We Bond in Groups

Posted: April 8, 2009 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts

Anyone who has been in my guild longer than a week has likely heard me say this at least once, that “we bond in groups”. Generally, when I say this, it’s because I’m referencing activity levels on a particular night or recognizing longer term trends toward overall guild activity levels. After all, in our guild (as I suspect is the case with most guilds), we may solo as individuals quite a bit or raid together for shared goals or glory, but it is in the regular nightly group runs that we truly get to know each other as people and not just as names on a roster or in our chat.

Though I’ve been meaning to write this particular post for months now, it wasn’t till a recent post over at Cuppytalk that I started to really think about the subject with more depth. After all, I know that grouping is important (at least I think I know), but it’s apparent that others feel differently on the subject. They challenge the idea that significant content for grouping is good design. They raise questions. For example, is the idea of having content designed exclusively for grouping activities truly an outdated or dead concept, as Cuppycake seems to indicate in her post? Must all or even just most of an MMO’s content be accessible through soloing for the game to be good? Does a game have to reduce the importance or efficiency of grouping in order to be successful?

I’d argue no on all counts. Let me explain why I feel this way…

As I’ve stated, “we bond in groups” is a common saying of mine within our guild’s chat channels.  I don’t just say this because it’s a nice turn of phrase or because it’s supposed to be motivational.  I say it because over the years of running my guild, I’ve noted that whenever officers spend time and effort to set up regular groups within the guild, our activity levels increase overall.  Just adding raid nights each week doesn’t have this same effect.  Just recruiting more members does not, either.  No, if you want more of your members on more of the time, you’ve got to make grouping easier for your members overall.

This doesn’t mean the members of my guild do not solo.  Soloing is a requirement in a guild of our size and girth.  We have more than 80 active* accounts which span more than a half dozen time zones all around the world.  Truly, there is no one “prime time” in the Legion of the White Rose.  So, no matter who you are in the guild, there will always be times you log in and find yourself without a group to join.  The options are then to either solo, find a pick-up group, or log out.  Soloing ends up being the lesser evil at least as often as not. 

Yet, even with members who are able to quickly and easily solo through the rather hefty number of solo related quests in Everquest II (including the thousands of solo rated quests which are all but required in the highest tiers of the game), soloing rarely keeps members online night after night.  Neither does just raiding.  If anything, players log in to raid, then log out immediately after.  I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much that players are enjoying raiding to the exclusion of all else, so much as raiding is a scheduled, static event. 

This leads to the experiment:  setting up static group nights.  Whenever we set up static group events, activity levels jump.  Members log in for the groups and stay online till they either must log out (and typically long after they should have) or till the groups break up later in the night.  This isn’t a random occurance, either.  ANY time I set up a regular group time, activity levels jump.  Any guild could try this on any server in any game and I’d wager the results would be fairly consistent as a whole across the board.  Sure, it’s nice to be able to solo if groups aren’t available, but in my years of experience with a dozen chapters of my guild across a host of different online games, nothing brings out the activity levels like grouping. 

So what’s the problem with grouping?  Generally speaking, in most games today grouping can be a painful experience.  Now, before you quote that sentence and try to use to it to show me how I’m wrong, realize what I’m actually saying here.  I’m not saying that players do not want to group or that they hate being forced to group in different games.  I’d argue quite the opposite, that players really do want to group and they want to be in groups.  The real problem is that forming groups is often a tacked on UI element or function, that starting groups in many games can be an intimidating experience, and that there’s little incentive to group with strangers you do not know due to potential failure triggers in modern game designs.  Let’s face it, a whole lot of players want to group, but hate grouping.  It’s a contradiction created through modern game design, and the workaround has been to create more solo content so that groups can be avoided…but that’s not the solution. 

Certainly, I’m not for “forced grouping”.  Forced grouping is part of the problem I just mentioned, that players are put into situations with strangers who may or may not be at a similar skill or experience level as each other.  It’s just as frustrating to find yourself in a group filled with players with far less skill than yourself as it is to find yourself the lone newbie in a group filled with long time vets who start blowing through a dungeon faster than you’re comfortable with.  However, I think the phrase “forced grouping” is often confused with encouraged or even incetivized grouping.  Now, I’m very much in favor of encouraged or incentivized grouping.  I’m in favor of building systems into the content itself which encourages grouping as a natural part of the game’s design.  I believe that there should be grouping “hubs”.  I believe that there should be very easy to use, intuitive methods by which fast groups can be created which don’t involve underutilized, tacked on interface elements that aren’t part of the core design.  I’d love to see grouping systems built right into the interface design as a core element and more grouping hubs built into overall world design.  It needs to be as easy to find and join a group as it does to find an opponent in an online PVP matchmaking service. 

I wrote about these ideas nearly two years ago in an article here entitled, “The Path of Least Resistance“.  Though I still believe the general aspects of that post, I think that I’ve gained a bit more insight into the use, in fact the overuse of solo content as an alternative to forced grouping content.  The Everquest II expansion, Rise of Kunark, opened my eyes to the dangers of swinging the pendulum too far to the solo side of the equation just as the follow-up expansion of The Shadow Odyssey seemed to overcompensate toward the grouping side of the equation.  Obviously then, the ideal is a balance between the two concepts, to design for both group and solo content with engaging, compelling content.  The argument about creating “all/most of the content” around the soloing is just as bad as designing all or most of the content around grouping. 

However, given the choice between the two, I can tell you that setting up “solo nights” within my guild never yields as much of a turn out as a “group night”.  It doesn’t matter when you schedule the events, because the group events win out each and every time.  I can actually pull up records that show the members of my guild who joined and who rarely joined groups tend to quit playing much sooner than players who group often when they’re online.  Even players who start out strong and who are online frequently will still almost certainly quit the game sooner if they don’t tend to join groups.  It’s practically a given. 

From a personal perspective then, the players who I can count on to stick around for months or even years will be the players who tend to group.  Though I don’t have direct access to numbers from different studios, I’d wager that this is a very similar situation across game populations as a whole.  Players who have a bond with other players will keep playing a game longer than players who do not.  Where do we find these bonds?  We find those bonds in groups, because we bond in groups.

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Comments
  1. James says:

    “Where do we find these bonds? We find those bonds in groups, because we bond in groups.”

    i c wut u did thar.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist the obvious. Good write up.

  2. Jason says:

    Well said. Unfortunately whenever I try to have a design discussion about how to encourage grouping in game, its met with an “I hate forced grouping” attitude and meaningful discourse gets shut down.

  3. Cuppycake says:

    Note that I didn’t say that grouping in games is going to or should to go away completely. I’m simply stating that for mass-market consumption of your content, grouping shouldn’t be the only way (or even the preferred way) to progress.

    I’m saying this from someone who is designing experiences for broad market users, from virtual world enthusiasts to the casual gaming market to hardcore MMO players. People who enjoy being forced to group are in the minority. For the best possible potential of earning money, you have to be accessible to all.

    Keep in mind – you’re a hardcore MMO raider, and the leader of a successful raid guild in EQ2. Your opinions are likely to represent folks like you – who aren’t in the majority in the gaming sector.

    • Kendricke says:

      Actually, I’m not nearly as hardcore as many people like to make me out to be and my guild is not a hardcore raid guild at all, in Everquest II or in any of the other games we currently maintain chapters (or have). We have no raiding, levelling, or class requirements to join our guild and we frequently bring in very casual or even ultracasual members. It’s not terribly fair to discount my thoughts on this because “oh, he’s hardcore so he doesn’t really understand what it’s like for casual gamers”. In addition, we’re allied to several VERY casual guilds and we tend to help them with their activity issues as well through joint grouping nights.

      That said, even if my guild were a hardcore raiding guild, the fact that activity levels spike on planned group nights as opposed to other nights is data that should not be immediately discounted just because of the source. As I’ve stated, I’d be surprised to find that other guilds don’t see similar results, regardless of typical playstyle or hours spent online.

      Of course, my responses to your post revolved largely around the words you used which indicated that you felt a game requires that “most/all of the content” be available for solo play or else you’re basically telling players “I don’t care about you”. I believe that the overwhelming majority of a game’s total content can be designed around group-centric content and the game can STILL be a commerical and critical success.

  4. Cuppycake says:

    Sure, it still CAN be. However, if you want to get funding, you better look appealing to the largest audience possible. If you want to give your company the BEST shot of being a mass market product that appeals to more than just a niche – you better appeal to (and retain) customers that can be 13 year olds and grandmas.

    My post isn’t to say “these are the games I like” or “these are the only games that will be viable”. It’s simply to say that if I’m diving into a company and working on a product I want to feel good about it’s chances of success – it’s going to be free to play, and casual/solo friendly. No forced grouping all the way up.

  5. Cuppycake says:

    BTW, say whatever you want about “we’re not that hardcore” but the fact that you ARE A LEADER OF A GUILD completely takes you out of discussions about mass market users. Mass market web users and even GAMERS in general have no idea what a guild even is, much less lead one – regardless how casual it is. 😉

    • Kendricke says:

      …and gamers who don’t know what a guild is aren’t generally the players most likely to stick with a game longer than a few months. Guilded players are much more likely to continue playing a game than non-guilded, ultracasual players who maintain no guild ties at all.

      That said, I’m truly interested in which MMOs you’re talking about where players are completely unaware of what guilds are – since every MMO I know of which includes guilds features prominant guild tags. Exactly what type of population percentages are we talking about in MMOs when we talk about players who do not understand what guilds are: 50%? 30%? 10%? Are there even a million players in World of Warcraft who do not know what a guild even is?

  6. Cuppycake says:

    You missed the part where I’m talking about gamers as a whole, and not MMO players.

    You’re missing the millions and millions of people in the casual gamers market. The millions of people who are just starting to creep over into “massively multiplayer gaming” with the ability to login without paying (Wizard 101, etc).

    You’re also missing all the of the young kids, soon-to-be teens whose online multiplayer experience has resolved around Club Penguin, Gaia Online, and Habbo Hotel. BILLIONS of potential people in all of these markets that traditional MMO gaming continue to exclude from their potential customers because the games aren’t accessible enough.

    • Kendricke says:

      Just to clarify, this article isn’t about gamers in general. It’s about MMO gamers. It was, in part, a response to your article which was about MMO gamers (e.g. – “I’m going to stick my neck out and say – MMO players: suck it up.”).

  7. Cuppycake says:

    Ah okay, mine was about how MMO players need to suck it up because MMO companies are going to want to strive for mass market appeal – thus appealing to non-MMO players.

    WoW isn’t a titan because it got all the MMO players. It’s successful because it got a huge amount of first-timers. Now that there are more and more MMOs competing for love, attention, and revenue – they’re going to have to branch out to new and exciting flourishing audiences.

  8. Zubon says:

    Casualties of War moved into The Lord of the Rings Online™ with two static groups, one of which I joined a little late. Now quite a few people from other games are signing up to do one night a week with a static group. I’m wondering how much it will grow.

    • Kendricke says:

      One of those public secrets that successful guild leaders seem to intuitively understand is the need for regularly scheduled group nights. Groups increase activity and visibility for the guild, which in turn increase applicant interest in the guild (nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd).

      Keep up the static groups and you’ll see your guild growing over time, instead of remaining static or stagnate.

  9. Julian says:

    Disclaimer: If given the choice, as per my playstyle, I prefer soloing 9/10 times.

    That said…

    If you wanna “solve” grouping and have people group more, first you gotta solve group logistics. That is what kills grouping, not the act of grouping itself or if people prefer soloing. It’s how painful we have made it sometimes to group.

    Group logistics problems:
    – When players spend 2 hours trying to put a group together for a 30 minute encounter. Equalize the two, or get as close to it as you can, or no group other than a dedicated group will attempt that seriously.
    – It’s difficult/time consuming for avatars to actually congregate on one point in the game world. There are many ways of solving it, but they all trivialize, in a way, the size of the world. I guess it depends on what you care more about.
    – Many group encounters are not tolerant to simple failure. I’m not talking about catastrophic (wipe) failure. But there are many encounters around scripted in such a fascist way that even a small failure by a player might necessitate for the whole group to redo the encounter. Bad.
    – Group content that is class-dependent. ‘Nuff said. Also known as, “LF Tank/Healer”. You don’t have those, you can’t do it. If it takes a long time to put a group together for a particular encounter, players know and they just don’t try.

    And more. I’m of the opinion that you do catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I think modern MMO design, by large, is still operating under a few wrong assumptions. For example, very large group sizes make things more epic. Another of these wrong assumptions is that complication = difficulty. That is not the case. We should be making things *easier* for players to group, not more complicated. And this is not about having a LFG or not. It’s about what grain and what attitude your whole game, and all the game systems you’re going to create, will have regarding to grouping.

    I guess that’s why I like to solo; because I’m able to sidestep all that ball of needless complication and still extract fun from the thing.

  10. Xeavn says:

    World of Warcraft isn’t a huge success today because it grabbed a bunch of first time players, it is a huge success because it grabbed a bunch of first time players and KEPT them. A lot of those friends that I made in WoW when it first released, they are still playing it today.

    Games like Free Realms, and other casual games may be completely solo friendly, and not have a task that can’t be completed by yourself, but I doubt that is what will keep players coming back. If I had to guess what makes a game like that successful is that you can start a mini game / quest / whatever by yourself and have your friends join you as they login.

    How many players do you know that can take a solo game and play it for a full year? I am sure there are at least a few who probably do, but most players I know tend to play solo games for tops of a month. For myself I will often switch games every couple of weeks. So why have I continued to come back to Everquest 2 for a couple of years now? The people I play with change it from being just a game to be beaten into a social environment. The latest dungeon is just another way to hang out and talk and relax and have fun with friends. It is those friends that keep me logging in night after night.

  11. Kilanna says:

    Kendricke, I hope you dont mind, but I would love to put you on my friends list and perhaps send you a /tell in game

    I have been reading your blog for a while and for about the last 6 weeks or so I scheduled group nights. These were on the same calendar as our raids, and I advertised them both in our guild MOTD and via guild chat from time to time.

    I was dissapointed with a VERY lacklustre turn out – it always only seemed to be the same small number of people, As an officer it is certainly my role to facilitate peoples enjoyment, but sometimes I feel as though people think it is my job to MAKE their enjoyment for them.

    Do I just need to be more patient? Does this process take more than just a month or two to kick in?

    I would not want to interfere with your game time, but it would be nice to catch some perspectives from you.

  12. Joshua says:

    I think that EQ/EQ2 has gotten close.

    I like grouping, enjoy it a lot. I love a good dungeon romp where I’m wandering through the dungeon to see what I can find.

    But most often, it’s just my wife and I in a group. We generally have a limited time and we want to make the most of it when we do log in.

    So, LDoN in EQ, and the more recent one in EQ2 were very close in getting it. Both expansions added scalable dungeons. Except they can’t be done by a small group. Wasn’t LDoN set to a min of 3 people? The EQ2 dungeons were quite dissapointing, the two of us got wiped very quickly on the easy dungeon. Then you had people mentoring down to the lower person so things were easier then unmentoring and crushing everything in sight. Maybe that changed that, we haven’t played in a few months.

    I’d like to see dungeons that really really scale. So you can go in and solo. Sure, loot isn’t going to be that great. or maybe you get a bronze token instead of a gold token at the end. 2 people go in and you got some extra mobs. silver token at the end. 2 extra friends show up and now your dungeon can scale to a group of 4.

    I’d love to see some true scaling in the dungeon difficulty relative to the number of players in your group. I don’t know why the SOE folks didn’t take it all the way. Maybe setting up the loot was too complicated. But really, I’m happy with just getting the random shiny item from some monster in the dungeon. I have more fun with the exploration/achievement of making it through there.

    • Kendricke says:

      There are real reasons not to scale to group sizes. Some of the reasons are technical (it’s very difficult to code something like this for various group sizes), some are logistical (it’s a lot of work to do that), but mostly it’s for design reasons.

      If you design content to scale to group size, then logically players are going to figure out the best effort to reward ratio and game that system for maximum benefits. You end up hurting grouping overall because you’ve set up a system where smaller groups can compete on the same level in the same dungeons as larger groups.

      Keep in mind that there are some very real challenges involved in creating larger groups. Let’s face it – it takes more work to put together a good six person group than it does to put together a 3 person group. In addition, within a three person group there are less people to share with (more loot for you) and if the dungeon has any smart loot involved, the chances are greater that loot will drop for you (33.3% instead of 16.7%).

      Since people are essentially hardwired to take the path of least resistance, it won’t take long before people realize that building full groups of six is actually for chumps who want to slow down their progression. So, instead of fixing the problems you have with forming up larger groups, you simply are asking that the game be tailored to fit the groups you can put together (ALA Kunark) which leads to more problems when people actually DO want to form groups – namely, that the content no longer supports that as a viable option.

  13. Joshua says:

    Kendricke,

    Looks like LOTRO will have scaling dungeons soon… hopefully it will work out well.

    http://www.massively.com/2009/04/24/lotro-two-year-anniversary-book-8-details-announced/#continued

  14. […] read a good post over at Clockwork Gamer about grouping and guilds. I have to say I agree completely with the post, our guild is casual and […]

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