I've had this one in the works for like a week now, because I've wanted to get it just right. This topic is pretty near and dear to me, and if you wanted insight on how I view community and community management, this is probably the most in-depth look I've written. It's a long read, but I hope it's worth your time.
As a community manager, what naturally attracts me most to games are those that are intrinsically built to support meaningful and positive player interaction. Everyone lately is saying that the MMO market is dying, and that it's on its way out. I agree, but for likely very different reasons than most others might suggest. MMO's today aren't just struggling with a good financial business structure - they're struggling because they've lost sight of what made playing an MMO appealing in the first place. When was the last time you were proud of the community you were part of in an MMO? How often do you hear "Oh, that game has a great community?" rather than "I'd rather gouge my eyes out than spend time on that game's forums?" I think there's only a few contenders out there that could boast this, and surprise - they're the ones that seem to be doing the best.
Be prepared for some rose-tinted glasses here.
My favorite MMO of all time will likely always be Shadowbane, because if you could sum up what the game was all about in a word, it was community. If you never had a chance to play it, Shadowbane was a PvP oriented game where the core mechanic was getting together with others in a guild and actually staking a claim of land out in the world. You worked together to build a city, and other guilds might work against you to siege your city and attempt to destroy it. Alternatively, you could stage a siege yourself, but you'd need the cooperation of an army of players and the resources for siege buildings before you could try.
I remember playing this game with my dad, who was a combat healer, while I was a much lower level sorceress. We worked together to run our town's tailoring shop (Dekin's House of Fashion!) and kept all our casters in the best gear possible. Our in-game "chores" were to go out and farm for gold or sub-par rare items to dismantle in the shop in order to make better ones. Other members of our guild would help us with our farming, or run their own shops. If they couldn't afford a shop or didn't want to run one, they donated gold to the town hall for NPC guards and archers.
It might sound mundane, but it brought us all together like a family, and I remember meeting one of our guildmates a few years down the road with my dad. In game, he was a Giant who was a Paladin wearing the most ostentatious pink plate armor you've ever seen, though he always insisted it was salmon colored. Meeting him in real life didn't feel strange or weird, and it was the first time someone I knew from the internet crossed that boundary to real life friend. I've never forgotten that experience, and while it's commonplace today, it's something that was frowned upon in the early 2000's.
Shadowbane's concept has always stuck with me. Every time I see a new MMO coming out, this is the characteristic I look for and, unfortunately, every time I've been disappointed. I've yet to run into a true town builder out there, or a Shadowbane 2, and I can't help but think that's what's missing from the current MMO market - community.
World of Warcraft probably comes the closest, because its community team is top notch. I've had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of them and they're all wonderful and passionate people. When I look around to other community teams, I see a lot of companies that don't really know or understand what community means and they let it fall to the wayside in favor of "that social media stuff."
Coming from the 90's, Shadowbane didn't have social media to rely on and despite the fact the core mechanic was trying to kill each other, it was one of the friendliest games I've ever played. While I wasn't quite as much a forum goer back then as I am now, I could easily attribute this to the work of their community team, but just as equally to a sound mechanic that doesn't just encourage, but forces, people to work together.
You definitely see a little bit of this in other games. Games with a dungeon finder throw you together, and if you want your phat lewts, you best pull your weight or do your role well. Futzing around is generally going to get you kicked, and then it sucks to be you. However, in Shadowbane, this was on a much grander scale. The game capped its levels out at 120, and when you reached 40, you could no longer rely on the safety of one of the three NPC cities. If you did not find a guild by this point, you were utterly screwed. People needed to band together, or they'd fall prey to everyone's favorite internet villain, the ganker. Assassains roamed the land, looking for the non-guilded players, eager to jump them and take what they could from their newbie corpses.
I think what made Shadowbane compelling was that it was as close to simulating a developed society and less of a game. Yes, you took on your role, but in a way that often made you feel important and part of something bigger. No one in a guild was really ever more important than anyone else. I don't even remember who my guild leader was, because I didn't need to know. I didn't need a single figurehead to tell me what to do. I did my own thing with a small group of people, and it benefited a larger group of people who in turn protected me. Isn't that what being in a guild supposed to be about?
I've eagerly been awaiting the next game that creates this sort of symbiotic relationship between players, but so far, I've not seen efforts really made towards it. Games today are much more focused on personal goals, and about the individual player achieving great heights. It's not about a group of heroes anymore, it's about the one hero who stands out among them all and the special feeling that gives you.
Yet, one of the other great complaints I often hear is that feeling special in an MMO is difficult, because everyone else is like you. There's nothing unique about what you're doing, because every other character aims for the same cookie cutter gear in the same cookie cutter slots and is completing the same exact quests that you're completing.
Maybe good gameplay is lacking because we're seeking the wrong rewards as players. Humans are social creatures, and if we're playing an MMO, it should be to play alongside other people. A truly fulfilling MMO should allow you to walk away from it with memories unique to you, that happen to be shared with a small population.
I go back to World of Warcraft because I feel they have the closest thing to this feeling - joining a raiding guild or a PvP guild and ascending the ranks. But no matter what I've done or how many characters I've leveled, the best memories in my 8 years of playing World of Warcraft all tie in with particular individuals. I remember winning an hour long 2v2 arena match in Season 1 because of a clutch bubble and resurrect with one of my closest friends. I remember pantsless Karazhan runs to help gear new guild members. I remember discovering that Sandbox Tigers let you hover at the top of the arena floor when Anub'Rekhan spawns in Trial of the Crusader, and a small group of us all hanging around up there giggling while everyone wondered where the tanks and healers went.
I don't have memories like that for any other MMO I've ever played. I never made new friends in Star Wars: The Old Republic because the game plays like a single-player MMORPG. I never made new friends in DC Universe Online because no one was interested in working together with me, and the group of friends I went in playing with quickly lost interest. I never advanced far into Final Fantasy XI because working together wasn't just encouraged, it was downright required - but for all the wrong reasons.
That's just a smattering of what I've played, mind you. If there's a game I've missed out there that you think fits the bill of what I'm looking for, please let me know in the comments! I'm itching to find the next big thing that really represents what being "massively multiplayer" should be.
Of course, if there's nothing out there, maybe I'll just have to do it myself some day.