Guild Guide: Maintaining Continuity in Your Community
Games change. Times change. People change. Everything changes pretty much constantly, and the tricky part comes when you're supposed to weather all of the changes while still making the place feel more or less like it's always been.
The problem with Community in games is that it's almost entirely reliant upon people still playing and enjoying the game long after the game has ceased to be the new hotness. It wasn't hard to find people who really enjoyed WildStar a month out from its launch, but it's a lot harder to people who will proudly say that they've been playing the game since launch as we approach a year of the game's operation. People come and go, goals change, and if you're leading or even just part of a community - a guild, a team, a group - you want that community to feel like the same space from month to month.
Obviously, it can't always feel exactly the same. But I've always seen a fundamental goal to make sure that a player can come back from an absence of months or years and still feel as if the same core is in place. Return members should feel like the setting may have changed but familiar pieces still fit together like they always did. So, with the understanding that times and people change, how can you maintain that vital continuity?
Identify and cultivate your core
There is a core group of people inside of every community, and as a leader - or even just as a player - you kind of want those people to stick around more than others. The guy who's playing this game for three months before hopping around for the next year might be a lovely person, sure, but the fact of the matter is that he's fickle. You cannot rely on him to provide any sort of stabilizing presence.
No, this relies on the people who will be there, year after year. Even if you aren't always as close with them, you want those people to think that sticking around is a good thing.
Yes, this is kind of playing favorites, but every human being has favorites. You might as well make your favorites people who do good things for the community as a whole.
I'm not saying that you should bribe these people into sticking around, but I am saying that if you have someone in your guild who's funny and promotes the sort of player environment you want to see in place? Give them a little extra support. Help them out with challenges in the game that require a little extra muscle. Offer what you can to make game time feel more rewarding. Even just let them know you appreciate all of the stuff that they do.
Being a part of a community is often a wearying experience in which you put a lot of yourself out there for no tangible reward. Giving someone a reason to keep doing that is enough to help make sure that these core people stick around, and if you leave and come back they'll still be just as nice to be around.
Avoid conceptual drift
My very first column in this series was about the importance of having a focus. That remains a big deal - you want your group to have a purpose, a reason for being. What isn't as easy to see is that after a year of operation, that focus can start to move in subtle ways in another direction.
It's a natural progression, honestly. You start your life as a dedicated League of Legends team practicing for actual tournaments, then over time you find yourself becoming more casual and more about just having fun. Your roleplaying guild in World of Warcraft has enough people interested in endgame to field a raid group, then another raid group, and before long your focus is far more raid-centric than you had conceived. That weekly fun gathering for Civilization V matches is quickly turning into a grudge match against two factions of players. Behavior changes over time.
As a leader, your job is to stop this. As a member, your job is to avoid causing it intentionally and rail against it if it happens, even if - no, especially if - you're part of the force causing the change.
Shifts in members and leadership can lead to new things taking the forefront and different aspects becoming more or less relevant, and that's natural. However, the more you allow a group's concept to drift away from its original goal, the more you ensure that returning members are alienated, the more you drive off the core people who had been a part of the group from the beginning. It's going to create a distinct and different feel, and if you've cultivated a feel that you like, you need to prevent that drift.
Roll with the changes
Of course, the game that you're playing will change over time. If you're in an MMO, it'll frequently change dramatically - play modes will be de-emphasized or altered, rewards will change, and the landscape of the game as a whole will get a significant shakeup on a regular basis. Even in other online games, though, things change. Multiplayer games get less popular as time goes by, or sequels come out to replace the older games. Team Fortress 2 went full-on into free-to-play hat marketplace, and who could have seen that one coming?
You cannot always predict what will happen. But if you have a strong core and you have a solid focus, you can in fact predict how to move with the changes rather than against them.
The key is understanding the core you have in the group, understanding how they're important to the group as a whole, and make moves that keep that core intact without compromising that focus. If your core members consist of a dozen people and they're all on board with expanding your focus into the newest gameplay mode being added? Make that a part of what you're doing. Keep that core focus intact, you're not touching that, you're just adding something more on besides.
If you banded together over a shared love of an online game that's being shut down or discontinued, or even a MOBA or something similar that's no longer as popular? Decide what's to be done. Move somewhere similar, if possible, so that everyone still has a comparable experience. Create the environment you enjoyed playing with in a new home.
These are not decisions to be made hastily, but they are decisions that can keep a group together as members come back over time. Fundamentally, you're hoping that people come back because they liked what the group was at one point. When they do so, you don't want them to look around and ask "What in the world happened??" You want them to be able to pick up where they left off, or with at least with clear lines traced from there to here.
Players will leave and return, games will change, and the world will change around you. The group you founded in college is going to have a hard time weathering the subsequent years of marriage, employment, kids, and so forth. But your goal is to create a place that still feels familiar enough, where you aren't left adjusting for months and months or looking at the wreckage of what used to be. It's hard to do, but the rewards are worth it.