What makes MMOs special? Other players. Lots of other players. Whole communities of other players. While I may semi-seriously joke about other players being the biggest problem in MMOs, they're also the genre's greatest asset -- some might say even say their only redeeming feature. Why pay a monthly fee to play the same game, experience the same content, over and over, week after week? Because you're doing it with other real people.
I've long held that the most important feature in any MMO is to build a strong player community. It doesn't matter how shiny or content-filled your game is: if it lacks in community, players will leave. Community makes or breaks an MMO: games that have leapt off the starting block full of praise and high review scores fell flat on their faces when they failed to build strong player communities, and games so bland they ought never have been made in the first place are still running today thanks to player involvement.
More and more companies are recognizing the importance of community management. They hire community managers to lurk on official forums all day and interact with players; they build in-game systems to help players interact more easily and more meaningfully; they design content that drives players together rather than apart.
But not every company is on board with the new way of doing things, and time and time again I see games fall apart because "marketing" or "balance" decisions have driven players apart.
A Contemporary Cautionary Tale
One such bombshell was lobbed out of Square Enix's office last Thursday (Feb 9, 2012). Final Fantasy XIV, its MMORPG sequel to the successful Final Fantasy XI, has struggled since launch with poor design choices and lack of content that upset many players. Nevertheless, the game kept running on indefinite free trial and retained a strong community of hopefuls (about 12,000 simultaneous logins just before subscriptions started in December of last year).
Based on this, Square Enix appointed a new producer, and swore it would turn things around. Then it started charging a monthly fee, despite the fact that the announced re-launch was more than a year away. Granted, that turned away the less dedicated fans, but it didn't completely tear the community apart, as the Final Fantasy faithful paid up and kept playing, hoping their unsubscribed friends would one day return.
(Caveat: This graph of player population numbers is based on player-generated estimates. Orange is pre-subs, red is post-subs. However, unless Square Enix wants to provide data showing the contrary, I assume these numbers are pretty accurate.)
In other words, despite the problems with the game, the strong game community kept things going, and Square Enix's response has largely been "We'll get it working for you; stick with us until then."
This makes the company's most recent announcement all the more confusing. Square Enix announced server mergers for FFXIV, but not the normal "two into one" procedure most gamers are familiar with. Instead, its original plan called for the elimination of all the previous servers, forcing all players pick one of 10 new servers to move to. Well, not all players. Only active subscribers get to pick where they go. The rest will be relocated randomly.
In other words, Square Enix was looking to completely shake up the remaining population and, in the process, isolate any lapsed players from their prior in-game friends. They were also going to delete every Linkshell (guild) and wipe every friends list (and blacklist) clean.
Current subscribers were being told their non-paying friends are being taken away from them. Current non-subscribers were being told they were barred from sticking with their friends. Both groups are upset, and rightly so, because playing with friends is what makes MMOs so special.
Thankfully, the lead producer for Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki Yoshida, rapidly backtracked on the original announcement. The original official announcement was taken down, though it can still be read in its entirety here. The issue is still ongoing, and will doubtlessly develop further, but the recent event is a prime example of what I want to discuss in this article:
If you're going to get people paying for your massively multiplayer online game, you have to LET them play together.