Dual Wielding LFG edition: fostering communities

Dual Wielding: LFG Editionsometimes a topic is just too big for a couple of bloggers on their own. That’s when we send out the call, and see who steps up to help us with the challenge. This week, in a special LFG edition of Dual Wielding, we’ve put together a four person team to tackle the question, “what can developers do to foster community”?

Make sure to read the other posts, too:

Intro

Let me just state how happy i am about the LFG special edition of the coop blogging post. Thank you so much to Wolfyseyes and Syl for joining Ironweakness and me today. I’m sure it’s going to be fun!

So how did it get started? By a Twitter discussion between Ironweakness, Wolfyseyes and Syl about “confusing” design decisions in Black Desert Online or Tree of Savior, for instance. It’s actually quite difficult to get one Tweet that shows it all, but here’s where one big question showed up.

So, if a game is more complicated- does it foster its ingame community to become closer? And what are other ways of encouraging social behaviour in MMORPGs? Forced grouping and the trinity would be more intentional ways to get players to interact with each others. In the course of this discussion, it became clear that this is quite a complex topic- so we chose it for this month’s Dual Wielding and asked Wolfy and Syl to join us.

Intentional vs. coincidental

In that discussion, there’s an interesting point in differentiating ways to foster community in intentional and coincidental design choices- is a good community in games like Black Desert Online and Tree of Savior a byproduct of the complexity of the game? Is offering or forcing your players to do group content and role management working as a pillar for community building? Is there anything game developers can do to improve their ingame communities? Let’s take a look at examples first.

No negative interaction

Guild Wars 2 employs a “no griefing” approach- in GW2, there’s almost nothing another player can do to lower your enjoyment of the game. When you meet others, you won’t sigh or hope you’ll make it first to the resource node, because everything regarding ingame progress is there just for you. You get as much experience, loot, resources when being in a group as if you were alone. Of course, that makes grouping beneficial, as you can kill mobs faster, tackle more difficult encounters and so on.

gw031

Does it work, though? I’d say no. To be sure, GW2’s community is more on the friendly side of things, but the interaction outside of WvW, sPvP and maybe world bosses is very limited. Yes, you play with others, but they might just as well be displaced with NPCs. Sure, you could say hello and get to talk to others, but the on-the-fly grouping makes pick up groups come and go so quickly that there’s actually no need. The Guild Wars 2 game design is one of the best examples of “alone together” design- i mean, that’s better than being solo all the time, but it’s not meaningful interaction.

Another example of this way of game design would be Rift, where PUGs happen organically all the time- when closing Rifts, preventing Invasions, doing Instant Adventures and so on.

With both examples, i think a good way to improve on that design might be to make the content more difficult or meaningful.

Forced Grouping

As seen in Final Fantasy XIV, for example. In FFXIV, you’ll come to a point where the main story questline asks you to do group content- and that’s putting it nicely. As progress in terms of game features is tied to your progress in the main story, you have no choice. You’ll have to do group content to be able to trade your goods, get a mount and open many more options in the game. And the first time it asks you to dungeon delve? It’s not one, but three dungeons.

ffxiv_duty

Again, Final Fantasy XIV is an example of a very nice and friendly community, but i don’t think the forced grouping really helps in fostering it outside of guilds, possibly. For those, the forced grouping coupled with level scaling is a boon, as there’s always someone you can help, content you can do together and get to know each others. For players outside of guilds, this presents a challenge- on one hand, you have to go find a group in that dreaded LFG tool. On the other hand, but this is of more importance to casual players like me, you are stopped in your progress with a wall of “dedicated game time” in front of you. These three dungeons have been the reason for cancelling my sub/not playing the game two of three times- because i’d need to set the time aside and make sure that i wouldn’t be interrupted while in the dungeon. In the one case where it didn’t lead to me unsubbing, it took me two weeks to get through these three dungeons.

Socialising, though? Didn’t happen- it was a PUG, after all, and the pick-up groups for forced grouped content are basically the same as the pugs for optional dungeons in WoW, for example. There was a higher percentage of players saying “hello”, but that was it.

Another example could be Elder Scrolls Online. Now, there you aren’t forced into doing group PvE content, but for trade, you have to join trading guilds. I’m member of one with over 300 members- the chat is more silent than the guild chat of our small guild where 3-5 people are online in the evenings.

So no, in my opinion forced grouping doesn’t work.

Complex gaming mechanics

I’ll use Black Desert Online, EVE online and Fallen Earth as examples here. Black Desert Online has the reputation of not introducing players very well into the features of the game. Exploration is a big part of BDO, as well, and other players telling you where to find a horse to tame or certain plants and whatever are a thing there. EVE Online has the infamous learning curve. And Fallen Earth, while unfortunately being almost forgotten, was a Sandpark before Sandparks became a thing. These three games have one thing in common, albeit to varying degrees: you are actually dependant on out-of-game resources and help from others inside the game.

2016-03-04_1490972650

It’s been a few days since i last played BDO, so i won’t comment on its community. EVE and Fallen Earth, though? In my opinion, those are the games with the best communities out there. Sure, especially EVE has lots of shadow in its light, too, but it’s here where things like EVE University exists. EVE and Fallen Earth offer a newbie help channel that’s actually helpful and maintained by friendly players.

As EVE is one of my two current games, i can tell you that when you begin to dive a bit deeper into the EVE community, it’s almost like a parallel universe. I could easily double my MMO related feed reading if i were to follow all those EVE blogs out there. Of those 98 game-specific podcasts listed by Justin on Massively Overpowered, 13 are EVE podcasts, World of Warcraft has 15.

EVE has one thing up on the other two, though: interdependancy and different means to interact with other players.

The odd ones

There are two games with great communities i haven’t mentioned above, because it’s more difficult to pin down the reasons for why these games have such great communities- Lord of the Rings Online and The Secret World. But thinking about it now, there is a connection: out-of-game engagement and assets. As with BDO and EVE, these games are not self-contained. Lotro makes use of one of the biggest IPs we have in the gaming world and The Secret World…well, it makes use of conspiracy theories as well as lots and lots of modern tale storytelling like Zombies, Vampires and other themes that have a connection to the real world.

The other thing here is- and maybe that is tied to the out-of-game resources, that they’re both very roleplaying friendly.

What fosters a good community?

I think fostering and maintaining a good community is not about removing or creating obstacles within the game- it is about providing more than “just” a game, invoke emotions in the player base and feel them connected to the game, its world and its players. It is about creating the opportunity to have meaningful interaction with these elements both within and outside of the game.

Make it more than a game

The games don’t carry themselves- they need to be accompanied by out-of-game resources and interactions. For interactions, as i haven’t touched on them above, a developer needs to employ a very open conversation channel with all of their players- offer popular builds on your website, introduce guilds and talk about planned features and what you’re working on as well as your intentions in changes to the game. Hold community meet-ups. Know your bloggers. Stay- or get- in touch.

tales_of_tamriel

If the game in question is set in a widely known IP, they are halfway there, but even then, developers need to offer resources outside of the game or encourage players to create them- for instance with a design philosophy of “systems over features” (that can make a post on its own). In my experience, if a game offers a connection to the “real world”, either by links to IPs of books, movies, real world legends or even other games (as is the case with WoW and FFXIV), when it is able to make use of connections between the game and real-world experiences of players, it has a leg up in terms of building community.

Create and maintain interdependancy of players

Self-sufficiency is nice and all, but if it is offered, even as a hard-to-reach goal (like leveling all crafting professions in FFXIV), nowadays players will try to achieve it. It’s easier than to try and make connections to other players. Picture interdependancy as the “system” version of the “feature” forced grouping. It’s easy to do in crafting- just don’t let anyone craft everything by themselves (ideally not even by making use of alternative characters) to “enforce” player trading- but don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be. Also, let things break to maintain this interdependancy. Or allow certain crafters to repair stuff / create repair tools.

It can be done in PvE, too, if we think about Entertainers in Star Wars Galaxies who were able to remove debuffs from players in cantinas. The trinity is not enough, combat-wise, there have to be more roles on offer- like debuffing enemies, buffing players, support roles and so on. Another thing to note: being grouped up with other players should always be beneficial.

There should be an inherent need for having other players around and it should span more than the odd dungeon or world boss.

Allow interaction on different levels

Most of us have noticed that MMORPG players have changed. There isn’t a big influx of young gamers into the genre- they play specialized games, and the genre fans have been getting older. That means having less time to play and less will to dedicate huge chunks of time to gaming. I think many of us are still in this genre for the other players we can meet and interact with, but at the same time, we are less willing and able to put lots of time into this.

One of my favourite articles (really, go read it) introduced the idea of asynchronuous interaction- it is what makes Twitter, Facebook and E-Mail work so great- all of them enable their users to communicate even when the other one isn’t there. MMORPGs haven’t toyed much with that idea, though. For most of the things we can do together, we’d both need to be online (auction houses being the excemption).

Trading is the obvious one here- i can offer something for sale while you’re offline and you can buy it when you log in. But this is faceless interaction; it is needed for the general community of a game, but it doesn’t offer the individual the satisfaction of doing something with others. There is one feature, however, that makes this possible: housing. If i can own a housing plot and allow others to help me build it, we can create something together even if we’re not online at the same time. I think this could be expanded- for example by allowing us to create contracts or quests in game for PvE or crafting content. Now, these systems often end up being exploited, but that’s not my problem today 😉

And then….let it scale up. Offer something for two players to do together while they’re both online, or not. Offer the same for groups of 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 players and you have a solid base for building communities of all sizes.

Have a vision and make it last

This one is hard to grasp, but i think if we’re looking into the examples i mentioned above, they all have in common that the games in question have a vision. They want to offer something special and they stick to their guns. Be it TSW’s creepyness, Lotro’s world-creation, FFXIV’s compelling themeparking, EVE’s cutthroat philosophy and so on. Even World of Warcraft with all its changes has stuck to one vision: creating and maintaining an accessible MMORPG.

internet_spaceships

Others have changed focus, hunting for new/more players instead of keeping their current customers happy or miscommunicated their vision before launch. Some of them do well, money-wise, some don’t. Some still have good communities, but really, would you say that the Star Wars community isn’t capable of doing much more than what happens around SWTOR? Yeah, me neither.

Whodoesit?

What game does it best? In my opinion, even before returning to it, i’d say and would have said EVE Online. They have the fanfest, blogging events, the whole ingame economy is player-based, even the lore and history is. EVE started in the game and was only that. But players were enabled to take ingame events and such to the outside. We’re talking about a game with concurrency numbers in the 30-40k area, but the community has created so many assets, from tools, to websites, blogs, videos, even books and history, that EVE is much more than just the game now.Ingame, there are huge advantages to flying in a fleet without debuffs, xp bonus or some other “artificial” benefit, but because of the game’s inherent systems.

Dual Wielding: is it dead yet?

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Make sure to check out Ironweakness’ take on the subject.

Introduction- did that just happen?

When Ironweakness and i decided to pick our Dual Wielding series back up, we also decided for two topics, to be published on a monthly basis. The last one has been about Negativity in the MMORPG community and this one was to be an outlook on the genre. We figured it might be a good time for that post, so shortly after the release of Black Desert Online and The Division (as well as the Thieves Guild DLC). Little did we know what was bound to happen last friday- namely the cancellation of Everquest Next and layoffs at Carbine. Since these news broke, the question whether the MMORPG genre is dead has been tackled countless times, by bloggers as well as MMORPG-related Outlets and even general gaming sites.

I’d like to be brief here, because this post is about looking ahead, not at the past. I’d like to say, however, that both news didn’t come as much of a surprise, i guess, to people who were watching these games closely. We haven’t heard anything from EQ Next since what seems like forever, Landmark hasn’t seen significant developement during that time, either, and Wildstar clearly failed to get much attention, players and most of all money following the shift to free-to-play. Here’s what i think both of these news have in common and give a little hint at what’s coming next: the WoW days are finally behind us, and i do think this is a great thing.

Not in Azeroth anymore

Wildstar is basically “WoW in space”, and that’s not just relating to the art style. Sure, it has more features, but the whole thing is still very close to the WoW generation of MMORPGs. Everquest Next, as it was envisioned, was to be an evolution of the same thing- it still took the WoW-style MMORPG as a blueprint for what they thought should be improved in the genre- and furthermore, they took a Triple-A approach to that whole thing.

The MMORPG genre chased WoW numbers for 12 years now and threw evergrowing budget at their games. The idea was, of course, to build something “mainstream” enough to make the success of World of Warcraft repeat itself. While it was clear quite early on that simply copying World of Warcraft wasn’t enough, the thought that it might only take a few iterations on the concept lingered in the newer games of the genre.

All the while one thing has been mentioned but didn’t find consideration in game design: WoW was also that big of a success because the basic feature of MMORPGs- laying with hundreds/thousands of other players- was quite new at that time. That feature alone was enough to inspire awe in players. But with years gone by, contacting other people through the web has become normal- and we, the players, found ourselves isolated more and more, choosing to play with friends or people we already knew instead of with strangers from the web.

We all know now that throwing money after that problem doesn’t work, either. And we’ll be better off for it going forward.

Alone together

Playing alone together still is interesting and unique enough, but one has to see there still are technical limitations to what developers can do if they design a game around thousands of players playing at the same time- gameplay-wise, few if any MMORPGs are very compelling and i know for a fact that on the one general gaming site i read (Rock Paper Shotgun, you should, too!), players and authors alike pity MMORPG players because of the games’ repetetive, grindy and boring gameplay. So it seems unlikely that the normal, persistent, shared world MMORPG would be able to gather the masses for quite some time. Investing here really was and is throwing good money after bad. But designers came up with a solution.

Alone together in Guild Wars 2
Alone together in Guild Wars 2

There’s my MMO in your shooter

The Crew, Destiny and The Division are three games where you’ll find MMO elements as well as a semi-persistent world combined with a single player or simple multiplayer game. These games incorporate most of the “mainstream” elements of MMORPGs while offering a different kind of gameplay. Think about it: there are hubs where you see other players (the “alone together” part of open world MMORPG play), you can also join a few friends and tackle content together (similar to going into MMOs with your friends or doing some guild activities) and even grouping up with random players (just as you’d do with Dungeon Finders and the like). These games are basically an essence of what MMORPGs have become, but they shed a few shackles that put them in gameplay or feature-constraints.

When you think about it- maybe ArenaNet did it the wrong way around- releasing the hub-centric semi-MMO Guild Wars in a time when persistent, shared worlds were popular and then releasing Guild Wars 2 in a time where, maybe, stronger gameplay and storytelling would have won them the day.

There’s also Elite Dangerous and the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar, Shards Online and all these survival games where you can rent/create your own server where it’s possible to play the same game either totally alone, with friends or in a shared environment. While these are a different sort of game than the titles i mentioned earlier, they all give the option to scale the “Massively” part to comfort.

We have only seen early entries here and i think this is where you’d need to look in the future if Triple-A MMO-ish design is what you’re looking for. We should all be happy, because the “mainstream” will go in that direction and there will be huge hits releasing in that “semi MMO” genre.

Welcome back into my MMO, RPG!

On the other site of the fence we have “classic” MMORPGs- but fans of persistent, virtual, shared worlds can be happy about the demise of the triple-A MMORPG, as well, because now, the masses are chased elsewhere. We’ll be getting more niche products more fitting to our respective playstyles- think about Shroud of the Avatar, Shards Online, Camelot Unchained, the Repopulation, Crowfall and others. They mark the return of the classical western MMORPG. I have to cite something here, because i think this is spot-on.

The very problem was using AAAs as a measure of stability, success, and fun. AAAs broke us. Why be sad when they pack up their tents and move on? Clearly the core MMO playerbase will still be catered to; it’ll just look more like the early 2000s than like 2012.
– Bree Royce, Massively Overpowered

We’ll continue to get new MMORPGs, and if the current crop doesn’t meet your preferences, chances are the next wave will, because for once, after 10 years, we’ll be getting games that do something new or concentrate on a particular part that made MMORPGs great in the first place. Then again, if you want Triple-A MMORPGs, they are still going to come, but from the east instead of the west. And, to be frank, they always have. I think Lineage might just be the MMORPG that’s “really” the most successful- released in 1997, i think, it’s still the best earner for NC Soft in Korea. Black Desert Online shows how the next iteration of a shared, persistent, “alone together” world looks like, there’ll probably be others.

It’s not

As you can see, i’m really looking forward to future developements in the genre- all in all, it seems to me that it has matured and evolved into more specialized subgenres- we have MOBAs, the semi-MMOs like Destiny, we have Survival games and we have the classic MMORPG, and i probably missed something along the way. All these subgenres will provide players with different parts of what makes MMOs great, with different amounts of “massively” in their multiplayer options. The classic MMORPG will return to its genre-bending roots while also being specialized.

Fishing in Black Desert Online
Fishing in Black Desert Online, one iteration of “next gen” MMORPG

In the coming years, we’ll be better off and happier with what’s out there. If we like the current crop (as i do- i love Elder Scrolls Online), we’ll be happy to, again, stay with the titles we love for the longer term instead of always wanting to check out the new shiny. If we were unhappy, the next generation will provide more specialized experiences. And if we liked parts of what MMORPGs offered as a whole but disliked other parts, there will be games offering that, as well.

I wanted to touch on more than that- the shift in business model (buy-to-play is becoming the norm) and design (MMORPGs can’t afford putting the fun behind a grindwall anymore), but i’ve gone on rambling long enough (and really need to pack). I might get on these other topics another time, but in essence, i view both of these as getting better now, as well.

We’re not in our last moments here, we’re entering a new era in our genre and should be excited for it!

Dual Wielding: On Negativity

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Make sure to check out Ironweakness’ take on the subject.

Personal note

Continuing with the Dual Wielding post series was one of my resolutions for 2016. So far, probably with the exception being the “budget” thing, i’ve been doing well. The budget, i will break, i know this already. But that’s not today’s topic- i’m really happy to do this thing again as it is a lot of fun to do.

Ironweakness and i decided to make this a monthly thing now, allowing for a more relaxed pace and maybe providing us with topics along the way. This time, we wanted to tackle Negativity in the MMORPG community.

Negativity is a thing

To be honest, we’re a bit late on the subject- i think it started with a post by Tobold called Hate Blogs. Tobold stated that he didn’t write much about MMORPGs anymore and also refrains from reading MMORPG blogs mostly because they’re very negative. Now, i don’t want to weigh in on every post on this subject, but since this one is the post that made me notice the subject, i’d like to point out two things about it.

First, i agree with Tobold insofar as that certain blogs surely are the way he describes: grumbling about new MMORPGs because we’re not in Britannia anymore- or complaining about other players, although i don’t read much of that. But i also have to disagree with the post because Tobold leaves the impression that most MMORPG blogs nowadays are like that. That is not the experience i’m having when browsing through my Feedly- i see lots and lots of people writing about the games they love.

There have been other entries around this topic, such as Bhagpuss’ description on why he’s more positive nowadays and doesn’t dwell on thinking about that “perfect MMO” that might or might not come in the future.

There have been more, of course, but those two are the ones that caught my attention- well, it’s been three, actually, as i also follow Syncaine.

The MMORPG subculture

A lot of what is happening with the community in regards to negativity reminds me of the developments in other subcultures where something is cool and edgy as long as it isn’t popular. When it becomes popular, you’ll have the veterans telling everyone who wants to hear it how they liked this thing before it was. And all the new stuff will only really copy the old in a bad way or be created without the “spirit and soul” of the original thing.

In MMORPGs, we have World of Warcraft that turned things around and made a subcultural genre popular. Of course the “cool kids” will tell everyone that before WoW, MMORPGs were actually good and different. The funny thing is: these games aren’t gone. If Ultima Online, Everquest and/or Dark Age of Camelot are better for your taste, they’re still there to be enjoyed, and they wouldn’t mind getting more players. Two of those are even subscription-only MMOs. Just like you can still listen to pre-Teen Spirit-Nirvana albums, you can also go and play DaoC.

The player base

 

Sometimes, i feel as if we, the players of MMORPGs, are the toughest gaming customers out there. We are very, very demanding and complain just about everything that doesn’t meet our increasingly high standards. We might also take offense on something and seem to be rejoicing in a game’s, a company’s or- even worse, a human’s failure (remember SWTOR in the early time, Trion/NCSoft, Smed, McQuaid).

We’re hard to please and very critical of just about everything. Of course the newer breed of MMORPGs, those who truly are an evolution of the genre (ESO, The Division), do everything in their power to avoid being categorized as an MMO. If they’d do, they’ll possibly have us as their customers- and while they want us to spend money on their product, they don’t want us going into their game with the expectations we have regarding MMORPGs.

Regarding the “normal player” in-game, i’ve found negative behaviour most often excused with the opinion that other players behave badly, as well. Things like “i have to run for this resource node or the other player will get to it first” or tagging mobs first. That one really bothers me, because frankly, you have a choice here. For that other guy you are the one rushing to get the resource node, you are the thief. Everytime one is doing something like that, another player with the same mindset is born.

The choice is yours to make

All of this doesn’t mean there’d be no room for criticism- there is. There is no need to put a positive spin on everything- that’s the marketing departement’s job. But there’s a difference in being disappointed by how ArcheAge turned out and wishing Trion bankrupcy- or Funcom, for some failed launch 15 years ago.

In-Game, it’s possible for every one of us to behave differently. Going for the same quest? Build a group. Going for the same resource? Take a step back. Share advice if “dumb” questions are asked in general chat.

And it’s the same thing with blogs, opinion, or comments- instead of focussing on all the shortcomings of the games in this genre and reading about them, thereby leading you to believe that your current game of choice is on a downward spiral, a buggy mess and generally a lackluster attempt at creating an MMO, we could go out and read forum posts, blogs or listen to podcasts created by people who love their respective game, the genre, the community. Because there’s many of them and they’re much more sustainable. MMORPGs aren’t easy games- sure, some of them might lose you as a player, but when they keep you, you’ll continue to find things you like while playing. You’ll also find a few things you dislike, but that’s nothing bad in itself.

The turning point

But here’s what i truly believe: we are the best community in the gaming world. We are the ones who made Massively Overpowered and Blizzardwatch possible and still fund both via Patreon, we are the ones chipping in for the wife and a child of an EVE player who died in San Bernadino as well as medical care for Matthew Rossi, one of Blizzardwatch’s authors.

We write a ton of blogs (take a look at Syp’s Blogroll while i set mine up) and are connected via Twitter, Anook and other means- we support and engage each others with projects such as the Newbie Blogger Initiative, Blaughust and so on.

It’s us who are also actively driving in-game communities like guilds, we provide events like Weatherstock in Lord of the Rings Online, we host radio stations like Radio Free Gaia. We create useful websites providing guides and character builds for our favourite games or fashion blogs for players who really dig cosmetic outfits in MMORPGs.

It’s in this genre that you’ll find tens of podcasts to listen to, both game-specific and general.

There’s one thing that hasn’t changed in those 20 years the genre as we know it exists- those who love it, or remember earlier times/games fondly, they almost always remember experiences with the community in a wider sense- a great guild, chatting with other players while waiting for a boat, the pre-Warhammer-blogging wave.

The MMORPG community is a very passionate one- sometimes, that passion turns a bit negative, but on the whole i’m of the opinion that the MMORPG community is a great one that makes me actually proud to be a part of it more often than not.