MMO Developers: Community Should be Your Most Valued Commodity

by Wolfshead on June 17, 2008

communityA few days ago I decided to reactivate my old EverQuest2 account and try out the Living Legacy offer from SOE. I created a new character in Timorous Deep to experience the new Kunark content on the Lucan D’Lere role-playing server. Within minutes the chat in General chat channel degenerated into sexually inappropriate speech and “dudespeak”. I purposely went to a “RP” server to avoid this kind of garbage. I promptly logged off and swore never to return.

Apparently SOE has become just as lax as Blizzard with regard to enforcing conduct on chat channels — especially on a RP server. There is no way that these players on chat would have been allowed to get away with behavior like this a few years ago. The brazen attitude of these people suggests that they are not afraid of repercussions and don’t give a damn about anything or anyone. Then it dawned on me: maybe this is the new breed of MMO players? No matter what MMO I play these days it seems unruly children and rude teenagers have become the dominant demographic. Has the very community that made MMO’s such an amazing experience been replaced by a brutish gang of school yard hooligans that have no regard for anyone but themselves?

First Impressions are Critical

It was in that moment that I made a value judgment about EverQuest2 as a whole. Instead of using the quality of the game play, the graphics, the quests as my prime criteria I used my perceptions about the maturity of the server community to make my ultimate determination that this MMO was not suitable for me. Of course my evaluation of that particular EQ2 server’s community on the whole is perhaps inaccurate and subjective but would a new player or someone new to MMO’s firing up the game for the very first time give SOE another chance if they experienced what I heard? I doubt it. In the video game industry, you only have one chance to make a good first impression.

This got me pondering the question: Isn’t community the most important commodity that a MMO has to offer prospective players? If so then why don’t more MMO companies do more to improve the quality of their community? Why aren’t players who make a contribution to their community rewarded?

The Golden Age of Community in MMO’s

It was the sense of community that really made earlier MMO’s like Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot a very unique and special experience. Back then MMO’s were very new and not well known to the general public; most people into computer gaming played single player games. People were more polite back in those days and there was more courtesy and respect shown to fellow players. Players even role-played! There were some amazing people back then that really seemed to care about immersion and investing into the idea that we were all trying make a virtual fantasy world come to life. 

Today’s Dysfunctional Community

Contrast that with what appears to be the today’s new MMO gamer: a spoiled, mean spirited, ADD brat who’s been raised on the pablum of the “self esteem” movement courtesy of our brilliant public education system.

We only have to look at the worst community in MMO history to see how bad things can truly get: World of Warcraft. General chat in WoW is pretty much worthless. The official WoW forums are a disgrace beyond belief with all sorts of nonsense and trolling. The end result is my friends and I usually have General chat and Trade chat turned off. Our ignore lists are always full. We avoid the official forums at all costs. In the end, we end up isolating ourselves from the general player population which means that the good players will have less of a chance of getting groups and making new friends. All because Blizzard has failed to adequately police their MMO. So what’s the point of a MMO when good players have to resort to shutting out everyone out?

Ten years ago I started playing Ultima Online. After that I migrated to EverQuest in 1999. Today if I picked up a MMO for the first time and experienced what I heard in EverQuest2 chat channels I would have been thoroughly appalled. The result is I would never have become the avid MMO gamer I am today. The caliber of the community has degraded to the point it’s not even recognizable. As a mature adult I don’t hang out with children and teenagers in my real life — why then would I want to do so in a virtual world?

Blizzard’s Lax Enforcement

Blizzard is 100% responsible for the state of the WoW community as they only reactively police in game chat and their discussion forums. Basically it’s up to *you* the player to petition and report them. By failing to adequately enforce their rules, Blizzard is basically encouraging these thugs and hooligans to destroy the gaming experience for the rest of us. I seriously doubt that Blizzard President Mike Morhaime would allow members of his own family to view the routinely repulsive official WoW forums. Why then must paying customers be subjected to it?

Take a look at the graphic below taken directly from Blizzard’s website. In Blizzard’s own words we see that players who repeatedly violate codes of conduct *rarely* have their accounts closed. Instead Blizzard is all about “education”. How blissfully nice of them! Translation — we don’t want to lose any money by closing the accounts of players who violate our rules. Read their policies and you’ll soon discover that Blizzard is purposely vague about just how many violations it takes to reach account closure. I’m sure glad that Blizzard doesn’t run the local police department. If they did we’d have a crime wave like you’ve never seen with practically nobody in jail.

Account Closure
Accounts are closed when a player has excessively and/or grossly violated our policies. When an account is closed, the player is no longer able to access the account. Account Closures are rare and represent a player who is unable to abide by our rules and insists on negatively affecting other players’ enjoyment of the game or harming the service itself.

 
penalty volcano

Community Standards in MMO’s

It’s a strange paradox that players are both the best things about MMO’s and the worst things about MMO’s. MMO companies should be more proactive in demanding that players adhere to a higher standard then exists on the “street”, the typical school yard or locker room. In the real world businesses, schools, organizations, clubs and churches all hold their members to standards of conduct. Why can’t MMO’s do the same for their paying customers? 

Despite petitioning and reporting disruptive players over and over nothing seems to change. The same offenders are online each daily spewing their garbage in public chat channels. Why should I as a player be forced to put players on ignore? Why should I as a player have to leave chat channels because there is zero enforcement of codes of conduct? Why should I as a player have to use profanity filters because MMO companies don’t care enough to proactively enforcement the rules? Why is the victim penalized more then the perpetrator?

Bad Communities Costs MMO’s Money in the Long Run

Although underrated, I always considered the community to be the biggest asset to a MMO; now I feel that a MMO’s community is its biggest liability. If MMO companies fail to stop the erosion of their communities they will lose MMO veteran’s like myself. When I play MMO’s I usually form guilds and lead players. I routinely end up teaching and training new players how to play their class and how to group and function in raids. I usually selflessly play tanks for the good of the guild. Without tanks groups become impossible. I also operated and administered many guild websites that have helped hundreds of MMO players over the years. If MMO companies can drive away older experienced players like myself, who will lead them and teach them when we are gone?

MMO companies are misguided if they believe that lax enforcement of codes of conduct is not costing them money. While they may think they are keeping these offenders subscribing by giving them a slap on the wrist and educating them, they are losing money by driving away the good players who are an asset to their MMO.

Good Communities Are Possible

I wholeheartedly believe that good communities where players respect each other are entirely possible within MMO’s given strict proactive enforcement. Let’s take a look at two forums that are devoted to MMO gaming and compare the civility quotient. Elitist Jerks a WoW guild have a very strict code of conduct which is vigilantly enforced. As a result the forums are a pleasure to read with a very high signal to noise ratio — meaning more intelligent and respectful posts. Contrast this to the Fires of Heaven MMO discussion forums where there are virtually no rules and anything goes. Posters here frequently engage in flame wars, trolling and other acts of concentrated stupidity. The result is that the forums have a low signal to noise ratio — resulting in very little worthwhile content for the reader.

An interesting fact is that if you look closely both forums share many of the same posters. Clearly these posters who post on the Elitist Jerks forums are capable of behaving themselves with decorum. Yet on the FoH forums they just choose not to. The difference is that there is 1) a code of conduct and 2) it is strictly enforced with consequences.

Niche Communities

Given the fact that Blizzard claims WoW has over 10 million subscribers does anyone really think that all of those diverse demographics can co-exist with one code of conduct as one big happy family? Although Blizzard has created slightly different rule-sets for the few role-playing servers that they have, wouldn’t it make sense to offer more rule-sets that would appeal to niche segments of their player base? Just as many public swimming pools have special “adult only” hours where adults can swim peacefully free from the nuisance of screaming children why can’t Blizzard offer the same to adults in WoW? Many people would gladly pay a premium to play WoW on an adults only server.

Reward Good Samaritans and Players Who Contribute

I find it alarming that Blizzard has a system that will punish players that violate codes of conduct but they do nothing to promote players that try to make Azeroth a better place. While they do have a MVP program on their official forums it’s basically a token and meaningless gesture as it has a current paltry total of 11 members. Blizzard would do well to learn from SOE and institute a formalized volunteer guide program that recognizes that there are selfless and kind players that enjoy helping their fellow players. These volunteers could be given special powers to moderate chat channels and report players that violate the rules directly to Blizzard customer service employees. Good people need to be supported by the company and it would go a long way in showing other players that Blizzard is serious about their community.

The Buck Stops at the Top

The major reason the WoW community is so terrible is a lack of corporate will. The blame goes squarely on the people at the top at Blizzard. For whatever reason, they believe that the chaos and anarchy that existed on the Bnet forums is perfectly acceptable and part of the Blizzard culture. Blizzard is proud of the legacy of the notorious “Battlenet kiddies” and seems to let them get away with murder on their forums. Blizzard could clean up the forums and chat offenders immediately if they so wished. Instead they consciously choose not to do so. They certainly have the money and the resources given the fact that they are most profitable MMO of all time. 

One more thing to note: isn’t it interesting that you never see Mike Morhaime, Rob Pardo, Paul Sams or any of the Blizzard brass post in the virtual mosh pit of the official WoW forums? Want to know why? Because they would never allow themselves to be humiliated and pilloried in public at the hands of their beloved WoW subscribers. If they truly love their community so much (Note: Morhaime said that the WoW communities are “awesome” at 2007 Blizzcon) why then do they refuse to mingle with them on the forums? Busted fellas.

Good Community Helps Distinguish Your Brand

Thankfully other MMO’s companies such as Turbine who developed Lord of the Rings Online take the nurturing and conduct of their community very seriously. In post after post on the first impressions forum ex-WoW players almost unanimously remark that the LOTRO community is so much better then what they experienced in WoW. Having a mature and respectful community is one way that LOTRO can distinguish itself in the marketplace from the chaos and anarchy of the WoW community.

If we really want things to change MMO players need to start taking our subscription dollars elsewhere and start supporting MMO developers that realize that the quality of community matters. It’s unfortunate that one has to appeal to good business sense to make the case for MMO companies to start allocating resources into ensuring the maintenance of a civil and decent player base. You would think that they would want to take some pride in their community instead of token lip service that we see in interviews and Blizzcon speeches. It’s time for the MMO industry to wake up. Failing to realize that your community is a valued commodity and it should be treated with respect is going to affect your bottom line for the worse.

 -Wolfshead

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