What are the top challenges facing designers attempting to build the next generation of guild systems in virtual worlds? What can mafia movies, Los Angeles and Rush Limbaugh teach us about the solutions? The answers might surprise you.
It may surprise some modern gameplayers that not every MMOG has shipped with guilds. Ultima Online didn't have time to get the feature in before the game went live. The players made guilds happen anyway. They'd start new characters and include guild tags at the end of their name - '[CDK]' might stand for Chaos Death Knights. New recruits would discard hours of work to start new characters with the guild tag. Once UO added a true guild system, players rolled yet another batch of characters, this time without the guild tags.
A guild is a very simple game construct - it's a list of players. A subset of them can recruit and expel members. Typically, they're given a chat channel where they can kibbitz. Many games have attempted to take guilds to the next level since then. Shadowbane allows guilds to build cities and lay siege upon each other. City of Heroes has allowed their "supergroups" to share color schemes to create a strong guild identity. Everquest 2 included guild advancement points that can be spent on high prestige items.
Still, it feels like most designers are merely dancing around the top challenges facing guild design. To make real progress, designers need to take a step back and figure out how players really relate to each other, and how guilds help or hinder that. Guilds give players a sense of identity, as we often tend to identify ourselves by our affiliations - employee of NASA, member of the NRA and so forth.
Guilds also help people mentally track people they encounter. In larger virtual worlds, this is vital. A normal person can only track the names of a few dozen people in any social space. Affiliations allow players to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world.
Guilds are very good for virtual worlds for these reasons, but can't we do more? Now that large-scale MMOGs are approaching their tenth anniversary, what have we learned? Are we finally ready to identify these challenges, and figure out what "the next level" means? I asked myself these questions, and came up with five clear challenges.
Challenge #1: Informed Affiliation
The sprawl that is Los Angeles dominates the southern half of the state of California. The city limits alone cram 3.8 million people in 465 square miles. The whole area is a melting pot. Whether it's Compton, Chinatown, Venice Beach or Sunset Boulevard, nearly any individual on the planet can find a place in LA, based on their race, economic status or sexual orientation, where they feel they belong. Step in the wrong neighborhood, and you're a stranger in a strange land. That definition of "wrong neighborhood" varies wildly from person to person.
Virtual worlds have a melting pot culture as well. Relatively unpolluted by real-world discriminations like race or socioeconomic class, the landscape beneath it is shaped by other factors: maturity, out-of-game relationships and gaming philosophy. The last is very interesting: There are huge divides between roleplayers, PKers, casual gamers, shopkeepers, among many other factions. Finding the right community in a virtual world is critical. If you hate immature player killers and your first experience is with B0N3D00D and pLaTeDeWd, you may choose to never log in again.
Virtual worlds are not as conducive to searches as the rest of the internet. Most MMOGs reintroduce the problem of geography. While designers desperately want to help players find appropriate guilds, most players stumble into them wandering through the game world until a forceful recruiter notices them. Whether or not the match is a good one is almost always left to chance. Designers should be more aggressive in integrating means to increase the odds of a fruitful affiliation.