Ask Mo: The absurd advantages of MMO guilds
A Massively OP reader named Ohnix recently sent us a question just perfect for Ask Mo. Let's debate guilds!
I play EverQuest II quite a bit (and EverQuest before that) and have come to ponder if guilds are unintentionally dividing the membership base by making guild-specific achievements for raid-level content. This mechanic appears to focus a select few players from a single guild into a specific goal and that does not allow for mixed guild raids to form and perform the same raid to gain the same achievement. In the long term this mechanic isolates the members of each guild from each other and therefore diminishes the opportunities for individuals or smaller groups to participate. There are not always exactly enough players to fill each raid for the folks who would like to raid.
I'll go a step further: I'll say that guilds and guild achievements divide MMO communities and playerbases period.
You might think it's crazy for me to say this, as I've been leading a guild almost as long as there have been MMORPGs. I love the idea of guilds, and my long-time guild is a large part of why I still care about and play MMOs. Simply put, those guys are my dearest friends.
But then, we aren't a typical 2015 MMO guild. Our guild exists because it's old, because our friendships were formed back in old games. I don't think many guilds like ours start from scratch nowadays. MMO communities have simply changed too much, and part of the reason is found in what MMO designers have done to formalize the large guild as the unit of social organization -- at the expense of MMO communities.
A few years back, I wrote an article called The Guilded Age in which I argued that MMOs treat unguilded players like crap. Organized groups seem to be natural impulses in multiplayer games as they are in real-life; Ultima Online, for example, didn't launch with guilds (or clans, as the FPS crowd more often called them), but people formed up in teams with uniforms and name suffixes anyway. It's almost always better to be a part of a group that can help you survive than to go it alone. The benefit to simply being part of a guild, any guild, is intrinsic.
But MMO developers have since turned guilds into one of many feature bullet points they can rattle off in press releases, and now "The MMO Guild" has been uncomfortably codified in MMO design. As I put it,
Since those early days, guilds have become overdefined and bloated from a mechanics standpoint. Somehow, our calls for community management tools like alliance chat and calendars and signups were translated into powerful perks that make being unguilded intolerable, such that a new game is far more likely to include an overpowered achievement system than adequate management tools. I imagine game designers through the years saw guilds as they see player-generated content on the whole: as just another something they could harness to increase retention through social compulsion and necessity instead of designing, you know, actual social gameplay like much-harder-to-design PvP, housing, and economy systems. Simple frameworks through which players could devise any sort of custom club they wanted were replaced with fixed ranks and top-down hierarchies and factional restrictions created by the game designers, not the players.
Rightly believing sticky, social components to be the glue that keeps games alive, MMO designers veered away from server community-oriented design and began piling overwhelming rewards on guilds specifically to keep them loyal. Personal achievement tracks were duplicated as guild achievement tracks; as if guilds weren't powerful enough, in some MMOs they become the de facto gatekeepers for territory, PvP participation, dungeon experience, progression, perk trees, special skills, housing, auction systems, special quests, and even cosmetics. In a lot of modern MMOs, you're going to miss out on far more than just endgame raids if you try to stay solo or run with a small crew. It's just easier for devs to design for big guilds than to support multiguilding, alliance formation, server-wide communication, and scaling PvE and PvP content -- even if most people don't actually want to be in those faceless conglomerates.
"It was bad enough when being in a huge guild was the only way to survive ganks and get phats," I argued back in 2013, with WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online still on the horizon and Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR in the rear-view mirror, "but now the guild mechanics penalize you for failure to socialize in whatever arbitrarily guild-oriented way the game designers command." Unguilded and small-guild players are ultimately heavily disadvantaged in "an MMO industry that is obsessed with massive raids and social-media oversharing and a dated, hierarchical, achievement-based vision of what it should mean to be in a guild" -- and a community.
Ohnix's questions home in on all of the problems that modern gamers face in guild-centric rather than community-centric MMOs. Formal, reward-based guild achievements separate the guilded from the unguilded and the big guilds from the little guilds, usually pitting them against each other; in this specific case, they also isolate guilds from each other and divide guilds right down the middle. I think it's cheap game design in 2015 for new games and old games alike. It might buy a little stickiness in the short-run, but in the long-run, it forces gaming communities to devour themselves and drives away too many good gamers who cannot or do not want to participate in a competitive social scene layered on top of an actual game. And that collateral damage is something modern MMOs simply can no longer afford.
The only quibble I have with Ohnix's question is the word "unintentionally." I know, I know, Hanlon's razor and all, but take a hard look at the people building modern MMOs: Many of today's top themepark MMOs were designed by hardcore, uberguild players from the first gen of MMOs, people who genuinely believe games should revolve around hardcore, uberguild players, never mind that casuals pay the same fee (if not more). No, I'm not convinced mechnical gameplay that incentivizes the guilded above all others is unintentional at all. The only unintentional part is that it doesn't work forever.