Massively Overthinking: On the doom of server-wide MMO communities

    
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This week’s Massively Overthinking question comes from KS donor Morreion, who asks,

Do you think that MMO server-wide communities will ever make a comeback?

I suppose we must first agree that MMO server-wide communities have fallen off to begin with, right? Let’s do just that and then tackle Morreion’s topic.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Individual server communities obviously still exist in sharded games like WoW, so I wouldn’t agree that they’ve gone away. What has gone away over the years is the dependence that players on an individual shard had on each other for normal gameplay. I didn’t get in on EverQuest in its prime, but I’m led to believe that it was very difficult to do anything of worth without grouping. Raiding and runing dungeons in WoW was the same way a few years back, forcing you to rely on the people in your server to get along. Those barriers are rapidly falling away today due to cross-server play and convenience tools like dungeon and raid queues. The shards now serve only two main functions: balancing the load from players and artificially amplifying achievement by making it so more people or guilds can be at the “top” of their respective servers.

As for whether we’ll ever get back to the intra-reliance that made close-knit server communities in years gone by, I don’t think so. People would rage if you took away their conveniences or lengthened their queue times in a modern MMO, and there’s so much choice in the market today that angry players can just leave and play something else. Ultimately, I think the sharded model has seen its day and those two remaining functions are no longer enough to justify the model. Load balancing can be done pretty well through an Elite: Dangerous seamless lobby system, Guild Wars’ districts, or RuneScape’s self-move server system, and the benefits of homogenising your playerbase have got to be better than the fake sense of achievement a few guilds get for all simultaneously being the number one. I’d obviously love it if more games went the EVE Online single-shard model with no instancing, but there are plenty of easier alternatives out there that I think are far better than sharding.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think server-wide communities have always been an arbitrary and accidental side-effect of technology: We have “shards” because that was the more easily scalable platform for the earliest MMOs. There’s nothing inherently good about communities of 2000 vs. 5000 vs. 100,000; you’re just a number in all of them anyway, and really good games allow you to build your own smaller communities where you’re a face and a name regardless of an individual server’s capacity. So while there are obviously plenty of games with server-wide communities, I do agree that server-wide communities are trending out on the whole, but that’s only because server-bound MMOs are becoming less popular than they once were in step with technology. I don’t think insulated server communities are our future, and I’m not sad about it either. I want the biggest global community I can get, the biggest possible pool of friends and fellow players there is. I’ll build small communities inside of that. Why should we let arbitrary server caps and regions define our communities for us?

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I don’t think they’ll make a comeback because most of the people playing MMOs in 2015 are uber casual I-only-have-an-hour-to-play types. When you combine that demographic with the way that the games are principally designed to stimulate feelings of fake accomplishment via loot drops and dings, there’s little room for socialization or anything other than a me mentality.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Were server-wide communities ever a thing? I’m guessing the author’s intent is to ask if MMOs will ever return to the days of tight-knit servers where a reputation was spread far and wide, everyone knew each other by name, and people weren’t segmented into smaller communities (such as guilds and friendship circles).

The answer to that is, sure, if your game is small enough. We see this in alpha and beta tests, when a community is just forming, there are relatively fewer folks, players stick around for the duration, and people tend to be more chatty. It’s because of this that studios and players boast that this game has a great community, which lasts until about two weeks before launch when said community falls to infighting and snapping at the devs and then never has a chance to recover once the game goes live and the numbers grow too large to reasonably support a single community.

You can’t force communities to form and grow according to your whim. You can provide fertile ground (a game, forums, and social features) for one to blossom and then stand back as it takes shape (while pruning the troll branches, of course). Players may identify to a lesser extent as being part of a single large game community (“I’m a World of Warcraft player”), but more likely their in-game social identity comes from their role as a guild member or as a partner with friends and family.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Were these ever gone? I am a part of a server community on The Ebon Hawk in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and to be honest, I have seen the existence of server communities in every game that I’ve played. Perhaps this is because I’m a part of the larger roleplay community, but I don’t think they ever disappeared.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Did server-wide communities exist to start with? Don’t get me wrong, I know there were times that large segments of a server have come together for something, but in all I think the real communities have always been smaller bands, or micro communities if you will. To me, community bespeaks a tighter-knit group than a server, with all its varying (and often competing) goals and foci, can ever engender. Anything server-wide has just been a happenchance of various micro communities crossing paths and traveling together for a space of time before following their own courses. And now the more transient nature of gaming is making even those illusions of server-wide communities even less likely as the chances for collaboration become less frequent.

Even within the larger gaming guilds that go game to game (let’s face it, it is rare for one game to suck a group in for a significant amount of time anymore), people form smaller clusters that stick together. These are the groups that share something in common and have built a history. Real community is always going to be on a smaller scale because nothing else is going to hang together long enough to build up that history. The only time there will be a chance for macro community involvement will be in games with features that encourage cooperative play and don’t rush players through, which gives them a chance to build history and find common goals.

Patreon Donor Roger: I’m not really sure how to answer this. I’ve come up with three other responses where I’d hit a brick wall. As far as I see it, server-wide communities never left. They just evolved into multi-game communities. With populations much higher than the days of EverQuest, they’ve stretched out further. If you’re like me, soloing a majority of the time, I can see how communities might look dead. However, if you want to be a part of a community, I’ve learned you have to reach out to them. It’s rarely the other way around.

Your turn!

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carson63000
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carson63000

KOLASTAR I’m going to call bullshit on you regularly and comfortably putting a group together in 5 minutes prior to the introduction of the dungeon finder.

wjowski
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wjowski

There are no ‘real’ accomplishments in a video game.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

KOLASTAR 
For my part, I doubt I will ever again do a dungeon in any game that doesn’t have a LFD-like tool. Gosh, how I hated trying to get into a group before it — though much of that is because asking for help from anyone else with, well, anything, is an atrociously bad experience for me; just the thought of having to sit in town asking for a group in trade chat, nowadays, is enough to get me to log off.

But then, the one role I don’t play is DPS. I find it too boring. So my experience with the LFD has always been that of a dual-spec Tank/Healer, which means a WoW LFD queue for me tended to be measured in less than a dozen seconds.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Enikuo schmidtcapela 
I do have an issue with time-limited loot (or with loot that becomes unavailable down the line for any reason), though for a different reason; I tend to only give importance to things that can be replaced.

I mean, if I cherish an object that I could get another identical one at any time, it’s because I have a bond with it; if I “cherish” something that I can’t replace anymore, is it because I actually like the object or because I’m afraid of losing it?

So, both in the real world and when it comes to gaming, I don’t go for exclusive things, for anything that will be available only in a limited run. Those games with exclusive pre-order bonuses, or with retailer-specific DLC? I will flat out refuse to purchase them until those things are made available in some other way, and if they are never offered again, well, I have about 700 games on my Steam account alone, it’s not like I’m hurting for lack of games.

Not quite worth mentioning together with the availability of the content itself because solving that one also tends to solve the availability of the rewards, though time-restricted rewards are almost as effective at driving me out of a game as time-restricted content.

MyNameIsIllegal
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MyNameIsIllegal

KOLASTAR *shrugs* to each their own I suppose. I haven’t had any issues forming my own groups without the finder when I feel like doing so. If anything, it might be a bit faster, since if we are just missing 1 dps or something, we can get an instant queue for one.

KOLASTAR
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KOLASTAR

If everyone else decides to use the new option, than I no longer have an option. If most people decide to use the new option than the length of time to find a group increases, and my time is wasted doing things I don’t want to do. The real option that I was given was to quit because this is no longer fun.

Enikuo
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Enikuo

schmidtcapela Enikuo I’m not saying that the time-limited content wasn’t an issue for some players, like you. But, it wasn’t kosher to complain about not getting loot. So, I think a lot more players glommed onto the complaint about limited-time content, since that was considered like a more legitimate gripe. Anyone complaining about missing out on the loot was ostracized.

MyNameIsIllegal
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MyNameIsIllegal

KOLASTAR Yes, because they removed the ability to form your own groups… oh wait, they didn’t. YOU are the one making the choice to use the finder instead, they simply gave you a new option.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Cyclone Jack Werewolf Finds Dragon 
MMOs of old more or less forced players to bend to the will of guilds and other large groups because much of the content was locked behind grouping requirements, and the only reliable way to get into a group was to be in a guild.

Throw into the mix someone that is as introvert as me — in other words, a person that would rather stop playing a game than ask for help — and those games clearly weren’t for me. For example, I started playing WoW back in Vanilla, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I did more dungeon runs in the first week after LFD was implemented than in the years I had been playing before.

(And Vanilla WoW wasn’t even my first MMO, mind. But I tend to leave a MMO as soon as I become unable to progress without asking for help, so WoW was the first one I actually played more than a couple months.)

BTW, I loved Trial of the Champion (and Trial of the Crusader, to the extent I can enjoy a raid), but it was because we didn’t have to waste time on trash mobs. Well, almost; the second encounter of Trial of the Champion, and the Faction Champions encounter in Trial of the Crusader, felt very much like trash mobs on steroids, and were for me the worst parts of those two instances, but the rest I quite liked.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Werewolf Finds Dragon 
You kinda touched on my own experience with raids. Been a tank in a raiding guild once, even started doing hard modes, stayed far after it had already turned unfun, and now I’m unwilling to ever join a fixed raiding group again. I might raid in a LFR-like arrangement (click a button, get into an automatically assembled raiding group, and complete it without any need to ever commit to those people again), but if I have to look for a group myself — or, worse yet, join a regular group — I’m simply not doing it.

(Actually, my stint with a guild has changed how I determine it’s time for me to leave a group in an even more radical way. As long as I’m in a group due to my own choice, with no pressure, I will volunteer to help in any way I can; as soon as someone that can call the shots for the group ever demands that I do something, anything, then I’m out of the group, and nothing will convince me to remain.)