an in-game developer-as-player keeps things lively and different, and causes the community to band together for a memorable time. 

Okay, so just a few ideas.  Are there more?   Certainly!  Let’s hear more ideas, with the constraint of not breaking the bank.

5 Ways MMOs Can Improve Community

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 24 2015 at 2:43PM
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One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?”  That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO?  It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others.  With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly.  And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling.  It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering. 

So what are some things that could be done?  Here’s a few ideas, just food for thought.

1. Reward Helping Each Other Out

It’s a pretty simple idea, but hard to execute comprehensively.  Actually, Guild Wars 2 got this one right in its mob-tagging mechanic.  Instead of giving loot rewards to only the first character to attack a creature, it rewards all members of the battle equally.  It’s a small change, but incredibly significant when it comes to player mindset.  Instead of promoting selfishness over loot and annoyance when others jump in on a battle, players are actually happy when others jump in to help out. No need to roll on loot, worry about ninja “needers” you just get rewarded, period.  World of Warcraft has gone this route as well within dungeons by removing the need/greed, and simply handing out loot automatically based on your role in the dungeon.

What are some other things that could be done?  Well, how about an incentive to help new players get oriented to game mechanics by offering rewards to veteran for grouping and training?  Maybe a mechanic that scales your power down to the level of the group, or alternatively a training mode that rewards the veteran for offering tips but allow the players to attempt the content on their own.

2. Create Systems and Content that Allow for Varied Interests and Skill Levels, and then Build Positive Dependencies

One of the biggest points of friction is the grouping of people with widely varying interests together and attempting to succeed at a goal.  Pair a veteran with a newbie, or a “casual” or player with a “hardcore” and watch the sparks fly.  Sure the more mature folks will allow for others who have different interests, and can even help each out, but too often it devolves into bickering, finger-pointing and throwing of expletives.  Maybe it’s an age thing.  But the way MMOs have traditionally handled this is to create as many content types as possible: PvP, RP, PvE, questing, dungeons, raids, crafting, “fluffy” activities such as fishing and cooking.  Guilds were created so that players could sign up with like-minded individuals.  And yet the fighting continues.  Just human nature?  Or is it because each of those groups are still living in their silos?

Well, how about if each of those content types were necessary to the other groups?  What if, when you quested, you could obtain stuff that you couldn’t get just by raiding or PvP, but it was something those players needed?  The questers could offer services for obtaining those items to the PvPers, perhaps selling them on the marketplace, and perhaps the PvPers obtained items that were useful to the questers and raiders.  A Crafter class could specialize in gear repair and improvements, perhaps even custom gear, if other the questers, raiders and PvPers brought them materials.  Sure, everyone would get their own stuff too through drops, but it would create some reaching across interest lines to other groups and perhaps a nose poke into those other worlds in ways that build friendships.  Build in positive dependency and you build community.

3. Create Non-Combat Systems that Generate Mutual In-Game Benefits

So Lord of the Rings Online has a music system.  Not everyone in the game plays music, but each year, they hold a festival event at Weathertop that has players attend from all over the game world.  Sure, not everyone comes, but an entire day of listening to player created compositions is something unique to one MMO.   It builds community, and for those who play that game, it fosters a loyalty to that game, but more importantly a sense of home.  Most games have some set of holiday events that bring players back, especially Halloween and Christmas, but what if those kinds of events were a regular occurrence?  What if attending a concert or listening to a performance rewarded you with bonuses, and the performers as well, maybe with a little extra gold as well?

Star War Galaxies had an Entertainer class, and all characters needed a bit of downtime in the pub or inn.  Entertainers would get experience by performing and the audience would gain rested bonuses for spending a little time off the battlefield.  Once again, positive dependencies.

What if meal preparation was an activity that could benefit large groups of players before they head into a difficult piece of content?  Many games have short-handed this with a quick click of a button, but what if an optional, more involved meal provided significant extras that encouraged slowing down just a bit before heading off to battle? It wouldn’t be mandatory, but those who wished to do it might gain some significant benefits in doing so, and it might foster some in-game chatter and strategy before heading off into hacking and slashing.

4. Make Content a Bit More Difficult and Interesting

Okay, this one’s a little trickier, and it certainly requires a fine balance.  And I’ll be really clear: I am not suggesting forced grouping.  My rule of thumb is that content should be difficult enough that it at least requires a bit of thought before plunging into battle, whether you do it solo or in a group, but not so difficult that it’s discouraging.  If you are doing it solo, it might require a bit of thought and preparation before taking on a senior bad buy.  If you are in a group setting such as a dungeon or raid, it would involve that same preparation as a team. 

This is a tough one for developers, because easier content always means more players, and more money from a business standpoint.  But easier content also promotes fly-by-night players who race through the content and leave the game for another game’s content to chew through.    It actively dis-incentivizes staying in the game.  At the same time, content that is too difficult keeps some players from sticking around as well, not wanting to go through the “work” of overcoming the challenge.  So what can be done to make things challenging, but keep players around?   It’s probably one of the hardest things for any designer to do consistently well: keep things interesting.  It means making your world unique, avoiding tired stereotypes in both the questing and in in-game characters.  It means better, more distinctive story writing and quests, perhaps challenging players in other ways than building up their gear stats.  It means doing something different.

5. Promote Maturity

Difficulty is one of those things can bring out (no guarantees here) kindness in the community.  It can also bring out elite snobs who lord it over the players who aren’t “good enough.”  It can really cut both ways, but I think the differentiator here is maturity.  A mature community understands that it is in their best interest to help out new players and overcome difficulty.  An immature community cares only for personal gain and will walk over the virtual bones of anyone they come into contact with to get it (and then move on to another game).  A mature community understands the group is healthier as a whole, while an immature one revels in “me vs. them.”

Promoting helpfulness in other systems as mentioned before can tend to incentivize the community to pitch in and help new people rather than ostracize them.  If every group interaction – chat systems, grouping systems, economics and trade systems, guild tools – have mechanics that reinforce the benefits of helping, it will tend to lead to better results.  That said, there will always be members of a community who behave immaturely no matter what, and I am a bit ambivalent whether those players should be punished or simply miss out on group benefits.  My sense is, in general, carrot is better than stick.

So what are some other ways to improve maturity?  One method is to reward helpful behavior in some way.  We already talked about Entertainer and Crafter classes, but what about a Trainer class or skill?   Training another player in a system or helping newbies through a dungeon could have tangible in-game benefits such as gold, experience, titles and skills.  Maybe there would be a baseline benefit, plus extras if you were rated highly by the players you helped.

Perhaps there could be some sort of Event Planning reward system where players could set up activities that generate community.  I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings Online Weathertop event – created purely by players but using the in-game music system.  Ultima Online previously (and still) hosts developer-driven weekend events to bring some variety into city life.  What if some of those tools could be handed to players?

A Last Note Regarding Business Models

I’ve deliberately left out business models in this discussion because I wanted to limit the points to in-game features and systems.  There could be a lively debate regarding subscription vs. free-to-play, vs. buy-to-play as ways to promote community loyalty and maturity.    That said, if those other systems aren’t in place, no business model will help.  My sense is that a business model can help get people to the game, and may keep them there, but the game itself is what does the hard work of building community.

What about you?  What are some other things you’ve seen that work well (or backfire) when building an MMORPG community?  I’d love to hear more ideas – it’s something I think that is ironically overlooked when building a game that is ostensibly about bringing together large groups of players.