Richard Bartle wrote extensively about the “social contract” inherent to group games, or rather the lack of it in a recent posting.
Take, for example, role-playing. Suppose a designer created a game specifically for people who like role-playing. Hordes of role-players sign up and have a ball, but a small proportion of the MMO’s players don’t role-play. They don’t see the MMO as being “about” role-playing, or at least not about role-playing by them personally. This is a legitimate position for them to take, but their attitude can wreck the atmosphere and ruin immersion for those who do role-play. The role-players may outnumber the non-role-players a hundred to one; they may desperately want them to leave, but they have no leverage on them. They can’t do anything to annoy them; they can only be annoyed by them. It’s an argument that doesn’t move. It ends when the role-players look for somewhere else to role-play, whereupon those who don’t role-play but who like playing among role-players will follow them and the story repeats.
So what should happen here?
Really the whole thing is good, I recommend it.
The problem Richard describes exists also in tabletop RPG. Just recently a friend was describing a sort of issue about conflicting issues in her game. Her particular problem, though, was that there were too many players wanting to do exactly the same thing. This can also a problem in an MMO (camps in Lower Guk, I’m looking at you. See also the two dozen rangers all LFG.) And as hard as it is to believe, some people do not think red hair is fabulous!
But more generally, you have the people who want lots of crunch and tactical combat, and the people that want drama and interpersonal interaction while not having a lot of rules. A lot of the RPG blogs I read recommend discussing what people want to get out of the game up front, producing a social contract.
The largest number of people I’ve ever seen get on the same page with something like this is about 50, over the course of a weekend in a LARP. I think it’s instructive to look at how this was accomplished.
- Characters were all pregenerated by the GMs and printed out for players beforehand. There was some common background sheets as well.
- Those characters had built-in motivations and goals and connections to other characters, giving strangers a direct motivation to interact.
- The people running the game knew some of the players (repeat play) and cast players that they knew to be strong in some of the more critical roles.
- Meanwhile, all players filled out a sort of “what kind of tree are you” questionaire. (Actually, it sometimes took the form more of “what kind of robot are you?”, but never mind.) The gms asked the players what kind of role they wanted to have, and tried to give it to them. Did they want to solve puzzles, lead a group, spy, steal, negotiate, or dramatize. And tried to give them a character that would give them scope for that. Note that the “role” doesn’t address mechanics so much as narrative. These game had really simple and basic mechanics.
- The game had a definite lifespan. It progressed over the course of a weekend, then was done. This makes everything more meaningful. (Richard notes that persistence adds to the problems. You did read it all, didn’t you?)
- There are GMs active during the game, and while they mostly adjudicate rules, there is also a little coaching going on, and they confess to often lean their rulings toward “good story”.
So these added up to some of the most engaging and fun gaming experiences I’ve ever had. They do not scale, however. Because putting a game like this is very labor intensive. All the characters must be written with individual motivations, and there is very low replay value, because much of what drives the game is the fact that there are secrets, that will come out during the course of play. The structure of the game is such that it’s both dangerous to trust people and necessary.
I have no idea how to solve this in a persistent-world MMO, nor does Richard. But I’m still driven by a vision of the 50 player, or 20 player game, adjudicated by a human, with everyone on the same page. This might be possible at a slower pace, with a digitally administered game
UPDATE: Originally I pointed to a post on Richard Google+ feed until he kindly pointed out in comments that it was on his blog too. Changed the above link to point to Richard’s blog, which I’m kind of an idiot for not seeing. A fabulously coiffed idiot, of course, but still an idiot. Though it’s also true that Richard could help out us poor redheaded fools by linking to his blog on Google+.