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D-Mail #1 - You've Got D-Mail!

Posted April 14th, 2010 by Ethec

What drives more revenue? Flashy new features or investments in player communities? Sean "Dragons" Stalzer investigates.

Welcome to your first D-Mail.  What is this?  Why are you receiving a D-Mail? Who is this random new person on Ten Ton?  My name is Sean aka: Dragons (hence the "D") and I am the President and CEO of the online gaming organization known as The Syndicate® (www.LLTS.org).  This is a new column here at TenTonHammer focused on building and maintaining strong communities, but will for sure branch off into just about any gaming-related topics that seems relevant that week.

I have a personal passion for building and growing online communities.  That belief stems from two reasons.  First and foremost, making strong communities benefits all of us as players.  I would guess that a huge number of people reading this column have either been in a guild that imploded or have been part of or observed some nasty drama in a community you were involved in.  It is an all too common of an experience in the online world, and when those things happen, your personal enjoyment can be dramatically affected. In some cases it can destroy a player's enjoyment of the game entirely. My second reason is that making strong communities makes good business sense.  Online gaming is a business and the stronger communities are the more profitable the business is. From a purely ‘player’ perspective, when the developer is successful that means they can and will invest more in expansions, bug fixes and the next generation of MMOs.

Growing and strengthening online communities is a big deal with relevance to both the business and consumer side of gaming.  However, online community support is often an area that receives very little public attention perhaps because it is not as flashy as uber-end-boss-of-the-week or a fancy new spell system or new series of phat l00ts that are coming in the next patch.  I will attempt to make the case, as the weeks go by, that focusing on community is more important than any of those other factors in determining the success of a game and its future revenue potential. All of the other factors that go into making a game,directly impact the success of communities, which in turn impacts the bottom line.  For example, you cannot focus on raids while ignoring the community impact,.

The Syndicate celebrates their 14th anniversary.

Why am I qualified to talk about this?  While so often on the internet the person spouting an opinion has no real qualifications, I like to think I have the pre-requisites to talk about this topic.  For more than fourteen years I have led a major online gaming organization with more than six hundred members so I know a little bit about building a large group that can survive the test of time.  Statistically speaking, based on the number of groups that conservatively have risen and fallen during that time, you are twenty five times more likely to be struck by lightning than to replicate just that aspect.  While you may not always agree with all of my conclusions, they have proven to be successful over the years for The Syndicate®. 

In addition, my group is not merely an online guild.  In fact, we morphed from being 'just a guild' into a virtual community some years back.  That adds a whole new dynamic to these discussions since we do not exist to play a single game or even to play several games simultaneously.  We exist to grow our community and use games as a mechanism to do that.  That provides another level of perspective on how communities can grow and evolve and how they can impact gaming or be affected by game designer decisions.  Our community has evolved in such a way that it has virtually no turnover.  In 2009 there was a 99.98% retention rate, which is virtually unheard of in an online community.

Next, we have taken our large, stable community and used it to help build, test and strengthen the MMOs many of you enjoy today via consulting relationships with numerous developers. From that work, there is a unique 'behind the curtains' set of knowledge that can be brought to bear on today's hottest topics, especially on topics related to community.  In summary, I think I have the experience to share some thoughts on this topic and base them in hard lessons learned over many years.

So welcome to your first D-Mail. The term grew out of the early years of The Syndicate when many of the ideas, concepts, and lessons we will discuss in the coming weeks emerged from. All was not roses in those early years; it was not uncommon for me to login and deal with drama. Doing so invariably resulted in an E-Mail to the offending person. Rather quickly that became known as getting a D-Mail. Since then, drama has ceased but the term has stuck around and has affectionately come to refer to any time I get a bit long winded about a topic I am passionate about.

In this D-Mail, I'd like to touch on part of my thesis that strong communities make the MMO more profitable for business. That concept is most easily demonstrated by the antithesis which is weak communities (or communities that implode and cease to exist) are bad for business.

At their core, guilds are about personal relationships. The overarching purpose of defeating content as fast as possible can mask that underlying purpose, but it is still there to some degree even if that purpose is a pissing contest over who is more l33t or who has the better gear score. Many people join guilds not simply for help with content but also for a desire to belong to something greater than themselves and because they want the social aspects of the group. Playing MMORPGs means a desire to establish a social connection; otherwise why not play another round of Dragon Age and try to sleep with all the women at once for the 12th time? So because we all generally want that social aspect we begin to form those personal relationships. We may not realize it but we often come to count on JoeTheBlacksmith to make our items and SuzieTheRaidLeader to setup our hunts and so on. We build them into our virtual lives as necessary components to our happiness and as part of our vision of the "rightness" of that world.

Lets imagine the scenario where we have joined a guild, we have built personal relationships whether we realized it or not, and all is right in the world. Then we login one day and all of the sudden all is not right in our world. The GM quits and the guild ceases to exist, or that JoeTheBlacksmith turns out to be quitting the game so he takes all of your uber rare crafting components and Ebays them, or SuzieRaidLeader tells you how much you really do suck at raiding and bans you from all raids or denies you any upgrades, or maybe they all up and quit because there was some massive fight over loot and everyone is mad at everyone else that they didn't win UberPixelsOfDestruction. In the end, you are left in the guild virtually alone. Regardless of the cause, you logged in and the virtual world of personal relationships you built up changed in a sudden and dramatic way.

We as humans, for the most part, really don't like change. While there are some exceptions out there who thrive on change, most people work really hard to establish things into a set routine that exactly matches their needs and desires and when that pattern changes, they come under great stress. If you have ever read an article about the biggest stress factors that can happen to a person then you have probably noticed the big ones all deal with change such as job change, buying a house, divorce, or having your first child. The same concept applies to online gaming. We don't like change to our "perfect" virtual world. We have invested hundreds or thousands of hours building our world into the shape we wanted it. It may be dysfunctional. It may be something others would look at and wonder why we do what we do. But, for us, it's awesome. We are comfortable there.

So, you logged in and your "perfect" world has imploded. Your guild suddenly doesn't exist, your "buddy" ran off with all your phat l00ts, and you are banned from raiding for all time. What happens next is something many of us have observed. Accounts are closed, characters are deleted and, in some cases, when the perceived betrayal is large enough, gaming itself is tossed out the window.

From a business standpoint, the failure of that community results in a loss of revenue. In some cases that loss is temporary, but in other cases it is permanent. Individually, none of us make a hill of beans worth of difference to the bottom line of any MMORPG, but collectively we are the SOLE reason the games exist. When communities are not afforded the tools and structure and rule-sets they need to thrive and succeed, the instances of major failures causing loss of revenue go up. So back to part of the original thesis of this column: strong communities make for a more profitable game.

Lets take a look at a fact based example. EverQuest (EQ) was the progenitor of raid content. As we will discuss in future articles, making that content conducive to growing and strengthening a guild is critical to a titles success and to player enjoyment. EQ did not do that back in 2004. At that point in the game, everyone fought over every boss. By early to middle 2004, EQ was at the height of its popularity with an ever increasing number of people fighting over the same few loot drops each week.

Then, the bottom fell out. In almost the blink of an eye, one hundred thousand people quit the game. To make matters worse, late in 2004, along came World of Warcraft promising instancing and with it the chance to do every boss, every week, regardless of what other guilds did. Another two hundred and fifty thousand people leave EQ. By 2006, the game had lost 64% of its subscribers.

However, over this time SOE was hard at work addressing those mistakes. They added in new options for players to adventure in small groups via instancing. The hemorrhaging stopped and while EQ will never regain its former glory, it is still around today and still has a loyal fan base. Applying those same lessons to EverQuest II, SOE has been able to see that title constantly grow in subscribers over that same period and it is still growing today. Making decisions that support guild stability can and does affect the profits of an MMORPG along with all of our enjoyment as players.

You might be saying: that this is all common sense! Players are the reason games exist! I would agree with you. It is common sense. Yet, why are there so few advances in tools for communities or in game design that minimizes potential explosive drama? One could argue that everyone inherently knows that players are the reasons games exist, but many game developers don't yet appreciate the link between successful communities and player retention.

So in future articles we will look at a large number of aspects of this issue - how communities are effected by loot systems, raid and content design, user interface design and add-ons, to recruiting practices and tools, to in-game and out-of game support - with special attention given to games that have done it right and games that fail at it miserably. If you really think about it, there is not a single aspect of an MMORPG that we cannot directly tie into how it positively or negatively affects community success and as we have established: Community success can and does drive revenue.

A nice read, and I'm now honestly interested in your damn ideas!

As you point out it's obvious that drama is bad for business in the MMO world, rage quitting extends from just /gquit to /killsub. But what tools could a developer add that would kill off the drama?

Personality conflict can't be fixed.
Loot drama could be fixed by the game deciding who should get what and baring trading, but that just doesn't seem right.
And if you suck at raiding the only mechanic that could be given w...

I have been known to be a teensy bit passionate about community building with the games I play so it has been a long time pet peeve of mine that developers really just don't take it seriously enough.

Community relationships = Life blood of any MMOG. The best MMOG in the world is nothing if people end up using it as a single player game because the networking sucks.

I'm really looking forward to reading future columns!

An interesting read! I agreed with it. Ive always said that without their player-customers, mmo companies are just a bunch of nerds in cubicles.

Excellent first column. Like many others, I firmly believe that any new title's ability to build and strengthen community straight out of the gates has a fairly major impact on whether or not players remain attached into and beyond the second month of live service once the staple 30 days of playtime included in boxed or digital purchases expires. Sure, the gameplay needs to be polished and enjoyable from the very beginning as well, but you also need to have a not only a reason for players to ...