All News is Local

Posted: June 25, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts

We are advertis’d by our loving friends.

-William Shakespeare

I’m a major proponent of social networking services online.  However, we’ve come to think of these networks as global, when in fact many connections are still quite local.  And just as all news is local, so too are MMO’s.  Strip out all the grand features and mechanics, and we’re all looking to play with our friends a few quests at a time. 

In the context of MMO’s, the community itself may pull from geographically diverse locations around the globe, but the community itself is not terribly distant – the internet keeps the world small, and we’re all only as far away as a keyboard.

Thus, “local” itself is being redefined as a word online.  In MMO’s, we see this on a nightly basis when we log into our preferred games and immediately check to see which guildmates or friends are online.  We check for “friends” – people we’ve never met, and may have a slim chance of ever actually meeting or even speaking with (though proliferation of voice chat functionality is changing even this) are considered confidants and trusted advisors, not merely on game related issues, but quite often on very real human problems.  We discuss relationships, children, housing , politics, religion, and any number of other topics as diverse as we are.

We also have fights – very real emotional rollercoaster rides, where we might “place someone on ignore” – essentially refusing to answer this person’s virtual phone calls.  Truly, we do this from a real sense of paiin, much of the time – a hurt that comes not from hate, but of a feeling of betrayal – betrayal of trust, or friendship, or yes, even love.

This is the world we live in now – an online small town, where everyone can pretty much know everyone else, or at least know who we present ourselves to be.  We’ll help our friends and unleash veritable hells upon those who cross us online – all while tucked away behind the comfortable anonymity the web can provide us.  After all, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, right?

Future designers – of MMO’s, virtual sandboxes, and other non-game systems altogether – will learn to embrace this organic sense of community, this fuzzy logic of online zen.  Social structures in games will become more robust, given more functionality, and provided with more features to enable players to become virtual gatekeepers and evangelicals for their preferred online environments – both protecting and preaching .

Not unlike a the online society that CCP believes they’re witnessing in EVE, we’ll see other online communities learn that the only real designs are those which engage community members in a way which encourages interactivity and socializing, even in the face of competition.  Indeed, the competition will move away from individuals in many cases, and become focused, I believe, upon the group.

Those groups, be they known as realms or factions or guilds or families or what-have-you, will be the next grail for MMO designers looking for a playerbase.  And yet, even as they design games to be bigger and handle ever larger social networks, I hope they don’t forget that networks revolve around hubs…and hubs are necessarily small and typically local.

Communities are local. 

Communities might be formed based around geography, shared time zones, or just a desire to be around people who have similar beliefs.  I’ve seen guilds formed around citizenship, favorite sports teams, complicated fictional backstories, preferred playstyles, language, or even guilds based around similar religious beliefs. 

The challenge is not to find ways to not only enable players to find potential members for their online communities, but to encourage this activity as well.  Finding the perfect mix of gameplay is only part of the equation, as many MMO designers are no doubt well aware by now.  You’ve got to give players a reason to keep logging in, and short of maintaining development level team sizes and constant content updates, the best (and probably most efficient) way to accomplish this would be through social networks in-game. 

This isn’t because Facebook and Myspace figured out how to do this.  Long before there was a Friendster online, there were MMO’s.  Before many of today’s core YouTubers were even born, there were MUD’s.  There were friends lists.  There were clans.  There were guilds. 

MUD’s needed communities to grow, because there were no marketing departments or E3 trailers.  Many of those MUD’s thrived, and still do today, based almost entirely on word of mouth.  Guild leaders became evangelicals, who would recruit friends, coworkers, and classmates to try out ThisMUD or ThatMUD, just to get them to help build up their guilds.  Players recruited out of a passion to help their guilds, help their friends, and help the game as a whole. 

That passion still exists today. 

It never went away.  Oh sure, the medium has changed dramatically. Studios are pumping tens of millions of dollars into development costs over the course of years to release even mediocre MMO’s.  Everyone seems to be trying for a slice of an ever expanding pie. 

They’ve got ideas, too.  They’re thinking in a completely different scale these days.  They’re thinking realms.  They’re thinking nations.  They’re thinking of massed combats involving more and more intricate mechanisms.  They’re thinking of small armies of NPC henchmen.  They’re thinking of overarching epic storylines.  They’re thinking of expansive vistas and unbelievable real-time weather effects.  They’re thinking bigger than they have before.

They need to think smaller.  They need to think locally.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of those things are important.  They’re important to me, too.  I want the realms and the nations and the henchmen and the storylines and even the unbelievable real-time weather effects.

I just want to make sure that the idea of “local” isn’t a tacked on guild system with a few fluff effects and a fairly basic friends list with a pretty basic LFG tool…all of which will be upgraded in the first expansion:  “World of MMOquest III:  The Search for More Money!”

Players are passionate.  They’ve always been.  Even casual players are (the real casual players – the ones who will never read an online forum about the game they’re playing).  We care about these games.  We care about the friendships we make online – whether or not they meet the strict criteria of “friend”.  We care about our guilds.  We care about our characters, even:  their allegiances, their abilities, their mounts, their gear….

We’re a fickle bunch, gamers.  I’m as guilty as the rest of us.  We talk about wanting bigger, more expansive game worlds…but most of us really do think locally.  Our online gaming revolves around a rather limited world most of the time:  what we want to do tonight, where we want to go, who we’re going to group with, etc.

These aspects simply can’t be overlooked when decided what gets cut to make release milestones.  Don’t want a year or two to tack on an LFG system and a guild search tool and then slap a sticker on the box that says “Now with better community tools!” 

All news is local.  All games are, too.

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