You Don’t Own Me!

Posted: September 13, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts

I was spending some time this weekend perusing the old “Laws of Online World Design” over on Raph Koster’s site.  I remembered that previous to Everquest 2 launching, the moderators over at EQII.com used to post one of the “laws” from time to time and discuss how it might affect the Shattered Lands.  As I wandered through some of the laws, chuckling inwardly with nostalgia, I came across one I didn’t remember called “Ownership is Key”:

Ownership is key

You have to give players a sense of ownership in the game. This is what will make them stay–it is a “barrier to departure.” Social bonds are not enough, because good social bonds extend outside the game. Instead, it is context. If they can build their own buildings, build a character, own possessions, hold down a job, feel a sense of responsibility to something that cannot be removed from the game–then you have ownership.

There’s a lot of weight in these statements, as players who are still involved with first generation MMO’s such as Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and Everquest can attest.  One of the major reasons many of these players haven’t moved on to other games (even when their friends and guilds have) is due to that ownership factor. 

Oh sure, there are other reasons besides ownership that keeps players in a particular gaming world even as new games come out.  There’s the technology factor, of course, where newer games might require upgrading PC’s.  There’s the completionist/exploration factor where players might feel compelled to continue in the current world till they finally experience “all” the content available.  Perhaps some players are adverse to learning a new game all over again. 

Even then, some of these ideas touch on the ownership factor, though. Most players won’t use the word “ownership”, of course, but instead refer to how much time has been invested, or how much gear they have, or how they don’t want to start all over again, or how much of the content they’ve already experienced.

In short, I’d wager that the truly invested players don’t want to leave because they feel they’ve invested so much. 

Honestly, regardless of which filter you choose to view online worlds with, player ownership is a big deal.  Whether studios like to legally admit to player ownership or not (likely not, due to legal issues over RMT), the concept of player investment has to come up frequently in discussions. 

From a subscription perspective, designers have to want players to feel vested in a game world – because it makes it harder to leave.  From a designer’s perspective, ownership provides a more robust play experience.  From a player’s perspective, ownership gives a sense of control, growth, and investment. This is why it’s even more critical to hook players into that feeling of ownership early on. 

Developers need to give players a chance to feel ownership right from the world go.  Give new players a home right off. Give them new gear right away.  Give them the chance to put their name on items.  Give them the chance to make a name for themselves.  These are all the basic ideas of any MMO, though, and really aren’t exactly revolutionary ideas. 

Most MMO’s today either attempt to provide personal investment opportunities, attempt to beef up social networks, or attempt to do both side-by-side.  But is anyone really trying to do both at once?

With social networks like Facebook and Myspace, there’s an entire metagame of “collecting” friends.  Sites like this make clever use of the fact that people can see how many friends you have listed right off.  It encourages more interactivity (and spam) and invests users into staying put.  Add in blogs and lists and comments and people generally don’t want to delete their profiles because of the time investments.

Now flip this basic idea around toward MMO’s.  The basic social network building block of most MMO’s is the guild.  Guilds typically maintain between 10 and 100 actual members in most games.  Certainly guilds exist with more or less, but as a general guide, I’d speculate the majority of players belong to guilds with between 20-60 actual members. 

Some of these guilds are very strong social entities, spanning multiple games and claiming hundreds of actual real-world players.  Other guilds are considerably less ambitious in scope, probably encompassing perhaps a small group of players who may known each other already.  Whatever the form, these guilds are probably the most visible form of social networks most MMO’s possess.  After all, in most of these online worlds, you can readily access a guild’s roster publically, whereas someone’s personal buddy or friends list is generally considered to be private. 

So, much like a Myspace friends list, guilds take on the role of the public social network for many players.  And also like the Myspace friends list, many guildmasters play the metagame of “collecting” members. But how do you take a social network like a guild and impart feelings of ownership? 

For years, online world designers have been providing that sense of ownership already – but typically only to guild creators/leaders.  General members in a guild tend to have little to no control over the guild itself, and therefore may tend to feel little to no ownership within the guild itself.  The role of providing feelings of ownership for these members tends to fall upon the shoulders of guild officers, rather than game mechanics. 

Player created systems of ownership – ranks, raid points, titles, responsibilities – fill the gap left wide open by a missed opportunity of game design. MMO’s are quickly becoming more and more sophisticated with regards to actual guild support, but as far as providing a feeling of ownership to players in regards to their own guilds, few are providing as many options as they could. 

A step in the right direction over the past few years has been the idea of guild heraldry.  Dark Age of Camelot really got this ball rolling and the torch was picked up later by World of Warcraft, and within the last year, by Everquest II.  It helps guild leaders to convey a sense of identity to the guild at large, but generally speaking, it’s still not providing a sense of control to invidual members. 

The sense of control and investment necessary for that sense of ownership is still missing from the game mechanics.  Guild levels certainly help, but again there’s nothing preventing a player from moving from one guild to the next.  Indeed, a certain selection of players seems to thrive on the idea of guild hopping, constantly on the lookout for a new guild which may or may not provide whatever was missing in the last guild.

Status contributions in Everquest II seems to be the best example of building investement by players into an actual guild that I’ve found so far.  In Everquest II, guilds have levels (which again, is a good thing for guild officers’ feelings of investment, but not necessarily for players since personal status remains with the player). 

In order to earn these levels, players produce “status”, which is essentially a separate currency system that is not transferable between players (for the most part, players can donate status to housing costs).  When a player’s character earns status, an additional 10% of that total is added to their guild’s total status.  This guild status works similarly to experience, and eventually results in guilds earning levels.  As players contribute this additional status, a total of that amounted contributed is tracked by the guild support tools.  A number appears next to your character’s name within the guild’s roster.  The more status you contribute as a member, the higher the number gets.  Leave the guild, and that number reduces to 0.  Join a new guild (even a guild you’ve belonged to before) and that number starts over at 0. 

The number itself is meaningless – it represents nothing that actually affects gameplay, because it doesn’t affect either guild level (leave a guild and they don’t lose your contributed status) nor does it affect your character (your personal status is unaffected as well).  It’s simply a tracking number to let the rest of your guildmates know how much status you’ve earned while you’ve been a member of the guild.

And yet, even this little meaningless number results in massive posts on the subject within the Everquest II official forums.  Players HATE losing that number.  They want the number to transfer with them if they move guilds or if two guilds merge (even though that makes no sense, since that number only tracks what you’ve contributed to Guild X – moving to a new guild or combining two guilds means the previous Guild X is no longer relevant).

Why do players hate losing that number? 

Because players perceive that number with a sense of invested ownership.  It doesn’t matter that the number really belongs to the guild – it showed up based on individual work performed by an individual character and showed up next to an individual character’s name.  Therefore, this number MUST belong to the individual character, right?  It doesn’t matter that the number has no real value within the game – players perceive value and perception is reality.  That’s the power of ownership. 

Players have posted over and over that they’ve stayed in guilds long past the time they originally thought about leaving because they don’t want to give up that number.  Even beyond such game created numbers, players have posted that they’ve stayed in guilds because they had a lot of raid points invested, or because they didn’t want to lose a rank they’ve earned. 

A sense of ownership is obviously powerful incentive toward loyalty.  Guilds are obviously a powerful social building block in games.  Find a way to combine the two, and you’ve got a powerful one-two incentive to keeping players in an online world longer. 

How would I do it?

I’d invest first heavily into guild infrastructure.  Find out what guildmasters actually want and work from there.  Guild banks, heraldry, customizable ranks, and guild halls should be considered the very least of these features. 

Just as customers today are more discerning, so too are guilds. Give guild officers more tools to allow their members to invest, without removing the control some guild officers require. 

Provide systems that allow guilds to track raid points in game.  Just as with the status tracking, this number is often one of the ones cited by players as one which involves investment. 

Provide tools which give guildmasters the tools to see login patterns (when is the guild most active, how often does Bob log in, what levels are the guild’s members most active within). 

Provide tools that allow for more accurate tracking, and the guild’s officers could potentially use that information to set up better events for their own members.  Also, since no MMO’s currently offer this, I can guarantee you it’s one of those ideas that may not seem like a big deal – till it’s gone.

Provide more guild-centric data to be collected and presented for members of guilds.  Within the guilds, provide a quick page link that shows how many levels that member has gained while a member, how many levels that member has assisted other members with (levels gained by guild members while grouped with this member, etc), and track total donations to guild bank.

Make guild halls a truly guildwide effort to create/acquire.  Track contributions from members who contributed to the acquisition of a guildhall.  Perhaps have a cornerstone inscription with the names of all guild members who participated in the guildhall creation. 

Within a guild hall, allow trophies which can ONLY be shown in a guildhall (and which name the member who contributed the trophy in the first place).  Imagine having the “kill shot” on Nagafen the first time he’s downed on a guild raid, and forever having your name associated with a trophy in your guild’s great room that states you struck the decisive blow.

What if contributed status also had benefits over and above personal status or guild level?  What if that previously worthless number had actual value?  What if some abilities within a guild hall had to be earned while a member of a guild – so not only would the guild itself have to be of sufficient level to even allow the priviledge, but individual members would have to contribute a specific amount of status while a member of the guild to access that priviledge.

Players are certainly emotional creatures.  With more and more MMO’s coming out, it’s going to be harder to tie into that emotion.  Perhaps the best way is through ownership – both directly and indirectly through their guilds.

Give guild leaders more tools to empower their own players with a feeling of ownership within their guilds, and both the leaders and the rank and file membership will feel a stronger pull to remain within your virtual world…as opposed to someone else’s.

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