Wow, I can't believe my last post was in July. I guess I owe Slickjack another thanks for poking me out of my procrastination!
I was chitchatting with some of the Devs from Warhammer and Dark Age of Camelot after a town hall meeting. We ended up discussing the importance of the "social" factor in MMOs and of building community going from the chat system, crafting and trading, to guilds, alliances, group quests and epic encounters. The whole time, I kept thinking that these are things developers use to facilitate (all to often "force") community. But to me, that is not what community is about.
In most MMOs, the fact that Joe decided to take an extended break, quit, sold his account or passed away in real life isn't likely to make much of a difference. If he was the GM of his guild, it will probably fall apart and everyone will scatter. The folks with the best gear will be picked up by current "flavor of the day" guilds, the rest will PUG their way into their next guild. Some will stick together, but those were often friends before they started playing the game to begin with.
And therein lies a significant part of the issue. When a game is heavily level and gear dependant, it destroys its own community by dictating who gets to play with who, when and where. You cannot build a solid sense of community by being exclusive. Yet exclusion is at the foundation of many class based games. You want to raid with us? Would be nice except you're a tank and we just don't need another one. Better luck next time! Oh that's your best friend? Yeah sorry, his gear sucks too much and his level is too low, he'll pull too much aggro. Tell him to look us up in a few weeks/month when he's up to our level. Auction houses? Awesome! I have no idea who the seller is, and frankly I don't care: I didn't even look at their name, I just checked the lowest price.
Then I remembered a thread that started not too long ago on Stratics about Atlantic's History. And I thought: see, THAT's what community is about. To me, it's not forcing people to group up with other folks they don't know and probably don't even like just so they can partake in some of the better content. It's giving players the chance of being part of something, to leave a lasting mark in the world, to make history.
Community isn't spamming the Looking For Group channel for the first person that can do 3K+ DPS. It's people from all walks of life gathering on a ghost infested beach, year after year, to commemorate the real life passing of a player who made his mark in the world by becoming UO's greatest librarian. It's hanging out at player run establishments like the wild and crazy Odyssey's Club was. It's the RP towns like Paxlair and Sanctus built from the ground up by the players. It's when other players ask for you and your shop by name when they want quality goods. It's the fear, awe, admiration, love and even hatred inspired by the mere mention of the name of a player or a guild. It's when reminiscing about the old days is more about the people come and gone, than about boss mobs and class nerfs.
While it is true that promoting social interactions in games increases player retention, I think most games miss the mark. What kept me playing this game was knowing that my presence made a difference. I had an impact on the world. I had something to call my own. I can quit any other MMO today, go back in a few months or a year, and after a bit of a grind, it will be the same it always was. While I'm gone, not a whole lot of people will miss me as there will be plenty of other DPS, Tanks or Healers to pick up where I left off. As a UO player, if I quit tomorrow, I feel like I have a lot to lose: the house I worked so hard to acquire, the clientele I took so long to establish, the guild or the player town I devoted years to build. And in turn, my absence will affect those who knew me.
In my humble opinion, true Community is when the individual matters and when the only limit to the fame, influence and accomplishments you can achieve are only those you set for yourself.