We begin to play as children as a way of making sense of the world around us – of learning how it works. We use play as a means of interacting with others and building social awareness.

As we become older and our systems of choice become more refined, our play becomes more subtle and complex. Our objectives change throughout our lives – we play to entertain ourselves, for the purpose of challenge and reward, to bring us closer to others, or to pit our skills against theirs.

Play is a type of essential social catalyst.

Playing by the rules

The nature of our play is defined by the game we choose, and the rules that form the boundaries within which specific actions can be performed. Take tennis, for example – as a player, your actions at any given time during a match are limited by the framework of the game and the circumstances of the moment, but the possibilities when two people face one another across the net are endless.

The internet has brought billions of people together to play, and many of the games we indulge in are built to enable community growth. These range from the casual yet record-breakingly popular Farmville, which uses a social network as a platform, to the far deeper, more intricately designed and consuming experiences offered by massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMOs).

These offer a social, co-operative (and often competitive) environment in which people meet, form lasting associations and play together.

Formalised groups of players – or guilds – aren't a new concept in MMOs. Guilds differ somewhat from the traditional clans of online gaming, in that the MMO itself contains tools specially designed to help players socialise and organise their activities.

In World of Warcraft there are currently 11.5 million players, making it the world's most heavily subscribed MMO. It's a vast, sprawling world of myriad challenges, and often the only way to conquer the game's content is to do so as a group.

Greg street

We spoke with Greg Street, aka Ghostcrawler, lead systems designer on World of Warcraft, to find out Blizzard Entertainment's philosophy on the social aspects of World of Warcraft. Greg came to the company as a keen MMO gamer, and one who particularly enjoyed the social aspect:

"I remember my first experiences with WoW. I always wanted to check in to see what my friends were doing – it was like not wanting to miss the party. I didn't want to hear the next day about the awesome thing they'd done the night before!"

This was Greg's first taste of being in a guild. At its most basic level, a guild is a group of players who have banded together for a common cause. When a player creates a guild, he or she names it and has the option to create a guild tabard with a specific design embroidered onto it. As new members are recruited, they can purchase and don this tabard to outwardly display their allegiance to other players in the world.

The guild may be formed under a specific philosophy – as a social gathering, for example, where people's only objective is to have fun playing together, or as a more serious endeavour, where experienced players join arms to tackle the game's toughest and most demanding content.

Bank account

The guild also gets its own chat channel for socialising, reinforcing relationships and organising activities, as well as an in-game bank account where money, armour, weapons, crafting materials and any other in-game items can be stored for the members' communal use.

Sharing skills

Likewise, guilds can be places to access the trade-skills of others, which you may not possess yourself. You may, for example, be a skilled alchemist or a dab-hand at making healing potions, but you've got your heart set on a specific piece of armour that can only be made by a master blacksmith. This kind of trade becomes much easier – and cheaper – when mates' rates are involved.

"WoW is ultimately a social game," continues Greg. "It can be played solo, but at the end of the day we created it as a social game, and we kind of intended for players to play with other players. We think the experience is a lot better when you do that. Someone might level-up alone to the top level and think, 'Well, I'm done,' but if they have the social network there, then they're liable to keep coming back and stick with it".

solo play

There are also certain activities in World of Warcraft that can only be completed by a team of players working together. For example, certain dungeons or instances can only be entered by a specific number of people. If you have fewer than, say, five, 10 or 25 people grouped together (such requirements being a general mark of the challenge's difficulty level) you'll be unable to enter the dungeon to fight the creatures inside and claim the rare weapons and armour they may relinquish. This makes guild-formation a natural step for players who want to tackle that unique content in search of a tangible reward.

Alongside the social aspect, a guild is therefore a place for players to share intelligence, talk tactics and plot attacks. Experienced players are always sought after, because their knowledge of these instances and their workings can mean the difference between success and failure when the swords clash and the spells fly.

As in any form of social gathering, people will be people and conflicts can occur. Cliques can form within guilds around differences of opinion and in some cases serious divisions can occur.

Depending on the nature of these disagreements – and, most importantly, if it's ruining the experience for people – Blizzard may step in to adjudicate, as Greg explains.

flying mounts

Dealing with disputes "The internal political squabbles that happen within guilds – that's the kind of thing we try not to get involved in. We try to stay out of it unless there's a clear request from both parties for us to take a specific action. Generally, there's just a disagreement about who said what, and if we can't find anything documented in the chat logs, we try to let the guild handle the dispute themselves."

And in more serious cases? "Where we're trying to be more active is in compromised accounts for example, or in situations where some evil villain has raided the guild bank – stuff like that. With certain guilds who have a lot of items and money stockpiled, they can be very juicy targets, so we're trying to step up things at our end with some more tools to handle that when it happens".

Guild activities can also provide essential feedback for the game's designers. While a great deal of testing goes on before new content is released, the way in which that content is implemented isn't set in stone until the player-base gets to grips with it. "We track guild activities quite a bit", says Greg.

"We like to see what's going on, because it helps us decide whether raid encounters are too challenging based on the frequency of kills, and how many people are doing it. And there are a lot of third-party sites that players use as scoreboards to see where they are in relation to other players. That's the sort of thing that we'd like to formalise on our side – to have some kind of leaderboard in the future."

Likewise, group experience contributes to the ongoing development of the game in a number of other ways. When you have up to 200 serious, raid-focused members in a tiered and structured group, it's a very different prospect to five pals knocking about for fun.

"In Cataclysm (the WoW expansion), we have a lot more guild-orientated content that's designed to give players more control. For starters, we'll have news boards, where players can log into the game, check the guild news and see what their guild has been up to."

Blizzard is adding benefits to the guild system that go beyond the ability to access areas of the game. Guild iconography will soon be applicable to different armour items and even mounts. There will also be benefits to being in a successful guild that go beyond visuals. "We're working on the concept of advancing guilds, so you can earn experience for your guild and unlock new content.

group play

"There are two categories of rewards, the first of which we call perks. These are convenience features. We don't want to turn them into pure player power – things like increased gold generated from loot drops. Right at the top of the Christmas tree is Mass Resurrection, which you can use if everybody dies on a raid and carry on the fight from there. These are things that make you feel: 'I'm more powerful for playing with my friends'. The other category of rewards are items – heirlooms, trinkets, unique guild mounts and so forth."

Strength in numbers

All of which adds an extra layer of social glue to the game, and gives more reasons for those who play together to stay together. Which in turn creates stronger, longer-term relationships – and, ultimately, friendships.

It's fascinating to plot the feedback loop of development. In its first stages, the developer creates a social framework, well-equipped with the tools of communication, and a game-world with systems that encourage group activities. As players expand to fill the world and push its boundaries, new needs become apparent from their activities and opinions.

At this point, the developer starts reshaping the game around the players' needs and desires. The ecosystem evolves, and becomes a more social experience. In a sense, players are beginning to define the experience, or at least, how the experience works for them, in a very organic way.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 301

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