Meeting Community Needs
I have seen a couple of rebuttal articles to my original article, and I would like to invite you to read the three articles in question so that there you have some background on this debate. Go ahead, take your time... I'll wait. :)
MMO's Are Not Games - RAVaught
Forced Communities - TygerWDR
Life and Death Communities - Ste Grainer
In their rebuttals, I felt that both Tyger and Ste Grainer completely missed the point of the original article. It is a very simple point, and perhaps the message simply got lost in the article, so I will spell it out very plainly here.
If there is no need or benefit to doing something, players won't do it.
That is, ultimately, the short and sweet of it. If grouping and community building is not beneficial, no one will bother. Why? Because it takes effort to build and maintain a community, and people do not expend effort on something that does not benefit them in some way; mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically, or spiritually. This is a universal truth, not simply applicable to games. Examine anything at all that you do with regularity, and you will find a perceived benefit.
Even the very act of playing the game in the first place is subject to this rule. If you got nothing at all out of a game, why would you play it? More importantly, why would you WORK so that you could play it? If you purchase a game, you had to earn the money, or convince someone to give you the money, to purchase the hardware, software, and subscription(if applicable). Why would anyone do that if they got nothing out of it? If you say they enjoy it, then you have identified something they get from it, i.e. pleasure. If you say they do it for social reasons, then you have identified another need that the game fulfills for them.
One of the reasons that games are so powerful of a medium is that they satisfy some of the low level needs, like affiliation, status, esteem, belonging. That is a large part of what makes them hugely successful.
Applying it to Games
The original article talked about survival as a motivator. Why? Because it is the prime motivator upon which everything else is built. If you look at the image above, you will notice that immediate physiological needs and self-protection are prerequisites to the the social building needs, like affiliation, love, affection, belonging, esteem, status, respect, etc.
The game designers job is not simply to make a game. The game designers job is to know what people need even when they don't know it themselves, and to meet those needs as much as possible. However, since the game designer is not sitting in your living room, and generally is not logged into the game playing with you directly, they have to do so in an anticipatory fashion, and use the game world itself to meet those needs.
So, to do that, we look at this pyramid, and figure out how we can create the pressures, the motivation, for you as a player to get engaged. Think about it like this:
- Health Bar/Hunger/Thirst - Physiological Need
- Armor/Weaponry/Skills/Abilities - Self Protection
- Group/Guild/Chat Mechanics - Affiliation
- Levels/Ranks/Points/Leaderboards/Badges - Status/Esteem
Now, games are not designed to help you find a mate or reproduce, so at this point, let's switch back to the original pyramid(the top one). These last two are things that the game designer can not generally design explicitly, but we can provide the structure for it.
- Faction/Guildranks/Special Invitations/Beta Invites - Esteem/Respect
- Custom Content/Modding/Character Design/Level Design - Self-Actualization
Individual vs. The Community
Not surprisingly, the needs of the community, including in game communities, are very similar to the needs of the individual, with some differences. The community needs:
- Physiological Needs - currency, people, technology, language.
- Security Needs - Laws, Customs, Beliefs, Police/Military
- Affiliation - Foreign Relations, Public Relations, News Outlets, Forums
- Esteem - Respect often translates directly to safety, but also cultural recognition and acceptance.
- Self-Actualization - This is where the community begins to produce new and innovative ideas, to enact change and progress.
The needs of the individual trump the needs of the community in order of importance. That is to say, if a person is starving, to that person the fact that they are starving will take precedence over the laws/customs of the community. In short, a person will not join the community if either:
- They are unable to meet any of their needs at all. They may not be able to play the game either because of technical difficulties, financial barriers, or simply because they can't figure out HOW to play it. Often, players will give up without ever having played, or without ever having become a member of the community.
- They are able to meet all of their needs without the community. If they do not need the community, they will not join it. Often, a player will quit playing a game when they reach this point, provided that the game itself also no longer fills any need.
Motivation vs. Slavery and Abuse
Both of my fellow writers made one mis-characterization of this subject that I felt the need to address. The game designer can not force you to do anything. They can't make you play their game, much less enjoy it, group up, form guilds or clans, post on message boards, write fan fiction, create strategy guides, or anything else. What the game designer does, or tries to do, is to provide you with motivation to do these things and the tools needed to accomplish it. This is not abusive, and it is not force. It is however absolutely critical to designing a sustainable game.
Everquest was a prime example of this. The game designers did not crack a whip and make everyone group up and form guilds. In fact, it was entirely possible to solo almost the entire game. However, to do it that was terribly slow and dangerous. In a game where dying comes with a heavy exp hit and the possibility of losing your items, there is some powerful motivation not to die. That being said, overcoming those challenges was also powerfully motivating. Players who enjoyed the challenge and struggle of clawing their way to the top with sheer determination could! However, those that preferred a less strenuous or more social climate formed groups that allowed them to overcome those challenges and progress rapidly. No one was forced to take one path or the other; they had complete freedom to choose their own playing style.
How Mechanics Meet, or Fail to Meet, Player Needs
In his article, Ste Grainer created a list of specific mechanics that he thought were successes or failures in terms of community building:
- PVP/Massive PVP
- Shared Resources
- Cross-server battlegrounds
- End Game Solo Activities
- Guild Leveling
I am sure we can find more, but I wanted to address these in context. All of the things in that first section fit on the hierarchy of needs. Guilds, professions, banks, and shared resources all function at the very lowest level of what is needed for a community. They cater to the communities physiological and security needs(People, Resources, Structure), guild chat focuses on affiliation, and PvP favors the Status/Esteem requirements.
In contrast, cross-server battlegrounds do not work because you are not building esteem from anyone in 'your world', you circle of concern/influence. They are not people you know, or people who impact your day to day playing experience.
End game activities and guild leveling are different though. The end game activities are generally speaking, entirely destructive. They are there to give you something to do while new content is being created for your consumption. This is part of the problem with treating a MMO like a single player game. With a SP game, when you beat it, you turn it off and play another game. With an MMO, you wired to keep playing, because there is no official 'The End'. Treat the games like worlds instead, and the whole mindset towards development changes.
In the case of guild leveling, the problem is primarily two fold. First, levels are always, ALWAYS a contrived mechanic. Players see right through them. Being level 80, or 100, or 1000 doesn't really mean anything. The second problem is the way the mechanic is implemented. Instead of it being based on the health of the community(guild) it is being based on other extrinsic mechanics such as experience, kills, raids completed, etc. Partly this is because it is very hard to measure something subjective in terms a computer can understand. What if 20 friends start a guild just to play strictly with each other? If that guild doesn't grow or shrink, is it healthy? What about a social guild whose players do not progress above the mid levels because they spend all their time roleplaying? These are things that are hard to express numerically. Maybe there is a better way, but most likely that better way will not be implemented because it is cost prohibitive.
The long story short is this: In order for a player or a community to meet the basic needs for existence, there must be some form of motivation, some selective pressure to get the ball rolling, or they won't happen at all. This is not saying that anyone is going to force anyone to do anything, but if nothing ever makes a player think that they need help, they will not think to ask for it, and the community won't get off the ground.
Image courtesy of: Everquest.com