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.

Prologue
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.

Challenge #2: Recruiting and Matters of Trust
We’ve all seen old mafia movies where our hero the informant has to kill someone to prove themselves and join their ranks. This does, in fact, make perfect sense from the Don’s perspective. If one strategically placed pigeon can tear down the whole organization, it’s definitely worth your while to discover if your new lieutenant actually does have a taste for murder and mayhem.

Guildmasters have the same problem, only without the option of fitting a traitorous spy with concrete shoes. The anonymity of the internet makes it very difficult to ferret out spies and other disruptive forces. Guild leaders tell tales of trying to find spies based on speech patterns, login timing, and flat-out intuition; some guildmasters require a screenshot of a new recruit’s character selection screen, or even their login information. Even those measures can be easily sidestepped via a second, or even a free trial, account. A red-handed offender can vanish into thin air, reappearing two months later with a new name and appearance.

These trust issues make guilds grow insular as a game ages – recruiting new blood simply isn’t worth the aggravation. As a result, new players have a hard time finding a guild – exactly the opposite of what the game designer wants to see. Incentivizing recruiting and finding ways to help guilds trust new blood is the first step into building a society where new players feel welcome and desired.

Challenge #3: The Beleaguered Guildmaster
Managing people is hard, yet we often give guildmasters tools completely inadequate to the task. UIs to manage memberships are frequently buggy or cumbersome. Setting up large-scale encounters such as raids and distributing raid loot often are done by hand, and can be hugely time-consuming. But as budgets get tighter and launch dates grow nigh, developers conclude that since few are guildmasters, time spent building quality tools for them is wasted on the grand majority of the player base.

This worldview ignores the fact that guild leaders are your community’s opinion leaders. Most people lack the time and energy to become fully informed in all topics, and we naturally turn to opinion leaders to give us cues as to how to respond. Jesse Jackson and Rush Limbaugh are opinion leaders in the realm of politics. Roger Ebert is an opinion leader in the realm of movies. Their opinions simply count more.

A guild leader is an opinion leader as well – his standing in the little minisociety he runs acts as a force multiplier for any opinion he holds. The casual player will take cues from his frustrations, and if he’s had enough, he can cause a stampede of followers to a virtual world where the grass is greener. Designers need to stop giving guildmasters tools that make them feel like they’re being punished, and instead focus on making them happy. Guildmasters that quit are very bad for your virtual world.

Challenge #4: Multiple Affiliations
Researchers in the emerging field of Social Networking examine the social ties between people with great interest. They noted that your average person has multiple groups of affiliations. Those that someone is closest to are the ones he sees almost daily: co-workers, roommates, and immediate families – researchers call these strong links. People also interact with others, weak links, less frequently: former co-workers, drinking buddies, and distant family might be examples.

What surprised the researchers was that people, in times of crisis, turn to their weak links. For example, if your entire company is laid off, your co-workers (i.e. strong links) will be too busy with their own job hunt to help you. Instead, you might call your former co-workers or in-laws (weak links) to start your job hunt. Your weak links act as your social safety net.

Virtual world social networks seem to lack this redundancy. Newbies have many casual contacts, but once they join a guild, those links die and their daily interactions often become limited to their guildmates. A guild will hurry this along by making the guild self-sufficient – ensuring the guild has whatever craftsmen and services a member might need. From a designer’s perspective, this is oddly precarious – if disaster befalls that guild, the likelihood the player will stick around will depend on how many links outside of the guild he has.

Designers need to encourage more weak links outside of their guild. Some have tried experiments here, including multiple guild affiliations, allowing guilds to ally to create more robust safety nets, not allowing guilds to provide all services, or creating class-specific chat channels to create a sense of non-guild affiliation.

Challenge #5: Guild Centric Gameplay
An old adage in Texas politics says, “Dance with the one that brung ya.” It refers to the need for politicians to remember who got them there – and is usually a sly nod to the campaign contributors that bought thousand dollar plates at fundraisers.

The unique promise of MMOGs has always been persistence and “massive” numbers of people. These ideas are “the one that brung ya” for the genre, the notion that captures the imagination of hundreds of thousands of players. Guilds stand at the crossroads of these two thoughts, and as such we should be designing games where guilds are the major actors in the play.

Instead, the industry has been backpedalling from “massively multiplayer games” that really embrace being massive. Instead, we’re making games built around small squads of 6 to 8 players. Competitors making non-subscription games such as Battlefield 2 are creating better small-scale gameplay and surpassing our paltry squad size limitations to boot. In this light, “massive” becomes a chat room with geography that charges a monthly fee.

Virtual world designers need to embrace what makes MMOGs unique – persistence and “massive” crowds. There’s an MMOG revolution coming in the future, and it will center on guild-focused gameplay. What that means is unknown. Shadowbane‘s city building and sieging showed one possible path. Hopefully, more experiments in this direction are yet to come.

The Next Generation of Guilds
It’s very easy to forget how simple a guild is – it’s a list of players with a chat room. But it is also very deep. A guild is the cornerstone of player assembly in a virtual world, but it has one core limitation: Unlike real-life player associations, online groups are limited by what the code can or can’t do. Designers must lend a hand.

It’s easy to make a system that gathers people. The challenge is doing it well – gathering people of like interests and ensuring you have a culture where new players are actively recruited. The challenge is empowering the guildmaster, and ensuring both the guild and the player can handle a catastrophic guild event. The challenge is to make guilds central to the gameplay to breathe new life in the genre.

Solving these challenges will take time, and the results won’t be perfect – new challenges will undoubtedly arise. But they do have the potential to take these games to the “next level,” making your online communities more robust, more interesting, and more focused on the “massive” in massively multiplayer gameplay.

Damion Schubert has been designing virtual worlds games for almost a decade. He currently works at Wolfpack Studios on an unannounced project, and runs a game design blog called Zen of Design.

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