Since we’re busy getting a front-row seat to World of Warcraft adding the dungeon finder again, only this time it’s WoW Classic, we are also getting a front-row seat to That Guy coming out of the woodwork. That Guy (who is not to be confused with That Man) is the one who is always quick to tell you that the dungeon finder killed the game’s community. A close relative is the guy who will tell you that cross-realm grouping killed the game’s community, which is even funnier since that was in the game in 2006 and has literally been there for ages.
It is, of course, really funny to have a giggle about these people being wrong and kneecapping the games they claim to love, and I enjoy doing so. But the thing is that we all know full well that there are actual ways to kill a game’s community. MMO communities can absolutely die out, and when they do so it’s sad because you know that something bad is coming next. But it’s worth examining that because what actually kills communities dead is actually the opposite of what most people yearning for prelapsarian fictional versions of MMOs claim as the culprits.
And just because it will further annoy certain person, this column is a musical. So, you know. Strap in.
Now, I’ve talked before about the difficulty of sorting out the amorphous mass that is the MMO community, but this is still a topic that can be handled. In this case, the community isn’t really a group of players; it’s a vibe. And that vibe is, in fact, everything.
As a case in point, let’s look at two games that are not actually in wildly different tiers of subscribers: Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest. I cannot look at the former and say that every single person in that game is chill 100% of the time and everyone is friendly. It’s very obvious even from my perch that LOTRO has its share of tryhard Bungalow Bills within the playerbase, just like I’m sure there are EQ players who are endlessly chill and inclusive.
But the vibes? Those are different. The vibe in LOTRO is to hang out, have a good time, eat second breakfast, maybe smoke some dank pipeweed with a dude who has a beard. That’s the essence of the game’s community. By contrast, I’m not hopping into EQ as a novice; either I know what I’m getting into or I am not wanted.
You see this everywhere, in every hobby. It’s not necessarily that the guys playing the intricate World War II simulation game in the dark corner of the game store are dillweeds (odds are high, but it might not be true), but if you’re just coming in, you are probably not going to head there unless playing a WWII simulation is interesting to you. That colorful Warhammer game? More interesting. The people playing Pokemon matches? They seem more welcoming.
What’s interesting is that if you’ve been around long enough, you remember back when the Warhammer people were the creepy dudes in the dark corner who, at best, were listening to Dancing On My Own while playing. The vibes have shifted over the years. But the thing about communities is that if we accept that they are in no small part based on vibes, they can shift over time.
I’ve watched this happen myself with some of my own games. When I started playing Final Fantasy XIV, the vibe was very much focused around weird nerds who had been playing Final Fantasy XI and had a fixation on figuring out particularly arcane nonsense. It definitely was not an openly queer hangout with an emphasis on stuff like appearance being the endgame. Some of that was a result of the team changing, but…
Well, let’s not pretend it’s not a dialogue. Players come to a game and define the vibes, designers embrace those vibes, more players come as a result, and the community continues to evolve along with it. When all is well, this is symbiotic and ongoing. There was a time when RIFT was happy on both a community and individual level to have two starkly opposed factions, but as time went on both the community and the team shifted until the designers said, “Would anyone miss this if it were gone?” And so it changed.
Really, then, what you’re getting with the people bitterly angry at how X or Y killed the community is you’re getting people angry that the vibes changed and they’re not the center of it any more. It’s why you rarely get the same kind of vitriol for people who say that the game used to be more inclusive but isn’t fun to be in any more; those people might be annoyed or sad, but they don’t have that same bitter one-issue focus where everything needs to forever return to the point in the past where everything was perfect.
And maybe you’re right, but… that is how communities die.
Once your community stops being about experiencing the party and instead becomes an exercise in telling people how to enjoy it, the vibe is going to start dying. When developers hear what players want and what they’re into and respond with a harsh “no way,” or when players start telling new players that they’d better fall in line or expect to never get anywhere… why would anyone come here? You’re killing anyone’s desire to join in because you just told them that new players aren’t wanted. Either you’re a part of the in-group or you aren’t, and you can’t become part of the in-group without crushing every part of you that dissents.
Communities don’t die because they change. Communities die because a critical mass of people there don’t want them to change, and that mass is what the developers start listening to… or the developers decide that they’re going to change the vibes whether the community likes it or not. People can, in fact, get the sense that they’re not wanted any longer, and they do usually have the sense to be on their way.
This is different from when games die. Sure, communities move on when the game is no longer getting updated, but it doesn’t end with the game itself becoming something that’s toxic. It’s the difference between the party ending and the party still going but no longer being something you want to be a part of. Whatever you liked before isn’t there any more, even if it’s the same venue.
Sometimes a community moves on from you. But that isn’t a fault. Heck, it doesn’t even mean that it’s wrong. It can be a moment to grow and change into a new person. I’ve moved on from a lot of communities over the years as they stopped really being a part of my life, both in MMOs and elsewhere. Yet I’m not out here demanding that you go back to the time when I was at the center of the universe in these games; at most, I’m asking for developers to stop ignoring the fact that they’re driving off people who still want to party with them if they’d just stop refusing to let the party be any fun.