Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Guilds. Huh!. What Are They Good For?

One of the innovations of the 2013 NBI has been the Talk Back Challenge Event, which Wilhelm conveniently summarised with links in his own recent contribution to the discussion.

Guilds have been a thorny subject with me almost since I began playing MMOs back in the 20th century. It was a good while before I even realized they existed. When I installed Everquest late in 1999 there was only one computer chez Bhagpuss. Why would anyone need more than that? Most people didn't even have one!

For a year or more, Mrs Bhagpuss and I had been in the habit of taking turns playing rpgs like Baldur's Gate or Might and Magic VI, one of us playing and the other watching and making "helpful" comments. When we ran out of interesting RPG options I decided to dip a toe in the very scary waters of online gaming. There wasn't a whole lot of choice. I settled on Everquest because after much research I came across far too many UO horror stories in which some hapless newbie spent hours standing in one place hacking at a tree only to be murdered in cold blood by another player as he trudged back through the forest weighed down by logs.

Within a few days of watching me play EQ, once she'd gotten over laughing herself silly at my flailing attempts to kill bats outside Freeport, Mrs Bhagpuss decided she wanted to play too. First she shared the account (sorry, Smed) but it was apparent very quickly that that wouldn't cut it. Then for a while we both had accounts but still shared one computer. That was never going to last, either. Finally a second PC was purchased and off we went.

D'you think the Guild Lobby might be letting in the damp a little?

And just what does this little stroll down memory lane have to do with guilds, eh? Hush, I'm coming to that. It's my contention that this fractured introduction to online gaming, sliding in sideways from a shared-but-separate offline experience, strongly informed my original attitude and formed the foundations of an approach to gameplay that has persisted ever since.

From the beginning I always felt I was playing alongside other players rather than with them, yet the difference their presence made was immense. It was immediately apparent that inhabiting your own character in a fantasy world was flat-out more convincing when all around were other characters similarly inhabited by humans. It was the difference between listening to music alone at home and seeing a band play in a hot, sweaty club.

Back in the day I saw a lot of bands play in a lot of hot sweaty clubs but I never found myself buddying up with strangers, swapping phone numbers and going to a whole string of gigs with them. The audience was essential for atmosphere but the music was the focus. That's very much how I felt about players playing around me: great for ambience and atmosphere but essentially background not content.

So for a long time I didn't just not join a guild, I didn't think about joining one. Mrs Bhagpuss, however. did. She may dispute this but I remember her as a serial guild-joiner almost from the start and it was through her that I became dimly, then acutely aware of the intricacies and vicissitudes of guild life.

And, comrades, consider this magnificent Peoples' Caravan, available for guild meetings.
Can your so-called Secret Societies offer you such?
As time wore on and MMOs came and went, many guilds were joined, were left, fell apart. Sometimes I followed Mrs Bhagpuss into guilds, sometimes I accepted guild invites that came up during a particularly enjoyable PUG. By late 2001 we'd even had a bash at forming a guild of our own (actually the offshoot of someone else's guild that we offered to run on another server).

The peak of my guild activity took place through the high summer of Everquest, from 2002 to 2004. That was the time when much of what we did revolved either around the activities of a single guild or a custom chat-channel that operated as a cross-guild clearing house for adventure. Those were the days when I grouped more than I soloed. Sometimes I even raided, although what we called "raiding" then was more akin to battling The Shatterer or Claw of Jormag than the baroque formality of a modern raid.

Guild-centered gameplay continued when we moved to EQ2 but the dour, attritional pre-Hartsman tenor of that game sucked the energy and heart from everyone around. Within a month or two guildmates were dropping like clumps of fur from a mangy spaniel.

EQ2 was hemorrhaging players, some back to Everquest, others on to WoW  and when the inevitable server mergers came I decided for the first time to form a guild of my own. Well that's how I remember it, anyway. Others who were there might have a different version of how it happened but the guild that grew out of those ashes, tendrils of which can be found in just about every MMO I've played seriously since, was named by me and I'm the co-leader of all of them so I get to write the histories.

I'd throw you an invite but we kinda have this rule about height...
The pattern was set. Much like Wilhelm, every time I, or Mrs Bhagpuss, or usually both of us together, move to a new MMO and decide we might be there for a while a new guild gets created, always with the same name. We have a couple of fellow-travelers who join us for a while should they happen to find themselves in the same world and we pick up like-minded individuals as and when we run across them.

It gives us a familiar guild tag, some useful facilities (life without a guild bank can be hard) and a good deal of pleasant conversation. I'm happy enough playing my MMOs alone but without a doubt the whole experience is enhanced by the quiet drone of comfortable chat in the background. What we don't have any more, and what I absolutely do not miss in any way, shape or form is guild drama, guild politics and people whining that they're bored and expecting me to act as entertainments officer.

Of course, we don't do very much. Sporadically we may have fits of group activity, particularly around holiday events. Now and again someone might get a fad for running dungeons for a week or two. A guild hall even got bought and fitted out a while back, somewhere. I think I went in it once.

If you asked me for my thoughts on Guilds, which, come to think of it, is exactly what this challenge does, my immediate response would be that I'm agin 'em. But that's not really true. The real truth is, I don't like guilds that tell people what they should or shouldn't, can or can't , must or mustn't do. Not unless it's me doing the telling.

A guild that allows friends and acquaintances to rub along together in quiet harmony is an asset to anyone's gameplay. A guild where you dread to log in because of what's going to be expected of you or who you're going to have to deal with, or one where you seethe with frustration because things aren't being done the way they should...well, I'd rather solo.

Wouldn't you?

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