It’s a very simple statement, but it’s fundamentally important to understanding MMORPGs in this day and age. Game developers and marketers need to rethink how they build and market online games. Veteran guilds, especially multi-gaming guild networks are growing in numbers with each new game release. Hosting services such as Guild Portal, or Guild Cafe, which has recently teamed up with Uberguilds, serve hundreds if not thousands of guilds, and many of these guilds have talented, experienced, and extremely well organized leadership structures.
For many Vanguard players, Everquest was their first real mmorpg, and the notion of an online gaming community was very new. Perhaps a few UO vets (and MUDders!) might have started EQ with a pre-set circle of friends, but in general, the social mechanics of the game (grouping/raid etiquette, guild policies, competition over content, etc) was just as much of a mystery as the actual game mechanics. As a result, social practices that were established 8 years ago in Everquest have carried over to every other game that has followed. More importantly, the social networks that grew from Everquest have stuck together, so you see more and more pre-made guilds with each newly released game. That’s a big reason why it’s almost impossible to generate that “Everquest” feeling without a time machine.
Every now and then you see the following post on a Vanguard (or EQ2 or WOW for that matter) forum, “Where’s the community? We must build the community!” People lament the fact that there are no in game features that allow people to be social. They mourn the absence of the romantic boat ride, and long for the days where people got to know each other while waiting for place holder number bazillion and one to spawn. While I do miss the days of long camps and boat rides, they aren’t the reason why the sense of community feels different in current online games. World of Warcraft has boat rides, yet I don’t recall ever having any real social interactions, other than some silent buffing here and there. The truth is that the genre has reached the point where communities can’t be built from scratch. A successful game has to import a pre-existing group of dedicated gamers.
When I was preparing to restart Revelry and Honor in Vanguard, I was lucky enough to be able to track down many old gaming friends (who probably cringed when they got my email!). What surprised me was that in addition to the people I contacted, quite a few players from my old EQ server found their way to us as well, many of whom I only knew in passing. It made me realize that veteran gamers look for a sense of familiarity when starting a new game, and they tap into to their pre-existing communities, such as former guilds and servers, to find familiar faces and contacts.
Since no game is going to build a community from scratch, games need to start thinking of guild as first-class citizens in their worlds–not as after-thoughts. This thinking must impact both game design and marketing.
It takes a lot of work to run a successful, multi-game guild, so there should be a benefit to being in a in one. Traditionally, that benefit is the opportunity to do “raid content.” But often, raiding is simply a larger group hunt with individual rewards. While everyone is working together to succeed, only a select few walk away with something at the end of the raid. It’s like a a baseball team winning the World Series and only fitting 2 players for Championship Rings. Those who don’t get rings? Well they’ll just have to win next year!
Everquest 2 was on to something with the idea of guild levels, which opened up status rewards and guild content. Individual contributions, working together, brought benefits to the guild as a whole. While it felt like another type of grind at times, I liked the concept overall.
But what about creating content specifically designed for guilds. Instead of farming for individual items, have the reward be a guild trophy that hangs in the guild hall and can be clicked by members for a meaningful buff. Or, have an extra gear slot called “guild signet” or “guild amulet.” Completion of raid content would reward guild members with a nice item to put in that slot. The harder the content, the better the item. There should be a benefit to being in a guild, above that of the general population, and beyond simply having an extra chat form.
Marketing games has traditionally targetted the individual. It would be much more effective to use the guild networks that are already established, and reach out directly to them. Guild portal and Guild cafe, for example, are two guild hosting services that carry thousands of guilds, both big and small. Use the guild leaders and leadership structure to communicate your message. That way, you only have to successfully make your sales pitch to one person in order to have it reach dozens if not hundreds. Vanguard seemed to try to reach out to guilds with features like the guild mail and collectors edition gifts like the guild trophy and extra buddy keys. In the competitive gaming market, though, it would pay to go much further.
It’s a form of “viral marketing,” but I think of it more as the “Queen Ant Theory.” If you can get one leader from a multi-gaming guild to set up and organize the framework for a Vanguard guild chapter, you end up gaining dozens, if not hundreds, of players who are more likely to try it out because they will be able to start with a guild structure and a social network already in place. For many, it’s much more appealing to try a new game if you already have a virtual home and online friends there to greet you. MMORPGs are very different from console games, and the social aspect has not been fully exploited yet from a marketing standpoint.
Everyone talks about what it will take to make a WoW killer, but the underlying fact is that it has to be something that appeals to the hundreds and thousands of well-entrenched guilds that exist there now. For every multi game guild that got its roots years ago in Everquest, there are at least ten times as many that began in World of Warcraft, and will eventually spread their branches to other games. A game that can successfully tap into these established networks is the game that will be crowned the WoW killer.
In short, times have changed. Players, developers, and marketers could all benefit from looking at the MMORPG community in a different light, and appreciating the fact that massively multiplayer games have actually led to well-established, longtime communities that span multiple games. There are plenty of fly by night guilds out there, and we’ve all heard the /oocs and had ninja guild invites to them. But there are also many solid, well organized, tight knit guild communities out there, and they’re growing to be a large percentage of the gaming demographic. It would be wise to start paying more attention to them!