GMs used to be cool. I don't mean that the current GMs across the world of MMOs are all dull, lifeless drones in small cubicles with no love for gaming. I mean that, in the majority of cases, game masters have been stripped of the ability to have fun and do the things that players can love them for. While the people behind the specially marked names may be awesome gamers, often they must suppress their inner geek and put on a suit of cold professionalism.
It didn't used to be this way. There were days when GMs were generally loved by a server's populace because the greatest among them were able to do great, fun things for their server's and game's community. GMs had the ability to run in-game events unsupervised, the ability to teleport at will, to chat with players outside of problem solving, to have a public presence to let their personalities shine and offer a new dimension to the game. There were, of course, the spoil-sports of the GM world: the cold professionals who played by the rules and wanted nothing to do with “the customers.” There were many more, however, who made names for themselves.
There was a time, many years ago, when I acted as a volunteer GM for a game. The only in-game abilities the volunteers lacked was the ability to spawn a creature or NPC and to view chat logs. We were otherwise given free access to the same tools that paid GMs used, and had the ability to handle GM petitions ranging from pulling stuck players to safety to shadowing and penalizing players who broke the code of conduct. We had few rules, other than to obey the code of conduct, keep our identity secret, and to not use our powers for the advantage of players in game. In lulls between petitions, we were free to interact with players however we wished.
Although there were a few volunteers that kept to the private GM areas when not on a petition, most of the volunteers made an effort to interact with players whenever possible. We would visit popular zones and chat with players, watch raids (without invisible mode) as they happened, and those of us so inclined also made an effort to role-play with players. Petitions often came with volunteer GM names requested specifically. On my server, I ended up becoming known for role-play elements, particularly my wedding services (which I hand wrote for players) – and soon even wedding requests without my name on them came to me.
Then one day, our boss – a paid GM who mostly just checked in to handle requests beyond our abilities - called us to a “meeting.” He let us know that, although he was not supposed to share the information, another paid GM had been fired that day for not being 'impartial' because he role-played with players. Although he had not used any powers for anyone's favor, his time spent with role-players on the server got him fired for showing 'favoritism.' Our boss knew the character of the server, and the volunteers helping it, were greatly inclined toward role-playing; he warned us to stop. “There's a major shakedown,” he said, “and I don't want you guys to get in trouble.”
All of this may seem like a simple anecdote, but the event had greater implications than one person's job loss. The volunteer program was nearly shut down, only to be completely revised to give volunteers almost zero power or ability to help players. A lawsuit started by volunteers at Ultima Online around the same time sealed the deal. Not only were volunteers ushered out the door across the still budding MMO industry, new plans were in the work for a more “professional” GM environment.
Most of the policies remain behind closed doors, but there's no denying there was a change in the atmosphere. GMs became invisible beings, only present to answer petitions and rarely showing a public presence in chat channels or in-game. Scripts became standard with customer interactions. The casual GM atmosphere became modernized to the rest of the customer service world: clean, efficient, standardized. There's little doubt that in many ways, the customer service aspect of our gaming improved. Abuse was reduced, favoritism was crushed, and GMs had the training to process every help request effectively.
At the same time, a great deal of the fun and personality of customer service interaction was sapped away. Certainly gamers wanted petitions answered quickly and properly, and wanted to be treated fairly. The life that GMs brought to games previously (personalities, creativity, and that 'personal touch' of assistance) was gone. GMs had become a faceless, nameless entity, there simply to do their job and be forgotten.
These days, it's a shock – and a pleasant surprise – to enter a game where GMs have a presence in the chat channels and make an effort to interact with players in game. Fallen Earth is a good example; GMs are always present in the help channel, and many joke with and entertain players as they work. They harken back to the early days of the MMO scene, where communities were smaller, and knowing the person or people in charge of making sure things were taken care of wasn't uncommon.
That's not to say the current GM staffs in games aren't human. We remember the encounters with GMs that step out of the macro scripts and walls-of-texts, even if, ultimately, they can't do anything for us. However, because of the way MMOs have developed and evolved, and due to the sheer numbers of people now playing them than did 10 years ago, quantity unfortunately has developed over quality. We, as players, know what it's like to send a petition in and not have it answered for hours – possibly days – afterward. We're also less than pleased to get a generic response back from our waiting, even if we were expecting it. The GMs, most of the time, simply have too much on their plate to provide any real human connection.
From the player's side of the fence, it's hard to say if anything could be done to bring back the “good old days.” Certainly it seems like game companies could loosen the collars of their employees a bit, but they can't afford to do so if it will negatively affect productivity. Hiring more employees seems a simple fix, but doesn't guarantee an increase in free time. Reducing player queue requests is also an option that helps efficiency as well, but is a complicated process not always guaranteed to work. And, after all, these employees aren't really hired to make the game “more fun”; they're hired to do customer service.
The better solution is for game companies to create a position – either filled by hired staff or by compensated volunteers – to bridge the in-game gap between players and company. Let there be more event coordination, more GM role-play, more interaction. Offer non-essential game services, and let players feel a little less alone in the world. Just like forum visitors are prone to appreciate a community manager, players in-game are looking for a company representative to make their MMO interaction a little more human.
Happy customers are paying customers That's one of the bottom lines of customer service. While a lot of our MMO nostalgia is often unfounded in modern MMO design, there are some pieces of the puzzle that can't be lost. Returning GM interaction to MMO gaming is a win for the company and for the players.