MMOs are games that seem to be very well named. They certainly allow a massive number of players access to a shared online space, from which their names derive. Yet, there is something to keep in mind: the ‘MM’ part of the genre’s name (Massively Multiplayer) is really a feature of the games. One of the main draws that MMOs have going for them is that you, as a player, can play with a bunch of other people, including your friends. However, while the amount of players per world is certainly a feature of these games, they are also a resource for developers. This resource is one that developers can use to create game systems with that they could not have in other games.
It does beg the question: how do MMOs truly take advantage of the sheer number of players? Most games do indeed make use of the multiplayer aspect of these games by allowing groups, trade between players, chat, and often raids. Yet, not every game is necessarily taking full advantage of this special resource that MMOs have.
Now, you might see a debate between the ‘theme park’ and ‘sandbox’ MMO design styles cropping up here, and as much as I would like to greet you with your expectations, this is actually not the purpose of this column. While I personally enjoy sandbox MMOs, I have also enjoyed theme park styles as well. Both game types have their advantages and disadvantages, and both are capable of having very strong communities. Community is the key word here when it comes to this column. While I will be doing an awful lot of discussion on game design, I will be focused on how design relates to building a bigger, better, and stronger community.
With that cleared up, lets take a look at players as a resource (doesn’t that sound grim?).
Foundation of an MMO
While it certainly does come off a bit grim to refer to players as a resource, we are. In fact, we are probably the most important resource for an MMO. When a game begins to fail and starts to lose players it tends to cause a landslide – when enough people leave a guild, they often take other guild members with them. When enough players leave a server, server merges are needed. Many people play MMOs because they are filled with other players – even testimonies from primarily solo-gamers still mention that other players filling the world is a positive thing for them. It is what separates these games from single player, or normal multiplayer games.
Players are an important resource to players. We are also an important resource to a game development company as well. We tend to pay the bills for servers to keep our game(s) of choice running and the development staff paid. Without a large enough community, an MMO is destined to close its doors. The industry has seen this happen several times over.
Yet, you may not think of it, but players are a resource for game design. For example, consider a player run economy, which could not exist in smaller worlds with the intricacy and complexity of, say, EVE Online, and or even Final Fantasy XI, World of WarCraft, or EverQuest 2. Or, consider a raid situation: 40 players band together to take down some large boss monster. Of course, you could potentially create an online game where 40 players log into a game server and cooperate together to take down a monster as well, yet few Neverwinter Nights games saw anything like that happen, and that was one of the few games that could have been potentially designed for it.
Of course, many Battlefield games can see players in numbers like that, but on opposing sides, and frequently with random players put together into a server than an actual guild focused on the task – although clans doing this are very far from unheard of. However, this is an excellent example to show players acting as part of the gameplay, by enabling a unique game style (read: from other FPS genres, not unique to Battlefield) that other games in the past have not had. Not only that, it really shows just how much of an effect players can have – people play battlefield, largely, for the online play with so many other people.
Building a Strong Foundation
Players are a resource, and a very important one that that. The sheer number of them is what defines an MMO and they allow for the creation of game types and gameplay systems that otherwise could not exist. As such, this is why many MMOs attempt to create gameplay systems that highlight player interaction, and that is why MMOs have Community Managers backed up by Community Teams.
MMOs thrive on their communities. The stronger and bigger the community, the more successful the game. World of WarCraft players are vast in number and many seem to be proud that they play – or at least appear to feel some connection to their online world of choice. EVE Online players can be downright obsessed when it comes to their beloved space sim. The hardcore players of Vanguard stuck around through the ills of the games launch and ensuing months and kept it alive – but the game did suffer by losing much of their community. Yet, even failing games have the saving grace of strong, though small, communities. Sometimes these games can rebound back, even if it is rare to happen.
It is true, that some games design themselves more around players. The more ‘sandbox’ style MMOs are often based very heavily around interaction between players. This can seen in games such as EVE Online and Star Wars Galaxies before the gameplay was fundamentally changed. Some ‘theme park’ style games do have high interactivity between players as well though, such as how PvP was handled in Dark Age of Camelot, or the nearly enforced grouping of Final Fantasy XI (for better or worse), or even the combat system of FFXI and EverQuest 2. Yet, other games tend to be less focused on interactivity between players and may almost work as single-player games. Many free-to-play Korean games can come across like this (although Western gamers get only a glimpse at the types of games that come out of Korea).
Of course, what it all comes down to is the foundation. That foundation is the players themselves. Some game systems tend to lend themselves more toward strengthening a community over others. Some systems can be designed to either strengthen communities, tear them apart, or be otherwise totally neutral. Some games extend beyond the realm of the in-game world to help build their communities as well.
Communities are of great importance to MMOs. They are what draw players in, keep players in, allow for the creation of gameplay systems that could not exist otherwise, and they pay the bills to keep an MMO running. There is quite a bit to discuss about them – and well, that is exactly what this column is all about.