Monday, October 12, 2009

Is the solo-friendly trend threatening the MMO idea?

Is the MMO genre evolving in the wrong direction, as it's becoming more and more oriented towards solo gaming? Yes, if you should believe the signature Longesc, who wrote a comment at Tish Tosh Tesh. It was so well put that I'll quote a huge chunk of it:
"Today gamers ask for more and more things and content to do in their GAME, but all this is not adding anything to the VIRTUAL WORLD. The social component of MMOs is receding, and I wonder if Blizzard’s latest “Guild achievements” stuff for Cataclysm is going to change that. I very much doubt that this will besuccessful if it is done in the way of “achievements” for doing this or that grindy thing or collective grinding of achievements! […] These to-do-lists bugger me a lot,personally. But this is my personal pet peeve, one does not have to do it, after all. What is much worse is that >all< (really, almost everyone) people are going for this are basically eliminated from the game, as they are busily working/grinding to Valhalla. I damn the whole genre if it cannot evolve out of this particular direction that is prevalent nowadays."

I think Longesc is quite right, and in this post I'll explain why.

From solo to group playing
When I started to play WoW in the beginning of 2007, I had no idea about what kind of world I was entering. And while I was fascinated by the avatars I met - thrilled by the thought that they were controlled by real persons, spread over all of Europe - I didn't expect or ask for them to interact much with me. I had my hands full learning to move around in the world, understanding how to use the spells, getting to know the concept of questing, gearing, levelling. Even though I stumbled upon a smallish casual guild pretty early, we were rarely online at the same time and I spent most of my time playing on my own. And I was happy with it.

As time has passed however, my interest for solo playing has decreased. After all - the NPCs, the quest models, the game mechanisms are pretty much the same. The execution - for instance the graphic artwork - may vary a bit, but the rest... I can’t help thinking sometimes that it’s only "more of the same", although at a higher level. STV tigers are traded for Nagrand clefthoofs or Sholazar rhinos.

The reason why I’m still so fascinated by WoW after +2.5 years of playing it is definitely the M as in multiplayer. It’s the interaction within this huge family of geeks that makes the game worth playing. It’s the other players – the carebears as well as the jerks - who will give you those unexpected thrills: the successes, the fails, the annoyances, the giggles. Without the social aspect, WoW wouldn’t be anything but beautiful scenery with some button clicking therapy added. It would be a distraction, not much different to playing solitaire card games or solving sudokus.

So from my point of view, I’m not happy with the development towards a more solo friendly game. Not at all.

Market driven development
I know I’m not speaking for all players – on the contrary. Of course the development is market driven. Blizzard wouldn’t change the direction of the game if they thought they’d lose customers from it. The change is just reflecting an ongoing trend in society. People want to be independent. They don’t want to make commitments and give definite promises about turning up at a certain time a certain day – not even to friends. They want to be able to switch plans in an instant if a more attractive offer comes up on the cell phone.

And it’s the same in WoW. Players want to be able to play it in small chunks, and without having to wait for someone else to party with. That’s why Hogger lost his elite label. That’s why we’re supposed to level up all on our own nowadays. That’s why they’re putting so much effort into making long lists of solo achievements, to make sure that we can spend tons of time on our own in game. The community asked for it.

The effect for a player like me though is that I can’t play the game the way I’d like to. I don’t have any real life friends playing WoW, who I can talk into coming online. I haven’t played since vanilla and hence I don’t have any huge friends list. The few I had seem to have vanished. They’ve jumped to other games, gone horde, whatever. At least they’re not there when I’m online.

Outside of the scheduled raids, I often find myself left on my own. This doesn’t stop me from trying to find a group. Last weekend I spent hours and hours in LFG trying to find a PUG for a 10-man instance, without any success. Finally I gave up and logged over to my druid alt. She is currently clearing Nagrand and had a ton of group quests in her log. So I asked in general to see of anyone of the players in the zone would be up for it. And what was the reply I got? “You can solo those quests”.

Yeah. Maybe I can solo it. Especially with a druid. But it’s not what I’m looking for!

Just a bigger console game?
In one way you can still say that WoW is a multiplayer game. After all there are many players online at the same time using the same server. However, they’re spending more and more time sitting in their own little sandboxes, building their own small castles, rather than making joint forces, building a HUGE palace together. At the most they may throw a glance at each other, benchmarking to see the worth of their own achievements.

I understand the reasons to make more solo friendly content, and I can sympathize with it, since it makes the game available to parents and others with very limited gaming time. But ultimately I’m not happy about the direction the MMO genre is currently heading. And I ask myself: when does an MMO stop to being an MMO and turn into just a bigger console game?


Magma said...

I agree..and yet disagree. I've always had trouble putting how I feel about this topic into words. At the very least, there are many pros and cons I can see regarding going more solo or more multiplayer. I guess the optimum choice would be to just include both in a game, like Blizzard has done, and let players decide what they want to play. Sometimes I am grateful that I can play alone, sometimes I'm grateful I don't have to.

Kromus said...

"The community asked for it."

-That was delicious irony right there, the community- asked for it to be more solo, haha!.

The problem I have is sometimes theres not much to do alone- but then if there was it wouldn't feel how it does now.

I think if they add more solo content (which I beleive is needed) they need to make sure the Massive perks are from Community gaming-- that why if you want to be alone you can be, but we're rewarded more for working as a team- and heck we should want to anyway.

Jormundgard said...

I've been playing Aion, and I don't really consider it very solo-friendly. The difficult ramps up relatively quickly and the level requirements are much steeper, so you almost have no choice but to either group up (usually with strangers) for the difficult quests, or just grind your way past them.

It's not Everquest. You don't need to form grind-groups or anything. But you hurt yourself if you don't group up.

Klepsacovic said...

I would love to see more non-instanced group content. A place I loved was in Hinterlands there's a troll city, Jintha'Alor which used to be filled with elites. You could get a ton of xp and burn through a half dozen quests. Sure, it might take time to find a group, but it was worth it to bring people together. Now it's soloable, all the mobs nerfed.

Olga said...

I always thought that all that social things you talk about usually starts with raiding really. I've met some nice ppl while levelled my various characters, but i lost contact of them very quick. At the same time, i remember and i miss all that ppl i've raid with in my previous guild - our GM and RL, our officers, ppl that i lead in my small off-night raid when i was an officer.
Imo, raiding and arena is that part of the game that you can't solo, and you need to interact with others very close in order to achieve something there. End-game made that M for me.

morrighan13 said...

I do get what you mean about the point of MMOs being to be social. But on the other hand its not as easy for some people as for others to branch out there.

For example I have two guilds. One is a large progress raiding guild where my Alliance mains sit. The other is a tiny guild made up only of people who have known at least one other person in there for some time. There are barely 10 accounts in there.

In order to play with these people I want to play with I have to sacrifice all the advantages that come from a large guild, because they aren't interested in getting to know lots of new people - just in playing with friends. I find that a little sad too - I've made some great friends playing WoW. But thats not for everyone.

Also I don't have the time on those characters required to participate fully in a larger guild. Theres very few true 'friendly only' guilds out there. Even most levelling guilds expect to raid eventually (at least on my servers).

At end game I tend to interact more with other players outside the guild. Whilst levelling, however, on a low population server, I'm lucky to see other players. If more content had not been made soloable I would be stuck LFG forever.

I hope that this is something Cataclysm will tidy up - giving you group and solo levelling options. I certainly think that a balance between group and solo play at end game is good and has been pretty successful.

tufva said...

I don't really see the fact that I can walk around the world and achieve things on my own as making the game less social. I may be trotting around on my own doing dailies on my raiding priest or levelling my baby paladin - but I am never alone as I am chatting away to people in the guild as I do these things. That to me is what makes it a social game. Even if you party up briefly with others like you used to have to for certain quests and the like, you would rarely see them again.

For me the MMO comes from the (like you say) amazing fact that each avatar represents a person sitting somewhere, the fact that I can interact with them, group with them when needed - it is all amazing stuff and the game would be very different if there weren't so many people running around, populating/buying from the AH and generally being there.

But when it comes to the social side of an MMO, I think you can only get that from a guild. That's where you spend enough time to start getting to know people as friends rather than random players that you do stuff with.

Will said...

It doesn't really detract from you main points, I don't think, but Hogger is still elite.

Dw-redux said...

This is the first post you've made that i wholeheartedly disagree on.
"People want to be independent." -no, they just do not want to be restricted on having to wait on other players to help them. WoW's success is mainly due to the social aspect. Just like, facebook, youtube and the whole web 2.0
mmo's ARE rpg's 2.0

Just like you said, you didn't talk or play with anyone when you started playing, you where too busy learning the ropes. theese days there aren't really that many players to play with at the lower levels, so you need to be able to solo most of it, so you can get to the social parts faster. If blizz hadn't announced wrath (with even faster leveling) they would surely have announced "start your next alt at level 55" option.
It is all about the socialbility.
Most other mmos have some form of sidekick option (that im guessing wow will get aswell) where different level of players can play together, and both benefit from it.

Larísa said...

@Magma: Yeah, I think the options need to be there too. I just wish more players chose the grouping option. Or am I the only one feeling lonely? Maybe it says more about me than about the game....

@Kromus: actually I think there IS a lot of things to do alone - the question is if it's fun?

@Jormundgard: it's sad if you have to more or less force people into grouping. But maybe that's what is needed if you want it to stay multiplayer?

@Klepsacovic: oh I agree. That place was like an instance before. But an open one. Now... not so very much. It's just sad.

@Olga: I guess my problem is that I log on a bit too late to be able to join the guild runs at offnights. So while everyone else online is doing something together I find myself alone. That's why I have to look outside of the guild to get social interaction. But I'm afraid there isn't much of it these days.

@Morrighan13: "I do get what you mean about the point of MMOs being to be social. But on the other hand its not as easy for some people as for others to branch out there". Yeah. I'm one of those who wants to be social but somehow fails at it. I don't have many friends in rl and not in the game either. Somehow I fail at it. It seems very hard to break into those structures that have existed since years.

@Tufva: I think it's a good thing to have friends outside of the guild as well. Guilds will come and go but friends remain. But how to make them? I have no idea. I think friendship can be born out of random encounters in the game. Making a groupquest, whatever. I've had some friends earlier (who have left the game) who I got that way. Nowadays it was long since I last got a new one. For some reason.

@Dw-redux: I don't quite get it tbh. I'm online with my main lvl 80 for hours and I can't find anyone to group up with. The social endgame? Does it really work as intended?

Larísa said...

@Will: oh, he is? But he surely must be heavily nerfed? It was an entirely different encounter when I did him on an alt... Or maybe I've just grown better at the game?

Anonymous said...

Solo content can be good even in a MMO, but I too feel that it's going in the wrong direction. This may be offensive to some but if you're not going to play with others then World of Warcraft isn't for you. Go buy Diablo II or something.

Tessy said...

I tried to remember how long ago it was that I grouped up with someone I didn't know to finish off some group quests, and I couldn't.

I know I did some when WotLK came out, but those were more of the let's grp up here while we wait for the named mob to spawn so we don't have to kill it separately, not because we needed each others' help to do it.

Most of the group quests in Northrend I've done with the help of guildies, even if it meant having to wait around for us to get together and do it.

So, it seems the only times I actually interact with unknown (ie out of guild) people nowadays are the rare times I pug instances.

Not sure I like this realisation.

Tesh said...

Wolfshead has some great articles on this, too. He laments the loss of sociality somewhat frequently, actually. ;)

I'm an avowed soloist. Ysharros and Saylah have some great articles up on my side of the fence. For me, multiplayer content doesn't offer me enough incentive or fun to overcome playing on a constrained schedule or dealing with idiots.

I do like playing with others on occasion, to be sure, but more often than not, it's just not worth it.

To each their own. *shrug*

Of course, if we're conceiving of these MMO things as virtual worlds, as in the real world, not everything is done in a group. If we're just considering them as multiplayer games (and multiplayer alone), we could drop the whole "world" pretense and just make a series of raids of all levels.

I think there's a market for that, actually, but it's not the mainstream. It's not a game I'd play, but I know people who would love it. Why *not* make such a game for those players?

We Fly Spitfires said...

Users always take the easier path from A to B and as grouping as an inherent overhead of effort and time, players will more often than not choose to solo if given that option. The trick is giving players the option but making the rewards for grouping a lot more inticing... and I'm talking more than just a few rare items and a terrible EXP bonus.

Larísa said...

@Anonymous: well I won't be that harsh against the soloists. But yeah, if too many become like that it leaves me a sad panda. Where should I go to find someone to play with?

@Tessy: there is one place where you still can group up: the AT daily quests. But it only lasts for a few min and really doesn't invite you to a lot of socializing.

@Tesh: actually I think I embrace both sides of the fence. Exploring new areas has always been one of my favourite things to do in the game. I remember levelling up – every time I hit a new zone it felt like opening a birthday gift. To me it isn’t one thing or the other. It’s just that I recently have felt a bit left out on my own, missing the social aspects of the game. Shouldn’t it be possible to be social outside of the regular raids? I wish the mechanisms encouraged more of cooperation – while still giving us an epic look-around-in-the-huge-unknown-world-experience.

@We Fly Spitfires: The only problem is that once you give juicy rewards to grouping, you’ll immediately get a lot of complaints from the dedicated soloists… Not easy to please everyone!

Tesh said...

Then maybe, just maybe, you're done with the game. It's actually OK to finish an MMO. ;)

That said, yes, they definitely could incentivize non-raid grouping better, and have good group content at all levels in all zones.

Even though I'm a confirmed soloist, I can assert that solo players really should be OK with slower progress in the game. The fastest and most effective progress should be derived from activities where players cooperate.

That said, I don't consider raids to be all that cooperative. Yes, you've got to work together to down a boss, but the loot system and subsequent drama undermines the concept of cooperation. In my mind, *that* whole mentality should be addressed, since it pollutes the game throughout. The loot system and poor quest sharing promote selfishness far more than being solo friendly. (In other words, it's not so much solo friendly as group hostile.)