Massively Overthinking: The death of the MMO guild


This week’s Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter donor JakeDunnegan, who is worried about the future of MMORPG guilds.

When EverQuest came along, I was introduced to the concept of guilds, which was a bit different from league play in Tribes. Voice chat in EQ wasn’t really a thing unlike the need for Roger Wilco in Tribes. And guilds added so much to playing. Since grouping was so critical in EQ, being in a guild was a must for effective play for anyone but Necros and Druids, who were the only effective solo players at the time.

Requirements for getting in some guilds were extremely stringent, yet the real-world rewards were unlike much we see today. It wasn’t uncommon at all for people to be in the same physical area to get together or folks travelling to stop in and have dinner with fellow guildies. I did this on many occassions, even planning a small weekend stop-over at a guild leader’s house about a half a day’s drive away.

All this and I played EQ for only about two years. We eventually started our own guild, and it would ebb and flow as new MMOs came out, but the game that really, effectively, killed off the concept of guilding — for me, anyway — was the ironically named Guild Wars 2.

GW2 included the concept of being in multiple guilds. That happened before when folks would bounce from a guild to a guild or game to game, but GW2 was the first game where it happened to me on a nightly basis. I’d log into game and old friends I’d gamed with for year would be spending the evening with another guild, and a little part of my online persona died every time I saw it. GW2 was the game that essentially killed our 10-year-old guild, and guilding in games has never really been the same for me.

Recently, mega-guilds have seemed to take their place. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, you can’t even do the endgame planetary conquest content unless you’re in a huge guild, and you can forget about being PvP-competitive or having much of a merchant career in GW2 and The Elder Scrolls Online unless you’re in a guild with 100 people online at any given time. Ditto ArcheAge. Guilding was such an integral part of my gaming, and I can’t help but feel the MMO world is a lesser place with the corporatization of guilding. (If you think that’s too strong a word, consider my current guild, which has 657 registered members and a corporate structure.)

Am I alone in my experience? Do other people see the change in the way guilds are today and how the developers are treating small guilds? And are these mega-guilds the future of gaming? Do games like Star Citizen, Crowfall, or Camelot Unchained have any designs for accomodating old, small guilds, or will we all just be cogs in the wheels for the self-aggrandizement of those guild leaders with more time than sense who can put these things together?

I asked the Massively writers to chime in. And boy did they really want to talk about this one!

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): For me, one of the most important factors in an MMO is whether it allows small, committed groups to build something or achieve things together. That’s what turns a simple online game that can be picked up and played for short periods into a persistent virtual world we can make a home in and make a really significant part of our lives. We’ve lost that over the past 10 years as MMOs have shifted to crafted singleplayer experiences and made grouping not just optional but unneccessary. Close communities are a great barrier to exit, so I’ve been quite surprised to see MMOs lose that focus over the years.

Part of the problem is the ongoing casualisation of what used to be group content. Tina and I ran a small casual raiding guild in World of Warcraft back in Cataclysm, and it turned into a great little community. People joined to get a spot in a raid group and stayed for the banter during raids and because we all became friends. We were always sad to see any of our friends leave the game, but a steady trickle of new people looking for raid spots kept the guild growing. When Blizzard released the raid finder mechanic, our guild lost its trickle of new recruits, and there were fewer PUGs ready to quickly fill spots in raids. Blizzard replaced the need for people to join small communities like ours with a simple matchmaking queue that let anyone and his dog experience all the raid content in easy mode, and a lot of people were happy to complete only that.

In EVE Online, the problem is that corporations and alliances have been conglomerating into loose mega-coalitions for years in order to match their rivals’ power. When whichever group has the larger number of players almost always wins in PvP, small tight-knit corps can’t compete and either join a larger power block or get stomped into the ground by one. Wormhole space initially offered small corps the ability to build their own little havens and was absolutely amazing to live in, but today it’s more dominated by the larger organisations that have long since found the optimum way to fight in wormhole space. EVE at least seems to be trying to address this problem with its upcoming structure revamp, which should make it possible for small groups to build a little empire together and maybe even defend it against a foe with larger numbers. But only time will tell if this trend can truly be reversed.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I do think that small, loyal guilds are desperately ignored by developers, but I don’t agree it’s a new phenomenon; it was a problem in the old days too. EverQuest spawned the “uberguild” term that has become a functional reality in today’s “megaguilds,” the most corporate guild I know came from and still operates in Ultima Online, and my crew has long found it had to join alliances or give up. Developers, inspired by bigger-is-better/gregarious-or-gtfo western culture, have always been stuck in the arbitrary mindset that guilds are good and big guilds are gooder. They like it because it means MMOs are easier to design: It’s far easier to make “big” content for huge groups than “challenging” content for small groups, full stop, and as I’ve written before, it’s fed into the “guilds as content” achievement systems that this generation of designers has sold us.

Speaking for my guild, which has endured all the phases of guild evolution since 1997 as well, I think that we became disgruntled with the genre’s shift from sandbox to themepark design in the post-World of Warcraft era, and that, combined with our members growing up behind the scenes, changed our guild from being one that obssessed over a single game for several years to one that lives in a chatroom and plays whatever the members feel like playing from month to month. I don’t think multi-guilding did that; multi-guilding has allowed a guild like ours to exist “on the edge of nobody’s empire,” so to speak. We can merc ourselves out to guilds doing things we’re not big enough to handle, but we can always come home to our friends. Multi-guilding helps small guilds, not the other way around: It ensures no one ever has to choose a raid guild over the all-gnome RP guild (or whatever) that he considers his “real” crew.

All that said, one of my stock questions for any new game revolves around how that game is going to manage small guilds that don’t want to be eaten by a server conglom. Almost no dev gets the answer right.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The problem with older, small guilds – and I use “problem” here as a synonym for “difficulty in formally supporting” – is that the nature of guilds is not something universally agreed upon by every game. As games have become more focused and more populated, the idea of having certain guilds for certain things has become, well, a thing, especially in games like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV that allow you to belong to several different groupings. Older guilds founded chiefly on the principle of just being a group of people in a place have become less prevalent just because there are more options to provide the benefit that those guilds did at one point.

By the same token, we don’t like to talk about it, but friendships and groups of friendships do have a lifespan. Sometimes it’s amazingly long; my stepfather is still close to his best friend from kindergarten, my wife and I have been best friends since we met 15 years ago, and so forth. Other times it’s shorter. Sometimes, a breaking up of an older guild isn’t so much about the changes in mechanics as it is about changing in people and goals. I’m not the same person I was back in college; I don’t have the same time or priorities. I want different things out of games and groups.

The best any developer can do is make sure that guild features don’t lock out smaller guilds from taking part in whatever makes guilds distinct. I think that more than hard administration, what can make the biggest difference is what guilds are being used for and what people expect out of guilds. The more content requires a guild, either explicitly or by implication, the more people will see guilds as an obligation rather than something to have for fun and the less likely people are to just focus on being in a small guild bound by similar interests.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): No, OP, you’re not alone in your experience, and yes, guilds and the way devs treat them have changed radically, which is to be expected given the fact that MMORPGs themselves have changed radically. They’re no longer virtual worlds and are instead designed to provide bite-sized accessibility and infinite progression highs for people whose imagination begins and ends with combat. Maybe CU or some other indie will be something of a throwback, who knows. But when most of the genre exists to facilitate “story” and soloing, there’s little point in spending development time on guilds or guild-related functionality.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I don’t think you’re alone in feeling this way. There is certainly a culture of “mega-guilds” in practically every MMO, particularly ones that incentivize size and age (of the guild, not its members) with activities and rewards. Smaller guilds, on the other hand, have a very difficult time planting roots in an established MMO due to the competition (think of them as the mom-and-pops vs. the super-guilds’ Walmart).

I think it’s telling in an MMO what you see a guild as advertising in their recruitment notices. If it’s only about the buffs and accomodations and raid farm status, then it’s appealing to the player who wants the benefits of a giant guild to service him or her. If it’s about connection, friendship, and cooperative progression, then it’s a guild that’s more about the people than the status.

It’s incredibly important for MMOs to cultivate a wide variety of guilds and not discriminate against one type in favor of another. Dev teams’ attitudes toward guilds has a significant trickle-down effect in the social scene of a game. Personally, I feel that studios should give guilds a robust set of tools and then get the heck out of the way. People will come together to form their own guilds; we don’t need studios “incentivizing” us to make and level them.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I don’t see a huge change in the function of guilds. I agree that there is some shift for mechanics that cater to larger guilds, however, some of the top performing guilds are actually smaller and close knit. Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online have been criticized for their handling of guilds, but I believe there is some merit to the way they handle it. Being able to be in multiple guilds means that you can benefit from a large, corporate-style guild at the same time have tighter guild of just your friends. Do I think there should be some benefits in game mechanics for smaller guilds? Absolutely. And no game has really done that, yet. But at the same time, I don’t think that systems like GW2 and ESO are broken; they just need finer tuning maybe.

Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): Guilds just don’t matter anymore. Back in the days before cross-server gaming, your guild tag meant something. Guilds had reputations. Guilds were necessary for accomplishing goals. Nowadays, there’s nothing you can do with a guild that you can’t do with a queue button. I loved my first World of Warcraft guild. I learned from it, made friends in it, and brought new people into the fold. We’d have late-night TeamSpeak chats; a few people ended up dating. When I left that guild, it was to start a new one with my then-girlfriend. We built a place where we wanted to hang out and filled it with people we really liked.

Now, of course, a guild is just a passive bonus. I can’t think of a single time in the last five years when I’ve asked someone in a guild for help with something. Developers have built content so that it is either accessible alone or so that the group you need to access it can be found without effort. That’s good for people low on time, but it damages the social nature of online games. There are very few circumstances in modern games that actually require any form of real cooperation beyond everyone showing up and pushing their buttons in the right order.

I don’t know that guilds can ever surge back. It would have to be in a niche game; the mainstream market doesn’t support this type of gameplay. Devs also need to find new ways to make not just membership but participation in guilds valuable. Right now it’s enough to accept the invite and move on with your day.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I definitely feel that guilds as they were known back in the pixelated stone ages are endangered (if not extinct), and I truly mourn that. I think this ties heavily into the trend of games turning away from community and focusing more on solo play. If you don’t really need others to do anything, why saddle yourself with folks who will just distract you from your own goals? It’s also influenced by the more transient nature of gaming; with so many titles, few players seem to be into any one for the long haul. (Ironically, a key way of being invested in a game and sticking with it is precisely by being connected to a community!) Guilds of yore represented a time commitment as well as an emotional investment, something I see as falling by the wayside in MMOs now, in large part due to this very nature of MMOs focusing on bite-sized chunks of solo adventures. Ain’t no one got time for that… but some of us really want that anyway!

That said, looking back toward the beginning I still saw the largest of guilds being impersonal warehouses that didn’t care as much about the members as individuals as they saw members as resources to be utilized — or even exploited. Yes, the mega-guilds could probably get more things done because there were always enough bodies around, but the experience was not very ideal for anyone outside of the upper cliques within the guild. Smaller guilds (or any guilds) where members had roles that really meant something are where the closest of bonds formed. It is precisely the being needed and being valued that joins people together, and shared experiences then cement those bonds even more.

I wish that the system that Lineage II utilized was picked up by more games. L2 had an alliance system that provided a special chat channel and interface, allowing multiple smaller, tight-knit groups to come together and have a larger pool of players to do things with and support each other. This would be so useful in so many places! Take ArcheAge, for example: Minions is a small guild, and so sometimes heading out for certain activities like fishing is dangerous without more companions along in a raid. Sure I have cool folks on my friends list that I’ve made “alliances” with, but how much easier would it be if we had a channel of all those friends where we could just call out LFM? Instead, I have to rely on contacting individuals I know personally, who then try and contact others they know. And no, combining or joining the others’ guilds is not an option! There are reasons your group is together, be it personal connections, shared philosophy, or what have you. I sure wouldn’t want to open my farmlands up to guild when I don’t personally know and trust the whole group! And I definitely do not like the idea of people belonging to multiple guilds; when people split their time and their loyalties, there is little opportunity for bonds to form. And bonds are what make a guild strong, fun, and worth the time.

As for me, I will continue to form and stay in smaller guilds. When I guild, I want it to be meaningful. I want those bonds. Those friendships are what totally makes a game fun for me, moreso than even the content. If that ultimately means I miss out on uber content so be it, but I will be disappointed in titles that lock me out of content because I prefer a more personal experience in gaming. There are ways developers can promote smaller-guild experiences, and I can’t see any good reason to leave them out. In fact, it would be better for their game as more bonds mean players would be more invested in your game, ergo they stay longer!

What do you think?

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