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Some Assembly Required: Community as content

MJ Guthrie

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to cover an occasion during which an in-game community came together and created a new player-run annual event. Born as an anniversary follow-up to a service event for the young terminally ill player Ribbitribbit, the new tradition focused on celebrating that very community that pulled together to create him a dream playground within EverQuest II. If the game lacked a sense of community in the game before that original project, it certainly didn't after.

After tugging at my heartstrings for a while, that experience made me reflect on how much our communities are really a cornerstone of player-generated content. How often have you attended or participated in an event or run a mission created by someone other than yourself? And yet, when discussing important tools and elements needed to support player-generated content, we often overlook the necessity of a vibrant community. It's like trying to bake a cake without adding the flour. Or how about this analogy: You can give folks a giant tool box full of a shiny implements and tell them to build a house, but not much will happen without the actual wood and materials! So to foster PGC, games need to foster building communities.

What's community got to do with it?
Yes, I just called a community a key ingredient for player-generated content on MMOs. But wait, you say. I can recite numerous instances of players generating content just for personal use, so who needs a community? It's quite true; there is content created by an individual for the individual without any preconceived designs to share. But how often is that content utilized by others anyway? For instance, a player might create a mission using a mission generator simply as a personal creative outlet, but the mission becomes available for friends or the community at large to use.

Some Assembly Required  Community as content
Community also heavily influences the amount of content available for players to enjoy. If only a small handful of players are creating content, they'll be limited in how much they can crank out, much as devs are. After all, a few can only do so much! Think back to the mission generator example: If only five people are creating things, there won't be nearly as much as if 500 are. And let's not forget the sheer influx of ideas and creativity that comes from a larger pool. What's more enjoyable, new content every six months or new content weekly? I know which I'd choose!

So along with tools for creating content, games can't forget to focus on building and maintaining a community. And doing that is much more than just getting more people into game.
 It's better in groups
Before we go any further, let's define community here. When I say community, I do not mean population; any game can be populated, just filled with people. A community, however, develops when the population interacts in groups. Small groups, large groups, groups of groups -- it doesn't matter as long as players are coming together. So beyond just getting people to play the game, devs need to make it easy for those folks to connect.

The most common PGC is not created on a server- or game-wide level or for individuals but for groups. Be they members of clans, guilds, legions, fleets, cabals, or whatever your game's specific designation (we'll just stick with guilds here for continuity), players create content for those closest to them to help enhance the group's gameplay. So wouldn't it make sense that having good tools for building and running guilds would be of paramount importance?

Warhammer Online calendarLooking back at EQII again, we can see a great example of a guild interface. It's a one-stop shop for guilds to customize their organization -- from rank names to individual permissions for ranks -- and keep tabs on what's going on. (Lineage II, however, has a leg up here; it allows leaders to assign actual individuals' permissions!) Leaders can easily disseminate information to members using a MOTD (Message of the Day) as well as monitor and manage the guild bank. The game even records notable guild member achievements for all to see! The one thing it is missing is an attached calendar.

Now EQII does have an in-game calendar that you an add guild events to, but it isn't on the guild interface. OK, so no real big deal to have to go click a couple of other buttons, but it would be nice to have it all together. Even better, however, is to have a guild calendar more like Warhammer Online's. In Warhammer, not only can guilds create events for themselves and their alliances, but members can sign up for events right from the same interface! Yes, I know that there are special guild websites that do all this as well, but why can't we have these tools in-game? The more time you can have your players in the game rather than managing the guild from outside of the game, the better. And that benefits the bottom line in the end.

One group to group them all
Alliances. I mentioned alliances in passing a moment ago when discussing the calendar. Honestly, I don't know why more games don't incorporate the idea of alliances in general. A significant number of players prefer to keep their play units relatively small, geared toward their special interests. I wholeheartedly agree with this. However, maintaining the ideals of the group become increasingly difficult when guilds are forced to grow simply to have reliable connection with others. So don't force them to!

One of the things I actually miss from Lineage II is the alliance system. You could maintain a clan (guild) with its own leadership while still having a convenient chat channel connecting you with other folks for socialization, group finding, etc. Sure, players find workarounds by creating custom chat channels in games when possible and special areas on forums and such, but again, why force people out of game to connect or make it more difficult? Often times those special chat channels close or people can't easily find them. All games should have an alliance system in place; this system could be little more than a dedicated chat channel and interactive calendar, but even that would allow smaller groups greater connectivity, which forges stronger bonds.

EQI's awesome interface
An ongoing affair
After putting community building tools in game, a studio is not off the hook. In fact, it needs to have continued involvement. A final element I'll throw out there as beneficial (and possibly integral) to community building is a responsive dev team. EverQuest II is known for promoting player events through both the official site and even the in-game calendar. Aion and The Secret World have also promoted and supported player-run events. A team (or heck, just an individual) willing to share information to the entire community is a major asset. I wish more games were willing to do so and had an easy form for submitting event notifications.

In the end, regardless of the tools that are put in game, communities find ways to create content. So even before putting those content-generating tools into game, devs should lay a foundation by implementing good community building tools. But don't just do it for us, the gamers -- do it for you! Focusing on community is also beneficial to a game's bottom line. A strong, vibrant community will actually bring in and retain population. And more players always equates to more revenue, even for free-to-play games.

There is no good reason to not have the tools in game to help foster community growth and plenty of good reasons to have it. So hopefully moving forward, we will see more games implement robust community tools. And better communities will lead to more player-generated content to enjoy!

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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