The era of the MMO may not be over, but few gamers would dispute that it’s well past its prime. There are economic and demographic reasons for this: the emergence of a vast wave of generally shoddy free-to-play online games, combined with an aging player base that has less time to spend grinding away in virtual worlds, has created a sense of fatigue amongst all but the most die-hard of fans. Equally significant, however, is the widespread lack of innovation of traditional MMO mechanics. In particular, guilds (organized groups of players, for those unfamiliar with the concept) tend to be criminally overlooked; far too often, developers are content to simply lift guild-building systems wholesale from another title, without giving any thought towards how they might be improved or adapted for their particular game.
Considering that one of the most compelling reasons to play an online game is to interact with other human beings, such neglect seems counterintuitive. Providing players with a common chat channel, a bank, and a guild hall is great, but they don’t add very much depth to what is supposed to be a persistent online world. It often feels as if game studios have forgotten the early promise of the genre, preferring to ape the design of one or two famously successful titles in favor of the ingenuity that made such games popular to begin with.
Give us internal politics
The most obvious example is, of course, World of Warcraft. As Blizzard is wont to do, WoW didn’t innovate the genre so much as rearrange and repackage many of the systems already found in other titles, albeit with a great deal of polish. The game has popularized concepts such as the shared bank, guild crests, and even the traditional “leader, officers, and rank and file” hierarchy that we have come to take for granted. At its inception, the WoW model worked because it presented players with a particular arrangement of tools that they had never had access to before, but over time, its limitations have become more obvious.
Most notably, the system exists purely to support other aspects of gameplay, such as raids and PVP. It succeeds in this admirably well, but it does not add any significant depth to the game in its own right. Characterization options are limited to the guild name and aforementioned crest, and any internal politicking is the result of real-life drama between players, rather than in-universe power struggles between their characters. While the game’s faction-based zones and open-world PVP allows interested groups to launch raids on enemy territory, this is just as feasible for individuals and small groups of friends – being in a guild simply gives you greater numbers.
Compare this to the system utilized by one of its more successful predecessors: Asheron’s Call. AC was released in 1999, when MMORPGs were first becoming commercially viable. Since there was no model for success in this new market, developers weren’t saddled with genre conventions, and were free to build their own systems from the ground up. Turbine Entertainment’s take on guilds, called Allegiances, are inspired by real-world feudalism, with every guild member having to swear fealty to a patron. This patron, in turn, is usually sworn to obey an even stronger overlord, creating a pyramid-like power structure that ensures that every player has a personal connection to at least a few other guild members.
The implications of this feudalist system are profound. Power and authority are inherently decentralized, which encourages guild leaders to delegate tasks, and obligates them to court the favor of powerful vassals in order to maintain their position. The vassals themselves gain status and prestige as they accrue more followers, leading to rivalries that have to be carefully managed lest they turn into outright schisms in the ranks. In short, managing an allegiance in Asheron’s Call requires leaders to understand the intricacies of the political structure in which they find themselves. A balance of power had to be maintained while expanding one’s personal influence, which compels players to engage in a social metagame above and beyond anything programmed into the software itself.
Fundamentally, this system, like any real-world political structure, requires successful organizations to be built on a foundation of trust. There are no mechanics in place to prevent powerful vassals from splitting off from the core group, or to punish those who do. Naturally, this opens the door to potential griefers, although the time commitment required to establish oneself as an important subject tends to dissuade players from attempting to cripple a guild for the lulz alone. These mechanics have led to the emergence of social contracts, but do not impose them, which lends them a sincerity altogether different from anything found in WoW or its many clones.
Suit the system to the setting
Much like Asheron’s Call, Elite: Dangerous relies on the bonds of trust and friendship between players to form meaningful guilds. This is an absolute necessity, as the game itself offers nothing in the way grouping tools beyond the ability to form temporary “wings” of vessels, which are analogous to parties in an MMORPG. This is a conscious decision on the part of Frontier Developments, who have stated outright that their goal was to design a game that emphasized personal freedom (that said, the fact that they took this approach in a game that prioritizes online play seems to suggest that they only had a very hazy vision of the kind of gameplay experience they wanted to provide in the first place).
The problem with E:D’s approach is that it forces players who want to coordinate their efforts to rely on external, third-party tools for absolutely every facet of guild-building. This not only feels less satisfying to players, who rarely get to see their group represented in-universe in any meaningful way, but it also forces them to split their free time and focus between coordinating with their group and enjoying the game itself. As a personal example, I stopped playing E:D when I realized that I was spending more time on my guild’s website than actually flying my ship. Third-party tools are great, and can prove invaluable to well-established player groups, but they are best used to support mechanics already integrated into a game. They should not be a game unto themselves.
In contrast, EVE Online takes the opposite approach, and from everything I’ve read, stands as a modern example of guild-building mechanics (mostly) done right. The system is suited to its setting, taking its cue from real-world corporate rivalry rather than importing another game’s framework into an environment in which it would feel out of place. In doing so, the systems gently nudge players towards engaging in the type of nefarious politicking and cutthroat corporate takeovers that the developers want to encourage.
This is an important point. For developers, the social tools you provide to your players are an opportunity to indirectly shape the fundamental experience of the game. For example, in EVE, one of the major purposes of corporations (the in-universe name for guilds) is to accumulate and redistribute wealth. Corps can set a tax rate, which determines the percentage of mission rewards and bounty payouts that get deposited directly into the corporation’s wallet. These resources are used to pay rent on assets such as offices, as well as to dole out rewards and recompense to loyal members. Additionally, every corporation has a certain number of shares which can be sold or given to players, permitting them to vote on important decisions and potentially earning them additional income in the form of disbursements. While this system is, unfortunately, currently broken (the game doesn’t include any form of public stock market or corporate audits, which discourages stock trading), it is nevertheless a very creative approach to adding nuance to the internal affairs of player groups, and one which serves to reinforce the illusion of being a member of a real corporation.
EVE does countless other things right, as well. The maximum size of a corp’s membership is dependent on the skills of the CEO, which, in theory, gives shareholders motivation to replace an incapable leader. Offices can be rented at various stations, with rental fees fluctuating based on demand, and individual players can be assigned to particular offices. Players can also be assigned specialized roles within the corporation, from communications officers to diplomats, all of which have access to administrative abilities specific to their positions. These mechanics, when taken together, create a complex system of internal affairs that make the inner workings of a player group just as interesting as its relations with its rivals.
It’s time for change
EVE is an outlier in a number of ways, and it’s unreasonable to expect every game to mimic its complexity. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the benefits of breaking free of genre conventions; namely, the possibility of offering players truly unique gameplay that encourages them to engage with their peers. Obviously, some mechanics are better-integrated than others, and the system remains a work in progress, but the net benefits of taking these risks have clearly outweighed their costs.
It’s time for other studios to start taking note of such experiments, and to muster up the courage to innovate their own games in a similar fashion. Take, for instance, the traditional WoW model, which we’ve seen replicated countless times in games like Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars 2, and Runescape. Do these systems have to be structured as top-down autocracies, with one person exercising unchecked power, either directly or through appointees? Absolutely not! Why not offer players a choice of political power structures when they form their guilds? With a little planning and foresight, it’s easy enough to create systems to support everything from direct democracy (ie. one vote per member), to representative democracy (electing representatives who vote on important matters) to outright despotism (rule of the strongest, determined through battle). I’m sure there are countless other frameworks available that I haven’t even considered.
In that same vein, why not give the rank and file the means to effect change by mobilizing the masses? If multiple political systems are available, perhaps mechanics could be introduced to permit coups and revolutions. Not only would this keep both leaders and members engaged in the ever-changing game of guild politics, but it would provide a safeguard against the sudden disappearance of the guild leader, a problem which has toppled many a virtual organization.
Guild specialization and player-made nations/alliances are two other concepts that have been dabbled with in the past, and, taken together, they have the potential to re-invent the social structure of games on a larger scale. Specialized guilds exist in almost every MMO, but that specialization tends to be derived from the players themselves; it is rare for the mechanics to offer particular costs or benefits to a guild of merchants over a guild of pirates, for example. By offering guild leaders specific tools designed for the role they want their organization to play, developers would be implicitly encouraging relations to develop between groups that complement each other. Imagine a band of farmers selling a shipment of wheat to a merchant’s guild, who would take it by wagon to the sea and pass it on to the merchant marines, who would sail it up the coast to the lord of a local castle, who would use it to feed his troops. Suddenly, dozens, if not hundreds of players have been bound together by a single, simple transaction. Players need a reason to interact with one another; it is not enough to give them the means to do so and call it a day.
It can be argued that the lack of innovation in MMO mechanics is simply a symptom of a larger problem; namely, the tendency for developers to perceive the genre as a cash cow. If it’s possible to turn a steady profit by simply rehashing tried and tested designs, that’s the route most companies will take. Let’s face it: most people and organizations are fundamentally risk-averse (to put it nicely). Consumer habits naturally play a role as well – after all, thousands upon thousands of people are still spending money on WoW-clones – but at the same time, many of the most long-lived and successful games in the genre are the ones that offer unique social experiences. The Asheron’s Call servers, for instance, are still up and running after 17 years. EVE Online made developers CCP more than $20 million USD in 2015, and Linden Labs, creators of open-ended virtual universe sandbox Second Life, have been reported to earn between $75 and 100 million USD per year from their flagship game alone.
Obviously, there is profit to be made in providing gamers with a unique and engaging social experience. The time has come for more companies to acknowledge that they’ve been ignoring a fundamental part of the online gaming experience for years, and to take steps to address the issue. The alternative – further establishing themselves as peddlers of derivative and largely forgettable gaming experiences – is just bad business.