Tens of millions of people throw themselves headfirst into massively multiplayer online worlds, their rules unbreakable and rulers unseen.
Setting out in search of the people pulling the strings of some of the more popular MMOs leads us to NCsoft's Brighton offices, where they're willing to divulge the secrets of their string-pulling ways. Keeping online societies sweet is no simple task, and the key to maintaining a happy community, according to NCsoft's team of happy community co-ordinators, is simple: just keep in touch.
"When we were at Memorabilia, the movie and gaming convention, in Birmingham last November," begins Martin Kerstein, community team lead on Guild Wars, "there was one player from City of Heroes who baked shortbread villains and heroes for the team. It's always very funny when you first meet players, as we only know them by their nick. There was this one PvP player who was always very outspoken, so at this convention in Germany I asked 'Which one of you is this guy?' It turned out to be this really nice, sweet kid," laughs Martin, "every mother's dream!"
Community management is an aspect of MMOs than many people don't consider, and just one of the things your lamented monthly subscription fees pay for. If you've got a problem with the game you're paying to play, there'll be somebody there to help you out. This isn't just about developers showing face at BlizzCon either; interaction with the community filters right the way down through to forums, in-game events, and even player meets.
"In Cologne we had a City of Heroes player meet where about 50 people turned up," reminisces Jörg Koonen, German City of Heroes community co-ordinator. "It started at 7pm and went on until about 4am. We went to a restaurant, and then we went to a metal club," he chuckles. "We had a lot of fun. Whatever we do, it's all about building relationships with our community."
"Early last year we did a Guild Wars player meet here in Brighton," adds Alex Weekes, English City of Heroes community team lead. "We had players coming from Italy, Scandinavia, all over the UK, Germany and France - 50-odd people turned up. We invited a member of staff from ArenaNet, the developer of Guild Wars, and ended up eating a full English breakfast with some players in an all-night café at two in the morning."
HELP I'VE FALLEN
MMO players pulling all-nighters might not be the strangest thing you've come across, but occasionally odd things do happen in-game. In these moments, when your loot starts back-talking you or your group falls into the sky, GMs from the game's customer support team wade into the game world with their godlike powers, and the ability to cure your problems.
The job is not all about divine intervention though, having authoritative status in an MMO allows you to do other things too. "It's not always about having the tools to solve problems," explains Kerstein, "but also about having the tools to run small-scale events in-game, for the players."
"In City of Heroes we've run emote contests," adds Koonen, with disarming enthusiasm, "with people pairing up to play Rock Paper Scissors against each other. The community team was there to referee and watch over the event. Then we also have PvP events organised by us, with cups, medals and titles for the winners to distinguish these players from the rest."
One rogue EVE Online developer allegedly used his powers to generate in-game cash for his corporation, a high-profile case that seriously damaged relations between that game and its community, what's to say that a City of Heroes GM couldn't rule a game of Rock Paper Scissors in his favour? Loic Claveau, community team lead for the upcoming, CryEngine-powered MMO, Aion, steps in to provide an answer.