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The Guild Counsel: Why not all guild departures are equal

Karen Bryan

"I'm only a tell away." The line is one that MMO players see all too often, and it signals the departure of a guildmate. I used to joke with one of my guildies about that line, and while we went through the motions and said good luck, deep down inside we resented the fact that someone chose to bail on our guild. For us, the line smacked of insincerity, and it probably would have been better in our eyes for the person to just not have said anything at all. Through the years, the MMO landscape has changed a lot, and so has my feeling toward the phrase, "I'm only a tell away." In this week's Guild Counsel, I'll look at how not all departures are equal.

As a guild leader, I always believed in the philosophy that real life comes before gaming, and I tried not to press people into playing when they either couldn't or didn't want to. But it was hard to wish someone well after seeing him post that he was moving on. On one level, I took it personally because I felt that it was a response to my leadership. On another, I resented the fact that someone leaving meant that the guild as a whole would be set back, and I was frustrated at having to go back and find a good replacement for that open spot.

But in those early years, when a member would leave, it was almost always to go to another guild -- not to leave the game. After all, there were only a handful of MMOs out there, and free-to-play wasn't in the lexicon, so there wasn't a lot of incentive to leave. So most of the goodbye threads were just sugar-coated messages of greener pastures. It made guildmates more jaded and more hesitant to offer items and leveling assistance to newer, untested members.

A few years ago, however, I had an eye-opening moment that finally got me caught up to speed with the changing landscape of MMOs. Players now weren't necessarily leaving for greener pastures -- they were taking breaks to sample other games or leaving the genre entirely. To me, it seemed like a matter of six of one, half a dozen of the other, because it's hard to see an active member suddenly leave, whatever the reason. But there is actually a big difference.

EQII hate raid
The moment was in EverQuest II on a Plane of Hate raid. We were just beginning to clear the zone, and I had a question from one of our Rangers about a master spell that was in the gulld bank. Normally, I hand out master spells to any active members who can scribe it, but in this situation, I was hesitant. The Ranger hadn't been on as much in recent weeks, and the word was that he was checking out Warhammer Online, which had just launched. I ended up handling the situation about as badly as I could. I wanted to talk to the player first before handing out the spell, to see what his intentions were as far as which game he was going to play. But I delegated that conversation to an officer because we were raiding, and I didn't communicate clearly what my decision was. As a result, the member was told no because he had been playing Warhammer, and seconds later I noticed that he had left the zone. In an instant, I knew I'd made a mistake, and after tracking him down to talk to him, I realized why I had erred. As he put it, what hurt him wasn't the item itself but the implicit message that he didn't belong, that he wasn't viewed as a member.

What I realized that moment is that this Ranger's choice to check out Warhammer wasn't a dig at the guild, my leadership, or even the game. He was simply a gamer who was eager to sample from the dozens of MMOs that were now available. And I was penalizing him for that, choosing to let the spell collect dust in the bank rather than give it to him. It was at that moment that I realized we're in an era when members are going to leave. There are too many great games out there, and the day-in and day-out grind of a progression guild is nearly impossible to do over the course of years. Players need breaks, and it's not a bad thing for them to take a hiatus. As a guild leader, my emphasis should be on creating an atmosphere that encourages them to return to the guild when they do return to the game.

What I learned is that not all departures are equal and that some of them, due to game design and the large field of quality MMOs, are actually unavoidable. But I still protect against guild-hoppers because their departure is toxic and really hurts guild morale. Guild-hoppers are a different breed because they aren't concerned so much with the teamwork and social ties of a guild as much as with using it as a means to gear up fast and finish the endgame. Careful screening upfront helps a lot, and a solid guild culture contributes to that as well. New members have to earn the trust of the guild, and longtime veteran guildies have become good at spotting freeloaders and guild-hoppers who might have slipped through the vetting process.

In short, the phrase "I'm only a tell away" took on a new meaning for me. No one likes to see someone leave, but I learned that the reasons for doing so need to be taken into consideration. And over the years, our guild bonds have grown so strong that they transcend the game. That Ranger in Hate still plays with the guild, and yes, at times, he's taken breaks to see other games. But we still stay in touch through email, and when he does come back, he always comes back to our guild. Not all departures are the same, and guilds need to consider the changing MMO market, as well as lower barriers to entry like free-to-play, in their reaction to that all-too-familiar quote.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.

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