Creating Effective Groups and Group Roles in MMP Games
Support Permanent Groups
Temporary groups often lead players to want to join together more permanently. Once you've been adventuring with someone and seen that they're easy to get along with and react well under pressure, you're more likely to want to get together with them again in the future. Permanent groups give the players a way to create long-term associations within the game, provide a strong sense of belonging, and create their own forms of gameplay.
The most common form of permanent groups in MMP games are ‘guilds' -- loosely based on medieval craft associations, and more directly based on social or character-class-based guilds in text MUDs. All of the MMP games today allow players to create and join guilds or similar groups. In Asheron's Call, the guild is called an allegiance, and differs from guilds in other games in specific, novel ways. In particular, AC allegiances rely exclusively on a patron-vassal pyramid system, which has some interesting effects on how the groups operate (we'll come back to this later). However, both guilds and allegiances offer design principles for all sorts of permanent groups.
A Sense of Belonging
To aid in this sense of belonging, players typically name their guilds -- that is, the person who starts the guild gives it a descriptive name. This sets it apart from others and gives the members an easy handle to use in identifying themselves. In addition, visible methods of identifying other guild members are an important aspect of creating a shared sense of belonging. For example, in Ultima Online, many guilds adopt a certain dress or certain colors (clothes can be dyed to suit the player's wishes). In Dark Age of Camelot, players are able to create a guild crest, or colored symbol for their guild. This has real-world analogs ranging from medieval heraldry to modern sports teams, and is a great way to allow each guild to have its own visible, shared identity. Being able to easily identify others in your group is an important way to foster a sense of belonging.
Communication and Infrastructure
In addition to in-game infrastructure, it's common for guilds to have their own out-of-game web pages where the members congregate, post messages, and plan meetings and adventures. These are often elaborate sites attesting to the group members' dedication. Providing in-game links to these sites adds to the identity shared amongst members of the group. These links might be displayed in a central registry or, as in M59, on the individual characters' identification panel. Linking to these pages from the game's main web page also shows that you take the players' guilds, and thus their contributions to the game, as seriously as they do.
Forming Groups and Changing Leadership
However, in most of the current games once a guild is formed it's internal structure never changes. In these games, if the guild leader decides to disband the group or simply leaves the game, the entire group falls apart. In such cases, the other members are left to scramble to re-assemble their group, which may or may not work out. This makes the permanent group structure brittle, leading to situations in which a guild fails because one person -- the founder -- leaves the game (or even just the guild). This causes frustration and dissatisfaction amongst many players, and weakens the utility of permanent groups in the game.
In contrast, in Asheron's Call it is possible for any character with vassals to sever his ties with his own patron, and thus become monarch of his own allegiance pyramid. Conversely, a monarch could quit the game, leaving her vassals to re-form their allegiance as they saw fit. In such cases patron-vassal relationships lower in the pyramid are unaffected, and the allegiance as a whole continues on. In a similar way guild members in Meridian 59 can elect a new guild leader at any time, deposing an absent or unpopular leader whenever more than 50 percent of the members put their political support behind someone else. The game automatically bestows all the leadership abilities on the new leader, who can then demote or even expel the deposed one.
Methods like these, where the overall structure of the permanent group or guild is preserved across leadership changes, makes the group much more resilient to change, and thus more likely to carry on over time. In other words, it's not enough to let your players form their own groups; they have to be able to manage them as well. Providing simple but powerful methods that enable the group members to do this gives them a greater sense of ownership, binding them more closely to the group and to your game.
Another area of innovation in games such as Ultima Online and Asheron's Call are provisions for player-owned houses. Housing has turned out to be phenomenally successful for UO, and slightly less so for AC. The difference may be that in UO, players can design and place their own homes, while in AC you can only buy those that are pre-existing, made and placed by the designers. This may not seem to be that big of a difference, but players feel much more control and ownership of their houses in UO, and they have thus become a more desirable part of the game.
On the other hand, pre-set limits in the game are not necessarily bad. Everquest has innovated in this area by dividing characters by race (troll vs. elf, for example), with biases for or against other races, and with a limited ability to speak to other races. This creates externally imposed divisions between groups of players, but encourages intra-group roles to emerge.
This type of grouping-by-division is taken even further in Dark Age of Camelot, where characters from each of the three Realms (Albion, Hibernia, and Midgard) cannot communicate with -- and are necessarily at war with -- those from the other realms. This "Realm vs. Realm" (RvR) play is the core of the game once your character has more or less exhausted the fun of killing monsters and completing most quests (level 30 or so). Players slide naturally into this as part of their character's identity is as a member of their Realm, even though there is little to be gained by ‘winning' this part of the game. Still, groups of characters form in the frontier-lands, waiting to either defend a keep against foes from another Realm, or sallying forth to increase the glory of their own Realm.
Finally, there are other possible ways in which players can interact within permanent groups, as for example via political meta-games. Both M59 and UO attempt these using political factions that are separate from player guilds. In UO the faction-game has not gathered a strong following as it has no real effect on the world other than allowing for guild-wars. In M59, the political game has been much more popular. In this meta-game, players are able to interact with NPCs to indirectly affect their opinions. This eventually puts one faction or another ‘in power,' resulting in in-game rewards such as better prices or cheaper spells for that faction. While the gameplay and rewards are relatively simple, players have banded together and spent a great deal of time and effort to ensure that their faction -- and thus the permanent group of which they are a member -- remains in power as long as possible.
Support a Broad Range of Group Roles
Each role that a character may take on must have a valid and valuable function within the game; those that have no discernable function will be largely ignored. Giving characters the ability to mine ore is irrelevant unless the ore has some value in the game -- such as being turned into ingots which can be hammered into armor and weapons. Not all roles have to have overt gameplay value such as this, but each must have a direct perceived value for the players. In some cases this can be a social value: being a guild leader, tavern owner, or even just an accomplished story teller are all potentially valuable functional roles. The broader the set of functional roles your game supports, the denser its gameplay and social web will be.
Avoid the Uber-Role
In adventuring parties and other temporary groups, many players like having a designated group leader. Others like a more ad hoc approach, but adding leadership capabilities to the group can enhance the players' experience and add new dimensions to their play. For example, the group leader might be the only one who can let new people into the party or toss them out. This formalizes what often happens in parties anyway, where one person takes the lead, gives people their battle orders, etc. By allowing (not forcing) parties to select a leader in a way that's known to the game, you can also make this part of the game: a traditional paladin-type character might have greater leadership skill, which, when he or she is the party leader, adds to everyone's attack bonuses and/or morale. Or perhaps when a thief is the leader, everyone gets the benefit of moving a bit more silently. Improving individual gameplay via group roles is a great way to add to the effectiveness of groups and move beyond alone-in-a-crowd MMP gameplay.
There are many opportunities for group roles in guilds and other permanent groups, most of which are still untapped in today's games. As discussed above, allowing the guild or group to designate their own leader (rather than just having the leader always be the person who started the guild) creates many more dynamic group interactions. This helps the group be more resilient and last longer. It also gives players something to focus on beyond just killing more monsters, since those who want to can take a more active hand in helping to manage their guild. You can also allow the players to designate ranks or titles to go along with group functions. In M59, each guild leader can designate up to five guild ranks (each with its own title), and each with its own functions in the guild. Some can promote or demote others, some can bring lower-ranking members into the guild's hall, and only the leader can change the hall's password. Such group roles within the guild add an entirely new layer of gameplay to the game.
At the same time, as players become ensconced in the game world you've provided, they will find and create their own types of roles. These are valuable to them as they provide a sense of ownership and thus attachment to the world. They're valuable to you as they show you what the players consider important, and thus what you might want to focus on expanding in the future.
There are a wide variety of social and group-related roles that have emerged in MMP games. Some, such as UO's tavern-owners, appear because of the unique combination of social and gameplay factors in that game. But such roles are also pointers to more general types that appear in all games, and which your game should support. This may require little action on your part, but on the other hand, you may find novel ways to include these emergent roles in your gameplay.
The first of these roles to consider is the newbie -- the new or unfamiliar player. While this type of person is almost by definition not part of a group, how well your game accepts them in and provides methods for them to access meaningful group roles will be a gating factor to long-term play. People who come into an MMP game and don't have an opportunity to interact positively with anyone else in the first few minutes are likely to just leave and not come back.
Newbies need information and items -- they need help becoming familiar with the game and becoming confident that they can have fun within it. Some games like M59 and UO provide an entire "newbie experience" in a relatively safe area, to give new players a gentle introduction into a complex game. Others like Asheron's Call make helping out newbies an important part of the game for anyone who wants a strong allegiance (though this has to some degree backfired as new players get pelted with unsolicited "do you want a patron?" messages). Since every player will go through a newbie stage, this is an area where future games can focus to greatly enhance most players' experiences.
This also leads to the next set of emergent roles filled by veteran players. The first of these is the docent, the type of kind, patient, informative guide that every newbie hopes to find. Some people gravitate toward this role on their own, and get praised for it by the otherwise hapless newbies whom they help. MMP games are beginning to include this role -- AC patrons are often docents, for example -- but it is still largely unexplored as a formal part of the game. There are many opportunities to strengthen the in-game society by recognizing and rewarding those who act in ways that help and guide others.
Another veteran role similar to the docent is the trail guide. This type of person is typically an "explorer" in Bartle's typology, one who knows how to get into and out of difficult and dangerous places in the world, who can provide guidance on quests or other tasks in the game. In some games like Everquest, this is the kind of person who will often help you retrieve your corpse (a necessary task after you die in the wilderness), or who will lead your party through a dangerous zone. As with the docent however, this role is almost entirely emergent. The trail guide is an important role that crosses between many temporary and permanent groups, and yet one that has not been codified in a way that makes the players' natural inclinations more meaningful (that is, directly rewarded) within the game.
Finally, there is a broad and diverse class of innkeepers -- social instigators who run make-believe taverns in UO, set up scavenger hunts in many games, perform marriage ceremonies between characters, or find other ways to bring people together in some emergent fashion not related to a guild, standing quest, or other designed group element. These people are incredibly valuable as they really make your game come alive for other players. They involve others in ways that are both unique and are still part of the game world. This increases other players' immersion and connection with the world, and adds a valuable social role for those who may want a change of pace from the primary gameplay. While various games have had centralized volunteer programs, innkeepers (as a role, not an occupation) have not been supported with in-game rewards. One way to do this would be to expand the set of functional roles, as described above, to include economic, political, and entertainment roles. Various skills and reputation systems could also add in-game visibility to the innkeeper set of roles.