Monday, March 18, 2013

Food for Thought - the design of micro-communities

I recently watched a livestream of Colin Johanson, lead designer for Guild Wars 2 on the topic of creating communities within games. Understandably he mainly cited the design process of Guild Wars 2, so this weekend I sat down and put together my thoughts on one topic which has been playing around in my head - micro communities.

Before we get there, let us briefly cover the basis on Colin’s talk. Four pillars were central to the design of Guild Wars 2. Pillars is a great word as it conceptualises their meaning: the foundations of what was being built so that every aspect of the game reflects those things. 
I would like a micro-transaction with this lady.

These foundations were:
  1. A community driven game.
  2. Action oriented combat.
  3. Your character has a story.
  4. Living world; the world you play in feels alive.
The closest parallel I can draw this to is the ‘core values’ businesses create when designing or restructuring their business. Every decision the game designers or business make should reflect these pillars or values, notwithstanding marketing and PR strategy (Colin's words not mine). This ensures continuity throughout, while reflecting genuine reliability which consequently creates trust in the game or business. “Change your pillars at your own risk” Colin warned, as this may undermine every decision taken up until then.

The Pillar of A Community Driven Game

Having played Guild Wars 2 I can certainly say that this pillar shines through, and the second M from MMO (massively multiplayer online) is truly present. Through a subtle reward structure you cannot help but rush to aid a stranger if he looks like he is in a tough spot, and gone is fighting over resources but rather fighting together for common goals.

The only thing I find missing is what I call ‘micro-communities’. This is a term I coined a while back when trying to describe some differences I found within some organisations. A normal community would be a group of people who are bound together due to an existing structure, may this be geographical or organisational. In an MMO for example the most common of communities would be those who group together into Guilds. In the workplace your community may well be your department. The problem which such communities is that they are bound by the very structure which creates them. By being in a guild, you might find that you do not chat with any of the other players outside of this structure. Likewise at work you may never talk to anyone outside your department.

So what are micro-communities? These are relationships between a small number of individuals which develop and exist outside the normal communities. For example I recently starting chatting to a stranger in Guild Wars 2 (an unfortunately rare occurrence) after we helped each other out, which led to playing together for sometime after. If I met a colleague from another department during a coffee break, that colleague might then later be someone I can contact if I need information otherwise unavailable to me. In different types of ‘power’, one of the most important types is that of social networking. Having shared a few jump puzzles with this stranger in Guild Wars 2, I might later be able to invite him into a dungeon when my friends when we are missing a player.

The problem with Guild Wars 2 and many organisations is that there is little consideration for how these micro-communities are created. The game design of Guild Wars 2 focuses so much on openness and ease-of-use, this creates an unintended consequence that players rarely need to talk to each other in PvE (Player vs Environment) resulting in a lack of micro-community development. Indeed in the first Guild Wars players would barter over items in buying-and-selling; now you just list your items on a large database and you never interact with the buyer. Equally, for organisations if the workplace has no shared facilities, then employees from different departments will never meet and so you will find your company with a lot of separate communities with little communicate in between.

How do you create micro-communities?

The very nature of micro-communities means that they are dependent on the individuals involved. However it is the responsibility of the game/workplace design to allow those individuals to meet and interact in the first place. One company I worked in had one beautiful solution: a games room which had a table tennis table, a PlayStation and table-football. By using this room in your break, you could meet anyone from the company and thus micro-communities are born. As micro-communities slowly grow, new communities may even rise up: a monthly table-tennis tournament for example. Back to Guild Wars 2 a design to give players reasons to communicate would also be sorely welcome. To keep to the same example, allowing players to trade face-to-face as well as using the database would be one step in the right direction.

So what?

What is so important about micro-communities anyway? Two of these I have touched upon. Firstly that of social networking - this is a powerful tool which empowers people. Secondly, this can rise in new stable communities as micro-communities gradually merge together. Thirdly and ultimately - engagement. By engaging people within the workplace and within a game, this engages the individuals to the greater whole. Regardless of whether it is at work or playing a video-game, having bonds with others will inevitably improve retention rates, happiness and fun!

That’s it from me. As always I would be interested in your thoughts, so please drop your comments below or share. Have a good week!

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