Massively online communities : the genre paradox

by on Jan.17, 2007, under games industry, mmo, mmorpg, WoW

massively online communities

The nature of things

When online gaming was getting started, there was a certain novelty in spending vast swathes of time with the same people on the same game servers, night after night. It seemed inevitable that we’d eventually all team up. And team up we did. Forming groups is the most basic of human qualities, and is certainly no less true in virtual worlds.

Collectively we called ourselves “clans”, and the warlike motif suited us. It reinforced the competitive environment that we found ourselves in. As we slowly emerged from the primordial muck that was online gaming, we coalesced into our small tribal units.

The clan itself was represented online by a simple website. It was the centrepiece of our endeavours, even if used only as a placeholder for the clan logo. It was our identity. Without it, we were nothing at all.

Over time, our intimate, familial world of gaming clans started growing. More games. More people. Forums software sprang up overnight, allowing us the convenience of posting messages to a larger audience.

This became something of a satellite industry, offering meta-gaming services like clan hosting, gameservers and forum software. Community middleware like this made creating greater online concourses so much easier. vintage forums poster

As a student back then, but also observer and participant, I was intrigued. These communities were evolving in front of me, and nothing like this had ever existed before. In student mode, I would study and write about this stuff. I recognized myself as somewhat of a rare species, as every night I’d live out the theories I studied by day. I once penned a set of “requirements” for online communities, spurred on by rote observation and experience. I once wrote, “Creating communities isn’t difficult. Keeping them is”.

The so-called requirements for online community:

Absolutes Desireables
1. An audience
2. A mediative mechanism
3. A purpose
4. A common frame of reference
5. Accessibility
a. Timeliness
b. A measure of trust or privacy
c. Individual manageability
d. Individualized recognition (Identity)

These ideas don’t just pop into existence. They’re more like a description of existing natural law. It wasn’t until much later, having read the likes of Stewart Brand and others, that I realised how close to the mark these were. Online communities, without benefit of physical proximity, could live or die by these precepts. This, I know from experience.

Now, we’re speeding ahead into a new generation of online games. Communities that rival the size of small countries. This is community growth like we’ve never seen, and it will never stop.

Corporate communities

In the game industry, forums software is emphasized as much as the games. The prevailing wisdom insists, “create your community”, either as a fan-based feedback mechanism, or more. The wisdom says to provide this service. Provide it, or you will fail. It’s a rigid business decision.

Blizzard Entertainment operates forums on behalf of their World of Warcraft community. It provides a mechanism for them to speak with their constituents (or vice versa), and reinforces the game’s content amongst the players. Technologically it’s just forums software, though I suspect that their meta-gaming service is arranged as complexly as something you’d find between NASA and Slashdot. The importance and expense of this should immediately be self-evident.

forumtroll When I visit the WoW forums, I’m struck by one thing. The vast community that exists within these hallowed desmesnes isn’t particularly… communal.

One topic can easily spawn dozens of pages. As of today, I note that “WoW-General” contains over 1,682 pages of content.

It’s not just the volume. I find it hard to gauge the purpose if people don’t even play the game together. And those that do seem to exist just to taunt each other.

Discussing the game is fine. That’s community. Yet, am I alone in thinking something better is missing?

To offset the volume, Blizzard segments the community into topics organized by server realm. This is an adequate solution, since the game itself echoes these constraints. Even with the tenacity of teenage gamer lust, the typical WoW player would be very hard-pressed to keep up with much more. So, does segmentation help make this manageable? I would say, yes. It breaks down noise.

It’s important to note that WoW is not alone in this. By definition, all MMO style games want this.

This is a problem that’s going to get worse, because MMO communities are essentially broken. The developer feedback part works, but the community aspect totally fails. The sheer quantity of unmanaged dialogue prohibits it. My appraisal may seem spurious, but what if every WoW player were actually a “member of the community”? The volume on the forums would be easily multiplied a hundred-fold. A thousand.

All this leaves me with three questions:

  • In light of the community requirements I cited earlier, this lack of accessibility/manageability should have imploded the forums and killed the community long ago. But it hasn’t. Why not?
  • If busy MMO forums are too impenetrable for the average player, then where is the community, exactly? You know, the one that’s accessible, has a common frame of reference, and a resounding purpose?
  • What will happen when the promise of contiguous, un-sharded worlds is fulfilled?

Update: Continue to part two to find the answers to these important questions (and more).

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Justin

    Uno, you're right about the learning curve, but the real-time time sink actually works for novices. The skill training system is entirely clock based, and not dependent on being logged in. That means a n00b gains skills no matter how much they play or what they do, so a little patience is sufficient to get one skilled up enough to do useful things.

    The other side of that coin is that the time curve for learning skills is exponential, meaning that the longer you play, the longer it takes to learn new skills. Compared to someone who's been playing for a year, n00bs gains skills at a terrifying rate. I think it's actually a pretty good system. After only 4 months, I was flying and mining in 0.0 space.
  • Uno

    Granted Eve online is one of the least friendly games to the novice. It boasts one of the steepest learning curves and features a 'real time' time sink. Making it impossible to catch up with the veterans. Theres a lot not to love but the features if applied elsewhere would serve to advance gaming in general.
  • covert.c.

    Justin I don't think there are any guild-based forums anywhere. An astute question, though. I think Part two will elicit an interesting discussion, nonetheless. 🙂

    Uno -
    1. You are completely correct! I'll go even further to say that externally established social networks barely require the "official" forums at all. They're self-maintaining. Now combine your idea with Justins, annnnd...

    2. Hm, you give good food for thought on this one. The in-game tools for friends, for groups, for guilds : are they enough for what we need them to be?

    3. I have to admit that I hadn't thought of EVE when I dreamed of unsharded worlds. I will say however that their community remains relatively small in the face of the monster MMOs in other parts of the genre. It is inevitable that things will start to break down should their popularity start to top up. Inevitable because of the natural order of online discourse. But you do make a good point in that they have excellent community support as I understand it, and a healthy player "economy of content" which is actually supported in-game. This is an answer I'd sort of expect to my question in #2 : in-game support for player content would go far to improve an MMO and EVE proves it. Nice observation.
  • UNO

    Interesting post as usual, I especially love the awesome visual media.

    1. The community has not erupted as each social network or guild depends on a self appointed Herald or Forum troll to serve as news anchor and provide real time updates to Forum Topics IE patch's, downtime, events.

    2. The community is only as large as the players friend's list, as this is the only in-game method of tracking friends. A primitive tool but outside Forums its all we got.

    3. Eve online exists on a single unsharded server. The community is responsive, supportive and clever. From the in-game browser to the Eve-Radio to the Player created content. Eve is the most progressive and cutting edge MMO available to date.
  • Justin

    Aren't there any MMOs that offer guild-based forums? That seems like a much more natural segmentation line than server, and since the feeling of community goes up as the size of the community goes down, it would provide greater adhesion to the social structure inherent in the game.

    Guild groupings in MMOs are a necessary feature now. Offering a guild page/forum seems like a natural extension of that.

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