The community is not the MMO. That should be obvious. There is a game to League of Legends that exists without any of the toxic nonsense that has cropped up around the game. There is a big portion of the actual mechanics and design that you can enjoy even if you hate the entire esports culture, the chest-pounding, the awful behavior that people justify around the game. The community something that developed around the game.
The community is the MMO. That should be obvious. League of Legends is a game that fails to operate properly without the community, not just from matchmaking but from the parts that make it enjoyable and surprising. It is a game that has been designed with a specific style of play in mind, a specific sort of community in mind, and with game mechanics that reinforce that need to communicate with others and coordinate in specific ways. You cannot cut the community out from the game.
Both of these statements are true. Life is hilarious.
As a general rule, I’m skeptical of listing the community as a point in context of an MMO. This works in both directions. Sure, lots of people will talk about how great the Final Fantasy XIV community is, and they’re right, but it doesn’t exactly take a month-long search to find a lalafell with an offensive name who takes pleasure in making everyone’s life miserable. The toxic elitism of World of Warcraft’s high-end progression community is the stuff of legends, but you also have high-end progression teams carrying people through content toward the end of an expansion for special cosmetics. Every community has peaks and valleys, in other words.
That isn’t the same as realizing it exists, though. Communities are good! They’re just not the game, which is more about the mechanics and systems underpinning the overall design.
Remember an earlier column wherein I talked about the idea that having fun doesn’t mean that a game is any good? This is an outshoot of that. You can be having fun in games that are bad, and you can be invested in a good community even in a game that is otherwise plagued with a noxious playerbase. You might have found the one friendly group of people to play LoL with.
And that’s great! It’s just not half a patch on the game’s overall community. Nor does it really reflect the game. There’s an old saying that you should never fall in love with a bar because half of what you’re falling for is the people at the bar; they will leave, things will change, and you will be left wondering why this place mattered so much to you.
None of this means that the community you surround yourself with is irrelevant; it just means that it’s a thing, a collection of people in a space that means something. It isn’t part of the game, and thus it exists in a separate sphere. Easy, right?
Except that all of that is only about half true. And let’s take another look at LoL and consider what the game’s community is actually like from a design perspective.
LoL is a free-to-play game with low system requirements, meaning that the barrier to entry is essentially nonexistent. It’s also a game that doesn’t actually have any up-front lore or PvE components beyond minor elements in the midst of a match, thus ensuring that the people who are going to be playing are ones who want the PvP matches and aren’t concerned with any sort of world. And it’s a game wherein rewards are entirely structured around winning more and not being held back by teammates.
So, in short, you have a game wherein its community will have no filter for entry, all of whom are there primarily to fight for rewards based entirely around winning. There’s no prize for playing well and losing, just winning. Do you think that community is going to be dominated by people who want to be patient and supportive?
I would say not. In fact, I’d say that you’ve designed a game that not only permits meathead chest-pounding as a primary interaction but actually codifies it. In fact, playing the game as someone with a love of lore and emphasizing quality of play over winning at all costs actually makes you less likely to be good at the game as it’s meant to be played.
Can you really, with a straight face, say that this means you shouldn’t take the game’s community into account? When you realize that the worst elements of the community aren’t something that just happened but a feature deliberately added to the game? When the mechanics are clearly meant to enforce this behavior?
That’s not to say that there’s anything forcing the community to then embrace hate speech and harassment, of course. But the game is designed for a community that’s almost tailor-made to foster these elements. And that’s when you get into the tricky territory because while the game’s community is not the game itself, the game is designed for a specific community – even if the designers aren’t aware of it or want to claim it isn’t.
Look at the changes made to Overwatch in the hopes of reducing player nastiness. At first blush, it might seem ridiculous to add in the whole reputation system in the game, that the community won’t support it and it won’t matter. But this is actually an example of the game designing for the community it wants. Suddenly you want to pay attention to good play and friendly players, even if it means you end up losing.
The game’s design shifted and a different community was more prioritized. That not only empowered the community but shifted the overall game away from a certain playstyle.
Design and community play off one another in varied and subtle ways; the advantage of talking about games like LoL and Overwatch, for example, is that we can see how these designs actually played out and that the designers thought of the loopholes ahead of time. It’s harder to see ahead of time, for example, whether Pantheon’s group-finding tools and community building will actually foster the sort of everyone-gets-along ad-hoc partying that it wants to have in place. I can tell a convincing story where it works and a convincing story where it doesn’t.
But either way, it’s a clear example of a studio recognizing that you do design for the community you want to have. Your game gets the community it’s courting, even if the size of that community isn’t what you want it to be. And sometimes it’s the community that’s actually interested in your game, even when you think your best content is something else altogether.
So in the end, no, a community does not make a game good, and the loss of your community does not make the game bad. But neither should we pretend that the community exists in some sort of liminal space apart from the game that’s been designed. The two things relate to one another, even if one can’t excuse the virtues of the other or vice-versa.