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Guest Blog: Demajen – The Importance of Community

We are very happy to present our second guest blog here at GWOnline, this one by Jon Burrage, also known as Demajen. Demajen started blogging about Guild Wars 2 earlier this year, often analysing Guild Wars 2 features in the context of other MMO games, and always with a personal touch. We greatly enjoy his writing, and hope that you will too.

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Gaming Communities Are a Strange Beast.

I started gaming before the internet had taken off. Back in the early 90s, before I’d even heard of a 56K modem, gaming was something I did with my friends, with one TV and multiple controllers. Many many hours were spent crowded round the TV in our house’s living room with three of my closest friends and a N64, playing splitscreen GoldenEye.

Before that, my best friend and I would often huddle in front of his A500 Amiga trying to best levels in 2D sidescrollers.

Sure, this shows my age, but it also reminds me of a simpler time in gaming, where a community of likeminded individuals came together face-to-face to indulge in a shared interest.

Enter The Internet

The internet has changed all that. Email, instant messaging clients, gaming forums, broadband/ADSL… these have changed the way we interact in all walks of life, not just gaming. Companies now conduct business with more conference calls and video chats than face-to-face meetings. People from across the globe can now connect in faster, more personal ways than ever before.

But it isn’t all good. While the internet is great for bringing people together in many ways, it allows a certain level of relational detachment within those groups of people.

World of Warcraft and Being Social Online

I started playing World of Warcraft when it came out, and within the first week or so of play I met two guys – Asmoth the dwarf paladin and Renan the night elf warrior. They were the type of people who I’d been playing with in FFXI, but instead of just using character names and typing in chat, they used their real names instead and had a Ventrilo (or it may have been TeamSpeak back then) server.

I was reticent about voice chat. While they weren’t school kids, I’d had the whole “internet can ruin your career” speech drilled into me while studying for my teaching qualification. I was 23, just starting out in teaching, and rather naively I bought into the horror stories.

But I at least logged in and listened and gradually got comfortable enough to know that these weren’t the type of people who were likely to ruin my career. My paranoia lessened over time, and I instead became enthusiastic about this small but growing community.

Over the course of several years playing WoW on and off, the guild expanded, I met many new people, and I became used to a different kind of community – a community that, in fact, I’ve struggled to find since. I’ve seen a change in how people interact online. Or maybe I haven’t. Maybe people have always interacted like this, but I’ve never needed to look for community, for shared experiences, before now, as I’ve always had that WoW guild and that FFXI linkshell to chat to.

Most of those friends who were in my WoW guild have moved on to other games, or simply don’t have time for MMORPGS anymore. I’ve been to meet some of them in real life and had some incredibly crazy times doing so. This year I plan on flying over to Denmark to visit two members of the guild that I’ve known for over half a decade, chat to very regularly, but have never met in person.

But I’ve not made any new friends in a gaming community – friends that I know really well – for quite some time now. And I don’t really know why. I’m not a particularly anti-social person but I have, I feel, become more cynical about online communities as online gaming has grown in popularity.

Go to any online gaming forum and you’ll see why. Evidence abounds there but, if pressed, I can boil down the essence of why I haven’t found a good community into one word: “Tolerance”.

The Perils of a Modern Online Gaming Community

I don’t want to paint gamers with broad strokes – that’s grossly unfair to almost everyone involved – but the vocal gamers on gaming community sites like MMOChampion and GWGuru really put me off getting involved with the real ins and outs of a proper gaming community. People seem to lack any kind of tolerance for peoples’ opinions other than their own: just ask a group of school kids which is better between the PS3 and 360 and you’ll see a typical forum response break out.

It’s the same with MMORPGs and the communities that follow them. RIFT, TERA, WoW, The Secret World, Guild Wars 2… everyone seems convinced that the MMORPG they favour is the best one out there, and all the others are pretenders to the crown which World of Warcraft is (allegedly) losing its grip on.

I’m all for passion in gaming. It’s what got me into the hobby in the first place. But passion quickly turns into bias. Reading the general chat channels in any MMO beta test reveals some incredibly passionate people. But that passion is often channelled in very negative ways.

In the TERA beta weekends I saw chat filled with insults against GW2 players, or TSW players, or shouting at people to “Go back to WoW” because they mentioned that TERA’s quest system was “a bit dull”.

Then we had the people on the opposite side of the apparent divide, spouting that TERA was the second coming of Christ and that it would solve all our MMO woes and topple the mighty WoW from its throne.

I really enjoyed parts of TERA, just like I really enjoyed bits of SWTOR, quite a lot of RIFT, many elements of TSW, and a helluva lot of FFXI and WoW. I also enjoyed the first 20 levels of Age of Conan, and there are some bits of FFXIV I enjoy still. Are any of these games better than the others? Does GW2 beat them all into a pulp, which is what people might expect me to say based on how many blogs I’ve written on the game?

Well, no, actually. They’ve all got their flaws, their problems. But of the list above, GW2 is the overall best for my style of play, with The Secret World’s story emphasis and atmosphere coming in a reasonably close second at the moment. But that’s my opinion.

As I teach the kids at school in preparation for exams, if I’m going to make a statement of opinion, I’m going to back it up with evidence and explanation for why I have that opinion, which is what I use my blog for.

Many people on the internet don’t. They have their opinions, they’re “right”, and if you disagree with them you get called a wide and colourful variety of names.

Which brings us, in no way neatly, to Guild Wars 2.

Martin Kerstein and fans at Gamescom 2011

Martin Kerstein and a couple of Guild Wars 2 fans at Gamescom 2011

ArenaNet’s Community Philosophy

There was a post recently on ArenaNet’s Facebook Guild Wars 2 page reminding people of the kind of community they wanted to create. I don’t believe — and chances are, they aren’t naïve enough to believe either — that they can truly create the kind of community that they dream about, but at least they are actively pursuing it, and that makes all the difference. When the community gets uppity in WoW — which it does. Frequently. — the CMs actively put down any malicious dissent or rebellion, and GW2’s equivalent managers will undoubtedly do the same.

But GW2 also seems to be taking a preventative approach too. They are constantly reminding us of the kind of message they are trying to get across, the type of community that they are trying to build, the kind of ethos they want the GW2 community to have.

They can do this because they haven’t launched yet. The game has only had one beta weekend and a mini stress test. There’s been little opportunity for players to get in-game and communicate on a massively multiplayer level.

The CMs at Blizzard, on the other hand, have six years worth of community “building” (I use the term loosely) to deal with.

Community is incredibly important to a successful game, and it’s equally vital to build up a strong fanbase to fuel a community before a game has launched.

Blizzard had a strong fanbase from the Warcraft 3 RTS fans, but that wasn’t really a community prepared for the jump into the MMO space. ANet, on the other hand, has the advantage of already having a massive MMO-fanbase based on the success of Guild Wars. Sure, the original isn’t really an MMO in what is now the traditional sense of the genre, but it’s much closer to the persistent world format than WC3 was.

The Evolving Guild Wars 2 Community

I can’t say I know much about GW’s community. In over 200 hours of the game, I rarely interacted with anyone, short of asking in trade for a few choice items. I’ve read in many places that it’s an incredibly friendly and bustling community, but this was months ago, when the GW2 community itself seemed to be smaller, friendlier.

Now everyone seems to have attached themselves to the hype train and its steamrolling ahead, ploughing through less polemically-inclined individuals and blasting them out of the way with hyperbole and entitled demands.

I’ve posted on my own blog many times over the last few months about this evolution in the game’s community. How every little change or announcement has caused people to blow up. It’s infuriated me, as well as many other people no doubt. It is in part because of how gaming communities in general seem to reflect degradation in our own societal structure: manners, courtesy, respect… all seem to fly out of the window, covered by the comforting blanket of anonymity that the average vocal internet gamer thrives on.

trollface

The face of an MMO community?

In a society where “trollface.jpg” thrives, and people actively get kicks out of trolling others, is it any real wonder that it’s becoming harder to find a real community that we can feel a part of?

Massively Multiplayer Online games are founded on three tenets: that they are huge and persistent, that they offer a social experience with thousands of other players, and that they all come together from across the globe via the medium of the internet. Yet it is exactly these tenets that can cause communities to fracture.

Guild Wars 2 is doing things right in many ways — building a game where people work together towards a common goal, rather than working alongside each other for that same goal — and hopefully this will be enough to stave off the more competitive, trolling players who revel in kill stealing and PKing, who enjoy making others’ lives miserable; the players for whom ninja-looting is a way to get what they want no matter the consequences for other players; a game where gear treadmills, 20 man raiding, and the resulting elitism is the only thing that is catered for.

It has been said that GW2 is catering “too much” for “casuals”. If that’s the case, then I’m happy to be a casual, and hope the hardcore elitists go elsewhere.

Community is a strange word to use for groups of anonymous people on the internet. It often seems to be the wrong word entirely. But it is essential to building a healthy, long-living, and enjoyable game.

So I hope the GW2 community quickly finds a comfortable stride, and that the “haters” and naysayers move onto the next big thing. Because I’d much rather play with a proper community, not a vocal, fractured collection of entitled voices who believe that he who shouts loudest and moans the most is the pinnacle of gamer culture.