Engaging Players - Designing Group Contests for your MMO Players
Keeping your players engaged and interested in your game over many months or years is a constant challenge. In this article, I examine one method of getting your players excited about logging into your MMO - group contests.
What is a Group Contest in an MMO
Perhaps this is not the best term, but a group contest is a type of event where players compete as a group rather than individually. The prize is also awarded to the group. Possible examples are a contest between classes and the winning class gets a new ability, a contest between factions where the winning faction gets a special event or something cool added to their capital city, or a competition between guilds where the winning guild receives an enhancement to their guild hall. What is important is that players are competing together for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual.
This article will also provide a practical, real world example of a recent group contest that took place in Threshold RPG.
Social Identity Theory - The Power Behind Group Contests
The real power behind group contests is known to psychologists as "social identity theory." This theory has been most notably studied by psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner. This topic was also the subject of a recent blog post on The Psychology of Video Games Blog: "Tajfel and his collaborators theorized that people have a natural tendency to construct identities based on group membership. Part of who you are –and how you communicate that to others– is defined by what groups you belong to."
One of the most interesting examples of social indentity theory from that blog post was the "Demoman versus Soldier" competition for Team Fortress 2. Whichever class scored the most kills over a given span of time would receive a new in-game weapon. If one doubts the power of social identity theory, one need only read the quoted soldier player's post from the Team Fortress 2 official forums: "Gentlemen, I have NO IDEA what this weapon is. I don’t even know if I’ll WANT it. But BY GOD, I know what’s IMPORTANT, and it’s that WE get it and the DEMOMAN DOES NOT."
Players will go to great lengths to win something in any game. That is well and widely known. Social identity theory shows us that they will go to even GREATER lengths to win something for a group they are a part of - especially if they win at the expense of another group they believe they are opposed to.
Why Are Group Contests so Rare in MMOs?
The short answer is "laziness." The long answer involves supposition and deduction based on many years of observation and experience. Current MMO developers appear to have all but abandoned what was once a common and beloved type of content - the developer run event. This is truly a shame since dynamic, developer managed events can make a game world feel more like a world and less like a game. Dev events run the gamut from extremely labor intensive, heavily interactive plot lines to more free form events where developers get the ball rolling and then apply only a gentle nudge when needed.
Developer Time Required for Group Contests - Managing Workload
MMO developers engage in a constant balancing act between developer time and content production. There is never enough time to do everything you'd like to do (assuming you are a quality developer who actually DOES want to add meaningful content to the game over the long haul.) Budgeting and distributing this developer, programmer, artist, and staff time is one of the biggest challenges in running an MMO.
Group contests are one of the less labor intensive types of developer events. As a developer, you decide on some criterion, code some methods of data generation and collection for the contest, and then announce it to the players. Depending on the reward, you may also have some code requirements for the prize. This type of event is extremely scalable, so the size of your MMO really does not matter. Yes, there is work involved. Yes, group contests do require a developer time investment. But that is the case for any type of content. I would argue that this type of content ends up being more meaningful than Yet Another Quest Chain to grind or Yet Another Dungeon.
Anatomy of an MMO Group Contest - Threshold RPG and Religious Dominance
To better understand how to design a group contest, and to see how effective they are, I will examine a group contest that took place on Threshold RPG in January 2010.
Threshold RPG is a role play required MUD/MMO, and religion is a huge part of that roleplay. There is a constant battle for dominance between the 12 religions. This dominance battle is hard coded, with many known and unknown ways for players to affect it.
This event began on January 7 and was set to run until January 31. There were three scoring criterion for the contest:
- Total dominance points gained.
- Percent increase of total dominance points.
- Dominance points gained per active member.
These criterion allowed both large and small churches an opportunity to compete. The prize for the contest was the addition of a summoning pool chamber to the temples of the top 4 religions. The summoning pool chamber would allow members of the church to teleport a fellow worshipper to the temple.
How Did Threshold RPG's Religious Dominance Group Contest Turn Out?
The results were quite spectacular and demonstrate both the power of social identity theory and group contests in MMOs. In the 13 months prior to this contest, a total of 4,435,274 dominance points were earned by all 12 religions. In the 25 days of this contest, an additional 11,206,499 points were generated (bringing the total dominance points to 15,641,773). Yes, you are reading that correctly.
In those 25 days, total dominance points increased by 252% over the points earned in the previous 13 months. That represents an ENORMOUS amount of increased player interest and activity.
So who won?
The religions in bold earned the summoning pool for their temples.
Intriguing Group Contest Results from Threshold RPG
There are a few more interesting factoids from the Threshold RPG religion dominance event that really show how effectively these types of events can engage and interest your players.
The winning religion, Belphegore, had the second lowest number of active members. The religion with the second highest number of active members, Bast, came in second to last in every single category. These two data points show pretty clearly that success in this event came from organized, dedicated player effort rather than simply having the most church members.
Set's religion had most active members and the highest total dominance points at the time the event began. This religion still managed to increase its total dominance points by 370% - the fifth highest percentage. Set also managed to increase its total share of all dominance points by 11%. These facts demonstrate a serious effort from a group of people who were already devoting a lot of their time and energy towards the dominance battle.
Social Identity Theory in Action on Threshold RPG - Us vs. Them
Without spoiling behind the scenes roleplay, I can divulge the fact that there was at least one religion that made a concerted effort to help another religion perform better than it should have in the dominance contest. This was done in order to try to keep a rival religion from being able to make the top 4. The effort was a success. This yet again shows the power of social identity theory. A group of people were willing to work quite hard for no personal benefit simply to disadvantage a rival group.
Conclusions - What Can an MMO Developer Learn From This?
The most important point is similar to the one made in my article about Mini Games in MMOs: group contests (and developer events in general) are an extremely underrated way to engage players and enhance their enjoyment of your game. They create an organic type of content that allows players to develop their own paths to success. Unlike quest chains or dungeon bosses, an open ended, group contest does not have a single solution. There are many ways to work towards your goal, and the layers of competition are numerous. Furthermore, they are a type of group content that actively engages solo oriented players as well, since they can play their usual way while still contributing to the whole. This serves to draw solo players deeper into the community of your MMO. Anything that enriches the community aspect of your game while exciting and engaging your player base is a very good thing.