One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?” That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO? It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others. With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly. And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling. It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering.
So what are some things that could be done? Here’s a few ideas.
1. Reward Helping Each Other Out
It’s a pretty simple idea, but hard to execute comprehensively. Actually, Guild Wars 2 got this one right in its mob-tagging mechanic. Instead of giving loot rewards to only the first character to attack a creature, it rewards all members of the battle equally. It’s a small change, but incredibly significant when it comes to player mindset. Instead of promoting selfishness over loot and annoyance when others jump in on a battle, players are actually happy when others jump in to help out. No need to roll on loot, worry about ninja “needers” you just get rewarded, period. World of Warcraft has gone this route as well within dungeons by removing the need/greed, and simply handing out loot automatically based on your role in the dungeon.
What are some other things that could be done? Well, how about an incentive to help new players get oriented to game mechanics by offering rewards to veteran for grouping and training? Maybe a mechanic that scales your power down to the level of the group, or alternatively a training mode that rewards the veteran for offering tips but allow the players to attempt the content on their own.
2. Create Systems and Content that Allow for Varied Interests and Skill Levels, and then Build Positive Dependencies
One of the biggest points of friction is the grouping of people with widely varying interests together and attempting to succeed at a goal. Pair a veteran with a newbie, or a “casual” or player with a “hardcore” and watch the sparks fly. Sure the more mature folks will allow for others who have different interests, and can even help each out, but too often it devolves into bickering, finger-pointing and throwing of expletives. Maybe it’s an age thing. But the way MMOs have traditionally handled this is to create as many content types as possible: PvP, RP, PvE, questing, dungeons, raids, crafting, “fluffy” activities such as fishing and cooking. Guilds were created so that players could sign up with like-minded individuals. And yet the fighting continues. Just human nature? Or is it because each of those groups are still living in their silos?
Well, how about if each of those content types were necessary to the other groups? What if, when you quested, you could obtain stuff that you couldn’t get just by raiding or PvP, but it was something those players needed? The questers could offer services for obtaining those items to the PvPers, perhaps selling them on the marketplace, and perhaps the PvPers obtained items that were useful to the questers and raiders. A Crafter class could specialize in gear repair and improvements, perhaps even custom gear, if other the questers, raiders and PvPers brought them materials. Sure, everyone would get their own stuff too through drops, but it would create some reaching across interest lines to other groups and perhaps a nose poke into those other worlds in ways that build friendships. Build in positive dependency and you build community.
3. Create Non-Combat Systems that Generate Mutual In-Game Benefits
So Lord of the Rings Online has a music system. Not everyone in the game plays music, but each year, they hold a festival event at Weathertop that has players attend from all over the game world. Sure, not everyone comes, but an entire day of listening to player created compositions is something unique to one MMO. It builds community, and for those who play that game, it fosters a loyalty to that game, but more importantly a sense of home. Most games have some set of holiday events that bring players back, especially Halloween and Christmas, but what if those kinds of events were a regular occurrence? What if attending a concert or listening to a performance rewarded you with bonuses, and the performers as well, maybe with a little extra gold as well?
Star War Galaxies had an Entertainer class, and all characters needed a bit of downtime in the pub or inn. Entertainers would get experience by performing and the audience would gain rested bonuses for spending a little time off the battlefield. Once again, positive dependencies.
What if meal preparation was an activity that could benefit large groups of players before they head into a difficult piece of content? Many games have short-handed this with a quick click of a button, but what if an optional, more involved meal provided significant extras that encouraged slowing down just a bit before heading off to battle? It wouldn’t be mandatory, but those who wished to do it might gain some significant benefits in doing so, and it might foster some in-game chatter and strategy before heading off into hacking and slashing.
4. Make Content a Bit More Difficult and Interesting
Okay, this one’s a little trickier, and it certainly requires a fine balance. And I’ll be really clear: I am not suggesting forced grouping. My rule of thumb is that content should be difficult enough that it at least requires a bit of thought before plunging into battle, whether you do it solo or in a group, but not so difficult that it’s discouraging. If you are doing it solo, it might require a bit of thought and preparation before taking on a senior bad buy. If you are in a group setting such as a dungeon or raid, it would involve that same preparation as a team.
This is a tough one for developers, because easier content always means more players, and more money from a business standpoint. But easier content also promotes fly-by-night players who race through the content and leave the game for another game’s content to chew through. It actively dis-incentivizes staying in the game. At the same time, content that is too difficult keeps some players from sticking around as well, not wanting to go through the “work” of overcoming the challenge. So what can be done to make things challenging, but keep players around? It’s probably one of the hardest things for any designer to do consistently well: keep things interesting. It means making your world unique, avoiding tired stereotypes in both the questing and in in-game characters. It means better, more distinctive story writing and quests, perhaps challenging players in other ways than building up their gear stats. It means doing something different.
5. Promote Maturity
Difficulty is one of those things can bring out (no guarantees here) kindness in the community. It can also bring out elite snobs who lord it over the players who aren’t “good enough.” It can really cut both ways, but I think the differentiator here is maturity. A mature community understands that it is in their best interest to help out new players and overcome difficulty. An immature community cares only for personal gain and will walk over the virtual bones of anyone they come into contact with to get it (and then move on to another game). A mature community understands the group is healthier as a whole, while an immature one revels in “me vs. them.”
Promoting helpfulness in other systems as mentioned before can incentivize the community to pitch in and help new people rather than ostracize them. If every group interaction – chat systems, grouping systems, economics and trade systems, guild tools – have mechanics that reinforce the benefits of helping, it will tend to lead to better results. That said, there will always be members of a community who behave immaturely no matter what, and I am a bit ambivalent whether those players should be punished or simply miss out on group benefits. My sense is, in general, carrot is better than stick.
So what are some other ways to improve maturity? One method is to reward helpful behavior in some way. We already talked about Entertainer and Crafter classes, but what about a Trainer class or skill? Training another player in a system or helping newbies through a dungeon could have tangible in-game benefits such as gold, experience, titles and skills. Maybe there would be a baseline benefit, plus extras if you were rated highly by the players you helped.
Perhaps there could be some sort of Event Planning reward system where players could set up activities that generate community. I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings Online Weathertop event – created purely by players but using the in-game music system. Ultima Online previously (and still) hosts developer-driven weekend events to bring some variety into city life. What if some of those tools could be handed to players?
A Last Note Regarding Business Models
I’ve deliberately left out business models in this discussion because I wanted to limit the points to in-game features and systems. There could be a lively debate regarding subscription vs. free-to-play, vs. buy-to-play as ways to promote community loyalty and maturity. That said, if those other systems aren’t in place, no business model will help. My sense is that a business model can help get people to the game, and may keep them there, but the game itself is what does the hard work of building community.
What about you? What are some other things you’ve seen that work well (or backfire) when building an MMORPG community? I’d love to hear more ideas – it’s something I think that is ironically overlooked when building a game that is ostensibly about bringing together large groups of players.