In the past I wrote that you can guess the quality of the design in a mmorpg from its LFG system and I still believe there is some truth in that claim. I always considered these tools as the real core of these games and I think they should be the starting point from where you design a new game. Not a feature that you consider later on, but the very first one around which the rest of the game is built.
One of the worst examples I remember is SWG and maybe it’s not a case. SWG had a very powerful searching tool so it wasn’t a feature missing, but it was absolutely useless. There was a complicated “match making” service with different parameters that you could set, you could even search for a specific blood type. But nothing that was functional to the game. Nothing that had a concrete use beside being a bloated feature designed out of context that became completely irrelevant and superfluous, leaving the game with a vacancy in the design. That system did everything *but* what was needed.
It was worst than WoW’s meeting stones, that at least had a nice implementation.
LFG systems have always been extremely important because they aren’t just UI features, but they are strictly connected with the fabric of the game, how you encourage grouping and community-building, how you plan the zones and the meeting places, how you segment the playerbase while not fragmenting it too much, how you draw in the new players and so on. Basically the LFG is a small, apparently secondary system that consequently leads everywhere and reaches the whole game. It’s like the tail of a ball of yarn. Pulling it you can easily undo the whole game. And, as it usually happens, the most important element is also systematically underestimated.
I mentioned the meeting stones in WoW, but it is wrong to consider the game as a bad example of a LFG system. The truth is that WoW has already a rather good implementation and overall design. The zones are planned to segment the playerbase into smaller “cozy worlds” (see my cue) and each of these zones has a public chat channel where all the players can easily socialize and organize something. The quest givers are always gathered in a friendly outpost that works as a mini-hub in the zone and from there you move out to different camp spots and POIs distributed around the zone. You can meet other players in the town/village, along the road or in one of those “camps” where other players and groups are already progressing in their quests. WoW, to this day, is the most social mmorpg out there.
Back when WoW was in beta I started to claim how WoW was the game where I grouped the most, with no effort and as the most natural thing. Other supposed “social-oriented” mmorpgs like UO or SWG were instead strongly problematic for me and I always had a very hard time to get involved. In SWG i NEVER grouped with anyone who wasn’t my friend out of the game, same in UO. And not because of a personal choice. To me this means just one thing, and it’s something I’ve repeated endlessly on this website: accessibility barriers.
WoW is considered as a game where you can easily solo. It is the most solo-friendly mmorpg I know. Before its release it was widely common to consider a solo-friendly mmorpg as one that wouldn’t last long. A proof of bad design. “Solo-friendly” meant that it would lack the community-building and without downtimes and mandatory grouping a game would have an awful subscription retention, so it was doomed to fail miserably. Today the “solo-friendly” is becoming one of the most important feature in a game. As you can see, things change. Paradigms shift.
Today we don’t say anymore that “socialization requires downtime”. Today we believe that the socialization is natural and you just need to design the game so that it can happen naturally. So that the game doesn’t get in the way, putting impassable barriers between the players. We learnt that the socialization isn’t something you enforce. The socialization is something you support.
Beside the zone-wide channels, WoW has also the capital cities and the linked LFG chat channels. In this case the functional role of these channels isn’t anymore about the “casual questing”, but it is more connected to the end-game, where you begin building a good group and, in a second moment, move out to a specific zone to enter a dungeon.
Generally speaking an LFG system and its efficiency depend on two qualities: reach and detail (personalization).
Taking again the case of WoW the linked LFG channels offer both. The “reach” is rather good since the capital cities are popular hubs where you can go when you want to join a group or when you are looking for people to get something done. Who isn’t in the capital cities is probably already busy with something. Sooner or later everyone passes there, if two players share the same objective, the capital city is the place where they can easily meet. The “detail/personalization” is also good. You aren’t limited to a codified UI (but the players have built their own code through keywords such as LFG or LF2M) and you can personalize your message as you like. You can add more detail as needed and manipulate the system the way you like.
This just to explain that the common claim “WoW doesn’t even have a real lfg system” holds no value: it doesn’t need one because the feature is satisfied through other, better means. The design has gone past the superficial level.
Where WoW lack is in a more active system. The LFG channels allow you to communicate only with who is already searching and reading on the fly, but you cannot hunt directly the players and ask them in an “active” way. The search system could be improved, it is already powerful enough, but it could use a better UI that could allow you to interact without going through a command line. The players have also complained about the lack of a searchable “LFG” flag (that was removed in beta for no apparent reason).
One of the most important features of a LFG system that is frequently overlooked is the possibility to search for groups already existing that still aren’t full and could use more players. This is what made DAoC one of the games with the best (and most used, till they broke the game with the instances) LFG system. In fact the very first game where I started to play with english players instead of other italian friends. It’s not rare that the players don’t really want to start new groups from scratch, but would still gladly join a group already working. It is essential for a LFG system to let the players not only flag themselves for a group, but also search for groups already active that still have spots available. This is the best way to encourage grouping. In other games when someone leaves the party usually crumbles to pieces, in DAoC, instead, it was common for a group to survive a constant churn and even build its own “queue” with other players waiting for a spot to open up in a successful group.
In this case EQ2 shares the same stupidity of SWG in the LFG system. It lets you flag yourself and search for other LFG players, but it doesn’t give you the possibility to search for other groups in the zone and let you ask if they have a spot for you. This is a *crucial* feature missing. Again back in beta WoW not only let you flag LFG, but the search system also included a flag, letting you know if the player was currently grouped or not.
It is fundamental for a LFG system to let you search specifically for groups already formed and active (both full or LFM).
That said, one of the games with the best search features that is never taken into consideration is FFXI. At the beginning its search system seems quite complicated, but after you understand how it works it becomes one of the most powerful and detailed I’ve seen. The western players don’t seem to use its functions, while the system appears much more popular among the japanese players.
This image shows the search menus and the window with the results. It needs some time to get used to since it follows the same mindset of the rest of the UI of the game and that many players tend to criticize. Instead of presenting an unified UI panel where you can specify the details and then launch your search, this is all nestled into multiple menus. Basically you launch the first general search and then can start to apply different “filters” one by one, narrowing down the results till you are satisfied. The customization available is what you can see from the menu. You can search for:
Area – Name – Job – Country (your character affiliated nation) – Race – Level – Rank (related to your nation and linked to a mission system) – Friend (players on your friend list) – Linkshell (players in your “guild chat”) – Ballista (players involved or waiting in FFXI PvP battleground) and Comment (more on this later)
The window with the results is extremely well designed and offers a lot of informations. From left to the right:
An icon indicating various “states”, in this image there’s just one that indicates that the players is “anon”. As you can see this flag doesn’t remove the players from the search functions but it just hides the relevant details, an implementation of the feature that other games should take as an example. This icon can also show if the players is flagged LFG and other things that I don’t know exactly. Then you have the class and subclass with the corresponding level, the race, another icon representing the affiliated nation with the number representing the rank the players has achieved in that nation, the name of the character with a colored dot on the left (I’ll explain the dot later, instead I don’t know what the color of the name stands for), “J” – “E” or “JE” (not shown in the image and indicating the language, english, japanese or both) and finally the zone where the character currently is.
The “Area” option in the search menu opens a submenu that I added in the image. You can search for the current zone, region or the whole server, then, at the bottom, you have the nearby regions listed (the number indicates the zones in that region) and by selecting them you can go to choose a specific zone within. The rest of the fields are rather self-explanatory, while the most interesting one is the “comment”. Even this one leads you to another sub-menu, which is the one I’ve added in the image. As you can see to each option corresponds a “colored dot” that is the same that you find next to the players names, if a name has a dot it means that the players has a custom comment associated with that “topic” and by selecting that name you’ll be able to read the full comment in your chat window.
These comments add the “customization” to the “reach” but also complete the feature by organizing the informations appropriately:
When you select/flag for a comment like “mission” or “quest” you don’t get just the standard list plus the comments, but this list also gets organized in different tabs (seek party/find members) so that you can see if the “LFG” player is alone or already grouped, fulfilling that important requirement that I pointed out above.
As you can see this is one of the most powerful and well designed search systems, unfortunately FFXI has other accessibility issues in other parts of the game that I’m not going to comment here.
My conclusion is that it is important to design carefully both parts. One is the overall structure of the game, where you try to segment the players and let them naturally come to play together, without imposing them the “socialization” as a requirement (and possibly loosening up the barriers like levels, classes, group composition, zone/server travel and so on). The other is offering powerful search functions with a wide reach and customization (and usability) that can help the players to search specifically for what they need and actively “disturbing” other players to propose them to do something together
Now I’ve already wrote a lot but there are other important topics I’ve still left out. One is the importance of “sharing objectives” so that the players can naturally help each other, socialize and feel part of something without suffering impositions that ultimately work as a “selection” of the players (those who have the support of their friends “can”, while the casual players are excluded with little hope of being helped. Aka: the barrier is impermeable or too hard to pass). The other is an idea that has been my pet peeve from a long time and that Loral somewhat evocated recently on Mobhunter (with which I sympathize, but that won’t possibly happen):
A cross-server grouping feature would help Everquest capitalize on the vast number of players across all servers. Players could go to a set location in Norrath, such as a new tavern in the rebuilt Plane of Knowledge, and find players seeking groups on other servers. Groups would be transported to a mission, monster mission, or even a small 18 to 24 person raid instance. By disabling player to player trading, economies would remain unaffected. Players would go from a few dozen LFG players to a few hundred.
Server travel so that the “pool” of players could be dynamically adapted between peak times and off peaks and the expansions and contractions of the overall playerbase. Without suffering a chain reaction (this is more significant than how it appears).
We are getting there. Albeit slowly.