MMO Mechanics: How strong communities are barriers-to-exit

    
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MMOs occupy a unique position in our game libraries because they include a wide range of clever mechanics that keep us logging in day after day, week after week, and month after month. I have discussed how these act as barriers to exit before on Massively-of old: Daily chores and tasks with associated rewards are specifically included in the MMO mix to keep us logging in, and yet most players I talk to say that it’s their particular MMO’s community and social interactions, rather than the daily grind, that keep them logging in on a regular basis.

We’ve had quite a bit of discussion about stickiness in MMOs at Massively Overpowered, and there’s even been some speculation in Massively Overthinking about the death of the MMO guild. Feeling inspired by the sticky argument at hand, in this MMO Mechanics I’ve decided to look at how various MMOs use their community and social interactions as a stickiness mechanic, capitalising on our love for the people we game with in order to keep us logging in.
wow2

The guild that plays together stays together

Perhaps the most important barrier to exit in any game is its community; I know that I have played games long after I would have ordinarily retired from them just because of my connections to that game’s community (I’m looking at you, World of Warcraft). I was just as often to be found in Orgrimmar idly sitting astride my Dark Phoenix while chatting with, singing to, or giggling at my wonderful guildmates on Ventrilo as I was seen actively raiding or completing dailies.

My most treasured in-game moments were all made to be so by the people I had at my virtual side, and I doubt I would enjoy MMOs even half as much if not for the social mechanics that brought us all together. I can’t even count how many times I fell to the Lich King because bringing friends along with me were more important than having the most technically perfect raid team. We eventually got the raid cleared in the end and had a lot of fun doing it.

The team at Blizzard knows that building such strong social groups inspires players to become long-term customers. Simply having guilds as glorified chat channels isn’t enough to keep players actively engaged, though. WoW and many other titles use the weight of social responsibility to tie down dedicated players through guild ranks, for example; if a player is a guild officer or leader, he or she will be much less inclined to step away from the game. Guild tabards are a constant reminder to players that they are a part of something greater than their singular player experience, and guild benefits and achievements are quite effective carrots to dangle in front of MMO enthusiasts.

But then groups became faceless

While MMOs continue to incentivise group play, over the years their designers have removed some excellent opportunities to forge new types of social engagements. Matchmaking systems like WoW‘s raid-finder mechanics have minimised the need to join a guild, allowing players to quickly hook up with a group without needing to have previously fostered a friendship with its members. Group content has become increasingly disposable and non-interactive in MMOs, and small guilds are becoming increasingly irrelevant as gateways to content.

Blizzard has cited the old guild level mechanics as the reason for the downturn in guild activity, but I see these instant grouping tools as much more damaging to the social side of WoW. Allowing players to group across the barriers between shards has had a similar effect, removing social obligations from groups since you have very little chance of encountering one another again. WoW has turned what was once an immersive and collaborative social experience into something anonymous and disconnected.
eq2guildhall

Shared spaces create camaraderie

Games such as RuneScape and EverQuest 2 have taken a more positive approach to building social obligations into the game by introducing shared social spaces in the form of guild halls. The shared physical space contributes to a feeling of unison and is a point of pride among guild members. Working together to build a guild hall is a powerful motivator and often a significant time investment that players won’t want to walk away from. In EQ2, the guild hall is also a space to display trophies earned by the group for killing bosses, offering a visual record of all of those shared achievements.

Guild halls in EQ2 also provide members with benefits and are decorated by a dedicated designer, so a well-designed and stocked hall quickly becomes a status symbol and a good place to spend your downtime in-game. It’s one thing to interact with your guildmates in a chat channel but quite another to see them in-game. This is such a clever mechanic for injecting commonality into a guild and keeping socially active players engaged that I’m surprised more games don’t focus on similar gameplay.
evewide

Sandbox tribalism and out-the-door group readiness

Of the MMOs that use their playerbase itself as a barrier to exit mechanic, EVE Online has historically been quite effective. EVE once touted its higher than average retention rate, suggesting that players who get the most involved in the community often stay for years at a time. Alliances in EVE can own, occupy, and defend their own territories, bringing in the lure of collectively owned physical space. Players are also incentivised to log in every day and stay up to date with their alliance’s war situations, as enough people missing a big fight could mean jeopardising your alliance’s hard-won territory. Placing the responsibility for its defense firmly on the alliance members’ shoulders seems to be an extremely effective way to tie them to the game.

CCP did not set arbitrary limits on party sizes in either PvP or PvE, so no one is forced to choose only the very best players to engage in content. Vast powerblocks have emerged to war over territory, and they can make use of even the freshest players with only a few days of play time under their belts. In PvP, newbie tacklers can warp scramble enemies using small, disposable ships, immobilising the threat while stronger players destroy it. In PvE, newbies can tag along on older players’ missions and salvage the wrecks for a tidy profit. The PvP-centric nature of EVE has inspired a sort of tribalistic dedication in its playerbase that pairs neatly with its death penalty mechanics to make a herd mentality vital to your in-game success. Everyone in a PvP fleet depends on each other to get through a fight without losing their ship, creating a stronger sense of community than PvP in other MMOs.

Keeping us connected in the future

I think reliance on other players for support is a critical piece in the MMO makeup, making players feel obliged to log in for the good of the social collective they represent. Giving these players a physical space in the game’s virtual world that they share or occupy is a fantastic way to foster the bonds that glue guilds, alliances, or corporations together. Achievements are also much more meaningful when they are shared and can be recollected as a group, lending a feeling of nostalgia to MMOs that keeps players active even when content dries up.

There seems to be a trend toward the casualization of MMOs in recent history, and I think that might be a mistake. If an MMO is to keep players logging in and establish a strong barrier to exit, it will need social mechanics that encourage players to rely on each other, work together toward monumental goals, and create stories they can look back on with the rose-tinted glasses of reminiscence. If they can do that, it would keep this genre relevant for a long time to come.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to tina@massivelyop.com.
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Morreion
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Morreion

‘strong communities are barriers-to-exit’
Truer words were never spoken.  I spent almost 4 years in DAoC because of the great community there pre-WoW.  It is rare for me to make it to a year in any game since.

Werewolf Finds Dragon
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Werewolf Finds Dragon

So, I had to come back and comment on this. Largely thanks to a video that explains my position better than I could, as I’m not always the most eloquent or succinct person in the world, I know this, no one need tell me.

The point this video makes is that a barrier to exit is a good thing. You should have short bites of gameplay that happen in chapters with a beginning and an end, a point where a player can just stop playing the game and focus on real life. You shouldn’t be using systems to keep them playing after the shelf life of the game has ended, either. It’s unethical, and it does ruin lives. I feel that skinner box systems, padding (repetition of content or pointless content), enforced grinding, and even systems of social engineering encouraging peer pressure are all detrimental to video games.

I think that, as the video points out, it’s just lazy game design. If you’ve put together a good game, it’ll be played for being a good game. Why am I playing ESO right now? I want to know what’s in store for Razum-dar and Queen Ayrenn, I find the crafting a sedate and enjoyable experience because it doesn’t force  me to waste my life on that endeavour. It’s just a bit of fun. It uses no system of hooks to ensure that I’m there to login the next day. Instead, I’m encouraged to play because it’s a good game.

And I’ll stop playing when I’m bored of it.

The problem with bad games, lazily designed games, is that they use systems of addiction, compulsion, and control in order to keep the player playing. They sink in their meat hooks and do all they can to see to it that anyone who tries to wriggle off is in as much pain as possible. It’s grotesque, when you actually sit and think about it. A person shouldn’t feel like they can’t exit a game, that’s not a sensation we should engender in anyone, because that’s treating people like cattle. The fence door is shut, there’s no escape for you! You’re just there to be milked, by other people for their own greedy social needs,  and by the publisher for your money.

I think that this is a toxic community where everyone ends up hating each other and there’s a lot of conflict and griefing. That was my experience with WoW ehen I played that game. Outside of the odd bit of roleplaying, the people just weren’t pleasant. They all seemed fatigued and fed up, like mine workers that  couldn’t stop working because some flaw that exists in certain types of brain wouldn’t let them. They had to keep going. They weren’t having fun any more, they were more like drug addicts desperate for their next hit.

Whereas in ESO, you have people throwing roleplay balls and parties, and interacting in friendly ways. I love that. And that exists because people can leave and return whenever they want, they’re not compelled to keep playing. There’s actually been complaints about that on the forums, which I’m really quite glad that ESO doesn’t pay much heed to. I know that the addictive, grind-based MMO serves the neurotic, shy extrovert in forcing a community together so that they can socially recharge in a save, anonymous environment. And yet, in my humble opinion, that’s not healthy.

And it’s even worse for the minions who get caught in this.

An MMO should have a giant exit, with a neon EXIT sign above it. It should always be present. If it is, the MMO will continue to have a community of nice people, because they won’t be fatigued and worn out all the time. All that forced things will create is toxicity, as I’ve tried to explain in the past. The more you force, the more toxic everything becomes. Forced grouping, forced grinding, barriers to exit, all creates an increased level of toxicity.

So my opinion is the opposite, we need to do away with barriers to exit. They’re unethical, and without them, we’ll have better games and better communities.

left1000
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left1000

the raid finder tool doesn’t really do much to damage “real” guilds. why? because if a raid finder tool assures victory the raids are too easy, and they’ve been too easy for many years.  a guild in everquest 1 was a white list of people you trusted to complete hard tasks with. if any random group of players can win the encounter there’s no need to socialize endlessly and maintain such a whitelist.  even if the tool didn’t exist people could just randomly fill their raid with anyone who happened to be around, if that strategy allowed for victory then why bother spending all your time curating a special list of elite players you think will allow you to win?

RicharddeLeonIII
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RicharddeLeonIII

Its not the demand from casuals that changed the genre imho, its companies that wanted more profit. A lot of casuals/solos were ok with eq1 for example, but wow came along and offered an easier path and it just went downhill from there. Competition is a wonderful/terrible thing depending on which side of the fence you are for community building.
On a side note a lot of single player IPs have been converted to an mmo already with no single player alternative so its not surprising there is some backlash in how mmos are designed. Even without player input a lot of companies are making single player IPs into multiplayer or mmo games(ex: mass effect 3 is one prime example that initially pissed off fans)
As for wanting to play a specific IP on an mmo if there was no single player option, that isnt selfish on the consumers part. Its selfish on the company side for requiring the drm that an online-only game provides. I want to play star wars or star trek rpgs for example, but there hasnt been one in years. I can only replay kotor 1/star trek armada for so long before i want something new.

EO_Lonegun
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EO_Lonegun

My old guildmates are bungee cords who have the power to get me to come back into a game and play for a while. I mentioned in another post that I am now part of a multi-game guild so now I can play whatever game I want and continue to be part of a community.

jgauthier45
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jgauthier45

RicharddeLeonIII This is a pretty shallow reason for players seeking a single player experience to demand that the core of our genre be changed to suit them.  I don’t have a tomb raider MMORPG, yet I don’t go around demanding that the tomb raider experience be made into one.  Because if it was made into one it would ruin everything that is tomb raider.  Similar to what solo players are doing to MMORPG’s.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

I whole-heartedly agree with the OP — when it comes right down to it, community is what really makes an MMO, an MMO.  Games like MOBAs don’t have the same type of community available in game, and the same with just general multiplayer games.  Community is what keeps me playing a game long after it would have lost my interest, because of my guild — because of the community we had created within the game.  Without the community, there’s really nothing differentiating an MMO from a single player game.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

Werewolf Finds Dragon  I can’t help but disagree with about 99% of what you said.  Your characterization of Extrovert vs. Introvert is off and overly simplistic.  To imply that extroverts only care about the material and don’t care about the philosophical or ‘ethereal’ inherently paints extroverts as shallow, and coupled with your description of introverts being concerned with the ‘ethereal’ and not on the ‘physical’ implies that you’ve created your own Chain of Being wherein the extrovert is inferior to the introvert, which I cannot abide.  
Beyond that, you paint millions of players of WoW with the same brush, assuming the same motivations, goals, and styles of play across all the players, which is patently false. WoW players are varied and approach the game and have goals in it that are varied as well.  There are hundreds of stories of people who play WoW because they are in fact, introvert, sometimes painfully so and the framework of WoW allows them express themselves better than they can in real life.  
Your characterization of the Horde and the Alliance as being some sort of absolute dichotomy between good and evil is also flawed.  The story of the Warcraft universe fo a complex exploration of the nature of good and evil, and how the “good races” of the Alliance can be evil as well as good, and that the same is true of the Horde.  In fact, the story of the Sin’Dorei so moved me, that I have the crest tattooed on my side.  The Sin’Dorei are pragmatists by necessity, but that’s neither here nor there.  But exploring the acts of Varian and his development as a character – focus of the Warcraft universe is the exact opposite of a false, absolute dichotomy between good and evil.  Rather, WoW shows that everyone has the capacity for good and evil.  If you don’t believe me, spend some time reading the hours worth of lore and history of Azeroth.  
I also disagree with your assertion that MMOs should be ‘freely exit-able’ because doing so negates the single biggest premise of MMOs — which is community.  When it boils down to it, community is what makes an MMO an MMO.  Every other aspect of the game is present in other genres within gaming.  The key to a successful community is stickiness, not just in games but in every aspect of our existence.  We have communities in sports pride, pride in our cities, states, countries all of which are sticky.  People are still part of the sports team community even when their team sucks (or else, we call then a Fairweather Johnson).  Things are sticky because we care.  It should be the highest goal of any MMO to make us care about the community we are a part of.  I played WoW for years because of my  guild.  Because i enjoyed spending time with them, I wanted to help them to make us all better.  My community, my guild, was what kept me playing for years, happily.  I don’t think that creating an environment that fosters community is manipulative or evil or anything like that — given the choice of knowing my friends from WoW and all those nights we spent playing, bullshitting and just having a great time and never knowing them at at all, I would take the former.  We were a ‘great guild?’  From my perspective, yes.  But hell, we never once cleared Naxx, so weren’t all about the shinies.  The guild was great because we had fun, we shared each others lives online and offline, and it was glorious.  My guild helped me (largely without knowing it) through some of the hardest times in my life.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

I see people comment over and over and over when talking about what games they play, that they keep going back to WoW because “everyone I know still plays it.”  As long as the game retains some crucial critical mass of “everyone we know” who still plays it, it will retain that position of the “default” MMO that everyone plays when they have nothing better (new or interesting) to do.

FeveredDreamer
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FeveredDreamer

First of all, this is a pretty neat subject for discussion and a well written article even if I don’t necessarily agree with all that was asserted.  On one point I’d for sure agree though, I can’t think of a single MMO “mechanic” that ever kept me from shelving a game, plenty of communities on the other hand have given me second thoughts or kept me around months and/or years longer than might have been reasonable.  Oddly however it wasn’t WoW that did this for me, I don’t actually remember a single one of my WoW guilds.  On the other hand, games that came before and after WoW are full of rich memories of guild play for me.

My time in Shadowbane ended up leaving me with gaming friends for years.  On one hand Shadowbane was one of the earliest MMOs I ever got into, so maybe that was a part of it, but on the other there’s much to be said for the power of sandbox games to create communities.  The second game that I built real lasting friendships in was Lord of the Rings Online, where I ended up joining a small-medium but really awesome RP focused guild.  I had many problems with LotRO from the very beginning, though I still love it, but time and again my guildmates kept me around and even now when I check in (like yearly) they’re still around to welcome me back, no amount of fancy mechanics can create “stickyness” like that.