Community Friendliness: Size Matters

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.

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22 Responses to Community Friendliness: Size Matters

  1. I’ll disagree that it’s only about size. M59 was a smaller game and at times the community has been downright toxic. The main factor I see? The guild-based PvP as found in M59 fostered a lot of cliquishness. It encouraged an “us vs. them” mentality, so that anyone outside your group of friends was to be despised. Throw in some tense gameplay and poor impulse control and you have people being very hostile. It sucks when other players are the “them”.

    As for the larger games, consider what a good troll wants: attention. They’re drawn to popular games so that they can get attention. It might be someone loling at their joke about someone else’s mother. It might be a chuckle between themselves as they get another newbie to get killed. Or it just might be a bit of smug satisfaction about eviscerating someone’s feelings on public chat. Given a potential audience, people will act out. It’s another “us vs. them” situation, although the people being trolled don’t always stick together if the audience is really wide. (A larger, more diverse group will find it harder to stick together, making the bad apples stand out more.)

    Why does LotRO have a less toxic community, despite having more than six players? :) I think it goes back the the “us vs. them” mentality. People playing LotRO are probably fans of the setting. Many have read the books, most have seen the movies. Just today a friend of mine came in to complain about the Bill the Pony escort quest in Eregion. We then cracked some jokes about Bill secretly working for Sauron to get players killed. The jokes work because we’re both fans of the source material, thus we have an instant bond even if we weren’t great friends. I think the trick is to get enough “good” people in to form those bonds before the intentional griefers come along to ruin everyone’s fun.

    My perspective.

  2. Borror0 says:

    “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.)”

    It does. When I joined DDO back in 2006, the word was that this was the best community we all had encountered in any MMO. Now, you don’t get that impression by looking at general chat. I would say, though, that it’s mostly limited to the lower levels. By the time you get to high levels, most players are actually helpful and kind, new or not.

    What happened in DDO, though, is more than just “a lot of news players.”

    Before September 1st (DDO:EU), the general chat in DDO was nearly useless. It was rare to see anyone use it, not because the population was low but rather because of the design.

    General chat was limited to one public instance and public instances, in DDO, are fairly empty because most players are in a private instance, questing. However, on September 1st, Turbine merged the private instances’ chat of a region with the public chat of that region. For example, someone questing in the harbor could see what is said in the harbor’s general chat. The result is a drastic increase of players participating in general chat.

    The intent was to allow players to communicate better and help each other better (they even added an “advice” channel) but, of course, that was naive. It’s mostly used as a way for bad apples to show off their mad trolling skillz.

    There has been a lot of discussion about trying to address this one way or another, such as by adding a reputation system or simply reverting to the pre-DDO:EU design, but nothing yet has surfaced from those discussions on the Turbine side.

  3. Jeromai says:

    Size definitely matters. I quite agree with the whole article. But it’s not the only factor, since no one wants to hear “shrink the number of people playing your game” as the only solution to an unfriendly community problem. :)

    So what is it about size that makes people feel they have to behave better? Peer pressure and accountability / non-anonymity.

    Peer pressure works both ways. If people see a number of people acting in a decent fashion, they tend to follow along. Same if the internet fuckwad theory holds sway and they see others getting away with abusing folks. For example, Fallen Earth’s constant vigilance in chat moderation seems to be doing wonders for the perception of their chat and community (at least it was fine for the time I poked my head in).

    City of Heroes has another one of those fascinating communities. The game started out completely non-loot focused and all about encouraging casual group play with no reliance on the holy trinity. Folks PUG’ed a lot, and would just distribute free influence (the game’s currency) to others and hold lots of costume contests because there was nothing else to do with it. Talk about the ultimate in friendly, since only the explorers and socializers hung around (the hardcore achievers hit max level, went what? that’s it? and left.)

    Once pvp and the loot system came in, from my perspective, I think the community got a bit more selfish as a whole. What they did also was to institute accountability and non-anonymity in the form of global names. Global chat became the place to hang out to get the pulse of a server’s community. If I think you are a pain, I can ignore you globally and not be exposed to any of your alts, or even report you via global name.

    Accountability doesn’t have to be necessarily linked to non-anonymity either. A PvP game with consequences where anyone can kill you for being a jerk would probably self-select into groups that would be good communities within themselves and jerks to outsiders. There might be other creative ways of making folks accountable for their actions too.

    The game can also help its community along if it has a design that doesn’t encourage fractiousness. Need/greed and resultant ninja looting is one of the best ways of making folks in typical MMOs unhappy, methinks. In City of Heroes, you don’t see what the other guy gets – so no greed, no jealousy – except some folks still link it in order to show off, a reflection on themselves really. In Guild Wars, you can see what drops, but it’s automatically sorted to belong to one teammate who has to pick it up. It’s his. You want it, you jolly well open your mouth and rely on your social skills to get it.

  4. Ravious says:

    See also A Tale in the Desert where people will give you free things, unasked when you throw out general questions to the public.

    “Oh, you need a better axe. Here I’ll make you one.” Is not uncommon at all.

  5. Kirk Spencer says:

    You raised the real world statement of the ‘small town’. Sadly, the OTHER side of the small town is also going to bring a problem – the “you’re not really one of us” problem. It’s a bit more subtle but still a pain. Everyone’s polite (usually) but there always seem to be times when you just can’t get things done because everyone’s busy doing something interesting for them and you’re, well, you’re not doing something interesting for them and you’re not able to swing an obligation stick because you’re not one of them. The end result is that people like the place (game) and think the community is polite but for some reason they just don’t feel like staying.

    Now generally I think a game that has that small a population is probably not going to be viable, but it is an element of which designers should beware when making their games. That’s especially true when they are trying to apply that small world population effect regardless of game size. It’s done primarily through making guilds or long-term smaller groups important, and is a risk on top of the one Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green mentioned above.

  6. Ibn says:

    Two quick things: Psychochild, I think the key word in your post is “PvP”. Compare the Darktide world community in AC1 with any other world, you’ll see that Darktide is MUCH more hostile. Some of this comes from the fact that Darktide is the PvP world, I can guarantee. (It didn’t help that for years the login screen for Darktide noted that this was a particularly harsh world or something — I don’t recall the exact wording. But the players reveled in that.)

    Also Ravious I’d like to think that ATitD players would make you that axe even if it didn’t directly help them, but we’ll never know will we? I’m being cynical but truth be told I always did like how the game incentivized helping other players, the whole, “Hey someday will you make a statue of me for helping you?” bit.

  7. Stormwaltz says:

    See also: Dunbar’s Number, popularized as “the Monkeysphere.”

    http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

    Jeromai: “But it’s not the only factor, since no one wants to hear “shrink the number of people playing your game” as the only solution to an unfriendly community problem. :)”

    As Eric mentioned in the bit about DDO, the solution is to break up the playerbase into smaller, cozier “neighborhood” servers. APB’s experiment with smaller-population servers will be instructive.

  8. Kujo says:

    AC1 had the sentinel system, which was a nice community boost while it lasted.

  9. Michael Boocher says:

    I generally agree with the statements made here, though I wonder how much of the crafting system from AC2, it being solely player oriented in all, had on the players initial propensity to be friendlier.

    Perhaps creating an economy solely based on the efforts of others leads people to change there behaviors… though I suppose thats not necessarily true given RL.

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  11. stabs says:

    I’m in the camp which thinks that it’s not purely size.

    I think if you design for inequality you help create community. I was one of the top Armoursmiths on my server in SWG and people still remember me years after I stopped playing. Because in that game there were only 4 Armoursmiths anyone wanted to buy armour from.

    In Eve, the game with the biggest server community many players are well known. Billionaire mining magnate Chribba with his mining Titan and his noteworthy contributions to the Eve community. Blogpack maker and podcaster Crazy Kinux. PvP teacher and Alliance tournament commentator Teadaze. Goons spymaster The Mittani.

    All of these players have found some totally unforeseen and deeply impressive way to distinguish themselves from the ordinary. And to some extent their e-fame depends on Eve’s single server nature, the largest Western MMO community. It’s also oddly friendly in a “you have to trust someone because everyone else is out to get you” way. People really like the people they trust because the general population is so untrustworthy.

  12. VatecD says:

    Well, size is certainly the main component: it all goes back to the Internet axiom, “Anonymity + Audience = A$$hole.” I’m sure PvP also plays a role: when I played (M)Age of Conan, the difference between the PvP server communities and the PvE server communities was huge. And as for LotRO: due to the IP, there’s an assumption (not necessarily unreasonable given the game’s history) that many players share at least one interest beyond the game itself. A word of warning, though: I don’t recommend ever mentioning WoW in public chat on a LotRO server; that’s the one guaranteed way to bring out the nastiest side of the community (there is an almost irrational hatred of WoW on the servers I’ve inhabited).

  13. Todd Berkebile says:

    I’m certainly no fan on anonymity, I agree it leads to bad behavior.

    In today’s MMO world there is a new way to reduce anonymity and thus potentially obtain a friendlier community that is fairly independent of game dynamics, its called Facebook. By connecting your online game to Facebook you are effectively tying your players in-game characters to their real-world persona where suddenly they care about how many friends they have and what people say about them. Obviously this might raise certain privacy and safety concerns but those can be managed.

    I’d wager that we’ll see more Facebook integrated MMOs in 2010 than traditional stand-alone MMOs.

  14. Jeromai says:

    @Stormwaltz:

    Cute article linked there. Separate micro-servers is -a- solution, but perhaps not -the- only solution. Now that you bring up the thought, I wonder if micro-neighborhoods in-game would work.

    In standard MMOs, these are normally guilds. In ATITD, the culture and community of each local region was strongly flavored by the people who chose to put down roots together, but this worked only because it took ages to run anywhere else at the game’s beginning and the game’s design encouraged a regional solidarity mindset.

    As an aside, I’ve been finding the real world intruding quite amusingly in the form of the Oceanic community and the one token Oceanic server recent MMOs have put up. I used to play North American servers and mix about in the blissful homogenity of strangers, but since Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and now Aion were all PvP-focused, I thought to find a server and community closer to home. Well, they’re practically ALL the same people. Same guild names. Wafting from game to game.

    I guess that’s a meta-community. :) Wonder if the Euros find that common too? Especially those on the non-English speaking servers?

  15. MrPendent says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that size matters (so to speak), but I also think the difficulty of the game has a lot to do with it–and the mechanics.

    In games like WoW, there is no downtime. You heal and recover mana very quickly. Even if you die, you can usually be back in the fight before it’s over. And when you die, there is not much penalty.

    Compare this with EQ1. Dying meant something. It was something to be avoided. If you died, everything you had (presumably the best that you had) on was a) not enough to keep you alive the first time and b) left at the feet of the creature that killed you in it. So you were now tasked with retrieving your gear naked (or with lesser gear) while trying to avoid the notice of the beast that killed you the first time.

    When you gained a level, you didn’t automatically gain spells or skills–you just gained the ability to use them. You still had to create/find/pay for them. And when you ran out of health or mana, you had to wait. This meant that there was a strong reason to be nice to people (or a little nice, anyway) because you had a lot of time to spend with them. Basically, in my mind, games like EQ1 fostered the “us vs. them” mentality where the “us”=players and “them”=the game.

    I think that the downtime that occurs in “harder” games–recovering, traveling, searching, etc–provides the opportunity for community that faster, easier games does not.

  16. William Bordonaro says:

    @darktide comments:

    I still believe that darktide bred a nice community. The main reason being that players were forced to interact and create their own sub-communities within the server.

    In order to “succeed” you had to be part of a group. The first choice was usually deciding between pk and anti-pk, that already puts you in either of two subgroups. Next, you would choose a guild based on who you would like to protect / be protected by, reputation mattered and skill mattered.

    It wasn’t an environment where everyone was friendly (by game design) and you could get away with being neutral. You really had to become part of one community or another, anonymity was not an option.

    ____________________________________

    @AC2:

    As Eric mentioned, the chat servers were down for two months, just a few months after release (6?).

    This definitely whittled down the community along with the release of SWG. However, with no chat server, you would think that there would be no community at all.

    A player has to like the setting that the community is based in, in order to promote their desire to form one. If I start up a new game and don’t like it, I have no desire to be a part of even a good community.

    That being said, In AC2, the remaining players (how many people would be playing AION right now if chat died for two months?) all loved AC2… would they have really put up with that if they had not?

    I played AC2 while the chat server was down and I was in the heavy grouping levels during that point, yet I stayed.

    So what I’m saying is that:

    Love of the game —-> Desire to be in a community —-> Necessity of having a community (grouping / survival / economy / etc.) —-> Size of community.

    (more or less)

    Note: AC2 remains my favorite game ever, because of the community and the factors listed above that promoted it. We were in the minority (size of community) and relied on eachother (necessity of grouping). It was once in a blue moon that I would log on and see anyone that I didn’t recognize. It was like going home after visiting a new city.

  17. Saylah says:

    First time commenter and the whole AC2 thing brought me here. I loved AC2. I’ve played every AAA fantasy title since then and while WOW was my longest stay, AC2 remains my favorite. I agree with many of the points raised that is is SIZE + SETTING. For all the advances in features, AC2 remains the MMO that felt most like a virtual world. The lack of instancing, seasonal weather and persistence of items, contributed to this feeling. My theory is that because it felt more like a world we were living in, not just a game we’re messing around in, players were better behaved. I was on Thistledown and I still remember Racine being parked near a portal to remove the DP and people leaving gold as tips at her feet. It was an optional gesture and anyone could come by and pick-up or steal that money but people didn’t do it. Can you imagine that working in WOW???

    There was also a dependency a little deeper than group content necessitates in other games. Just to level, you needed to be running the master vaults every time your cool-down timer would allow. If you were ostracized by too many people, you wouldn’t be allowed into these groups, that required hard to get components to open up the vault. Not running vaults is way worse than being locked out of end game content because you’re guild-less or don’t have the gear. In this case, you can’t even level effectively, unless you want to grind until you’re ready to blow your brains out, much less get to end-game.

    I think when you combine small community + players loved the setting + felt more like a citizen of a virtual world + dependency just to level, it encouraged better behavior all ’round.

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  19. Ferrel says:

    @Brian I think your point is pretty much dead on but it is colored by the demographic you’re shooting for. I’m going to say it (flames incoming!)… The average (not all) PvP is far more likely to be a jackass than the average (again not all) PvE player. If a game is primarily PvP I just don’t go to their public forums.

    The question is what kind of people like PvP and what kind like PvE?

    Okay, you can flame me now!

  20. Tesh says:

    I’ll second Ferrel. PvP can be done well, but at its heart it’s about contention between players, while PvE is about cooperation between players. That core philosophy will naturally color your community (and limit your commercial options).

  21. beavil says:

    I agree with the OP. I have played AC1, AC2, and WOW (among many others) The lack of community drove me away from WOW. There were so many reasons why AC1 had a strong community. The Patron/Vassal system, the SUB or HUB (a central meeting place to show off and barter), People sitting around shops waiting for a higher level to sell his stuff so you could purchase them.

    It all has come down to making the game easier.

    Instead of conversing with fellow gamers for quest help… they gave us question marks above the heads of npc’s

    Instead of trading by meeting other players…they have the Auction House *while handy it removes all aspects of community

    Even Global Chat takes away the ‘feeling’ of community. Again it’s an easy way to get a question answered, but probably not worth the flight time to group up with this person half way across the world.

    The solution can be as simple as giving extra xp for grouping with somebody in your friends list, or making ‘guild only quests’, or giving achievements for helping out others.

  22. Shena'Fu says:

    The global quests were a major reason why AC2 community had togetherness, and I think new games with their mini-quests are a travesty. What I mean is that many AC2 quests were designed for groups that allowed anybody to join in at any time. Raids in other games are designed for elitists. Whereas in AC2, on a whim, some 40 to 50 strangers would come together to fight a huge boss. A lot of the quests felt epic, so you felt a grand sense of achievement even if it was with other strangers.

    Many games were designed as ‘gamey games’ and that’s the difference between a virtual world like AC2 and other MMO games. AC2 didn’t hold your hand for the first 10 levels. That’s when veteran players would help and guide the new players. This helps foster a friendly community. In other games, there are few or no reason or opportunity to help new players and low character alts. The impression is that you’re alone in the world and you can do everything by yourself.
    The system of mini-quests is awkward for multiplayer because 1. two people have different quests and you don’t want to help others complete their quests because you’re so worried about your long list of uncompleted quests, 2. few games even let you share quests. Even if you can share quests, most are trivial fedex or kill x mobs or collect x items, and give pitiful rewards that are pointless and don’t require groups. In other words, the time spent together doesn’t tighten the bond between players. In WoW I felt like I would waste other people’s time and they would waste mine. On the other hand, in AC2 I usually want to help others and many times would call for others to do quests together.

    AC2 is much more of a immersive world because of the open world and open communication. You can go anywhere and meet and talk to anybody. There is no restriction by class, faction, race, etc. Even if you were on different sides, you could talk to each other. Sure if you were different factions you would talk smack to each other, but that only makes the game world more realistic and engaging. At the end of the day, it’s all in good fun. Heck, you might even build respect for each other over a PVP scuffle.