Guilds are nothing new in MMOs but they, like the games themselves, have evolved somewhat over the years – and, if you listen to some of the complaints, not always for the better.
Asheron’s Call had an interesting guild system, and it’s not one I’ve seen elsewhere nor likely ever will. They were called allegiances and they worked on a pseudo-feudal system where a character would have a patron (upstream) and one or more vassals (downstream). Actually, now that I think about it, it sort of resembled those pyramid sales schemes, and the reason this up- and down-stream idea mattered was that whenever a vassal produced XP, a fraction of that was passed up to their patron, who in turn passed a fraction of it up to their patron, and so on up the chain.
It may sound really seedy, but in the main it worked just fine. I never really gave it much thought other than to be pleased that the XP I produced was helping to level a friend or three – but then I was in some great guilds with some very close friends, where we didn’t have to deal with any drama regarding who was getting more XP than whom and how that should be remedied. Most players just went about their normal MMO business just as we do today, though things could get tricky from a logistical perspective if a character went dormant or left the guild or otherwise upset the ordering of a given patron/vassal chain.
It was quite handy for leveling up mules, crafting characters, or any kind of specialist character who didn’t have the skill distribution to be any good at actual fighting. It also didn’t take long before we started seeing guilds that were formed purely to exploit the upward-XP stream to its fullest; I recall hearing that members of one allegiance even had XP quotas they had to meet or face expulsion, because the aim of being in the guild was to level and be leveled as fast as the game mechanics would allow.
And that’s the thing about guilds in MMOs, though it applies to social groupings in real life, too, at least to some extent: some people join guilds mostly for the mutual benefits, while others join guilds solely for what they can obtain for themselves. Call it group-interest versus self-interest; and while that’s something that may be primarily influenced by an individual’s character, there are certainly other factors at play. One is the nature of the guild in question: for instance, some guilds are actively oriented towards self-interest, assume that its members will behave that way, and in the better cases have checks in place to make sure that individual self-interest can’t harm the overall guild interests. Another and perhaps more important factor is the underlying design purpose of guilds in a given MMO.
I’m not sure that in the early days most MMO designers really thought about what guilds did, how they behaved as collective entities, and what impact they could have in terms of the meta-game, other than as ways for people to get together and sport a common identifier. To begin with, guilds weren’t much more than a private chat channel and a character ID tag. It didn’t take long before “guild HQs” of some kind came into play: we had a mansion in Asheron’s Call in the early 2000s, which guild members had to keep funding on a collective level and to which guild members could recall. It had a few storage chests with some rudimentary access permissions – a feature that’s much more fully-fleshed in MMOs these days, whether it’s WoW’s fairly basic guild bank system or EQ2’s much more complex guild hall, guild bank, and guild facilities system.
One thing all guilds in all games intentionally made easier to a greater or lesser extent, however, was to find groups for common activities. The larger the guild, the larger the pool of potential group-mates who would be online at the same time and on a common channel. WoW came to exemplify this guild-as-bodies-pool mentality very early on, in the sense that not being in a guild or even not being in a large/active enough guild became a barrier to experiencing a lot of the possible dungeon and raiding content. It has become an accepted fact, in most MMOs that I’ve played, that choosing not to be in a guild or choosing to be in a smaller guild will generally limit a player’s options as far as content experience goes, or at least make it a great deal more difficult. (Whether this is good or bad and whether this could or should be changed is outside the scope of the column today.)
Though WoW wasn’t, in fact, the first game to treat guilds as content-experience portals. EverQuest worked on very similar principles, and given the original WoW development team the resemblance shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
One problem with guilds as content-experience portals is that, intentionally or not, the system encourages people to join guilds almost purely in order to be able to access something for themselves; any benefit to the guild as a whole, say in terms of progression, can be entirely incidental. Originally oriented on more social principles (“let’s all be part of the same club and do stuff together!”), guilds in some games found themselves oriented just as much around logistical principles (“I’ll join them because they’ve opened up way more of XYZ raid instance than anyone else!”) – which makes a rather large difference in how a guild is run and whether a guild will survive.
Guilds are surprisingly fragile entities in many ways, and the content-portal design aspect has probably torn apart far more guilds that I’ve seen than any amount of interpersonal guild drama. Though I don’t raid myself, I do know that working through raid content takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and that it’s a lot easier if the composition of the raid group doesn’t change too much over time or too suddenly. People get better at working together if it’s something they’re doing on a regular basis, and raid content is often designed to provide exactly that kind of ongoing challenge.
Too much churn in terms of who’s in the group and what they want out of it can be deadly not only to the group but to the guild as a whole. Yet there seems to be a fundamental dichotomy in some games, like WoW, where individual item progression (a huge part of the end-game) ends up trumping group progression, especially since it’s usually much easier for people to be self-interested than group-interested. The WoW guild I’m in has survived for over a decade now (starting in Asheron’s Call), but there have been some rough patches where what seemed to be excellent guild members turned out to be passing cuckoos who only wanted a particular piece of gear. Add to that the fact that players are usually competing over the same gear and you’ve got a ready-made recipe for drama that can require some very careful guild management.
The dungeon-finder utility raises cooperative self-interest almost to the level of an art form. I was highly dubious when I first heard about it, but after experiencing it for myself and watching the spousal unit make use of it almost every day, I’m actually impressed. It enables individuals to experience group (not raid, mind you) content at its most basic, bringing together a bunch of people from various different servers who all want more or less the same thing for themselves and who will cooperate for 10 minutes or an hour in order to obtain it. It may be soulless and almost like fast-food as far as enjoyment goes, but it’s certainly efficient – and for many players, it seems, efficiency trumps richness as far as the experience goes. On the other hand, by removing the guild requirement from the equation – at least for smaller dungeons – it may actually alleviate potential guild tensions. Cross-server dungeon-finding is an even bigger pool of potential players than a guild, and for limited-purpose runs it seems almost ideal.
The new guild leveling system in WoW has come in for some criticism recently, partly because it’s really rather basic. EQ2 has an incredibly complex and rewarding guild leveling system and, of course, EQ2 has guild and player housing – and being able to hang out in the same private space, as opposed to just a chat channel, really does make a difference to the most fundamental feeling of guild identity. (It’s not all roses though – EQ2 guild housing is also very largely responsible for turning common city areas into ghost towns.) All the same, I’ve noticed that achieving things as a guild, even if it’s just the critter-killing achievement, fosters a sense of belonging to a common entity, and that can only be a good thing.
Self-interest is a basic human character-trait, or we wouldn’t be here today. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said for consciously acting in the interest of the group, and anything that encourages altruism and enlightened self-interest in MMOs is likely to be more beneficial to individuals, to groups and to the game as a whole than a system that encourages only one or the other. Even a basic guild leveling system is better than none at all if it helps to remind people that company can be valued for its own sake.