If there is one thing which still baffles game designers, it is how to create a vibrant community. The inherit diversity of the players of any given game makes the creation of a long-lasting, useful community difficult. The hardcore want challenging matches. The casual want to be able to play without being stomped. The purists want nothing to change, but the critics think the game needs patched and re-balanced. The competitive players want more 1-on-1 maps, while those who play only with friends want another co-op campaign. And on, and on, and on.
Finding balance among the different types of players which make up the gaming community is obviously difficult, but what is most interesting about the issue is that it isn't about community at all. The problem is one between the game and each individual player. The disbandment of the community caused by a game that fails to keep players hooked (games of like World in Conflict and Warhammer Online are good, recent examples of communities which have withered to a fraction of their former selves) is simply an obvious side-effect of players choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere. The players are not staying for the community, nor are they leaving because of it.
This point is by itself disappointing. While games continue to make great advancements in graphics, sound, controls, and narrative, communities have been largely stagnant. In fact, they in some ways seem to have back-pedaled. Even a good chat room lobby isn't a feature included in many modern games. Dawn of War II is an excellent example, as it is in some ways even less supportive of the community then the original. The game was released with a terrible browser, poor voice support, no lobby chat, and no in-game way to share replays.
But should we be surprised? Community in games is a specific entity, and for it to grow and evolve it needs specific attention. Yet community in games has received very little attention from game developers in the last decade. The last big revolution for game communities was the discovery of team-based gameplay. MMOs promised a revolution, but instead developed into their own genre thanks largely to a lack of imagination in game mechanics. Currently we are seeing the implementation of more social gaming features, a process which has revolutionary promise of its own. Yet even social gaming has its flaws, the largest of which is that it provides no inherit reason for new players to meet. It is simply a means of reinforcing and streamlining existing connections.
The problem is that the games themselves fail to provide any reason for strangers to meet and coordinate. It was once thought that team-based gameplay would provide that catalyst, but it has now been over a decade since that concept became popular. It is fair to say that the team-based gameplay mechanic often fails to create a community, and the reason it fails is that even team-based games almost universally put a heavy weight on the skill of individual players. A good Halo 3 player, for example, will decimate an entire team of less skilled opponents no matter how well they coordinate their efforts. The skill of placing a trigger over an opponent's head still reigns supreme. This is also true in other genres. A team game of Dawn of War II is usually dominated by the players which are individually the most skilled. This phenomena has in fact become so entrenched that the 1vs1 ladders are usually considered the dominate measure of a player's worth in a real-time strategy game. I've yet to see a Starcraft tournament which focused on three-on-three play, for example.
There is an obvious reason for the failure of team-based gameplay to create communities. While it is possible to make team skill more important than individual skill, doing so often reduces the feeling of agency enjoyed by each player. That is rarely much fun. No one likes to lose a game because of reasons entirely beyond their control. Valve did a shockingly good job of balancing between team skill and individual skill in the creation of Team Fortress 2, and as a result it is one of the most popular multi-player games on the PC, but even it can become frustrating. It isn't fun to be instantly killed by a spy because no one on your team was spy-checking.
Of course, the problem being illustrated, one begins to wonder what could be the solution. I believe that the key is in more cooperative play. While Valve's Team Fortress 2 did an excellent job of creating community through team-based gameplay, the real masterstroke is Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead reduces the reliance on points as a means of judging one's worth, thus encouraging cooperation towards the ultimate goal of surviving the zombie hoard. It also reduces the number of players involved, making cooperation easier. Resources, like ammo and health, must be carefully coordinated across the team. Communication is a requirement for victory. And communication allows the chance for players to find they enjoying playing the game together.
An even better role-model, however, comes in the form of board games. Games like Settlers of Catan are excellent for bring together strangers in
a way which is enjoyable and encourages ample communication. Playing Settlers of Catan requires that the players speak to each other about their position in the game, their strategy and goals, and their actions. In doing this it creates the opportunity for friendship to form. I have attended random board-gaming meets many times, and time and time again I have found that such games, which blend cooperation with opposition, make the experience of playing a game with strangers nearly as enjoyable as playing against friends. Playing board games which rely only on the players working against one another, however, usually result in frustration and ill-will.
Yet virtually no video games replicate this gameplay. They rely almost exclusively on adversarial play, where players or teams of players go head-to-head in an attempt to earn the most points. While a one-on-one or deathmatch provides a good judge of individual skill, it offers no opportunity for the creation of a community. The players, after all, are not playing the game together, but rather playing it against each other. They have no time to talk and no reason to share tips or strategies. It is every man for himself. This lack of community not only damages the overall experience of each player, but it also damages the commercial value of the game for the developer.
I hope that developers will focus more heavily on cooperative player in the future. I think that there is already some indication that the idea is catching on, at least in the FPS genre. But strategy games are shockingly devoid of cooperative play, and even some RPGs and MMOs are lacking. The addition of a strong cooperative element in games will help promote social interaction and in doing so make the game community stronger as a whole. So what do you say? Should we play a game together? read