6 Oct 2010

A Socially Aware Warcraft?

When I think of MMOs, I generally think of games that are rick in social interaction. Alongside the gigantic world and the rich environments are dedicated tools specifically designed to help players interact with each other.

But although Warcraft has developed socially with the inclusion of Real ID and Facebook integration, it’s mainly designed to connect networks together. And while the new Guild Management interfaces provide even greater control, they only enhance the existing social experiences. The in-game Calendar has helped, but only as far as co-ordinating events.

Just Too Social?

A recent blue post announced a new cap being introduced to limit the size of a guild. Instead of a soft cap of 500, guilds would be faced with a hard cap of 600 characters. Guilds already over the hard cap would be unable to add new members until they dropped below it. Apparently less than 0.1% of guilds are affected by this change.

That hasn’t stopped some large guilds from complaining about the change. With increased focus on guild achievements and activities, there needs to be a hard cap in place so that all the contributing variables can be tracked. It’s not a game mechanics constraint but a technical one to ensure that systems don’t get bogged down with tracking achievement states across too many characters just to see if a guild achievement condition is reached. And because achievements are awarded in real-time rather than as a batch job that’s even more to be managed. Multiply that by the number of guilds on a single realm and that’s a lot of tracking to consider.

So why do large guilds exist? What motivates people to join a supermassive guild with hundreds of members, far beyond what’s needed for most in-game objectives? It turns out there’s a fair few reasons for them, with just a few listed here:

  • The Fanclub Guild – The members are a fan of a particular magazine, website or similar and have joined a guild to play with other fans
  • The Enhanced LFG Guild – Filled to the brim with mains and alts, this guild serves as an alternative to the roulette of the LFD tool. They’re usually levelling guilds or similar.
  • The Affiliation Guild – For popular causes or groups that players identify with or support, guilds are an easy way to meet others. The guild tag helps to show your support like a ribbon, pin or badge in real life

The Limitations

Trouble is most games including Warcraft make it really hard to affiliate yourself with more than one group. While you can have an Arena team, a Friends list, a Guild and a collection of chat channels the chance is that it’s your guild where most of your activity is based. You can only be in one guild with each character, meaning that choosing one means having to forgo all others. You might have other interests, but they’re just tacked on. They receive the most rudimentary support in-game.

Building It Better

As people we’re social creatures. We tend to involve ourselves with many groups, clubs and organisations. Although we might have a few key ones like our family and our job, we tend not to restrict ourselves. Just as with real life, a social game shouldn’t place restrictions on how we group and associate with others.

But how would you build a tool that supports this? What would it look like and how would you use it?

Using the concept of channels and raiding alliances as a starting point, it’s fairly simple to come up with a straightforward design that allows you to create groups in-game. By keeping it generic and open it could be used by fan groups, raiding alliances, roleplay collectives and so on. But by also providing something more than a basic chat channel you also provide persistence and moderation.

A user could theoretically join as many groups as they would want to, although a cap could be enforced to limit the amount of channels someone would join. You could also customise invite options, from allowing anyone to join through to invite only. And by linking it through to the calendar, your group can create their own events and invite members.

All this sounds a bit like a guild and to an extent it is. But importantly there wouldn’t be a guild bank or achievements linked to it, and there would only be the simplest set of moderation controls. This should help to keep server load to a minimum. It also means that your guild remains special, but not as difficult a choice to make.

There’s also further benefits you could have. An inspection of someone could tell you what groups they’re a member of (if they choose to declare them). You could even have something like a guild tabard available for people to wear their affiliations. Maybe even the option for custom titles or tags.

Why Change the Game?

One of the biggest strengths of Warcraft is that it has helped to bring players together from all walks of life. But the way in which players have been brought together hasn’t always resulted in the best interactions. The LFD tool has helped great players meet each other, but it’s also cheapened the experience to a 15 minute badge farm. Weekly raids now consist of gear and achievement checks over skill because it’s become difficult to maintain a list of skilled players outside your guild.

If there’s one thing LFD has shown, it’s that the solution isn’t always an automated tool. Sometimes it’s just as simple to provide players with the tools to build their own social structures within the game and let them get on with it. After all, Warcraft is more than just your guild.

What do you think though? Do MMOs need to evolve their social tools, or are the current capabilities enough? How complex or simple do they need to be? Or is a guild all you need to get by? Share your own ideas in the comments.

Image taken from the article Social Network on Wikipedia.

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