The rise in popularity of Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) has been a boon for game studies scholars.  Not just because it has meant that we have more great games to play, ponder, and write about (of course, the better the game, the less likely we are to get round to the pondering and writing phase, but that is an issue for another day).  And not just because the obvious complexity of these worlds is enabling scholars to think about them in interesting ways; as, for example, testing grounds for economic (Castronova) or sociological (Bainbridge) theories.  It is because the development of an MMORPG has become a quintessential part of the product and is therefore highly visible in the way that is not the case for other genres of games (even though the visibility for those games is a lot greater, in many cases, than in previous years).  Increasingly, members from every major section of a development team are writing occasional and sometimes regular developer logs that describe not just the “features” they are working on but articulate the goals the team has for the game and the writer’s theoretical approach to their particular specialty.

There are some straightforward commercial reasons for this.  Making the development process more transparent is a way of building the brand.  Unlike your average console or computer title which will typically be forgotten in a couple of months or, with better games, a year or two at the absolute outside, developers and publishers of MMORPGs hope that their brand will endure for many years.  The development phase also, therefore, plays a vital role in setting the parameters for the kind of player community the developers hope to see after the game is launched, and the kind of relationship they hope to have with that community.

To be sure, the “development as product” element can have some regrettable side effects.  To the degree that it is only a part of the publisher’s PR initiative it participates in the “Boom–>Bust–>Stabilize” process which constitutes the inevitable post-release arc of so many MMORPGs (EVE and WoW being the two significant exceptions).  If the development phase is seen only as PR it tends to fan the flames of the already unrealistically high expectations that players bring with them in anticipation of any new title that is so long–and so visibly so–in the making.  That, in turn, shapes the often excessive and childish fury with which gamers turn on beloved games when they don’t evolve according to the player’s own (usually very narrow) preferences.

The best developer logs, however, are not just PR and they aren’t just descriptions of features or game updates.  Rather, they are intriguingly philosophical reflections on the craft of the designers, graphic artists, and programmers involved.  Indeed, I’ve come to believe that the more reflective the developer logs, the better the odds that a given MMORPG will be innovative and engaging.  It is a crude measure, sure.  But I knew, for example, that Star Trek Online was shaping up to be the turkey that it, by all accounts (as always with Metacritic work your way down past the crack-smoking nobodies to where the more reputable gaming mags start), has become, when I read a sample of the developer logs.  Endless discussions about how you could use this ship for tanking, or that ship for tackling told me unequivocally that the developers didn’t know what they were doing.  If I want that kind of thing I’ll go back to playing EVE.  What I want from a game that advertises itself as part of the Star Trek franchise is a chance to feel part of the Star Trek universe.  In my recollection of that universe Picard and Riker don’t engage in long philosophical debates about whether or not the Enterprise makes a good tank and how to buff their attributes (well, maybe the latter, in a kind of barely suppressed homoerotic subtext kinda way).  Unsurprisingly, reviewers and players alike have lambasted the game for providing superficial visual and audio indicators of the Star Trek universe but not allowing you to actually do anything that feels meaningfully Star Trekkie. As is all too common in electronic games, players end up perched atop the game world rather than immersed in it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a recent developer blog by Damion Schubert, Principal Lead Systems Designer for Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic.  In “Community: The Third Element” Schubert outlines the two prevailing philosophies that govern MMORPG design: one based around conceiving the play space as world, the other viewing it as a game.  “World” (or sandbox) games maximize player choice to ensure breadth of action and individualized character development.  “Game” (or theme park) games, on the other hand, constrain player freedom and character choice in the interest of ensuring that all players have intense experiences with considerable depth to them.   At the extremes, each of these approaches has its weaknesses.  The world game is often heavily dependent on the quality of the interactions of players who have inhabited worlds for some time.  To new players, on the other hand, they can be hard to get into and at their worst can often seem like a giant pyramid scheme (CCP has wrestled very openly with this in regard to EVE).  Theme park games, on the other hand, may suffer from a feeling of a lack of engagement with a world (FLS has faced this issue in Pirates of the Burning Sea: beautiful towns open onto gorgeous vistas that you can’t actually enter; in fact, so tightly controlled are the environments that you often can’t step off a veranda except at the designated spot).

Schubert proposes, however, that there is a third term that needs to be taken into account here: community, “the crazy notion that massively multiplayer games are more interesting when other players matter.”  I’ll leave you to read for yourself Schubert’s description of what they are trying to do with some of the core game dynamics (conversation and grouping).  But the philosophy is encapsulated in the single idea that players have to see that other players matter.  In most MMOs, all too often other players don’t matter, not really.  Of course, if you are part of a guild, then your guildmates typically do matter.  But to a large extent that “mattering” derives from associations and motivations that while linked with the game world are often external to it.  What Schubert has in mind is that “we don’t want players to feel they have to group. But we really want them to want to.”  This will be an interesting trick if they can pull it off.  There are many games out there that encourage players to group.  But they do this chiefly by bribing players.  They try to encourage Joe and Jane Gamer to break out of their entrenched solipsism by then encouraging them to see other players simply in a self-serving light, as props to their own prowess.  So grouping with other players will give you an XP boost, or provide you with healer support, etc.  This, however, is a long way from feeling that other players really matter.  Because what matters to you is not the individual player but rather their class and/or level.  This is why establishing effective group and raid mechanics in most MMORPGs can make for satisfying and intense combat encounters but typically does very little for developing meaningful community in these games.   Sure, you may form contacts, players you prefer to group with but this is typically due to the generic pros (the person is reliably online at a certain time) or absence-of-cons (they don’t steal your loot while “LOL Dude U Suk A$$”-ing you all the time) of team-building.  That is a long way from considering that they matter in a way that would promote the development of community.

What does it mean for a player to matter in a way that is productive of stable, engaging, communities?  Broadly speaking, it involves those players being incorporated into a narrative.  I’m using that term in a really loosey goosey way, but consider a traditional single-player RPG.  Such games will encourage you to form a questing group that grows and changes over the course of time.  In the better games you come to care about the characters in your group for reasons that go beyond their skill set.  They have a backstory and far from simply “accompanying” you on your story, they have been integral to the way that story evolves.  Think, for example, of Bioware’s classic Knights of the Old Republic.  Taking into account whether your character evolves toward the light or dark side, and irrespective of what characters would be good choices to take into the final encounters, aren’t there just some characters that just feel “right” to be with you there at the end?

Or consider the way our real life communities work.  Aren’t these communities built and maintained largely through narrative?  Sure, we tell ourselves that our communities are built through shared activities, neighborliness, mutual respect, and so on.  But isn’t it true that it is more the stories we tell ourselves and one another about these things that forms the glue that makes us care about one another?  Moreover, these stories that make us care about other people are of necessity convenient, convincing fictions.  Seventy-year old Mrs. Dolan down the road may actually be running an international pornography empire.  That lovely couple, the Millers, with those adorable kids, may indulge in late-night neo-Nazi dress-up rituals in their basement.  But to us they are the lady who always takes such great care of her garden and that lovely family who always brings your trash bins back in.

(The corollary of this is one of my darkest fears: that as the arts and humanities appear less and less important as, arguably, appears to be the case in the US at least, that our ability to construct these necessary fictions and to embellish them with the kind of creativity necessary to sustain communal life, is fast disappearing.  We’re all becoming lousy storytellers.  Or rather, maybe we are just becoming very good prototypical gamers: we marshal all our resources to tell a convincing story that makes sense of ourselves alone and then defend it at all costs against all comers).

The player discussion that followed the Schubert’s post is, unfortunately, not worth the trouble of scrolling down.  Perhaps predictably, it rather quickly degenerated into a debate about whether WoW is better than EVE.  What is significant, however, is Schubert’s closing remark.  Noting that the nature of his blog post reflects the fact that the team is beginning to lock down the features of some of their core systems

to the degree that we’re comfortable talking about them. Like I said earlier, The Old Republic is an MMO, and it’s these systems and features that really help define that fact. You’ll likely hear a lot of design theory around them. As we do so, you’ll likely see a common theme: us constantly asking ourselves “Is this feature better because it leverages other players and the community?”

Of course, a lot depends on what “leverages” means.  There’s a lot of pressure on that one word.  Bioware have made it very clear that they regard story as being one of the foundational elements of a great gaming experience.  Yet “leverage” has unfortunate connotations of the kind of stat balancing and number-crunching game design focus that produces things like Star Trek Online. And no one wants to see another one of those.