5 Ways to Improve Sociability in MMOs

Last week, I talked about how we might improve community in MMOs, and these were pretty broad principles, based on perhaps some examples seen here and there in older MMOs as well as some (hopefully) common sense thinking about how people like to interact. But I thought this week, I might talk about some more specific ideas for improving sociability. That is, improving tools and ways that reward players to interact in a positive way such that a supportive community eventually arises. At the same time, I’ll try to keep the suggestions to things that won’t blow the development budget, or penalize players that prefer solo gaming.

Most of us know the current in-game tools for interacting and grouping, but here’s a brief rundown:

Chat: The most direct way of interacting with other players globally, in a group, or individually. Chat functions are something that operate pretty much the same way in most MMOs, and in the user interface generally sits in the bottom left corner of the screen. Global chat tends to be a jungle of comments, running the gamut from friendly and helpful, to rude and insulting, to wayyy-politically incorrect.

Group Content: Dungeons, Raids or any difficult content that’s not possible to do solo. Grouping up for this kind of content typically involves either getting a group by using chat, or grouping tools such as “looking for group,” dungeon or raid finders. Grouping can run the gamut from a great time with good friends to an impersonal speed-fest through dungeons with the single-minded goal of getting-your-loot-and-getting-the-hell-out.

Guilds: Tools for groups of like-minded players to band together into (with any luck) a cohesive and friendly team. Guilds provide some ways to promote teamwork: guild banks, guild chat, guild rewards for achievements done individually or as a group. Guilds, can be small or huge, and can be friendly units or politically charged nightmares. Often guilds will complement in-game features with out-of-game tools such as forums, websites and social media.

Friend/Ignore Features: Most MMOs have the ability to designate folks as a friend or block less-than-friendly players. These sometimes are combined with the ability to teleport to another’s location to group up.

Most games have out-of-game forums as well, and often community will form over discussion of the game, and real world talk, so it’s important not to leave those out, but for my 5 suggestions, I’m focusing on in-game sociability and interaction. So let’s get on with it!

1. Extend the Global Chat Channels
The Secret World community introduced a couple of custom global chat channels (Sanctuary and Noobmares) specifically for players with general questions and for those just getting started on the harder dungeons in the game. Those channels skyrocketed in popularity, and have become gathering places in-game for troll-free chat, newbie questions, and even announcements of community events. Developers could take note, and either provide admin tools to players for creation and moderation of such channels, or if they liked, moderate the channels themselves. Player-hosted I think works better as it puts power in the hands of players and lets them adapt to the needs of the community. TSW has one of the strongest and most friendly in-game communities around.

2. Add a Reputation Feature
Provide a simple way for players to give a “Like” or “Helpful” to a player that is helpful or friendly in game. There would not be a way to “downvote” a player, so only positive feedback could be given. Player likes should not be advertised in an overt way, but if a player inspected another, they’d be able to see their Reputation. A player could only be liked once per account to prevent spamming Likes, and to prevent guild spamming, guild members could not Like other guild members. It’s a simple way, used in many external forums, to provide at-a-glance feedback on positive behavior. It could, I suppose, be made more comprehensive by adding other types – “Friendly,” “Instructive,” “Roleplayer” but that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

3. Allow Players to Volunteer for Community Roles
Create a number of community roles that are available to players who wish to volunteer – the roles are purely optional and can be left at any time, but the kinds of roles could be Newbie Trainer, Veteran Trainer, Roleplaying Trainer, PvP Trainer, Event Coordinator. These might be extended into other areas of the game such as crafting or the economy, but perhaps best to keep it small These roles apply both inside and outside of a guild, and are considered cross-game – there could be many players in the same role. These are simple titles, but those designated in those roles could make the title visible to other players either in chat and perhaps as they walk around, indicating they are approachable with questions or for a dungeon run, or for setting up a community event. Perhaps tie it to the reputation system, but maybe not to promote the most volunteers.

4. Add Style Preferences to Group Finding Tools
I’ve mentioned this before in other blogs, but repeating it here because it makes a lot of sense for improving the fun for pick-up-groups using dungeon finder tools. Add some radio button selections for Speed/Loot Run, Socializing, Roleplaying, or Lore/Story when you queue for a dungeon, and then select groups based on preferences as well as on the trinity role. Those wishing a more casual run through the dungeon and possible socializing along the way would be paired with other players of like-mind. While grouping with friends or a guild is another way to go about this, adding this simple selection to the tool brings back sociability (or not, if you don’t want it) to the PUG when friends aren’t available, and possibly could introduce players to new friends.

5. Host Sporadic Community Events
This is one that many developers are reluctant to do because it requires devoting resources to in-game events. But Ultima Online would on occasion have GMs in game, coupled with some special mobs or powerful abilities and wreak havoc in an area of the game until players banded together to restore order. These kinds of uncommon events not are not controlled software, but rather by an in-game developer-as-player who keeps things lively and different. Ultimately these kind of evets pull the the community for a memorable time.

Okay, so just a few ideas. Are there more? Certainly! Let’s hear more ideas, with the constraint of not breaking the bank.

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