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Business - Written by on Tuesday, January 13, 2009 9:05 - 2 Comments

Uniball: An in-depth look at a video game community

As the Internet has continued to grow and evolve, so too have the communities of people which have developed throughout and across the Internet’s landscape. There are communities represented from every interest and every service sector, and the people who ‘live’ in these e-neighborhoods find themselves bonded through communication across a variety of mediums, as well as a sense of identity with other people, and a belief in the underlying purpose or utility of the group, product or service.

In this post I would like to share my experiences as a long-standing member of a niche video game community, Uniball, that has been independently run for over 10 years, throughout which there has been an incredible display of leadership, community resilience, social dynamics, and growth in function and prosperity.

Uniball 101
In order to understand the community you need to understand the game, because it is the focus point of all activity and of primary interest to members. Uniball is a simple, 2D game that is played with ships that move around a map, passing, juking, and bouncing a ball with the objective of scoring it into the opposing team’s net. There are typically two teams a side and for almost any major sport conceivable, parallels can be made to this game’s strategy, which is so rich that players will play for years without mastering the game.

The simple in-game controls, physics, and graphics belie a sophisticated and addictive game that has captured the hearts and … fingers of many, so much so that few people ever actually retire from the game. Many community members have played for 5+ years and know each other by name, skill, and reputation in this community population of about 300 active players, and total size of 1000.  Players are represented from all over the world, with major communities and servers in North America and Europe and yet the community is intensely close, and everyone knows who you are. So dedicated to the game are some, that statistics wise, the most active player plays an average of 20 twenty-four days a year (or about 10% of all waking time). There is also an interesting demographics story, which is that because dedicated players rarely quit, the average age of players has changed over time, from teens to early 20s. Few games have the longevity of Uniball, so it is an interesting study in how the community dynamic changes (e.g. general maturity, growth in skills/knowledge) as the people within it age and learn from the real world.

Community Organization
Although the game itself is the attraction, it is complemented by a variety of tools that allow the community to communicate and organize. First among these is a chat program that allows people to create and manage teams (“squads”), as well as discuss things publicly or in private rooms. This central chat tool is the backbone of the community as it allows users to converge and dialogue in a shared meeting space, while not playing, or during times of technical difficulty. Users’ squads compete against each other in sophisticated league competitions with professionally designed, interactive websites, where squads compete intensely for the ‘fame and glory’ of winning (community recognition). These leagues and other discussions are supported by a non-real time communication channel, Internet forums, which are useful for community announcements, and for tying together geographical communities less unified by time.

Community Governance
What is perhaps, most impressive of all, is the degree to which this community has been self sustaining, and independently run for over 10 years. Uniball was originally programmed by an individual who, before disengaging from the game, passed decision making control to a group of administrators. Over time this central government (“Administration” or “Admins”) had the authority to guide the community through turbulence related to user troublemaking, cheating, server outtages, and game development. Although the Admins staff and maintain their elite organization, they are still publicly accountable, and it is critical that users trust their decision making, lest they rebel and cause trouble. Thus, administrative actions are closely monitored by members of the community, as well as by other Admins, who are generally transparent in their dealings.

Community Development
Although the Administration is important from the perspective of authority, and mediating issues, much of the driving force behind the game is its users, who will go to great lengths to develop community or squad initiatives. Examples of these include programming interactive league websites or spin-offs of the game, developing playing manuals, as well as creating new maps, patches, and graphics. These user driven enhancements ensure that Uniball is continually refined.

Community Engagement
And although the administration and user contributions are important, what really drives the game, is competition. The aforementioned squads will compete for brand recognition (some squads are dynasties lasting 2, 3 and 5+ years) by recruiting and training players. These squads require leadership and top squads can have a strict recruitment process to recruit talent, involving sponsoring a new recruit, a voting process using private squad forums, a probationary period, as well as squad practice involving group and 1-on-1 coaching. A number of squads even use voice chat to communicate, for bonding, and for training, and over time many players develop deep ties with each other.

Uniball is a good game but what makes it great is the community element. Although people enjoy video games, it’s important to remember that people play in order to be entertained, and online entertainment is largely a social device. Communities exist in the real world, and online with people from the real world – I hope that this discussion has provided a small peak into that online world.

What about you? Have you considered yourself a member of an online community, video game or otherwise? Which community and what are some of the characteristics that you think speak to the community?



2 Comments

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pot
Apr 15, 2009 9:25

Yeah baby, yeah.

_Sinner_
Jun 28, 2009 8:53

I have just recently begun playing Uniball. My brother, who goes by the handle Magna5, has played almost since it’s development and has for years tried to get me involved. I have declined till recently…I wish I hadn’t rejected him or Uniball for as many years. The game itself is QUITE addictive, especially to the competitive. The game itself is very basic but don’t let that fool you. It takes a great deal of mastery and focus to achieve fundamental skill executions. But the biggest lure of the game IS it’s community. I have played on role playing games for 12+ years and have yet to find a community as friendly or as willing to see you succeed as this one. So much so it is quite a disappointment to ones self, at least to myself, I can’t be more of a help to my team mates.
I do believe I am quite addicted to this game already and look forward to many more years of playing Uniball.

_Sinner_ – 35 years old – Cheese Squad

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