A Tale of Two Playstyles and Why They Still Need Each Other

by Wolfshead on June 26, 2009

Before I started playing MMOs I was a bit of loner. I was always shy. I was the big clumsy kid that always got picked last for teams in school. I was a kind of a nerd before being a nerd was cool. Then this innovation called online gaming happened. The great thing about MMOs like EverQuest was that they encouraged me to interact with other people via role-playing with my avatar. At first it felt a bit scary and uncomfortable but soon I actually enjoyed it.

Eventually as I grew more confident as a player and as my social skills improved, I craved the shared purpose and camaraderie that I would find in groups and guilds.

Ten years later everything has changed with WoW being the dominant MMO. Grouping for the average MMO players is now the exception rather than the rule. Even talking about requiring that MMOs stress more group related content brings out the charge of “forced grouping” from some respectable MMO commentators like Tesh and others.

In the past few months there have been some good discussions on the whole solo vs group issue that are worth reading. I’d like to offer up my take on the subject and examine in particular this notion of forced grouping. Did it really ever exist and do these playstyles need each other?

EverQuest: Let’s Party Like it’s 1999

As a computer game junkie who loved adventuring with my NPC party members in RPG classics like Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale and the Ultima series it was a revelation to finally play with actual real live party members in EverQuest in 1999.  To many other players who had grown up with pen and paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, playing online with your friends in EverQuest seemed like a very natural progression of the classic dungeon crawl in the connected age of the Internet.

At no time did I feel that I was being forced to do group or associate with anyone. The reason is that players who played EverQuest rightfully expected to group — that’s how the world was designed. Everything about the World of Norrath was geared for groups from the hit points of the mobs to the way that mobs were placed. Grouping was the status quo. Somehow we innocently wallowed in our blissful ignorance completely unaware of the coming emancipation of the solo-friendly World of Warcraft.

Back then it was considered heretical that someone would subscribe to a MMO and not want to group. Just as you would expect people who come to a dance will want to dance with other people so too did we have the expectation that upon logging on that we would aspire to getting a group. Not that it was always easy but it’s something we would strive for to get the maximum enjoyment from the experience. People just innately understood that in order to progress the most efficient was to group with other players.

Grouping Made Me a Better Person

As I mentioned earlier, I firmly believe that having to actually socialize with other people in a MMO had the side-effect of making me a more well-rounded person. I’m not ashamed to admit that MMOs helped me to develop socially and get me out of my shell.

For me being “forced” to level which meant meeting new people from all around the world, learning to play in a group and even learning the social order/politics of a guild was a good thing. I’m very grateful that the creators of EverQuest created their MMO with intent that people who play online would play together in groups.

Given the misanthropic nature of many of today’s youth is encouraging them be more social and cooperate with others really such a bad thing?

EverQuest: Separating the Myth from the Reality

It’s often been claimed that EverQuest was a MMO that forced people to group together in order for character advancement. Admittedly the emphasis was on grouping and the synergy resulting from having various classes in your party (tank, dps, healer, debuffer, etc.). However I must disagree that anyone was ever forced to play this way.

But let me try to make my case by posing a question:

Was soloing possible in EverQuest?

Of course it was. Ask a Bard, Druid, Necromancer, Shaman, Mage or Beastlord. All of these classes became known for their ability to solo quite effectively despite the fact that EverQuest was designed as a group game. Somehow the ingenuity of the players fooled the wily devs and they beat the system as they soloed off into the sunset with their classes.

So despite the fact that EQ was designed to be played by people grouped together playing various traditional RPG group roles, people could still solo if they wished. So the notion that EQ was a MMO that forced players to group is not entirely accurate.

Who’s the Real Victim Here?

Although I have never played Final Fantasy Online I understand that soloing was all but impossible and grouping was indeed required.

So given all of the thousands of video games ever released at best we have one…that’s right one online game that has required that people are forced to group in order to play. A commenter named Lethality on a thread over at Massively sums it up best:

Grouping is one of the unique selling propositions that MMORPGs have to offer over other genres. Plenty of other opportunities for single player, online play…

If developers of these games don’t take advantage of it, these games are no better than Quake or Unreal, etc. The idea that you can have massively cooperative gameplay is unique to this genre…

The poster makes a great point that in a sea of thousands of single-player games the ability to group with fellow players online should be a major selling point of what MMOs are all about. Soloers it seems are not content to have 99.9% of the games cater to them — it seems they want 100% of the games to be soloable. Who’s being unreasonable now?

Another interesting issue that merits discussion is that Jeff Kaplan revealed at the GDC that at the time there were a total of 7,650 quests in WoW. I wonder how many of those are group required? I can assure you it’s a very small number in comparison. It seems that those who like to solo will never be content until everything in a MMO is made accessible to them.

Soloing was Emergent Gameplay

When you stop and think about it, soloing was emergent gameplay that was never really intended by it’s creators. I recall the many debates on the official EQ forums where devs like Abashi expressed frustration at the growing number of players that wanted to solo or were forced to solo because due to the lack of players could not find a group. While soloing may have happened by choice or by necessity it remains one of the first forms of emergent gameplay in MMOs.

Although soloing wasn’t intended by the developers, soloers always had an avenue of character progression. Yes it wasn’t ridiculously easy like soloing is today in WoW but you could do it nonetheless.

Soloing like most forms of emergent gameplay took some measure of skill and effort — unlike the easy soloing that characterizes WoW — you had to be at the top of your game. Soloing actually made you a better player unlike WoW where it actually makes you a worse player and leaves you the equivalent of a undisciplined, out of shape slacker showing up unprepared for the rigors of boot camp.

Soloing that Requires Skill is the Problem

What I suspect is the real issue is that some players want guaranteed progress via easy soloing. What is really going on is that MMOs have largely become virtual amusement parks where everyone feels that because of the price of admission (the initial cost of the game and the monthly subscription fee) they should be entitled to see and do everything. It’s just that simple.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article WoW epitomizes a culture of entitlement that echoes the current popular consumer culture that we see all around us. Players/consumers continue to make unceasing demands on the developers and they are only too eager to comply. One only has to look at the litany of dumbed-down features just announced for the upcoming WoW patch for further evidence of this disturbing trend. Ladies and gentlemen, the monkeys have finally taken over the zoo.

Game designers should resist the temptation to give into players who always want things to be made easier. The official forums of every MMO are full of demands from angry players that content be made easier. Some of it is justifiable but most of it is not. Just imagine if Blizzard ran the NBA and they caved in to the demands of short players — the height of the hoop would probably be 3 feet off the ground by now.

What About Forced Leveling?

Let me play the Devil’s Advocate about the notion of being “forced” to do things in a MMO and pose this question: Couldn’t a similar argument be made that players should not be forced to explore the world, gain experience and level? Isn’t that a form of coercion on the part of the MMO company?

Where does this business of forcing players to do things stop? Hypothetically you could just stay level one forever, role-play a farmhand, pick daisies, drink mead and never leave the pastoral farmlands of Elwynn Forest. The truth is that progression like every other activity in a MMO comes at a cost — a cost that more and more players are unwilling to pay.

If the prevailing mentality of players is this bad now, what will MMOs be like in 5 years?

The Story of the Donut That Went Stale

The problem with WoW PVE is that it is 3 games in one (the famous donut theory as explained by Rob Pardo)  and they must be played in sequence :

  1. first you play the solo game
  2. then you play the grouping game
  3. if you are good enough you play the raiding game.

If you are a MMO player that is predisposed to grouping from the outset then you will always be at a disadvantage in WoW as it is a solo culture MMO by virtue of its quest/story directed single-player gameplay.

By the time most players reach level 80 and it’s time to play game #2 — the grouping game — the die has been cast. By this time players have been indoctrinated into narcissism of the solo culture. It’s very unrealistic to expect that most people who’ve been barely challenged soloing for 80 levels will possess the social skills and player skills to be part of a group not to mention a raid.

Therefore people who like to group and people who like to socialize will always be at odds with the design of the MMO that has loaded its front end with soloing. The donut theory really doesn’t work that well partly because as WoW gets older the outside of the donut — the solo part — gets disproportionately bigger due to more levels being added because of the release of expansions that purposely make grouping content like instanced dungeons obsolete.

Another reason is that the transition from solo to group is discordant and inelegant. Using mathematics as a metaphor: at level 79 you are doing basic arithmetic, at level 80 you are expected to perform calculus. Good game designers never change the nature of the game halfway through the game but that is exactly what Blizzard has done. Of course soloing should always be the first part of the learning phase for the new player but for 80 levels?!?

Soloing for 80 levels reminds of students that languish in university for years and years while they attempt to complete their degree on mom and dad’s money. It’s like a tutorial that never ends.

How Blizzard’s Master Plan Failed

It’s perplexing that for many years the lead designers at Blizzard have touted their group and raid content as the “core” experience of WoW. While it certainly is their most expensive and design intensive content you have to wonder how many of the 11.6 million players actually bother or are even capable enough to experience it?

Uncle Blizzard

Somehow they expected that soloers would eventually become groupers and groupers would eventually become raiders. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.

Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce grouping and raiding at a much earlier point in the career of the average character? But that would interfere with the ambitions of the grand storytellers and aspiring J.R.R. Tolkiens at Blizzard who want only to tell *their* story. Too bad they don’t trust you enough to you to create your own story. Maybe they are just lazy as it’s much easier to tell a story and create quests for one would be hero then 5 would be heroes.

Hope for the Future

I think it’s possible to give everyone a seat at the table in a virtual world but it requires a re-thinking of the current MMO WoW-inspired design philosophy. (It’s probably too late to save WoW as the horse is out of the barn and out in the pasture.)

While it’s very easy to look down on people for being “selfish” soloers they are really not to blame as they are playing the way Blizzard has intended them to play — given that we as humans usually take the path of least resistance — can we blame them? In the end players are a product of the systems and mechanics they are given by the designers.

Still, future MMOs should ensure that there’s room for people who like to solo and people who like to group without people feeling coerced to play a certain way. Conversely, soloers should not feel threatened that people who want to group with others would like more group and social content.

Those that advocate soloing also need to understand that people who like to group and socializers are essentially being starved by the scarcity of people willing to group. So please understand, we can’t exist alone like you can.

Eventually as a character levels up soloing should be made more challenging. Game designers should not allow soloers to remain in perpetual virtual adolescence. At some point they should grow up and be presented with compelling content that is actually challenging — content that would prepare them for the big bad world of grouping and raiding. Who knows, they may even like being challenged.

Conclusion

As soloers are the bread and butter of Blizzard’s demographics and source of their record profits they can be content that solo-content will never go away. Those that are afraid of the imposition of forced grouping are needlessly worried about an apocalypse that will never come.

To those who care not for grouping be careful of what you wish for and consider this reality: without people who want to group and raid where would Blizzard be? Answer: they’d have no warm bodies to populate and justify all of their expensive premium instanced content. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion without the future Icecrown Citadel raid and the arch-villain Arthas would probably not go over very well with the Blizzard marketing department.

Take away grouping and raiding and MMOs would cease to be MMOs. Sure it sounds crazy but given current trends aren’t we headed directly toward that inevitable destination? So my fellow soloers and groupers it looks like we all still need each other for the time being.

-Wolfshead

Update: I wanted to be sure that I included a link to an excellent article by Saylah at Mystic Worlds that does a great job in explaining the attraction of soloing in a modern big budget MMO.

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