Sunday, February 5, 2006

Pick your game community: Virtual or Real?

I was just over at 4 color rebellion and a comment about Nintendo’s Wi Fi network as ‘discouraging community’ struck me as intriguing. The question must be asked “Which community?”

The basics
We play online to be with other people. They are more challenging, interesting and fun to be around than any AI currently available. Online play is ultimately about forging relationships.

Two philosophies
Are you forging new relationships or strengthening old ones? Xbox Live lets you meet new people and build a new community. Nintendo’s Wi Fi network works primarily off friend codes and assumes that you are playing with people that you already know. I’m simplifying things because there is certainly overlap here, but philosophically these are two different ways of building an online community.

Nintendo is saying “Hey, you already have friends. Play with them.” Implicit in this assumption is that there exists a world outside the virtualized game community. In order to have friends outside gaming, you must have a life outside of gaming.

In the ideal world you would have both options available. Unfortunately, we live in a fear drenched McCarthyistic Americana. Too many cling dearly to a sickening fascination with Fox’s latest “Baby killed by Psychotic Immigrant’ propaganda. Communicating with strangers is obviously one step away from ruined lives.

So pick one. Do you want live on society’s edge and build your own community? Or do you want to game mostly with your existing friends?

Do you have a social network?
I must admit that I fall into the later category when it comes to gaming. I like talking to people in person or on a special interest forum such as this site. I have a network of friends and am not at the point in my life where I’m starting from scratch or starting over. For me, gaming is a wonderful activity that is part of a much broader and highly fulfilling life. I welcome Nintendo’s tact because it lets me build tighter bonds with the people who are most important to me.

Would I personally miss not being able to talk to strangers? Not really. It is a nice-to-have option, but not a deal breaker.

On the other hand, if I didn’t have those social connections outside of gaming, would I miss being able to talk to strangers? Absolutely. I’m not sure if having a stranger yell at me in Halo will result in any long lasting friendships, but it is certainly better than being alone.

I suspect that the ultimate success of the systems will depend on which of these two groups is more prevalent. We can ask which the stronger draw is:
  • Strong, safe relationships with existing friends
  • Weak, ‘risky’ relationships with new people
But in order to answer this question in any meaningful fashion, you first need to answer a more personal question.

“Are you lonely?”

Take care



  1. One only has to look at the numbers involved to see the success with Nintendo's approach. I don't think a community ideal came into the equation at all. Off three titles that utilise the WiFi network, the numbers of gamers that go online is in the millions. I'm not sure if it's passed X-Box Live yet, but it must be close.

    I'd attribute the success to the fact that there's no sign-up involved, no fees involved and (ideally) no other hardware involved. Most of those that own a DS have a wifi access point around somewhere, work, school, home or cafe. Anyone can pop a copy of Mario Kart in and go online, with no restrictions on who they play against.

    The flipside to this is, naturally, a lack of a defined identity online. Unless Nintendo were to implement something along the lines of future titles recording a serial number of the unit to identify it, having a unified account isn't really feasible.

  2. given the high % of mario kart owners who play online, for instance vs xbox live, it seems to some extent that the question has been answered to the extent that you can remove free-play from the equation.

  3. I think you're on target at least with the possibilities of community building on Live. But simply meeting (and as you say, getting yelled at), while playing Halo isn't typically enough. We've found that by creating a Web community in conjunction with a Live community is where the sweet spot lies. Need someone to play with, find a community on the Web so that you can communicate, procrastinate, plan and otherwise "live" while you're not playing with them on Live. It's worked for us. We have a community of around 5K folks 30 and over that primarily play on Live. The combination of the Web with that particular online gaming community is that we can fulfil the social aspects on the Web and through some planning, in person, that you can't easily do while fragging and Tbagging.

  4. I can't agree more. In college the #1 system to have was the GameCube. Where else could you get real 4-player action? Sure, Halo happened, but we had more Mario Tennis and Mario Party matches than anything. PS2s were the things the people with no friends had to play RPGs on. At any gathering of friends Nintendo pwn3d. And so it is the same with the DS.

    Regardless I must agree that the way wi-fi works is sub-par. There are problems such as people dropping out of games and such that are not so good. Everyone else figured these types of things out years ago. They still have some catching up to do.

  5. Nintendo has always been more about playing with people you know. The original GameBoy had a link cable as part of the standard package so you could play Tetris against your friend. Pokemon had trading and PvP mechanics that highly encouraged you to not just play it yourself, but play it in a group. The DS is just an evolution on what Nintendo has done before.

  6. danc,
    i have a case study of your gameplay notation, please send me an e-mail at jediborg2(at)gmail(dot)com so i can get your feedback on it.

  7. One of the major problems with current Nintendo networks is the lack of a sense of community stemming mainly from the fact that you cannot "meet" new people. I believe that it would be far more advisible to have community centres or something along those lines to allow for true communal gaming. Communities are only built with a mixture of people you do and do not know. Forcing Nintendo players to be social hermits is not the way to go.

  8. A wonderful musing, and it's been a stance that I've also held for quite some time.

    A lot of detractors pooh-pooh Nintendo's WFC because it doesn't fit the preconceived notions they have of online console gaming (namely Xbox Live); frankly, the more I think about it the more I prefer the robust nature of Live, but I can't fault Nintendo for rolling out an online plan that falls exactly in step with what their plans were.

    The one fault I would make with your article is that I think people say the WFC "discourages community" not so much because you can't meet new people but because there's no way to directly communicate with the friends you already have outside of that specific game. If I'm playing Animal Crossing and want to visit someone else, but no one has their gate open, I'd have to either phone, e-mail, text message or send smoke signals to see if they're up for a game. On Live, from what I understand of it, you can see at a glance which of your friends are logged into Live -- and even if they're in a single-player game, you can send them a message and see if they want to play.

    With WFC, you kind of have to set up a play session beforehand outside of the online system. With a more comprehensive system like Live, yes, you can create new communities, but you can also more effectively keep in touch with your existing community. I know the latter is what tempts me the most.

  9. "In the ideal world you would have both options available. Unfortunately, we live in a fear drenched McCarthyistic Americana. Too many cling dearly to a sickening fascination with Fox’s latest “Baby killed by Psychotic Immigrant’ propaganda. Communicating with strangers is obviously one step away from ruined lives."

    speaking of propaganda - that comment was propaganda. since it was your viewpoint it didn't feel that way though.

  10. I've thought about this issue, as well. What I mainly have to say is that the NWFC, as it exists now, is solely for the DS, a handheld. I think people try to often to apply their idea of what 'online' should be on a home console to a handheld. There is really now way that a handheld, or at least an affordable one, could rival the features of a home console online system.

    That being said, the Friend Code thing is restricting. Most people you get friend codes from are probably close enough to meet you in person for a match. I think the real catch is that there is no Nintendo-sanctioned way to exchange codes. There is no forum in their current WFC structure, and Friend Codes are not allowed on the official company forums.

    So I can't say that the NWFC discourages community. It is definitely limited, but it is free. We shouldn't fault a system which cost nothing and still functions well.

    It all depends on your definition of community.

  11. I think by considering the complex XBox Live as ideal approach many people are slightly missing the point since Nintendo mainly caters to new and casual gamers.

  12. Unfortunately, we live in a fear drenched McCarthyistic Americana. Too many cling dearly to a sickening fascination with Fox’s latest “Baby killed by Psychotic Immigrant’ propaganda. Communicating with strangers is obviously one step away from ruined lives.

    Maybe I don't hang around with enough people who watch a lot of TV, but I've found that nobody but new parents and half-senile retirees have that level of paranoia about the outside world, and that fear exists outside of their incidental television viewership.

    I like your blog, Danc, but I like it much better when it's about game design and not snarky, half-baked political commentary.

  13. I think the logistics behind having a portable-based network in the same vein as X-Box Live are prohibitive. For one, you don't have anything in the way of permanent memory outside of what's in the DS already. You lose that if you lose the console, which is far from ideal. The alternative is to have it all based online, with all games going through the one server.

    Aside from bandwidth and server costs for Nintendo, are there any real negative implications for developers?

  14. Mark, you must associate with urban, well-educated people then. Travel to smaller towns and/or talk with less-traveled people, and you'll find Danc's comment was not out of line in the least.

  15. It was just announced that Metroid Prime Hunters will include internet voice chat capability. Since the DS has no internet capabilities on its own the game is going to sell hugely on that feature alone.

  16. Personally, I appreciate your Fox comment. It's not as if we live in a world where games and the networks that connect them exist separate from the rest of the world. I appreciate seeing your worldview seep through your game design articles.

    I also wouldn't call it snarky to comment that Fox News is propaganda. It just is the case. They're proud of it over there. I mean, there is a reason that a majority of this country believed Saddam was involved in 9/11 until very recently. And that reason is not that it was actually true.

  17. I like both communities. When I play online, I have a network of irl friends that we coordinate with - especially if it's for a specific mission. But I also really enjoy meeting and interacting with complete strangers - even if it's only for the brief seconds it takes to cast a buff.

    The duality of the online community - both filled with irl friends and annonymous strangers - seems to be the future of gaming. One that the 360 and ps3 seem poised to join the pc in. National paranoia or not, the drag caused by this huge move is bound to suck handhelds along eventually.

  18. trainwrecka: Yeah, I suspect Danc put that comment in to get me to read his article.

    The world is as "MacCarthyistic" as you want to make it... says Ray, who spent yesterday reading to elementary school kids, and the day prior teaching 3rd and 2nd graders the process of how comics and comicbooks are made.

    Even if everyone else is jaded and it's fashionable, the optimist will only be that much more admirable.

    Here's a clue. Don't spend so much time worrying over the news... make your own.