“And let us consider how we may spur one another on
toward love and good deeds,not giving up meeting together,
as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…”
-Hebrews 10: 24-25
Community and culture matters, and it starts with me as a player and contributor in MMORPGs. Whether as a player you have spent a material amount of time playing a game title, posting on forums, were a backer in a kicks-tarter (KS), writing guides, using F2P currency, or testing/providing feedback in alphas and betas, you have been part of that game’s direction and development (even if it did not go “your way”). This month as we look back, look at, and look ahead, I am looking forward to the dialectic and your insights on the evolution and impact of “community” on MMORPGs.
Looking Back – The Culture of Collaboration and Cooperation Counts
Since Massive Multiplayer games were designed initially on the idea that players could interact with each other and have an impact on each other’s outcomes (cooperation), it brought with it a sense of community development. In addition, the themes, the content, the game’s foundational principles (whether published or not) informed and attracted the player base. Therefore, as player attraction increased or evolved, it naturally had an impact on cooperative play and the culture the game sustained, maintained, or developed.
As a microcosm (like a subculture), Guilds, Kinships, Alliances, etc., created culture bubbles that were in some ways reflective of the game they played, but provided diversity in how players cooperated or collaborated together (like flavors of ice cream or states/provinces in a country). These subcultures though at some end, however, were dependent on the content and culture the game developed and the players it attracted.
Many players have fond memories of MMORPGs games they played I would venture to argue because of the culture, the foundational principles, of the game, or the people they met and with whom they accomplished deeds and feats. I would bet few would think or could even recall in great detail the loot, gear, stats they had month/year on game X, but probably could recall the people and culture that enabled those interactions, accomplishments, laughs, joys, or hardships.
This has not changed radically, I mean to say, the formula is still there because players are people (when they are not bots), and when they log in to play a MMORPGs will interact with other people. Player’s are impacted by culture (they are in fact a part of that culture), the foundational principles (if sustained) influence the players logging on and purchasing subscriptions, and the next thing in the development queue is influenced by the culture. Culture impact and change may not always be obvious, and sometimes it happens so gradually it is hard to detect, but while the formula has not changed radically, I think it is meaningful to surface a few considerations and I believe the MMORPG Era as-was/is will evolve.
Looking At – What Horizontal Development and a Producer/Community Manager Begets
What “horizontal development” has begotten is mediocrity. What a Producer or Community Manager has begotten is what they always have…a culture that is reflective of them. If you as a player are questioning whether a game “feels” right or whether its player base “are your sort of people,” then what you are really reflecting on are the values of a producer and/or community manager. This is not just to pin down the troll that is always grumpy or stating “this sucks or your suck!,” but also the troll who is naively happy and stating unconditionally or without grounds “this is awesome and we’re all lucky!”
Let’s first assess “horizontal development.” Why has it begotten mediocrity? The “Big Box” store approach to MMORPGs (open your gates wide) will at some point rub iron with how many developers, designers, and testers a game company has. This is not a theme park versus sandbox assessment, its really just a fact. Mediocrity has settled into modern MMORPGs because when dealing with a broad spectrum of customers, they develop horizontally and not vertically. This creates friction in the culture as people want different things from the game they play. The result?…they try to influence it or they search for another (take their time/money).
As players have left or played less, MMORPGs have adjusted their pay models, which in turn brings in different customers and again impacts culture. World of Warcraft recently announced an addition to its business model, too. These are indications to players that game title are struggling to hold their population counts (see Raptr), but the result of sustaining them is actually more mediocrity. I am not sure there has to be “one MMO to rule them all” for any game company, instead, I think it needs to have focus and stick with its foundational principles and business model…develop vertically, not horizontally.
Secondly, the impact of culture is heavily begotten by a producer and/or community manager. Much like a subculture (guild leader), the producer or CM is going to set the tone for what players it attracts and what players it keeps. Many games have had excellent communities. I think of Lord of the Rings Online and Dark Age of Camelot to name two. The former, I will say for the record radically changed as its producers and CM changed and those changes (you be the judge) influenced its culture.
Producers have the leadership to sustain its foundational design principles, a community managers has the leadership to sustain the behavior and outlook of its players by being a lighthouse of the game or game company’s values and strategic direction (front man). In a recent interview about Camelot Unchained, Mark Jacobs illustrated this point when he said in response to how friendly backers were even with each other, “It starts with, quite frankly, me. I have tried to set a tone and direction for how our studio is going to treat our Backers as well as other games and companies. I promised anybody who would listen to me during the Kickstarter that once we funded, things were not going to change for the worse in terms of communication and openness with them.”
Looking Ahead – Look no farther than the Producer and Community Manager and It’s Foundational Principles
There are those who believe that MMORPGs will only survive going forward if they are Free-to-play or accessible or serve a broad spectrum, and that players will haphazardly and foolishly bump around looking for a game that has people they enjoy playing with. I could not disagree more with much that is in this article, The Future Of The MMO Is Casual, Accessible And Free-To-Play
When I look ahead, I see the need to focus on a player class (whatever it is) and develop toward that. Set reasonable goals for player population, and be mindful of what you communicate and how you interact with those who communicate. Casual play, or players looking for free games or non-sub games do have a view and likely want something different out of their game. It’s up to a producer to be up front about what their game will be, and not compromise to a new customer base as it will likely mean under serving a player base it currently has.
Stop also treating gamers like they are looking for a free ride, instead develop foundational principles, assess the population you need to sustain that game, and stick with it. We need more MMORPGs, not less. When I look ahead I see a new Era, one that is not the “Big Box,” but rather is developing toward microcosms willing to pay for that developed content. And if the producer can stay true to those principles, and not get over hyped by “more content,” it will also deliver better quality products.
Culture starts with me though as a player, and my influence may be subtle, but it is there. Make your game what it set out to be and seek to add value to its culture. What do you want in your MMORPG culture? What foundational principles are important to you? I want to hear from you.