Massively Overthinking: Why don’t MMOs try harder to foster great guilds?


MOP reader Mahaf1089 posed an interesting question beneath a WoW Factor column earlier this month, one that clearly resonated with our readers because it took off and just about had a life of its own.

“Why isn’t Blizzard making changes aimed at facilitating great guilds?” he wondered. “On the whole, I would say there are very few examples of actual innovative effort to help players find like-minded folks to form more than a passing engagement with.”

“We have patents filed for computer code that dynamically matches F2P players with whales to entice purchases, but very little apparent efforts to dynamically group them with others based on tracked playstyles and preferences to help players organically find others of the same normal play times, complimentary roles, and content preferences. Most seem content to leave that completely to the players who, in their defense, have made great efforts with things like fan sites and Discords. I get it’s not easy, but it also seems fairly worthwhile. We know that connections to other players drives retention.”

Let’s tackle his question for Massively Overthinking this week – and let’s not just make it about World of Warcraft because I’m sure we can think of lots of MMOs that have guilds and have motivation to create stickiness but aren’t necessarily doing it with guilds top of mind. First, do you agree with the premise that few MMOs focus on guilds as the nexus for stickiness when it comes to designing social and content mechanics? And if so, why don’t MMOs try harder to foster great guilds – and to that end, what should MMOs be doing? Which games are in fact making a solid effort, and where is it working best?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Mahaf is on the right track, but essentially it’s not worth it. For those who recall, I did an interview with Yokozuna Data in 2018. Companies are able to track your social circles and address you based partially on those circles, such as, “If Player A leaves, there’s a good chance players B, C, and D will also leave. They’re doing Dungeon 1 often and have the sword skill, so we’re guessing they’re after the new sword there. We’ve noticed their play time dropping lately, so let’s guarantee that they get the sword next time to ensure we don’t lose them or the players in their circle.”

That sort of thing is gross and manipulative, but that’s corporate America, right? That seems standard. But we have seen at least one MMO off the top of my head really push for guild support at launch: Star Wars The Old Republic.

Veteran players may recall that SWTOR had a guild system where guilds could establish a roster and several allies prior to launch. When the game went live, those players/guilds would be assigned a server. The guild had a basic structure in place such as guildmaster and officers, the name (obviously), and auto-invitations for anyone who had registered with that guild prior to launch. I was fortunate enough to be a guild leader accepted into the program, but in the end, it still didn’t feel worthwhile.

While my guild wasn’t large, we were active in several games. It’s why some of the biggest opposite faction guilds allied us, as we wanted to be on a server with a healthy, balanced world PvP scene. The problem was that, despite help, all of the guilds we allied with didn’t even last a month. We ended up hosting world PvP events ourselves, which was actually worse than our previous World of Warcraft situation. And if that wasn’t enough, our server, which had been designated as the world PvP server, ended up being shut down, forcing us to migrate.

I have other, similar stories from other games where dev support just didn’t seem to help guilds that much, but I feel like part of the problem is just how modern MMOs work. I’d like to say it’s a themepark MMO situation, but I had some similar issues with PlanetSide 2, which invited guild leaders to discuss pre-release features, but at launch, it felt like very little of what we said was heard, and many of us had moved on before anything we were promised made it live. Humans in general are finicky, so using AI to target data points related to human interaction sadly seems like the best way to address human groups- not by what we say or declare but how we actually act.

Andy McAdams: Guilds really are under-served in just about every game, to my consistent and eternal confusion. While guilds, clans, org, cabals, kins and whatever other names we have them were at one point just a mechanism for people to group up to tackle content and socialize, they are more than that now, and it seems like the industry hasn’t updated the playbook on guilds yet. I see most developers treating guilds like a checkbox item – yeah we have to have it, but we are going to half-ass it – not unlike crafting. The developers that do put any effort into guilds pretty immediately hamstring them because they put too many benefits in being part of the guild, then nerf them into near-oblivion to keep guilds from feeling mandatory. I absolutely think there’s more developers can and should do with guilds — across all playstyles.

For example, one of the things I loved about Anarchy Online was the concept of org cities. You could literally purchase and put down a whole freaking city that unlocked additional content (Alien Invasions). You had to have an org (guild) to build the city, and it wasn’t instanced, so anyone could come poke around it. In order to sell on the auction house, you used to need an org city with a market in it, where you could claim a terminal (of course, it also meant that you had to physically fly to the location of the item to purchase it). You can also make other buildings that provide different buffs – to runspeed, XP gain, etc. I don’t think the same implementation would work for today’s MMOs players (and in fact, Anarchy Online has changed most of it), but I think there’s a lot of opportunity along the same vein of thinking.

Developers could do so much more with guilds. For example, Guild Wars 2 has a few things you could do – like a guild hunt and some other content – but it still feels anemic. FFXIV does the same with some content (like treasure maps – sure they aren’t free-company specific, but same general concept). New World has some really interesting territory mechanics that manage to somehow feel entirely unimportant while simultaneously being entirely mandatory.

What I would love to see from guilds is value across all guild sizes – and maybe diminishing returns on huge guilds. The idea of combining player and guild housing into “guild villages” sounds like a fun system to me. I think tying things like guild, crafting, and economy closer together could be so much fun. Dedicated content could also be fun. But I think we also need to be aware that there are different playstyles. Not everyone wants a high-touch, high-engagement requirement to get some benefits from guilds. I think guilds need to allow for low-touch, low-engagement players to still get benefits from the guild. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here with guilds that’s just being left on the table.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I haven’t played in a “normal” MMO guild in quite some time, but World of Warships offers increased battle results rewards for people who are part of a clan. Additionally, these rewards increase as clan members re-invest in-game resources into building the “base.” It’s a good incentive, and many players join a clan for this reason even if they have no intention of playing as a group. In time, many eventually do small group activities or clan battles as they get to know each other better.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think a lot of MMOs are still stuck in the mindset of the first 10 years or so of MMOs, when guilds were barely even acknowledged by the games, let alone accommodated or enhanced. Ultima Online didn’t launch with guilds at all; people made them anyway, of course. In early EverQuest, you had to petition the GMs to grant you a guild. Asheron’s Call favored a more fluid and personal connections with feudal monarchies. Dark Age of Camelot guilds were minimized compared to alliances and factions. Star Wars Galaxies’ guilds were basically a lot sink and a chat channel. That’s not to say players didn’t make them much more – players always do – but there was next to no effort from the game to help.

It wasn’t until deep into the genre life span that guilds starting seeing things like progression or guild-centered content. And if I’m honest, I despise most of the guild progression systems studios came up with 10-15 years ago. They were dumb grinds, and they actually locked in an elite class of established guilds, making it impossible to jump in later. Opposite of sticky, and I think they realized that because most of the games that did that have since done away with it and gone back to cosmetic features only.

I’d still like to see more guild-centric content that makes guild leaders’ and members’ lives easier so that guilds aren’t seen as chores. In-game calendars and mail, multi-guilding, and so forth are all low-effort tools that belong in MMOs to let players help themselves. I don’t really want to see guilds privileged more than they are, so I’m not even a big fan of guild-centric combat content, although if I have to point to one doing it well, it’s certainly Guild Wars 2.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): This reminds me of how Facebook has a “people you may know” section. For about 90% of the time, they are indeed people I might know. I don’t add them though because I don’t want to. It might as well just be called “people you don’t want to add” because I don’t need an algorithm to find people I was motivated to connect with in the first place.

An MMORPG that has some kind of tracker that would link players up with like-minded players will probably end up on the situation. MMORPGs are hard to run, and diverting resources to an algorithm that hooks players up will be a waste of time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s the guild’s responsibility to build its community. It is not the game or dev’s responsibility. Anything else will feel forced. All the tools are already there. The people with that natural magnetism will inevitably make that community happen. The folks that stand around Goldshire all day bemoaning the state of the how MMORPGS “used to be social” will not foster any relationships.

If folks want an active guild, either make one and put the legwork in or join one and put the legwork in. Either way, it’s on the person, not the game.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): It certainly feels like MMOs will only encourage guild tools if they’re commodified or otherwise tied inextricably to the gameplay loop (a la PvP sandboxes). So looking at a few of those examples, I think it’s entirely possible for games to encourage and help craft guild searching tools, even if the point of a guild is nothing more than for social reasons.

But that kind of circles back to the idea that making a system in an MMO is worthwhile to devs and players only if it has some directly tangible benefit that is felt in-game, either as soon as possible or through some arbitrary filling of a bar. And that’s not really necessary. In fact, the tools to find a fitting guild don’t need to be more advanced that a simple search feature or posting board.

Social groups can form within a game whether there are tools or not, but having some tools can only encourage that, and social dynamics will always be the stickiest glue a game can make. I don’t want to suggest that studios ignore this opinion at their own peril, but I will point out that I will take an RP guild hosting fun events over a raid team any day of the year.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Yes, this is important, and no, it’s not just World of Warcraft. In fact, I’d easily wager that most MMOs really drop the ball on providing better tools for pairing players up with communities/guilds and helping guilds create great social environments. Guild finders, guild housing, guild calendars, guild auctions, guild banks, guild perks — all these are good, but they’re also just a starting point.

It often feels that MMO devs fire-and-forget guild features, deeming them adequate enough to ignore from then on. Rather, just like fine-tuning and building upon questing, class, and dungeon content, guilds need regular refreshing and additions to stay useful, relevant, and exciting.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): This is one of the great mysteries of the universe. Guilds keep people a reason to stick with a specific game and are a major factor in keeping people in the whole genre. Some people do play their MMOs as single-player games or in transient groups, but the social aspect is what makes the whole genre special. It’s one of the two big hooks, the other being a persistent world.

It is fair to say that guilds are still going strong in the third-party space (e.g., Discord), but that doesn’t help a particular game or the genre. The friends I drop into Elder Scrolls Online with now and then are the same ones I might play Phasmophobia with, for instance. And since I know these people (many IRL), it saves me the risks you take with making social alliances in-game. I bet our readers could tell us some horror stories of betrayal, sabotage, and in-fighting that would make it sound like having a guild is signing up to be mugged. Some of my best experiences in the games I played in the last two decades were in and because of guilds, but there’s a cloud for every silver lining, and there’s always that guy who seems cool until he gets mad about something, raids the guild bank, and then splits. Not to mention the folks that gear up in your mid-tier guild and then leave for the big time without a word.

What could they do to support guilds in-game? Build games around guilds. Maybe. I actually like it when games put me in a newbie guild – perhaps that’s a concept that could be built on. Otherwise, that horse is out of the barn and the barn burned down.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): It sounds like a really good question that I never thought of. Perhaps a system like that might help encourage players to join up more. I was never the big guild sort of player, so I do wonder wonder whether I’d have been more openly social if my games had done some of these things.

I think the most active guilds I joined were through players I knew either IRL or from having played together for a long time. I just don’t seek them out. There was a guild I joined for a while to PvP in the original Guild Wars. I think we ended up matched against each other a few times in a row, and since the fights were good, we began to chat until they invited me aboard.

So I don’t know. Maybe if games had systems that regularly matched me up like that, then conversations could start and friends and guilds could be made. Why don’t they exist already? I’d guess that devs don’t think about it early enough in the build process to make it happen easily. They might put features together that allow players to guild up, but the next pass where they improve on it just falls behind new content, bug fixes, and a million other things.

Tyler Edwards (blog): As alluded to in the intro, I think these days guilds are secondary to things like Discord and other out of game ways of connecting. Anecdotally, I don’t hear a lot about people meeting each other through guilds these days; it seems like most people are bringing existing friends and play groups with them into games rather than finding new ones in-game.

That’s not to say that guilds are completely useless or that no effort at all should be put into them, but I think it makes sense for them to be a fairly low priority in the current climate.

I’m also wary of doing more harm than good by trying to force people together. We’re all familiar with the troubles of forced grouping, and when WoW expanded its guild system with guild levels and rewards, I mostly remember it feeling like a punishment for smaller friends and family guilds.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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