Back when I was a youngin’, I knew every one of my neighbors. I used to walk the mile to school every day, although contrary to the traditional story I wore shoes and it wasn’t uphill either way. I used to hang out with my friends down the street without my parents having to worry about me. Ah, good memories of that community. Lest you think this was some Utopia or small town, I should point out that I grew up on the south side of Chicago. Today, I couldn’t name the first name of one of my neighbors, despite living in the same house for nearly ten years. I don’t trust my kids to be 3 houses away without supervision.
What’s your point, Granpa Oz, you say? Things change, move on? Hang on there you whippersnapper; I’ve got an analogy coming. When I used to play EQ, it was for the community. I knew all of my virtual “neighbors”, and they knew me. Gear was frequently passed up and down on the basis of friendliness. People would help you just because. Many years later, that community is all but gone, and the game soured for me. One of my final rants against the Powers That Be was about a lack of “community focus” in my guild’s actions, which was shrugged off. The community was gone, leaving only a bunch of “me”s. Playing WoW, I fail to see any community at all, and I wonder if any of the newer games dawning on the horizon have even given it a thought.
You can’t program humans. If you could, my day job would be much easier, but it just doesn’t work out. Also that whole Evil Emperor of the World plan would move much more smoothly. Given time, even the most determined follower will rebel. In Real Life(tm), you wouldn’t strip naked and sit in a kiddie pool on your front lawn. Well, most people wouldn’t. Why? Well, besides the fact it’d be a tad chilly, you’d get in trouble for it. There’s repercussions. Your neighbors would call the police to stop scaring their kids. Online, you can hide behind an avatar. No one need know your true face. Male, female, androgynous – the avatar can be whatever you like. Introverts can be outgoing. Dogs and cats living together. Truly, you can be a complete jerk, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. If you really go way out, you might, and it’s a big might, get in trouble from the Game Overlords, but this is rare.
Flashing back to my early days in EQ, there was a strong set of community. In fact, I remember there was one person determined to be a jerk. Used to train the giants to the pier in Oasis, for those who know the game. Some of you people who haven’t played EQ for forever may wonder why we would hunt in Oasis – it was a great exp zone back in the Old Days. You know, when they used to carve the code in stone slabs. Anyhoo, this player was ostracized by the community. People would go out of their way to defend others against him. Eventually he left, simply because it was impossible for him to get a group to progress. The server’s community had shunned him. When he came back months later, they jumped right back on him. Self-policing, you could say.
Why do I mention this? It’s one example of the way that the community enhanced the game. There was no code to reward people for working together against this player. They received no gold, no experience, no quest reward, no title. Had they done nothing, the game would continue, unchanged. The same drops would happen, the same mobs would spawn. People enjoyed belonging to the community, which only existed in the minds of the players. It became the reason to play the game, not a side effect of it. It was a hook. To be financially blunt, people having fun playing with other people enhanced subscription numbers, and enlarged that bottom line.
Let’s look at WoW’s community event that is most popular – AQ War Effort. You turn in 10 of an item from a tradeskill of some sort and get a box. The box will have a random magic item and a buff scroll. Also you got some faction tokens. The number of the tradeskilled item that the server needs to collect to open the expansion decreases. This is called a community event. Did you feel involved in the community? I turned in items so I could make a profit, and it worked out well. I didn’t benefit anyone else. Take any communication that Blizzard sends out and replace “community” with “install base” and you’ll have the true meaning. There really isn’t a “community”, but you might have a tight knit guild. Although, in WoW, guilds are changed as often as socks, but that’s a discussion for another time. There’s no hook. It’s one of those immaterial things that kept EQ on top of the anthill for so long.
But how do you, as a game designer generate it? Ah, dear reader, that is the crux of it. Require too much player interaction and you’ll hear cries from those that wish to solo. Enable solo play and hear those decry your game as an RPG in a chat room. How do you generate a community that’s only advantage is itself? Is that even possible anymore? Or have they gone the way of the Orange Julius and all but faded from memory?