When it comes to online games and persistent worlds in particular, immersion is bigger than the game itself. Online communities sprawl outside the bounds of the product into community groups, Wikis, forums and all kinds of fan outlets. And it should -- the more ways fans have to engage with a game, the more invested they become in its world.
BioWare's Gordon Walton moderated a panel of community experts at GDC Online who talked about the importance of community and some of its future steps. "What we're talking about is how do we get players to eat, breathe, think, live our properties even when they can't be playing?" he posed.
Walton's panelists were Curse marketing VP Donovan Duncan, BioWare's Erik Olsen, producer of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Red 5 Studios founder and former World of Warcraft team lead Mark Kern joined him, along with Cody Bye of Zam, which rovides a network of wikis rich with information on many online games.
Curse is a 70-person company that acts as a community and content platform for about 30 games. "In terms of what's really different, you don't just throw up a website... and people are immersed and think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. There's a lot of research that goes into it," Duncan explained. "A big part of it is working with publishers and making sure there's clear expectations and understanding early on."
"At Zam, we've essentally created a Google for World of Warcraft... integrating that with the sort of old technology that we're used to has kind of been our way of progressing things forward," says Bye.
Bye says Blizzard loves the fact that not only is ZAM's work useful to the community, but it saves the studio time they'd spend providing tech support to people who were simply stuck. "I think that the users also gain something on top of that, because they can see content that they're planning to do or don't have the time to do."
"It's not just about getting the information about the game out there so you can find it, but getting you the information that's relevant to you," suggests Olsen. "I think what we're going to try and do, theoretically... is more of a predictive nature, where we look at what your character has done, that, 'hey, this might be the next area for you to continue.'"
"We still have players who are essentially new, and they're still looking for... helpful advice to them is, 'where should I go next? Is there something else I missed that's nearby?" Olsen elaborates.
"Players are genius at missing stuff," agrees Walton. "There's always an opportunity to help."
How can the climate outside a game enhance the stories? "As game makers we provide the stage... but we don't do enough to take those stories out of the community and highlight them and integrate them in the game," opines Kern. He remembers an in-game event in a MUD called Gemstone he used to enjoy back in the day, and how he felt when a player "newspaper" highlighted his achievement in an in-game event.
"It was such a high as a player," he says. He visualizes being able to go out into the community and find those personal stories and integrate them somehow so they can be a bigger part of the game world. "That's where the cool stories come from," adds Kern.
EVE Online's community may be "different" than many expect, says Bye, but the developers at CCP have done in his view a strong job of recusing themselves from taking "god" roles and letting players create massive and tangible stories and events in the game.
Olsen recognizes that there's equal appeal in feeling like a writer of a story versus feeling like a participant in a strongly-crafted narrative. Donovan asserts that even "small-group narratives" can be important; the actions of one's guild in an MMO create meaningful storytelling for the players.
"There's an opportunity for people to focus on even micro-narrative, which doesn't necessarily require as much from the developer," adds Donovan.
"There's time to democratize stories in games," agrees Kern.
Still, exploring this true player participation is still fledgling, Walton suggests. While community sites and extensions like those with which some of the panelists work, presenting guides, forums and tools, have flourished, developers are only beginning to explore new ways to explore this passionate player behavior.
Yet investment in cultivating deeper community resources, both in terms of times and finance, is key to the long term health of a game and a brand. Mobile platforms and social networks, which give people entirely new opportunities for avenues to connect when they're not playing, will play a major role.