One of the things I have struggled with in new MMOs (Rift, GW2, SWTOR) is getting a sense of the server community. When I played WoW, I knew the names of all the major guilds on the servers. I’d interacted with other players on the forums and in the game for years, from TBC onwards. I had a friendlist of people I’d ask to come along on Dungeons. I knew where my guild sat within this network, and as an officer did my best to live up to our reputation for being ‘good people’. This was an RP server too, so there were multiple hierarchies of prejudices and assumptions about hardcore raiders, PvPers and RPers from all sides.
But I knew all that shit, and I always had a sense of the ‘good people’. The people I’d want to hang out with if my guild mysteriously vanished. This wider social network, our guild/server neighbourhood, can be an important part of an individual player’s identity. Back then it was definitely important to me to have a good rep on the server, and be part of a wider network of players that had to interact with each other.
Now that my guild has moved to Argent Dawn, every time I log in I feel adrift. That’s partly because I’m crap at maintaining social connections (not something I would expect game designers to fix). It’s also partly because I have to start from scratch. I have no idea how the reputation of my guild is developing on the new server. With multitudes of 10 man raiding guilds, the social side of MMOs looks like it is devolving from being part of an expansive network of communities, to being much more divided ‘cells’, with very little need or wish to speak to each other.
I think that our modern social conveniences (cross realm raiding, LFG tools) are absolutely fantastic bits of kit for me as a player who wants to get stuff done. I’ve been the person looking for that last dps, or the healer so that one could do Shadow Labs or original Deadmines, and that 30 minutes of dead time was absolutely not fun. As an adult who attends a lot of meetings and gets (privately) grumpy when people turn up 5 minutes late, I definitely get that there is no practical reason to not have such systems if technology allows it.
I do think they impact on server life. It is one of my bug bears that MMOs don’t spend enough time looking at the middle ground communities that sit between the overall community of the game, and the individual cells and friendships that will go to making a guild. Quality of life touches that allow you to play with your friends are without a doubt a great things that should not be rolled back, but more work needs to be done on the ties that bind one to a particular server (or even a region lock!)
One of the things that I believe makes EvEOnline so amazing (as a concept that I can read about, rather than a game I want to play) is the fact that gameplay and Corporations naturally results in the creation of guild neighbourhoods and complex networks of interactions. This is in part because it is a sandbox and as a game does allow players to literally take control of an area. The impact of those players impacts the game for neighbouring guilds.
I can’t think of a solution – how does one come up with a way to create ‘larger’ neighbourhoods of guilds WITHOUT at the same time preventing people from playing with their friends? As much as I think back fondly to Southshore Raids, and PvP rivalries, are those moments as inherently valuable as to outweigh all the ‘wasted’ time that one can now avoid with ease?
To be honest, the only thing I could think of was giving guilds ‘guild housing’, and allow them to be extremely creative with the housing (a’la Wildstar). And THEN put some mechanism that would mean you visit guild housing regularly. And THEN put in some mechanism whereby your guild members would cross paths with members from your neighbouring guild. And also that you could see what other guilds had built – you know, a bit like a wizard is always supposed to want a tower taller than all the neighbouring towers.
Not particularly practical, and ‘guild neighbourhoods’ may not sound like a killer feature, but I think the true next gen MMO is going to have to be much cleverer about the social factor than merely looking at all of us as nodes with friendlists.