So many online communities have fragmented and rotted from the inside out that the empty houses and town halls of these binary townships litter your every turn, both inside and outside of our favorite game worlds. The zombified corpses of their usurped leaders wander the desert, their shambling accompanied only by the repeated mutterings that protest their innocence in these failings.

They registered their account and levelled up high enough to create an in-game group. They created a website and installed that brilliant open-source forum software. They gathered a handful of recruits. From there, success was guaranteed – their place at the head of the table secure, the dream of being a significant force on their chosen server would soon become a reality.

A month later, it’s all fallen apart. Hemorrhaging what few members they had to bigger and better groups, they’re almost left on their own in the midst of a huge amount of in-fighting on now troll-ravaged message boards.

Why?

Well, upon stepping off of my rescuers ship and into my future in City of Villains, I was immediately invited to join at least a dozen groups with the only pre-requisite being a /tell to the inviter. There was no vetting policy, no checking of character profiles, no actual conversation leading up to these invites – just a little pop-up box that asked me to accept or decline.

Is that really the best way for you to engage new members? To do the virtual equivalent to handing out leaflets in the mall? I’m confident in predicting that a large majority of individuals who signed up from those random invites are no longer in those same groups.

When I join a group, I want to contribute positively to its existence, to grow as an individual within it and to share my experience with similar, like-minded people. If I’m in a stagnant, directionless group that never gets together, doesn’t communicate and has members who think Streethawk was better than Airwolf, I just can’t function within it. Once the only benefit of being in a group is, well, just being in a group, it’s time to move on.

But my requirements and yours may be different. I’m interested in the social experiences offered when gaming alongside others, both when logged into the game world and when chatting about the night’s adventures at AlwaysBlack.com. You may just want some assistance taking down Frostfire in City of Heroes so you can get your level 14 travel power. That highlights the other problem with randomly inviting strangers to join your aimless but mighty guild: You can’t possibly know what any given individual wants from their experience – you haven’t even had a conversation with them.

You see, your game and their game are entirely different, despite the fact they’re based in the same piece of software, running on the same server. By far, the best example of this is Planetside, which, as luck would have it, was where I’ve had perhaps my most memorable experience of an in-game group.

I’d been playing SOE’s glorious vision of future-war for a fair while, was secure in the role I played in the bigger battle and attempted to play at least a little bit tactically. You could be recruited to pick-up squads, and could request to join them, as well. A well co-ordinated squad was able to turn the tide of battle, while a badly co-ordinated one just got markers on their maps to tell them where to die.

I’d managed to get in to a squad with one chap who was many battle ranks (PS‘s version of levels) ahead of me, but we still had a brilliant night of play. I’m not convinced I made much of a difference individually, but I followed his orders and killed as many of the enemy as I could. The following night, he invited me into his squad as soon as I logged on. I took the hint, added him to my friends list, and noticed that the other squad members were the same people from the previous night’s battle.

After a couple of weeks of play, a little bit of chat and a few visits to his clan’s website, I joined the clan. Thursday nights were dedicated to drill practice – here we’d log on, find empty or near-empty continents and go up against poorly defended towers to practice assault drops. It was all terribly banal, but it genuinely enhanced the experience. We were a unit in a world gone nuts. We looked down on the standard grunts, handily distracting laser fire from us while failing to achieve anything. We’d capture videos, post them on the site, chat about successes or losses and push on – every night – with this endless war.

Some of you hopefully think that sounds cool. Many of you think I’m nuts. For me, though, this was exactly the type of group I wanted to be a part of, and they retained my interest for the same amount of time the game did.

It was so successful because its leaders took the time to identify people who would not only benefit the group as a whole, but who would also benefit from being a member of it. They managed to drive forward and influence our motivation for being a part of it to the point where there simply wasn’t an alternative. When I re-subscribed to Planetside months later, my guild was gone and the game was empty and sterile. The combat was the same, but the social aspect was dead for me.

It’s time the wannabe big-men of the gaming worlds realized that being able to get a guild charter signed off isn’t enough to provide you with longevity or a particularly rewarding experience. You need to lead from the front, dictate a path for those you recruited and recognize that leading starts a long time before you conclude your cold-calling sales pitch through the in-game chat client.

Hitchhiker is a freelance videogames journalist who spends too much time sat on his own playing multiplayer games. It does give him a sense of belonging, though, so that’s ok. He hangs out at www.alwaysblack.com.

The Contrarian: Growing Out of the Stone Age

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