It's quite an in depth system, as the official FAQ shows, but essentially registered users of the SWTOR site can create a guild, stating the guild type (PvE, PvP, RP, etc), timezone, allegiance and playstyle. The guild gets a small mini-site to use, hosted by Bioware, and anyone with a registered forum account can apply to join the guild.
Additionally the guild leader will be able to assign ranks to the members and specify any allied or enemy guilds.
The interesting thing is that any guilds that meet the criteria will then automatically be imported into the game when it launches. When you log in to the correct game server for the first time you will then be given the option of joining the guild. If you accept you will automatically join the guild with the correct rank and permissions already bestowed.
The benefits of this (assuming they get it right) are huge.
First of all it means that you will not have to arrange to meet up with your mates, gather the right cash and number of people together and create the guild in game. It will all be done automatically, meaning that you will be part of the guild community from the get-go.
Secondly it will encourage the formation of guilds long before the game launches, bringing normally solo-players into the wider community. Allied and enemy guilds will be placed on the same server of an appropriate type (e.g. if you are a roleplaying guild the guild will be created on a RP server whenever possible).
Finally, by setting things up in this way they should be able to manage the launch much more smoothly than is common with AAA MMO launches. They will already have an idea of the number of guilds and players, and therefore ensure they have enough servers and be able to spread the pre-launch guilds across a number of servers, leading to less likelihood of queueing issues and a more even distribution of players.
In his game design blog (Zen of Design) SWTOR developer Damion Schubert explains that as well as helping them to distribute launch day load, the pre-launch guild system will help and encourage like-minded people to form communities and join together before the game starts. As I have written before, it is the community and group of players that you surround yourself with that defines how an MMO plays and feels once you get past the initial mechanics. By confronting this head-on long before launch Bioware hope that they can retain more players by giving them the opportunity to form and play in communities in which they can feel comfortable.
In a recent presentation to the Game Developers' Conference 2011, Schubert presented a talk on "The Loner", a discussion on solo-oriented players in MMO games and how to bring them naturally into a more sociable place.
"Today, Bioware announced our little bit of design experimentation in this area - and yes, I sorely wish I could have announced it in my talk. Our preguild program is a neat experiment with several goals in mind - helping us distribute launch day load, for example - but the most important to me is that of helping players find like-minded guildmates. I think most players (and designers) underestimate how much flavor an MMO takes from the people that you meet. If you play WoW with a bunch of high school l337sp34k3A5, you’re going to have a vastly different experience than if you run a dungeon with people who like to quote Shakespeare, or the people who like to roleplay as a star trek away team, or the people who like to ERP.
Finding the right climate is so important to whether or not an MMO proves as sticky, but right now, the state of the art for MMOs is hoping that players serendipitously find a compatible group. Here’s hoping we manage to move that state of the art forward just a little bit."
I personnally find it really encouraging that Bioware are putting such thought into things and feel it can only help the game community in the long run. How it all pans out remains to be seen of course, but the fact that they are considering such issues so closely bodes well, especially as the news and mechanic has been very well received by the SWTOR community so far.