Massively Overthinking: When social play in MMOs is predatory by design

Blogger Tobold recently wrote a provocative piece on social play in MMOs, as pointed out to us by our dear tipster Sally. In a piece cheekily titled “Why I can live without other players in my games,” he writes that far from being the foundation or glue of MMOs, guilds are actually one of the worst bits of the genre, being platforms for selfishness and drama.

“Guilds were never designed for positive social interaction, they were always a means to an end of individual character progress. You needed those other people to get the most powerful gear in the game. And the way there wasn’t exactly a constant stream of friendship and happiness. Look at what MMORPG blog posts have been mostly about when talking about their guilds: First people complain if others aren’t investing as much as they do and become a hindrance to killing raid bosses, and then when the raid boss is finally dead they complain that somebody else got the loot.”

“The people most loudly complaining about the lack of other players being forced to play with them,” he finishes with a zinger that resonated most for me, “are the kind of people with the most predatory play styles.”

I’ve presented Tobold’s piece to our writers for this week’s Overthinking. Do they — and you — agree with his thesis? Let’s Overthink it.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I still mostly identify as a PvP player. I’m more of a crafter/gatherer in terms of mechanical gameplay, and that’s partially because it’s easier for me to socialize with that gameplay than grinding mobs or actively seeking PvP fights, but I get the whole “forced to play with you” barb at the end.

That being said, I don’t think Tobold’s remembering the early days of the genre and how social organizations were used. We’ve had both the Asheron’s Call 1 and 2 devs mention that they designed monarchies (which are a kind of guild, and I’d argue a more effective one) not only to encourage progression but to foster relationships. I’m still in contact with my AC1 “patron” (recruiter), and other guilds that used similar systems of co-dependence helped me to keep my social connections (and time in game) lasting longer than I’d anticipated.

Now, I’d argue other systems, like World of Warcraft’s original guild levels, as well as RIFT’s, were more along the lines of what’s being argued, as a person could simply join, get “registered” to help the guild unlock something, and leave. That’s still ignoring loot drama associated with raiding… er, and all other raid-centric drama. As the AC series was never about simply hitting a cap (an impossibility in the former, while the latter was originally about PvP followed by a similar impossibly high level cap), and because “raids” were organized to either reward everyone involved equally or give social gear/mass XP to participants, social structures were the glue.

Some modern MMO still do this. I can’t remember much about guilds in ArcheAge, but the family system, at least, was more about home ownership than progress, if I remember correctly. TERA’s guilds weren’t about progression either (originally), they were about political parties and shiny mounts, which may have caused “drama,” but it was mostly the fun kind. I should know, as I organized town hall meetings and other RP events involving the system. We had good showings for those, more so than the PvP events and scavenger hunts.

The only part I really agree with here, is “the lack of other players being forced to play with them.” This works both ways, in that I don’t stick with a lot of PvE oriented games because PvErs can grief too. In both FFA PvP situations or back with older MMOs, being a butt-head could result in being killed and dry-looted or blacklisted. The strength of the MMO is persistence, and when you lose supplies or your ability to gain them, it hurts. When the genre’s been expanded so people can be more anonymous, less responsible, and have easier access to group play without needing the social skills to make it work, the genre starts to fall apart.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I can live without other players in some of my games. I call them single-player games. I can also live without socializing with players in all of my MMORPGs all of the time. I love being in a world where there are other people; this doesn’t mean I want to chit-chat or team up with them at all times. My happy medium is usually somewhere in the middle. I play MMOs that respect that.

I do join Tobold in being fed up with games that force interaction in exchange for loot and power in a game world, but I don’t necessarily agree that “guilds were never designed for positive social interaction” or that “they were always a means to an end of individual character progress.” That’s probably true of raid-centric (or more specifically, forced-group-centric) EverQuest-style themeparks, but as Andrew notes, it wasn’t true in many other types of early games, especially sandboxy sorts that were roleplay- or PvP-driven, like Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and Star Wars Galaxies. Likewise, my guild has been drama free for a long time, but that’s down to being the kind of group that has transcended petty squabbles over loot in whatever game is hot this year. If you’re mired in that, or playing a game that focuses on that, then yeah, your guild experience will struggle.

All that said, I have long argued that modern MMO devs have tried to harness the social power of the guild mechanically, hoping to translate it into game stickiness, which has led to all sorts of garbage that turns guilds into tools and trains new generations of gamers into not just thinking of other people as their figurative ticket to “epix” but thinking of guildies as literal ladders, as numbers, as cogs in the gear or ghall grind. And I’m talking about everything from guild achievement perks to exclusive spaces and quests, the things that arbitrarily and excessively reward anyone willing to game the system for benefits — not actually create the willing social environment that generates real stickiness.

Still, that’s just forced-guilding; forced-grouping is a separate but related problem, and I think Tobold is spot on when he points out that it’s mainly predators, be they PKers or PvE achievers, who complain when others aren’t forced to be their content or their ladder. The wolves need the sheep, but the sheep don’t need the wolves.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing is that on some level, guilds can be one of the most toxic parts of any MMO’s environment. On the other hand, they can also be one of the most valuable pieces of the equation that makes the game run, and for some people the MMO is really just the framework for interacting with one’s guild. So saying that guilds are inherently toxic is like saying that they’re inherently beneficial, painting a complex issue with a simple brush.

Some guilds are functionally jobs. They exist, first and foremost, to facilitate getting content done which would otherwise be impossible or very difficult. These are the guilds where things can quickly turn predatory because you’re joining the guild to get X, above and beyond anything else. If for some reason you aren’t getting X, you’re going to be annoyed with the people involved. They’re there to facilitate this.

On the flip side, some guilds are formed by people who just genuinely enjoy playing with one another, and any benefits derived from doing so are secondary. In that case, the structure is inverted. You’re not with the guild to get X; you’re getting X because the guild is doing it. The nexus of fun is the guild itself.

Designers want people to have the latter, but the more mechanics in the game force you to rely on a lot of other people, the more you push toward the former. This is especially true for games that don’t allow only one membership; games like Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2 allow you to have different affiliations for Doing Specific Content vs. Just Being Friends. When you can only be a part of one guild or group of players, you have to choose between social interactions and the benefits of a coordinated group.

Personally, I’ve said many times that if games still required the same amount of constant socializing that was the case when I started in the genre, I probably would have moved on by now. I run a lot of group content in FFXIV, for example, but that’s because the game has tools to facilitate making 90% of the group content something I can form a group for without needing to rely on having a dedicated guild as a means to an end… and 100% of the story and meaningful progression are gated that way, as well. So I’m free to spend time with players whose company I enjoy rather than those I need to get a boss downed.

I get so emotional, baby.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Putting aside this particular author’s growing disdain for MMOs and how they function, the issue at hand — guilds and the potential for nasty drama, their necessity for advancement after a certain point — is quite subjective and changes depending on guild, game, and overall community. You tell me that guilds are poison and laboratories for backstabbing and bile, and I’ll be able to provide you with plenty of examples of wonderful, nurturing, and supporting groups. You state that guilds are bliss and the backbone of the MMO experience, and sure, I can dredge up encounters with guilds that soured a game and became a millstone around a neck.

But I will contend with his presupposition here that “guilds were never designed for positive social interaction.” Talk about a gross generalization that is quite untrue! Even well before MMORPGs, players have formed social groups for mutual support, encouragement, discussion, advice, and play, because for many of us, it’s not as much fun to game as an island unto yourself. Arguably the biggest selling point of early online games were that they existed online and allowed you to communicate and interact with other human beings in the same virtual world. The formation of groups happened unofficially at first and then was solidified when more online titles started adding guilds as a feature. If guilds didn’t exist, players would make them.

Developers know that player retention is key to success, and players tend to stick around groups of friends that they enjoy being with. Guilds make MMOs “sticky” by providing some of the social glue that connects people. In high-level, competitive guilds, sure, there may be plenty of drama and far more selfish behavior, but I sincerely believe that a majority of guilds in MMOs are more casual and social constructs in which everyone in the guild wants to be there instead of feels forced to by necessity due to progression mechanics.

He? He can live without other players in his game, which is why I’d recommend that he scamper off to the wealth of single-player games on the market. Me? I love and play MMOs because they provide many things that those other games can’t, including those wonderful social bonds.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Well, I would agree… except I don’t. Since I personally never care about the most powerful gear in game, the argument that guilds are only for that is extremely inaccurate. Were they designed just for that? I don’t think I can say what exactly was in the mind of the first people who gathered a group together to play with, but I think I can say that the purpose of a guild is totally dependent on the individuals in a guild.

Perhaps if your goal in gaming is only end-game elite content and being the best, that is precisely how you would see guilds — as a way to further your personal interests. Maybe because I started gaming as (and still am by the way) a roleplayer, guilds are exactly about the social aspect. Guilds have never been anything about character progression for me, unless you count roleplay story as progression. The whole reason I have ever been in guilds is precisely for the social connections. In fact, I have made some of the closest friends of my life specifically in MMO guilds, and these friendships have spilled into real life and have lasted more than a decade. In non-roleplaying situations, being in a guild is just to more easily hang out with people I enjoy being and gaming with. And I play MMOs to be with people. Playing is just way more fun with folks, not even caring about progression. Sure, progression happens, but it’s more a byproduct of hanging out. In roleplaying scenarios, guilds are about a part of the ever-evolving story of the world around me, which is endlessly fascinating to me. There, it is being a small part of a whole story, so it isn’t even just about furthering my own story. If that were my goal, I could just sit down and write a story; the whole point of the RP in games is the unknown elements that others bring to the story!

That said, I totally understand the view. One of my closest friends wouldn’t bother one bit with guilds or other people (other than for roleplay) except that it is the best/only way for him to partake in various content. And since he doesn’t roleplay much anymore/can’t find roleplay in most games, guilds are nothing but a means to a progression end.

On the topic of drama, however, I can totally agree: Guilds can have drama. In my first ever guild I experienced my first drama when another player went seriously Single White female on me. Then you get the jilted leaders who are put out when you won’t! After that, I made a rule to stick to my own guilds where who is allowed in can be controlled and anything amiss can be dealt with swiftly. Thankfully, drama has been pretty non-existent in all those guilds. Sadly, I broke the rule once when my gaming partner and I decided to give guilds another go years later in a game because we didn’t want to go through the effort of running one in that particular title. The goal was to have more fun just enjoying playing. Things were pretty fun for a while, until freaky jealousy stuff and the various relationships happening throughout the guild exploded and the guild imploded. Can guilds not have drama? You bet! I’ve experienced that. But it entails having a clear focus on what the guild is up front and only having people who fit with those ideas there. It also helps to keep the guild smaller instead of growing to a massive size.

Now as for the comment of people complaining, well, you are always going to find people complaining. This is the internet after all. The trick is surrounding yourself with the kind of people who don’t. And that’s where a good guild comes in!

Your turn!

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73 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: When social play in MMOs is predatory by design"

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A Google User

The “everyone must join a guild” theory is dead. It died a long time ago, and the evidence is everywhere. Just look at all the unguilded players in any modern MMO, or even the old ones. They’re not “just waiting until later” they’re avoiding you because you’re too much stress. In games where it is possible for one person to start a guild alone, there are thousands taking that choice.

The basic problem is that Guilds are a totalitarian dictatorship, and any other structure is too much work for everyone. I mean, voting on things? Bleh. You’d have to be logged in to form a quorum. Might as well join a raid guild, the gear is better.

If you want to stop this madness, consider what you can do to

1. Stop the mad-dash-keep-up-if-you-can mentality of the modern “zone runners.” Every zone or dungeon has to be cleared in record time, right? Um, no. It’s not fun for most people if they can’t read the text, or go get the unique item because you’re moving on already (example: How many people in EQ2 got the Yelnar researcher? vs How many people ran the zone? It required that in an epic area, you stop and let someone swim to an island and return, and then share a quest. That’s horrible design. They could’ve made it a rare drop like the mounts.).

2. Provide in-guild rewards for helping out, not someday rewards, but per-action. So if I make you a full suit of armor, then I get some kind of guild benefit or currency I can use for something else. People outside the guild already pay me in “game cash” but doing the same for a guildie doesn’t net me anything but kudos.

3. Bring back the concept of guild image and not just for raid progression or battleground wins. At one point you could be kicked for mouthing off in chat because it made everyone in the guild look bad. But as the GMs stopped caring about chat channels, we stopped caring if our members were suspended. This aspect of “being nice” is not part of games today but you wouldn’t be asked to play with people again if it was a tabletop game.

4. The game company should police the chat channels. The Guild leader should also in guild chat. Once being rude is ok, it destroys social structures. I heard one guy tell a group of lowbies that he could “gain more status for the guild in 10 minutes than they could in a week” not one person in that group played again in that guild. And I knew we’d turned a corner because the guild leader didn’t even reprimand him, she took his side. To be fair, that’s a game design issue that should’ve led to official complaints by that guild about the structure of guild status gain and how it hurts communities. But such a thing isn’t “important enough” compared to battleground play balance complaints.

In short, the game designers don’t think it’s important to have a good community. It’s no surprise then that people choose to avoid it, or redesign their guilds to exclude everyone but one person, themselves.

Raid guilds are the worst and especially so in games where the loot rules can be forced by the raid leader. If you’ve never been in one, you just can’t understand the anger it causes to have to wait a month for your loot and NEVER and I mean NEVER see any crafting items because those are all “looted for the guild” and you have to “ask” for them. They should be randomly distributed like the money. Ultimately those things end up being sold for plat or whatever cash system the game has and the raid sees none of it. To say nothing of the raid guilds that regularly kick people just before “payday” or fail to have a payday at all saying “sorry, we’ll do it tomorrow” endlessly.

No game should be designed to let one human decide who gets what.


This is why I refuse to depend on others, won’t let others depend on me (though I usually help guildmates and other players to the best of my ability, I will cut all help to any player that seems to rely too much on me), and will blacklist any player — including guild members — who makes demands of me or tries to dictate how I must play.

As a result, I join guilds exclusively for companionship. I might play group content with other guild members, but never raids (after a year as a raider I’m never playing a raid again) nor PvP (I don’t find MMO PvP to be enjoyable at all), and I don’t schedule playtime anymore (real life restrictions, I can’t predict when I will have uninterrupted free time).

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I think I’ll start of with a few statements that I think describe modern guilds

1. Guilds are like herding cats.
2. Guilds are often set up like a pyramid scheme.
3. Most MMO’s have very poor in game tools for guilds.
4. Guilds, for the most part, are for achieving the guild leaders goals
5. Rank and file guild members often do not gain anything by being in the guild ( other than some passive bonuses). Its only the leadership that reaps the rewards.

Now is this true of every guild. Absolutely not. There are some guilds that go out of the way to help their members, but the real issue is finding a compatible guild that fits yourself. The problem that arises is that find that guild that fits “you” is like finding a 10ct diamond, in the middle of a forest.

Robert Mann

There are a TON of games which have no actual social systems. Guilds are exactly this in these games, and there’s really minimal reason to ever care beyond what personal benefits you might derive (or an exclusive club to raid with.) That isn’t to say that people can’t utilize them to other ends, but rather that they don’t support anything beyond “this is your guild and it gives you these passive bonuses.”

Of course, the problem goes much deeper, and also has some plusses at the same time. The entire genre is at a crossroads with this topic, with many smaller studios or indie studios looking at social interaction as crucial and in need of returning. However, only a few have noted that the people who play predatorily like this are a problem and have taken any strides to mitigate that (good on those few!) At the same time, the system is great for those who want an MMO world with content expansions but to notice people only in passing which seems to be moderately popular.

So really the problem is that, once again, games were designed trying to please everyone. Instead of pleasing everyone they (of course) upset most everyone. The sooner we take steps to sub-divide the genre beyond just setting, and into gameplay systems, the better off we will be.


Hmm. IMO, Tobold doesn’t have much experience with MMORPGs in general. There are various games with various focal points. There are also numerous guilds or clans driven by different motivations within those games and not necessarily attuned to what Tobold believes serves as their own self best interests.

I have never joined a guild because of what they will give me or do for me. I choose to join because I like the people I’m going to play with. Sure sometimes after a few days I realize it is the wrong fit and quit to find another. But it is never because the guild didn’t promise progression, or gold, or some concrete thing. It is strictly a social construct for me.

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Tobasco da Gama

I think the problem is that many MMOs love to present players with carrots that are actually sticks in disguise.

In a game built on the WoW model, progression while leveling is an obvious carrot. You’re collecting new toys the whole way. But endgame progression is actually a stick in disguise. If you don’t collect enough carrots, you don’t get to play with the toys.

Guilds in these games are the same way. In theory, they’re a carrot. People to help you do stuff! New friends to hang out with! In practice, they’re often a stick. If you don’t find the right guild, with the right kinds of players and the right play schedules, you won’t get to play with the toys no matter how many carrots you’ve collected.

So, I think Tobold is mostly right in describing the problem, but the blame lies more with the type of content a particular game is delivering than with guilds themselves.

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This article has a peculiar perspective for me. I play MMOs precisely for the social aspect, and I see the upsides and the downsides of socializing in games as being pretty darned similar to real life.

As in real life, find people you enjoy hanging out with and stay away from the ones you don’t. Who goes up to a random group of strangers IRL and expects them to cheerfully further your personal goals? Treat people in games the way you’d like to be treated IRL, and you’ll have a more positive experience, IMO.

No need to blame drama on guilds. Blame it on humans being human. There’s plenty of drama to be seen in RL friendships, clubs, office politics, etc. Why expect it to be different in games? Just like in real life, you can choose to stay away from the drama llamas. Or not, but then don’t whine about it.

Don’t wanna group with strangers? Then don’t. Make some friends, ffs, or choose not to chase that particular loot unicorn. Just like IRL, everything is a tradeoff. Own your decisions.

A Google User

@mosselyn and others who think drama is a people thing, not a structure thing…

Games are nothing like real life. I played more tabletop D&D than anyone here I’m willing to bet. I did it for over 20 years straight, every weekend, or nearly. Even after MMO’s my friends and I got together until we all moved apart physically to parts of the country far away. There is no way in a tabletop game that one person in the group decides what loot you can have. Only the GM does that and all the distributions happen in a timely way. If anyone is upset, the issue is cleared up and made right. Nobody is told to suck it up and deal with it. But that’s a regular occurrence in raid guilds. Raiding in MMOs is much harder than a tabletop game, the real time aspect means that I usually logged off after a raid with a headache and my bladder ready to burst. It took about 2 hours to calm down enough to sleep. And that was before any loot was distributed (except the loot that you HAD to distribute because it locked/bound somehow to the person who loots it).

The looting issue is not about the raid gear, at least it wasn’t for me, it’s about the extras, the craft items, the gem-boosts you can trade, the money and the other tradeable items. Most raiders never see any of that, or if they do it’s after having to negotiate for every one of them. Imagine if you had to mount a lawsuit every time you wanted “unnecessary extras” in real life (like ice cream). Do you need it? No of course not. But after spending 4 hours raiding until midnight and not being able to sleep until 2 am at the earliest, I bet you’re ready for some ice cream.

By comparison, soloing means you never have to negotiate for the ice cream. But you don’t have any either. So the GAME is designed badly, not the people. If the game was just random and all things were tradeable, then you’d have a friendly swap meet afterward and everyone gets ice cream. Some games tried to do this halfway thing by adding long quests you can do solo to get rare items and time locked the quests too. Why bother? It’s a game and the joy of new gear, is only going to last about 6 months, until the next expansion.

The best example I’ve seen so far for alleviating this madness is LOTRO where everyone gets a treasure box and what’s in it is guaranteed to be appropriate for your class, plus maybe something good for an alt. However, learning that game from scratch today would make even the most dedicated gamer go walleyed, there are just too many currencies. Still, it finally did find a solution to the loot problem.


Tobold sounds pretty jaded personally. All of the instances he is talking about were specific to the systems in those games them selves, not the genre at a whole.

WoW’s raiding has always had a lot of drama centered around it, by nature it attracts power hungry gamers. There are outlier guilds, full of great people, that never get into any arguments or fights over loot, and just have fun. But those are not the norm for that game.

Now take pvp games like DAOC, BDO, and Archeage. You don’t have the raids built into the game, so that draw for loot drama isn’t present. There is other drama present in the form of player created drama via pvp. But that tends to bring guilds even closer together, not tear them apart, assuming the guild was strong to begin with. I’ve seen friends in the same pvp guilds for 12 years running, and still having fun, even meeting up with those guild mates at Con’s around the world. Now you can’t tell me that’s a bad thing.

There are even PvE games like ESO and GW2 that did things right. They have systems in place to foster community & socialization if you you choose to seek them out. Yes you can play almost 100% of these games solo. But you can also play them in a social guild, and find things much more enjoyable. There’s very little drama, and the worst negativity I’ve seen in ESO in the last month was people complaining about Zenimax and how they fired all of their in game GM team, and can’t get help when needed, but that’s a whole nother kind of drama…..

How about that for a column @nbrianna? It would be nice to shed some light on these developers just abandoning all in game support other than their CSR switchboards. When ESO released, if you found botters you could report them and within an hour or so (durring peak times) a GM would show up in person and banhammer them. Now days, we report bots and they are still there weeks later. Same name and everything. Just a thought… :)

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I’d say it depends on the type of game you’re talking about . It’s been my experience in online games that the best loot you can earn in-game is tied to some kind of multiplayer activity, often a raid. Some old MMO’s required you to group in order to meet some goal to advance your character, even before the level cap. In such games, it was common to hear players complain about being forced to group – especially before the existence of reasonable LFG tools.

But as Tobold says, the other big reason people complain the lack of forced grouping is because there’s no prey to satisfy the predator/prey relationship. Once word has spread on online that your gankbox is a gankbox, players who don’t like gankboxes stay away in droves.


To borrow from Groucho, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” I’m generally not a joiner, but I do enjoy playing with a few close friends or family. We prefer to informally group as we need it. We only organize a formal Guild when the game mechanics require it, or to get bigger housing. Drama is pretty much non-existent.

On another note, I don’t get the “I just like to see other people in the game” sentiment, because frankly most of those interactions are less than enjoyable. Griefing and general asshattery, even in Lotro, has become commonplace. For me the best kind of interactions happen in the landscape, when you might be getting your ass handed to you by some mobs and somebody else swoops in and joins the fray. I do the same for others. That’s when MMO’s shine for me, when it’s spontaneously cooperative, without expectations or demands.