What is a Game
Yesterday I got involved in a long winded discussion about the effects a major guild dying, has on a game… the game in question of course was World of Warcraft. There were a couple of different points of view floating around, and they largely centered around what the definition of the game meant to each person. Some folks chose to take the literal view and focus on the mechanics of the game itself, and argue that the loss of a big guild does nothing to change the way the game functionally plays. I however choose to view the game like an ecosystem, where quite honestly the actual game mechanics become one of the least important parts of shaping daily interaction. When a game launches, it ceases to be all about the pushing of buttons and the getting of loot. Much like a workplace has little to do with the rules and regulations that you set up ahead of time… but instead the interactions between the employees and the general sense of morale. If you have a great cohesive environment created by the players, you can overcome a lot of the technical shortcomings a game may have.
When a game is server based, like World of Warcraft, the game for most players is narrowed to a very specific niche… namely the things that occur on that individual server. Sure you can re-roll anywhere, but once someone has set down roots in my experience they are highly unlikely to move. I have 11 characters on Argent Dawn for example, and the vast majority of those characters are over level 90. So when I contemplate changing servers… the will to do this is pretty non-existent. My experiences with the game have largely been shaped by those individuals I have had interactions with on that server. With the switch of focus from group based activities to largely solo interaction… this might have changed, but I find it hard to believe that any given player is not in at least some way influenced by the forces at play on their home server. A large chunk of that environment is the large guilds that populate its ecosystem. So when one of those guilds leaves… it is felt not only in the social channels, but also in the economy and the general activity of the server. Crafters need time pressed raiders to buy their potions and “raid mats”, and casual players benefit from having those raiders regularly participating in group activities.
I’m going to break out and talk about a non-Warcraft example of the importance of a guild. In Wildstar on the Entity server, there is a guild I am part of called the Black Dagger Society. While I happen to be a member and might be a little bit biased, I think they represent one of those guilds that is for lack of a better term “too big to fail” when it comes to the health of that server. I would be willing to bet that there is not a single Exile player that does not benefit from them being on the server, and to some extent I would be willing to bet that even the Dominion players feel their presence as well. The big event that they organize is ThaydFest which is a weekend player run festival that serves as a focus point of getting players interacting with each other. The scope of this thing is massive, and you simply cannot exist on the server that week without feeling its pull. Similarly the BDS are the sort of guild that is constantly interacting with the world and the players that are not in there guild. I’ve rode along as they rolled into a zone… and started asking anyone there to join them in the taking down of this world boss or that. I’ve also watched their members be the first to respond when someone publicly asks for help. They embody the spirit of what an amazing community focused guild is like.
So if something were to happen to the Black Dagger Society, the effects would ripple to the core of the Entity server. There are a lot of things that would simply stop happening because I’ve not seen a similarly community focused force stepping up to offer the same level of interaction. Carbine as a company would do well to do whatever they can to nurture the fact that a guild like this exists, and they have done some community spotlight pieces on ThaydFest in an attempt to help them out. But when it comes to World of Warcraft, I have lived through the effect of guilds just like the BDS dying on a server, and watched the community as a whole contract. Cataclysm was the great changing of the guard on Argent Dawn, and when I came back at the end of it… all of the rich social network that I had when I left… had shriveled up and died. When one big guild leaves… it has a trickle down effect touching the satellite guilds that also interact with them. So to the players… that played on Argent Dawn, and stayed there during this transition… the game was absolutely traumatically changed for them. I know this… because I’ve talked to many of my friends that probably at least a little bit feel betrayed because I left them.
The Important Parts
Essentially this discussion is one about definitions, and how narrow your focus is. The trap that we can all too easily fall into is assuming that every player plays the game the same way as we do… and even more so… gets the same enjoyment and stimuli out of the game as we do. For a socially motivated player… the “game” is all about the interactions they have with other players. For a challenge focused player… the “game” is all about taking on new experiences and defeating them one by one. For an exploration motivated player… the “game” is all about seeing and experiencing new things. So while functionally the “Game” with a big G didn’t change… because the mechanics didn’t actually change when a group of players left the game… the environment and the atmosphere absolutely does. The problem is for me at least that a server is a snap shot in time. I will never be able to get back the Late Night Raiders from Vanilla Warcraft, even though I still keep in contact with dozens of them on a regular basis. I might be able to play a game with two or three of those people at a time… but I will never be able to set up another situation where the hundred plus people that circled that raid will still exist in the same setting.
The “Game” for me is this sequence of vignettes in time, of certain players and certain situations… that either positively or negatively influenced my experience. When they are gone… there is a void that is irreplaceable. So while you can still find Pixi peddling her “extra special pixipacks”, there will never be a Duranub Raiding Company, or a No Such Raid… or any of the countless other groups that I have interacted with and loved over the years. There was a time when on my server every single raid leader communicated with every other raid leader, and that infrastructure is just gone now. What is left is a sequence of walled gardens that no longer try and reach out to the other walled gardens and set up communication lines. As a result the server seems so much smaller than it used to, and while I love hanging out with the people there still… the experience is tarnished by the former grandeur that I remember. Did any one one of those players make the difference? Probably not, but it was the cumulative effect of losing a large group of players at the same time. There will always be a wistful nostalgia for the way those days felt, even though there was also a bunch of bullshit that went along with it.
Care and Feeding
Some companies do a great job of nurturing the community environment. Wildstar and Carbine for example seem to really be trying to focus on the players and their communities in trying to make that game a great place to inhabit. The challenge with Warcraft is that the game is just so insanely huge at this point, that it is really difficult to highlight every part of the community that is working. I do think that Blizzard does a bunch of things that actively harm communities, without really thinking about it. When you look at the “Game” with a large G… they have been regularly applying the sledge hammer to it every couple of years as they roll out a grand new scheme that is going to “improve the game”. The first of these fall-outs for me at least was when they shifted the focus from 40 player raiding to 25 player raiding. This created the “guildpocalypse” as I refer to it… and my own raid… the Late Night Raiders was one of the casualties that never successfully transitioned to a smaller raid size. Similarly the events that caused me to leave Warcraft the first time, were brought on by the shift in Cataclysm to greatly incentivizing guild based raiding. Prior to that our raid was a thriving ecosystem made up of House Stalwart and a bunch of smaller and more personal satellite guilds that together created one vibrant non-guild raiding landscape.
The focus on guild based raiding however meant that if we continued to raid in this fashion… that ultimately some of the guilds would see zero benefit from defeating this boss and unlocking this achievement. Instead we attempted to squeeze all of these guilds into House Stalwart and we went from being a guild of 600 characters to a guild of around 1000 characters over night… and this change was just too much for me personally to adjust to. There is a huge difference in raiding with someone two nights a week, to having to interact with them constantly in your guild. Blizzard is constantly fiddling with the dials… introducing Valor, taking it away… and introducing it again in a different way. I cannot count the number of times classes have changed so much that they end up causing players to abandon what was previously their main. I’ve done this myself numerous times because of a change in the game making the experience no longer enjoyable. Each of these decisions also has a social cost associated with it, that it often feels like is not being taken into account. Essentially the point of this post, and the eight paragraphs that it is ending up being… is that a game is more than just its mechanics, especially when you are dealing with a hugely social game like an MMO. For me the most important parts of this game, or any other for that matter… are the ones that have no direct relationship to the game itself, but instead are a side effect of the ecosystem that builds up around it. My game is always largely influenced by the people I happen to be playing it with.