For the past years, our very own Thomas has been going around the world, preaching about Games as a Service, the whole idea that focusing on all aspects of a game that are not core gameplay not only can drastically increase all key performance indicator in an online game, but also prove very profitable. Now, Ubisoft Toronto’s head Jade Raymond recently showed a pretty good understanding of this concept by using a interesting analogy. She said, while talking about a new project : “Games aren’t just what you talk about around the water cooler, they’re becoming the water cooler itself …”
MMOs as “Colorful IRC channels”
The point of this short blog post isn’t to explain the importance of communities in online games, but it is now widely known that one of the most important element of user retention in MMOs is the social network that players are building with each other. “People might come for the game, but they will stay for the community” is a common saying in our industry, and nothing is more true. The main reason why people keep coming back, month after month, year after year, to their favorite MMO, is because they have made friends there, and to many players, a MMO isn’t much more than a chatroom with shiny graphics, allowing them to connect with their community and chat with them about many topics, many of them not having anything related to the game.
Looking back 10 years ago, I remember that among the late players of “The Fourth Coming”, a large proportion of them referred to the game as a “colorful IRC chan”, and it isn’t rare in older games to see long-time players simply standing around the newbie areas, buffing and healing newcomers without doing much else, because they simply logged in for the sake if chatting away with their guild. There have also been many examples of teams of employees in various industries using online games to gather during lunch breaks and discuss current issues and projects while blowing off steam and shooting ennemies. These are just exemples of the importance of good social and community features in games, and illustrations of Ms Raymond’s claim : games have become a place of important social interaction, an area where people gather to chat about everything. “We need games as a way or excuse to talk to each other. Obviously the massively multiplayer games have gotten this for a while, she continues. It might seem new, but it’s been around for a while.” A while indeed, and Ms Raymond, who has been producer for virtual worlds The Sims Online and There.com prior to joining Ubisoft, knows a bit about it despite her current company not being big on MMOs these days.
Social features at the core of online games
Games are now the water cooler, and have been for a while. More than character creation, graphics, leveling mechanics, and even more than combat mechanics, social features are the core of MMOs. Of course, these mechanics are mostly unknown, they are developed to be so easy that users don’t even notice when they are using them, but my humble opinion is that the easy, cross-server grouping interface in World of Warcraft is much more important for the success of the game than the new classes or races that Blizzard might have added in the latest expansions. And even on new games, and without being as big a company as Blizzard is, my advice would still be the same : groups, guilds, friends list, chat systems and other more exotic social features such as City of Heroes sidekicks or LOTRO’s much underused family system, should receive as much care as raid instances, because users who integrate a community, socialize and make friends with other players within a game might stay a little longer while waiting for new content to arrive, whereas players with plenty of content to go through but nobody to explore with will inevitably leave, and go to more welcoming and community-friendly lands.
Online games are the water cooler, they are the neighborhood bar, millions of WoW players are relying on the advice of their guildmates to know if they should go see the remake of Tron or not, where to go on vacation next month, or whether they should eat pizza or Chinese takeaway during their raid tonight. Although they were never as open, games have been social networks way before Facebook arrived, and I can’t wait to see a remake of “The Social Network” starring Martin Freeman playing the role of Mike Morhaime, and Ricky Gervais as Bill Roper, because you certainly don’t get 12 million subscribers without making a few enemies…