How Ashes of Creation Can Succeed Where Others Have Failed
Part I – There’s No Place Like Home
Intro: The Start of the Community Journey
Before you start this article, I think it makes sense to share a bit about myself. I was that kid growing up who closed his eyes imagining stories and breathing life into them within the confines of imagination. I was enamored with books and computer games for one simple reason – partnered with my imagination, they unlocked my creativity. One of my favorite types of games, when portable computers were larger than I had been at the time, were point and click adventures. When I grew into my 20s, I freelanced as a writer here and there, but sadly most of my work is now lost to the labyrinth of the early internet days. It was during that time period that I had my first foray into online graphics-based gaming – Diablo. I randomly met a kid who went by the handle, DeathVegetable, who introduced me to my first guild ever… The Sacred Brotherhood. That chance meeting changed the course of my life as I eventually made many friends in that guild. I met Varen, who lived not too far from me and helped me get an interview for my first real job out of college and BearTamer, who was very much the gaming mom, looking out for me, always ready to listen and offer her advice when I needed it. It was with these and several others that I experienced my inaugural MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) – Ultima Online. Though, some faces changed as we moved onto other games, EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot specifically, the community element was still strong. Then, as sometimes happens, we parted ways and I continued my gaming journey – City of Heroes and World of Warcraft most notably. City of Heroes was especially poignant for me as it was the peak of my freelance writing experience. I still remember how nervous I was to meet Jack Emmert (at the time co-founder and creative director of Cryptic Studios) in person as I was interviewing him for an article. If you can imagine meeting someone that breathed life into an idea that you believed very passionately about, that was who Jack was for me. City of Heroes was also my first pre-alpha experience and another instrumental part of my life that continued to refine the meaning of gaming community to me. If BearTamer was my gaming mom, then MacAllen was my gaming dad. If it wasn’t for Mac, I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to speak up during that testing process and eventually be one of the primary voices providing community feedback on the controller archetype. It was some time into City of Heroes live, that one of my friends in that community, mentioned this game in beta called World of Warcraft. I had fond memories of playing Warcraft and competing against my older brother – who was the superior strategist, a fact which I would never openly admit even after getting my ass kicked time and time again. That said, I was intrigued to see this IP in a massive multiplayer game. Though my community history in this game wasn’t always positive – I’m sure we’re all familiar with the drama that can come and go on in a MMO community – the experience was another I can call out as principally formative. Despite the roller-coaster of life events that occurred while I was playing that game and navigating personal relationships – some that have lasted to this day – it and my background with other massive multiplayer games taught me a great deal about what is rewarding in a MMO. With that in mind, I’ve decided to devote some time to writing a few things down and exploring the topics that I feel are essential to the success of Intrepid Studios’ ambitious MMORPG, Ashes of Creation. I don’t have an exact idea how long this series will go or how frequently I’ll be able to sit down and write but regardless, it’s important to me to have the conversation. Yes, that wasn’t a typo – this is a conversation. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say. So, let’s get on with it.
A Million Little Things
As you may have gathered from the introduction, community relationships are fresh on my mind. At risk of revealing a bit more about myself, I’ll say the following – community like friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things. Good or bad, my gaming experience has always been defined by community. Regardless of how compelling gaming systems can be in a MMORPG, community is what has kept me playing a game long after the game construct’s appeal waned. As my pop culture reference indicates, community doesn’t just happen in a big bang. It’s built. I will also venture to say that it isn’t just the function of the personalities that gravitate towards the idea of a game. In part, it is also formed by the boundaries of the game design itself. Anyone that has even a cursory knowledge of game development knows that there are so many factors that can go right as not perform as expected. It’s even a more elusive concept to anticipate player behavior, but I do feel that developers can influence behaviors by the design choices they make. It is the confluence of these many major and minor design choices that set the boundaries of player conduct. It’s clearly not an exact science, as there are outliers in any scenario a developer can imagine. However, I think the underlying truth remains from a psychological perspective – most players will work within those boundaries. So how can a developer, Intrepid Studios in particular, set these boundaries? There’s not one magic bullet here, of course, but it can be summarized in three words – Identity, Collaboration, Purpose.
Identity and Creating Yourself in a MMORPG
At first glance, the title of this section may not seem accurate to how you as a player approach an MMORPG. However, give me a moment and I’ll explain and pardon the backwards Morpheus-esque logic, but it will get my point across. I see the MMORPG avatar as a digital projection of the player’s mental self. Yes, even those crazy looking aberrations that might not be every gamer’s cup of tea, myself included. My thinking goes beyond the character creator that my obsessive and perfectionist nature can lose hours in. It’s also branches out to the identity of the player in the larger game world. Many of the popular single player experiences put you in someone else’s shoes and thus your identity is defined within the boundaries of that character’s history and choices. In a MMORPG, the creation of your identity as a player can be much broader if a developer chooses to design their game that way. A developer can choose to make every player the savior of the story, which I feel is the most immersion breaking concept they could come up with. While it may be ok for some, I find that this type of narrative homogenizes player identity at the root. I think at some level, maybe subconsciously, it can influence a disregard for the importance of community in a game in subtle ways. A player also has an ability to create their identity outside of appearance and place within the story through class progression. MMORPG gamers are quite used to the concept of skill builds and the opportunity to differentiate oneself with your build is one of the cornerstones of establishing your identity in a game. The absence of true choice is one of the most destructive things that can occur as a player progresses their character. Let’s face it, some players happily embrace a “meta” build because it simplifies the experience. However, I’d argue that the lack of differentiation options discourages mainstream community building. If a player isn’t a certain class or build that is considered optimal, then they are considered disposable in an encounter. From a design perspective, the development team must establish clear class identity with not only the base skills but also with the variants / augmentations planned. Not only does this improve player retention by keeping things interesting, it encourages dialogue amongst players – theory-crafting and the like. Personally, it is very rewarding to nerd out and discuss interesting choices for planning out my character with friends. It also gives me an opportunity to share my player identity and bond with others in my community.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
The concepts of a 5-man group and the “trinity” of tank, healer and damage have been a staple composition of small groups for some time. However, when I experienced 8-man group sizes in other games and a broader set of archetypes including support classes, it really convinced me that my design preference is towards larger and more diverse small group configurations. Just to be clear, when I refer to support classes, I mean two types of skills that the class may have any combination of leanings towards – force multiplication and crowd control. In some games, these types of skills were incorporated in the trinity or the encounters the smaller parties faced relied less on them period. That said, one of the first things that really drew me to Ashes of Creation was the fact that support classes were part of the core archetypes. Secondly, the proposed larger party size would give more flexibility in how a group could be organized. However, having these two foundational choices weren’t enough in my opinion. Encounters would need to necessitate leveraging the abilities of each archetype in some form or another to encourage collaboration among players. At the end of the day, it’s a numbers game. More diverse classes and larger group sizes being needed equals more community interactions that would occur. This would encourage players at some level to widen their social circle in order to progress. Depending on a particular player’s experience, it might take some change management – which could be handled by subtly or explicitly reinforcing this with encounter design. Let me provide an example of this – pardon me if this seems oversimplified. When I played City of Heroes, I joined a group running through an area that was particularly dense with enemies. They were chatting as I joined at how things were a bit slow going. I was playing a controller at the time and my skills were light crowd control and a bit heavier in force multiplication. I didn’t say much when I joined but I did take note of the conversation and the fact that the group composition lacked support classes. As we began the next encounter, I let loose and suddenly the group and I were moving much more efficiently through the area – a fact that I received many positive comments on. Clearly, it’s an experience I still remember over 17 years later. To reiterate, the encounter design needs to follow through to encourage interdependency amongst players of different skill types as well as large group sizes so greater flexibility is possible. I know some might argue that it’s more difficult to get larger groups together and I agree, but I don’t feel this is detrimental in the long term. Encouraging players to collaborate creates more opportunity to build relationships and strengthen community engagement. My last point in this section focuses on how perceived convenience has diminished community in MMORPGs. At first, I was all for group finders when they were introduced in other games I played. In retrospect, this design choice has influenced a personally undesirable change in the MMORPG experience. It has reduced the need for players to get to know and socialize with each other favoring the “sound-byte” mentality more often seen in lobby/FPS gaming. I can’t say that I haven’t met good and social players in group settings, but it’s categorically the exception nowadays, not the rule. In order to bring back the greatness of the MMORPG experience, there needs to be a way to counter the disposable mindset created by the group finder culture. Intrepid has already taken steps to address this by not including (that we know of) a group finder/teleport mechanism in their design. While I know Ashes of Creation is not for everyone (as CEO Steven Sharif has said time and again), I do feel Intrepid does need to understand the cultural shift that might need to occur to facilitate community building when forming an adventuring party.
Path to a Purpose
This last section really crosses over between identity and collaboration. It’s still important to call out because purpose is the thread that truly binds communities. How many guilds form because individuals are like-minded or have a common theme or purpose? How many of them fail when that purpose gets murky or there’s a difference of opinion on how to accomplish said purpose? It’s questions like these that drive my thinking about community building. Personally, one of the biggest driving factors for me when joining a community is utility. Over and above personality chemistry, I find having a strong sense of how I can be useful to a community helps me decide to join or not. I would be lying if I said I didn’t also consider the personal benefits the community would give to me as well, but it is the balance of this utility symbiosis that is a driving factor to success in this genre. Player identity is the foundation – I think there are very few good players who would garner enjoyment for a long period of time if they were unable to make contributions to their community’s success. Maybe that’s naïve of me to think but I feel it all stems from how useful their class is in terms of contribution. How many players have we encountered that are more than willing to change their class or build because it allows the group to be more successful? Good quality players need purpose and utility in the class they play, otherwise they’ll just reroll until they do find a class that gives them that. Gamers derive value from accomplishment and it’s an even bigger draw to accomplish something as a group. Success, overcoming the odds and getting that clutch victory builds camaraderie. It reinforces how aligning common purpose and collaborating with your friends creates memories we remember many years after. My comment here for the Intrepid team is simple to say but perhaps a bit more challenging to execute. In any system you design, make the purpose clear, make the utility evident, and don’t limit the payoff to just tangible rewards. I know that last comment may seem like a curve ball – how did loot come into play in this conversation? Getting loot could very well be a purpose as we are all too familiar with. “I’m only doing this dungeon because I need this piece of gear,” is either something we’ve heard or said ourselves from time to time. So how does this translate into game design? Pepper in opportunities for experiences that bring us together over more than what enemies drop. I assure you that this purpose will provide much more longevity to the community than chasing loot ever will. Don’t get me wrong, I still think itemization plays a large part in the experience. I just believe a common, collaborative purpose does so much more for community building.
Outro: Finding the Way Back Home
Now more than ever in my life, a phrase repeats in my head – “Home isn’t a place. It’s a person.” When you surround yourself with the right people, location doesn’t matter as much. However, as much as I identify with that phrase personally, I think it is important to consider something else when speaking about the topic of community. The design choices made by a developer can play a major role in the foundation of a community and even with the right people, the environment or circumstances that these choices generate can either build up or break down a community. From what I’ve seen thus far in the vision that’s been shared by Intrepid Studios, I feel things are moving in a direction that makes sense. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to put my thoughts out there to emphasize where I stand as a player on this topic. Once again, I encourage you to do the same, reply and share your thoughts. Looking forward to the discussion and the journey back home to Verra.
This is your Ashen Herald…wishing you the best.
Have an idea for a topic to cover? Add me on Twitter @theashenherald and let me know