Creating Effective Groups and Group Roles in MMP Games
Look to the Future
As MMP games innovate on current gameplay mechanisms and group roles, what can we expect to see? Clearly parties and guilds work for many of the existing players, but this and other aspects of MUD heritage have probably been taken about as far as they can go. As MMP games try to attract and keep more players, and as they move into the mainstream of online entertainment, we'll need a wider variety of groups and roles for players to fill and new synergies among them.
From the guild point of view, players could be encouraged (via in-game rewards) to select their guild not only for social factors, but for the benefit the group brings to their character. In the case of AC's hierarchical allegiances, they might be more successful if characters gained a discount on skills they could earn based on the monarch's skills, or the aggregate of everyone in the group's skills. This would encourage the creation of groups focused on archery, Life Magic, and other skill areas, and give players an in-game reason to consider joining one group over another. Turning this around, skills for running groups would also be useful. Using an earlier example, a paladin could have leadership skills that increase his party's morale or attack bonuses. The same principle could be applied to permanent groups: a guild leadership skill could increase the group's effectiveness -- in this case, the skill discount each member receives. A guild leader with guild leadership skills could increase each member's skill discount. Thus one character's skill benefits everyone in the group.
Another idea along these lines is to provide skills that can be gained only from within a group. Suppose that once the members of a guild attained a certain average level of skill (perhaps even coupled with a minimum level of group-leadership skill), new skills become available to members of the group. So when members of your archery guild show up and start firing guided-missile arrows, others immediately know your group (which they can identify by the symbol on your surcoats) is made up of true bow masters -- no one else could have such a devastating skill. This sort of innovation in skills and group management binds groups more tightly to the game, and makes them much more than just another form of in-game social club.
In terms of inter-group dynamics, there are many ways to think about how groups might interact with each other beyond the simple ‘guild war' model seen now. It's easy to imagine quests or other tasks that require a party to complete, but which pit two or more parties (or guilds) against one another to see who can complete the task first. Or, from the guild point of view, by making trade and crafting skills more a part of the game and then linking these to groups and group skills (analogous to the archery example above), groups could enter into symbiotic relationships: one guild of master smiths makes exemplary weapons and armor for others -- and in particular for another guild that has agreed to protect them against all foes for a deep discount.
Enabling symbiotic and other relationships between groups can also help avoid some of the problems seen in current games with guilds that overpower all others. That is, just as you want to provide multiple character roles (to avoid the ‘uber-role' as described above), gameplay that allows one guild to outpace all others can limit the enjoyment for everyone who isn't part of that select group. Currently in Everquest for example, success in the endgame depends entirely on being part of a large powerful guild. Players simply cannot undertake a high-level raid on their own or with less than a large, powerful group. Naturally enough, these raids tend to yield some of the best, most powerful loot, which then makes the guild even more powerful. This can create a positive feedback loop that creates what players call an ‘uberguild' that dominates all others. If instead guilds depended on each other just as characters do, rather than being entirely self-contained, there would be more opportunities for different forms of success, and less likelihood of one overpowering guild emerging.
New Types of Groups
In the political arena, various games have tried player-run towns with limited success. This is a complex area, but one that can benefit from looking at neighborhoods, towns, regions, and other political constructs as groups (and even as groups-of-groups). Consider for example the group-related gameplay (and new opportunities for players to interact) that would come with a town-management group structure: the group leader is the local mayor or baron, and the members of the group are the citizens of the town. Among other duties, the mayor sets the tax rates on the citizens, which in turn determines the number of NPC-town guards protecting them. And of course, the citizens can remove an unpopular (or over-taxing) mayor, just as they could remove and replace any guild leader. This is just one possible example. There are many ways to explore applying groups and group roles to the political and social landscape within the game.
Beyond Individual Adventuring
Guilds could also be given quests to complete, just as individual characters are now. When parties of guild-members resolve the quest, the guild as a whole is rewarded. Similarly, the guild as a whole could be attacked -- this could lead to interesting new ways to think of guild wars, putting more at stake than just the individual members' (recurring) lives. A political group (representing a town and surrounding area) could lose territory and resources it controls if it cannot defend itself against raids from a rival clan -- just as an individual may lose possessions to the victor of a fight.
Finally, there are other unexplored areas such as skills that can be used only as part of a group. Some fighting styles or skills might be usable only with others -- consider the ancient Spartan phalanx as a multi-person battle tactic, a skill that cannot be used by an individual. You could also implement certain magical rituals that require one mage from each school of magic to complete. Other skills or abilities might be usable only in concert with other members of your guild (along the lines of The Three Musketeers who were great on their own, but dazzling together). These represent just a few examples of how groups and group roles may improve MMP games in the future.
Current MMP games struggle against turning into "massively single-player" games -- that is, games where there are a lot of others around, but you don't pay much attention to them. Creating and supporting effective groups and group roles is a primary way to address this issue. Better groups make for better social bonds and increased loyalty to the game. We are still just scratching the surface of how, with better designs, more varied roles, and broader group support, players can create great social and group experiences in MMP games. By applying and developing the principles discussed here, you'll be able to find even more ways to make this happen.