Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MMO Gaming: (Not So) Wasted Time

In my last post, I highlighted what the terms Social Media and Web 2.0 really refer to, as well as some mild predictions of what is to be produced by this new means of media consumption. (I promise that the next time I am compelled to write a treatise of this length, I'll bust it up into smaller posts.)

I ran across this link on LifeHacker, talking about where the time to be a participant in this new media will come from. This is a question I've faced many times from people . "Where do you get the time to read everything you do?" or "How can you spend all that time playing MMO games?".

Clay Shirky does a much better job detailing it than I could here.

His presentation also touches on many of the nuances of what Social Media is, so it's worth checking out, as is his book _Here Comes Everybody_.

So did I waste all this time on building and selling blasters in Star Wars Galaxies, or raiding dungeons in World of Warcraft? Not entirely. Here's some of the valuable business lessons I've learned spending my leisure time in online games:

Gently Dominate
Being the early adopter amongst my peer group, I frequently found myself in leadership roles in most of the MMOs I've played. By sheer virtue of greater exposure, I was looked to to provide expertise for newer players. But the adventuring party is a fickle beast, and leading a group of friends can cause tension. Arguments over what characters to play, who to invite to the group, who should get what loot, and simply managing playtime and coordinating an attack strategy based on the strengths of players and their characters can cause serious social trauma. I learned that having strong knowledge and producing results consistently over time lend to your credibility in leadership and decision-making roles. People are willing to submit themselves to your decisions if they know that you can produce rewards for them over time. Pick your fights, and know which decisions to let slide for the sake of the group's happiness. "Sure, I'll bring my mage instead of my paladin if you want to tank."

Know Your Role (Right Now)
The converse of Gently Dominating, is to know when to shut up and follow someone else's orders. (How do you think I got all that knowledge in the first place? I tagged along with those who knew better than me.) However, just because you're good at something doesn't mean you should be a one-trick pony. Learn to be flexible, and do what the team needs you do do *right now*. My favorite class in Warcraft was the Paladin. Paladins are built to take a tremendous amount of abuse through a combination of 1) sporting some serious armor, 2) being naturally as tough as nails, and 3) the ability to heal themselves and others. Paladins, hoever, aren't particularly skilled at dishing out the pain. Most of the time, this meant my job was standing in front of the Nasty Thing and drawing it's attention while those better suited to putting the hurt on it dealt damage from safety. Sometimes battles don't go as planned (usually when there's more than one Nasty Thing and it just killed your priest), and you have to know when to stop dancing with a bad guy and start healing your friends. The ability to switch roles in a team at a critical moment can mean the difference between success and failure. And you better have the goods to perform more than your traditional role.

Message Boards are better than Surveys
One of the things I learned from Star Wars Galaxies wasn't even while playing the game. MMOs have extensive community involvement by their very nature. To be certain, much of this involvement occurs inside of the game. However, a great deal of it is played out on the forums and message boards. MMOs make frequent changes, adding new content, fixing bugs, and balacing gameplay. Many of these changes are welcome, many are controversial. The player community hashes out these issues and airs their grievances on the game's message boards. Posts range from "Thank you!", to carfeully constructed ideas on where the game developers should concentrate next, to hate-filled ranting against the developers or other players. Message boards are not pretty. They are not controlled (much) by the developers. But getting constant feed back from the customer in direct conversation with the company (through PR representatives on the forums) or by watching the commentary between players, tells the developers what they've done right, what they've done wrong, and what the community wants to see more of. This kind of interaction is essential to the MMO, and in the future it's going to be essential to all corporations. Listen to your customers, give them more of what they want, ditch whatever isn't working, and keep the customer informed about what you're doing and why throughout the process. In this way, you don't just build a consumer, you build a member of your customer community, making them advocates who can take their message out to their friends and the market.

Focus On The Core Competency
The MMOs that have flopped have mostly tried to do too many things, attempting to please all of the people all of the time. One of the strongest features emerging from Social Media is the room to thrive in service to a niche market. Whatever your endeavor, focus on what you deliver best to the customer, and get other people to do what they're best at in service to your ancillary needs. In the early days of Star Wars Galaxies, there was a thriving economy. My character made guns for all the happy spacefaring adventurers who wanted to run around and blow things up. (A task I was particularly unsuited for). In fact, I spent so much time building weapons, what I wasn't particularly good at moving the products themselves. Luckily, a friend of mine, due to their class as an Entertainer, spent all their time in front of large groups of people gathering in cities. I stopped trying to peddle my weapons, and instead offloaded them straight to him at wholesale price. I didn't have to manage a supply chain, I took his orders from halfway across the galaxy and delivered to him in bulk to offload to the customer base. I went on to cultivate similar relationships with many others in the same vein. My goods had become so widespread that retail customers started coming straight to me with their orders. I stuck with what I was good at (manufacturing weapons), and my network of entertainers stuck to what they were good at (interacting with people during non-combat time, and peddling my wares for a profit to themselves).

These are just some of the lessons I learned from my gaming experiences on the Internet. Now it's off to waste some time, playing games and learning more lessons.

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