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Alternate Social Structures MMO

By Nathan Knaack on May 01, 2006 | Editorials | Comments

Alternate Social Structures MMO
Player Created, Operated and Destoryable Systems

We’ve seen many forms of social interaction in MMORPGs over the years, from loose-knit and temporary groups of people who come together with blind invitations to multiple game-spanning guilds composed of hundreds, even thousands of dedicated members. The internet will soon have more websites dedicated to MMORPG guilds than porn, it seems. It’s also no secret that game developers are starting to design content specifically for groups of 40 or more players, fully realizing that this puts most of that content beyond the scope of individuals, even those who might be willing to work with other strangers. In most games, it’s tough to keep a group of eight players together before someone crashes, leaves to do their own thing, or has to log off for some reason. In a game like WoW, where most of the high-end content requires a good-sized guild to conquer, there is a growing population of casual players, people with lacking social skills, or individuals that just prefer to play solo that are being left out.

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What I believe MMORPGs could use are some additional social structures, different systems in place to give those people the option of getting involved in larger groups without having to wait in long cues, harass existing members, brown-nose their way into an elite guild. Some readers are already formulating their “don’t force anything on me” rebuttals, so I’ll remind them of the key word in this paragraph: “additional.” I’m not talking about changing or eliminating the faction/guild/clan/corporation structure of existing MMORPGs, but adding more optional structures that would provide more dynamic character interaction. I’ve spoken of this tactic before, referring to it as “tricking people into role-playing.” In this case, perhaps a more accurate description is “tempting” them into it.

By that, I mean offering players incentives to participate in features of the game that enhance the role-playing experience for both themselves and others. For example, would you accept a randomly-generated name (one that included a “real” sounding first and/or last name appropriate to the game world) in exchange for a 5% boost to all of your statistics and a 5% faster learning curve for new skills and abilities? Obviously, it would take more than good names to foster a meaningful role-playing atmosphere, but every little bit helps. Personally, I’d instantly notice if I logged into an MMORPG and everyone around me had believable names; one of my pet peeves is how ill-conceived or outright stupid names floating over everyone spoils the ambiance. I just can’t bring myself to bother speaking in character to someone named “evildarkjediklingon_325443.” Now, I’ll chat with anyone about anything, but I only get into my character when I’m around people willing to do the same.

What if, during character creation, you could choose your character’s sexual orientation, then the game secretly matched you up an appropriate true love. Once again, remember that this system would be entirely optional, but would grant a boost similar to the one listed above for random names. Naturally, there won’t be any requirement that you have to flirt with the person, engage in cybersex, or even speak to them if you chose not to. As one of the core concepts of “role-playing” is pretending to be someone else, there would be no real life age, race, or gender requirements, either. You might play your character’s entire career and never meet that special someone, but if you did happen to cross paths with them, you would immediately be informed that this person was your character’s true love. From that point on, you would earn bonuses from defending, healing, or even just being in close proximity to him or her. If he or she was killed, you would share some of the penalty, too. In effect, this optional system would allow players to sign up for a randomly-chosen, pseudo-symbiotic relationship in exchange for some advancement bonuses. Would everyone participate? No. Then again, does something like that require millions of dollars and years of extra development time for art assets, complicated things to program, or reams of design documents? Of course not.

Taking that concept and applying a broader paintbrush, what if you could also choose to be included in an in-game family? I brought up this concept a few years back on the Pirates of the Burning Sea forums, and while the idea received both positive and negative comments, it was eventually shot down by the developers because they didn’t understand why anyone would participate in an optional game system, or why something not required of all players should be included at all. The basic premise is this: At character creation, you would be given the option to be included in a family, which would require you to choose from one of many pre-generated surnames, usually called “last names” these days. Based on your character’s race, age, and gender, he or she would be inserted into an available position in the family. You might log in to discover that you’re the daughter of a great king, the brother of a wanted criminal, or the father of a legendary crafter. It is important to note that you would have no input as to which family you were a part of outside of choosing your race, age, and gender at character creation, so you couldn’t arrange to have all of your buddies fill every position in a specific family.

Sorry for the redundancy, but the biggest concern everyone voiced back this was first proposed was that they never wanted to be forced into any kind of relationship with another player, so I feel enormously compelled to remind all readers that this system would be entirely optional. If you like, you could make a completely detached character, come up with your own name, and play the game as you would any other. However, those that chose to include themselves in the family system would be given some moderate perk, like more starting wealth, slightly higher attributes, or the potential to train skills a little faster.

Then again, the family (like the true love system above) mechanic would be much more enjoyable if it provided lasting effects that could change throughout the game. In the original context of the swashbuckling pirate adventure, I personally thought that families were one of the core aspects of the genre. Think about all of the pirate movies you’ve ever seen; most of them are either entirely based on, or at least include as a major theme, the family structure. Rival captains are bitter siblings, brothers duel each other over women’s affections, dread pirates turn out to be lost loves, children risk it all to rescue their hapless parents, etc. The family system fits perfect into pirate drama, but also into fantasy (remember that the collected works of Shakespeare involved knights and rogues, but also high fantasy aspects like wizards, deities, and faeries, yet they were almost always based around noble families), science fiction (look no further than the Dune series for how well a family system would fit into sci-fi), and obviously real life as well (from political lineages to mafia families).

What if characters in an MMORPG received benefits and/or penalties for their various family members? It wouldn’t need to be that extreme, like everyone in a family gaining a level whenever any individual member does, or everyone suddenly dying if one person screws up, but some tangible benefits would be interesting. We’re looking for subtle but noticeable benefits and penalties for interacting with your family, like a slight boost to advancement if you adventure together, the ability to share some of a death penalty (experience debt, ability loss, etc) with other members, etc. Then again, it doesn’t have to be all friendship and cooperation with your family …

Imagine if a distant NPC relative of the family died and, in his will, had a treasure map to a vast inheritance ripped into pieces and given to each of his descendants. Do they work together and split the loot or do they bribe, trade, or steal the pieces from each other? What if a player had to choose which of his sons would rule over his castle and NPC citizens after he retired? How about a system where players inherited specific aptitudes or deficiencies from their relatives, so that something like sorcery could run “in the blood” of the family, or one entire lineage could be cursed with below-average physical appearances? To keep everything balanced, it could even be designed so that larger families, with their much better chances of having successful players grant each other benefits, would also encounter more randomly-generated problems. One last time, remember the voluntary nature of the family system, and that each player affected by it knew exactly what they were getting into.

By tempting players with tangible benefits for participating in optional systems that fortify the role-playing experience for the entire game world, these worlds be begin to feel much deeper. People will feel even more connected to the others around them if they’re actually given a reason to interact, attack, defend, seduce, or scheme against each other. Sure, it’s interesting to battle another guild for control over a contested keep, city block, or asteroid belt, but imagine how dynamic it could become if you had two families engaged in a bitter conflict over something they both considered a birthright. Then again, what if two guilds were deeply entrenched in a bloody war, but two top-ranking players discovered they were each other’s true love? What if the people on both sides of that war discovered that their leaders weren’t trying to benefit their guild members, but where in fact just siblings dragging their factions into battle so they could compete in some family-oriented quest? Situations like this make people feel truly connected to the game world, and people who feel connected are the ones that continue paying subscriptions. The way I see it, this is a win-win situation; the company makes more money and players are finally given a reason to perpetuate their subscription other than sitting around and waiting for the next expansion with a single new dungeon and a raise in the level cap.


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