Sometimes when I’m talking to an old AC2 player, they will ask me the most surprising questions. One that really stuck out was, “How did you manage to get such a great community around AC2?”
And it’s true. AC2 had a great community in its later years; people would help one another; in-game chat was friendly and relatively benign (there was cussing and off-topic chat, but not a lot of slander and racism). How’d we do that?
Just to compare, when I started playing Aion a few months ago, if I asked a newb question in chat, people would compete amongst themselves to come up with the most outlandish lie they thought I might believe. If the lie would get me killed, so much the better. And we’ve all had experiences in WoW where people were rude and insulting in chat. What’s the difference between these games and AC2’s community?
Sadly, the difference is size. That’s all, just size. As Aion has bled off players over the past few months, the professional trolls have all but disappeared, fleeing to greener pastures. The people that are left actually hope to play with you some day, and they care about how you remember them. And they are, generally speaking, more patient than the people who left early.
Same with AC2. When it launched, it was full of cheaters, gankers, and the regular collection of assholes. But then chat broke in AC2. I mean that you could not chat, at all, for two months. (It was broken sporadically, but more often than not.) This wasn’t exactly a technical failing as much as it was a political failing with Turbine’s publisher at the time, Microsoft. But the details didn’t matter. The game bled off over half its players in two months, and never recovered momentum. But who was left? It wasn’t the people who delighted in verbally insulting others — those players had gone elsewhere. What was left were the people who loved the game, or who were very patient, or who didn’t even realize there were other places they could be playing. These people tended to be a bit older, but even when they weren’t, they acted older, to fit in. Most of them didn’t want to get ostracized by the small community remaining.
Small = Less Anonymous
The smaller your community is, the less anonymous you are. When I was playing EQ2, I would see the same dozen people every day when I played. If one of those people was a dick to me, you better believe I would remember it. They wouldn’t be invited to my group. Their behavior mattered! Of course, that’s only because EQ2 has a tiny population remaining. If it was WoW where there are literally hundreds of people I can group with at any given level, I couldn’t possibly keep track of all the assholes.
This idea of “smaller communities are nicer to each other” isn’t new. In fact, when DDO was first being designed, that was one of its design features: they planned to cap each world to just 1500 concurrent players, far smaller than the server architecture could actually support, in order to keep each world small, tight-knit, and friendly. Since DDO was designed to be a grouping game, the designers believed that fostering relationships among players was key to creating the social fabric.
Of course, DDO was re-envisioned many times after that first design, and in the end the game launch was basically a dud, so it was good that the game was designed to work with small populations, because that’s all they had. But this setup did still develop friendly groups of people who knew each other and would be nice to you even if you sucked. Now that DDO is open to the public, I assume the population has a lot more immature people in it. (Does it? I haven’t had a chance to play it again yet.)
This also points out the big drawback of the “One World” MMO architecture, such as Guild Wars or Champions uses, where every zone is an instance on the same global server. In a game where people can have the same name as other people, and may or may not be in the same version of the world as you at any given time, it’s basically impossible to make friends or keep track of who’s who. That doesn’t stop people from being nice to you in those games, but it definitely lets them get away with being assholes with relative impunity.
Of course, many players would prefer having hundreds of people to play with, even if there are a handful of assholes in there, rather than having only a dozen people to play with on an EQ2 server. The single-world architecture definitely has benefits. But the anonymity it provides is not one of them.
Bad Apples Ruin Entire Pies
But really, what are we talking about here? What’s the difference between a good community and a bad one? It’s not like AC2’s community changed when half of the players left. The remaining players didn’t get replaced with nice friendly people. They were always nice friendly people. And they were always helpful. But it’s easier for us to remember the bad apples than the good ones.
Log into WoW and ask a newb question, and you’re likely to get four or five answers. One of them will call you names and tell you to GTFO. Four of them will give you the right answer, and one of those people will go to the trouble of guiding you precisely to where you need to be. Similarly, in Aion, even if you got a bunch of lie responses, a few people would IM you and say, “Don’t listen to those guys, you need to do such-and-such, located here”, and then send you an automated map showing exactly where you needed to go. (One of Aion’s cooler features, btw.) There are always nice people in MMO’s. But we don’t count the nice people when determining if the community is friendly or not. We count the assholes. So when the population is diminished, and there are fewer assholes to count, we interpret the community as being nicer.
It’s an interesting bit of psychology here: if you ask a question and get five responses, and just one of those responses is insulting, you’ll still walk away with an unhappy memory of the experience. People don’t like being insulted; it hurts our feelings and creates negative connotations in our heads. Similarly, this is why blogging requires such a thick skin, or posting on forums or Youtube or anywhere else. The vast majority of people aren’t going to insult and attack you, but the few that do attack you really sting, more than you let on. I don’t mean they hurt you consciously, necessarily. Even when you don’t take it personally, you still remember it as a negative experience. The fact that they’re anonymous cowards doesn’t dilute the insults.
This is why anonymity is bad for cooperative games. And it’s why small games with less-anonymous audiences tend to be perceived as friendlier.
Making Friendlier Communities = Removing Anonymity
What we’re talking about here has very obvious real-world counterparts: living in New York is a whole lot different from living in a small town in Indiana. A big part of the difference is the population size. In New York, you can get away with being a jerk to people on the street. You’re never going to see them again. But if you live in a small town of a few hundred, you don’t want to piss off the neighbors. So people are friendlier. Okay, maybe a bit oversimplified, but you get the idea.
So far, MMOs have mirrored the behavior of real-world populations. When the population is small, you’re less anonymous than when the population is large. But that doesn’t have to be the case… MMO’s don’t have to be like real life if we can think of a better way. Maybe there are ways to remove the anonymity to an extent — just enough to keep people from being rude and hurtful just because they can. Or maybe that’s not possible — maybe our culture, at this point in time, couldn’t accept anything like that. I dunno. But I do know that MMO’s are young. Really young. One clever idea can still flip the MMO industry on its ear.
And if you’re just looking for an MMO with a friendly community, might I suggest visiting LoTRo? I’m enjoying myself, and so far, all six players have been very pleasant.