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.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Tesh June 26, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Wait, I’m respectable? Pshh, I’ve been doing something wrong. ;)

I do find it interesting that you speak of coming out of an asocial shell, but note that D&D led directly into the group dynamics of EQ. Seems to me that you at least played with some people pre-MMO if that’s the case. The anonymity of the ‘net is different, sure, but the assumption that online play would be group-based is pretty squarely rooted in an already social experience.

Lethality’s quote is a great one, but I’ll stress that it’s still just offering an *option*. A game that needs a critical mass of players to maintain profitability can’t limit themselves to the group-loving niche. There have to be *other options* for those who don’t want that style of play if they need to be under the same business model tent. (Though niche games that embrace the “group or die” mentality are possible and probably healthy for the genre overall, they need more modest expectations than being a WoW killer in this saturated market.)

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.

That’s just capitalism and genre history. These are video games. Players have been buying video games for decades now, and can play everything they are actually paying for (they buy content). Maybe if WoW actually monetized via content rather than access, this wouldn’t be confusing (and those who whine wouldn’t have a leg to stand on). Take Wizard 101, for instance. I’ve paid them money for Access Passes, and so have access to part of the game. It’s very clear that I don’t have access to other parts, and that it’s entirely because I’ve not paid for it yet. The sub model (on top of a retail box) isn’t playing honestly with consumer expectations. If raids were monetized separately from soloing level grinds, the company can say “tough, that’s what you paid for”, and those who don’t want one or the other can simply opt out.

The doughnut is indeed a failure. As Tobold suggests, it may well be better to “unbundle” the game into solo RPGs and optional group raids (including the ability to jump straight into raiding from day one). I’ve argued for that more than once; make the solo game offline with only a one-time retail fee, then let players who want to be social pay for the online optional dungeons. I’m curious to see how Torchlight turns out in that regard.

Similarly, strong storytelling really requires single player gaming. The only way to make group content compelling is to give players power to change the world and tell their own story. A strong narrative from the “cruise director” will always compromise both storytelling *and* group content. I think that Bioware is about to get a rude (and expensive) awakening.

You know, I’m all for offering options. I will never advocate removing group content as a game option. That said, I don’t think that it’s necessarily more challenging or even more desirable, and that “graduating” out of “adolescence” into grouping isn’t an accurate representation of anything other than a desire for others to play your way. Isn’t that the point? That there are different preferences, and that assuming that every player needs to funnel into a “one true path” at the end game is a mistaken assumption?

What bothers me most is when a game is largely soloable (without bending over backwards), then it changes and blocks content behind group dynamics. Psychochild notes that such a bait and switch is bad design in his recent ruminations on some LOTRO quest chains. I don’t mind in the least that raiding is multiplayer since it’s clear from the outset that such is the case. I think that it’s actually one of the better parts of modern MMO design since it leverages the multiplayer bit, and that there really should be more interesting “miniraids” at all levels so it’s not just all at the level cap.

But when you’re creating a world that is interesting to all sorts of players, it needs to be accessible to as many of them as possible, group *or* solo. That’s why easy solo play to the level cap in WoW makes sense, since people can progress through almost all of the content (sans raids and some dungeons) on their own if they feel like it. Otherwise, they may not chip in their $15/month. (If we’re keeping the sub model anyway, which I wouldn’t, as noted above.)

The transition to raiding is a difficult one for some, but then, some don’t even want to raid in the first place. To each their own. (Though raid tutorials would be nice, as would the ability to bypass the level grind if players just want to raid.) That’s the point of a world with a lot of players in it.

If a game has little to offer but group DIKU grinding, I’m not interested. I never played EQ or FFXI for that reason, just like I don’t raid. Still, if we’re going to present these MMO things as “virtual worlds”, it should be noted that in the “real world” people often live parallel lives, and don’t travel in herds much of the time. (Ladies’ restroom trips notwithstanding.) Tobold also touched on the “direct” and “indirect” interaction that is a big component of the real world. Players can interact indirectly and still make valid contributions to the virtual world, *without ever grouping up for a dungeon or raid*. I think a solidly designed virtual world will have content for all sorts of playstyles, and shouldn’t impose one on the other, either way from solo to group.

I think a huge part of the problem is the wholescale adoption of selfish metrics that are in the DIKU DNA. People will almost always act in their best interests, and when they are anonymous internet jerks, that effect gets magnified. The answer isn’t cockblocking content behind group dynamics, it’s in making playing with a group fun. Note, not the rewards, it’s the act of playing itself that has to be fun. If the only lure is a slow dripfeed of more content or better rewards, we’re really going about it the wrong way.

As for sociality, I don’t think it’s game developers’ place to socially engineer misanthropic players. Parents need to do their job, not game devs, and it’s not society’s place to impose anything but the most “civil” of standards. Beyond that, if the social dynamics of WoW are any indication, game devs really can’t do all that much to start with. Anonymous internet idiots will always manage to be jerks, and those who want to reach out a bit can do so.

It’s a dev’s job to make something that people want to play, be up front about it, and don’t bait and switch by getting players interested in a game world, then tell them they have to play a certain way. They should “build it” and let the players come, if they want. Tangentially, that’s why I like the Puzzle Pirates model; players can play and then jump aboard ships with crews later *with no monetary cost* if they don’t want it. They can find a niche that they like in the game world and then pay money to occupy it better.

It’s also why Darkfall works; at least you know up front that you’re signing up for a party with psychopaths, and that such is the point of the game.

…so yeah, I agree that MMOs really need to leverage the point of playing with other people. DIKU leveling grinds really should be single player offline RPGs games (and notably, they don’t compare well to the giants of that field), and these MMO things should find their “core competency” and make playing with other people actually fun, instead of trying to “encourage” it by effectively handicapping the game for those who don’t want to group. That means giving players power, letting them tell stories, and removing artificial barriers to grouping, like the wide DIKU leveling band.

(Though there’s another tangent: what of the solo player who likes to attack groups for kicks? Or the solo PvP junkie? They are still playing “with” people, just not in groups. What of those players?)

Oh, and Saylah’s commentaries on playing solo in MMOs are another good resource. She’s at Mystic Worlds, here:
http://notadiary.typepad.com/mysticworlds/

Nice article, and thanks for the links!

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Wolfshead June 27, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Similarly, strong storytelling really requires single player gaming. The only way to make group content compelling is to give players power to change the world and tell their own story. A strong narrative from the “cruise director” will always compromise both storytelling *and* group content. I think that Bioware is about to get a rude (and expensive) awakening.

Agreed. I think Bioware is going in the wrong direction here. We don’t need more contrived stories in MMOs — we need less. I don’t want to be entertained or feel like I’m a spectator — I want to be an active participant in the story, culture, economy and politics of my virtual world.

You know, I’m all for offering options. I will never advocate removing group content as a game option. That said, I don’t think that it’s necessarily more challenging or even more desirable, and that “graduating” out of “adolescence” into grouping isn’t an accurate representation of anything other than a desire for others to play your way. Isn’t that the point? That there are different preferences, and that assuming that every player needs to funnel into a “one true path” at the end game is a mistaken assumption?

Playing what amounts to an 80 level tutorial sure makes me feel that players not being challenged. Games are supposed to challenge players. If Blizzard’s goal is to convert soloers into groupers and groupers into raiders then they are doing a very poor job of that given the current state of WoW.

Somehow we have a mentality where challenge is seen as a bad thing when in fact it should be embraced by any player worth their salt. Players playing a ridiculously easy game need to hear the truth even if it hurts.

Another thing that is a big elephant in the room that not many talk about is this: what exactly is a soloer supposed to do when they reach the level cap or when the quests run out?

The problem is that solo game play in a level based MMO is a finite experience at least until the next expansion. Grouping should not be seen as the problem but as the solution to that problem. More needs to be done by Blizzard to convince players that grouping is a noble and admirable play style.

Good read over at Mystic Worlds on the subject of soloing and thanks for the link. While I respect her opinions on most things I have to disagree with some of her stances on soloing.

I understand where she and 11.6 million other people are coming from on this. They want to have all the benefits and trappings of a multi-player online virtual world but they don’t feel obligated to participate in the group aspect of it. Players are just more sophisticated life-like NPCs.

I’m saddened by this because as someone who like to group but ends up soloing 99.9% of the time I’m an endangered species in MMOs.

Thanks again for the consistent insightful comments Tesh!

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Tesh June 28, 2009 at 11:57 am

Well, remember not everyone wants games to be challenging, and there are different flavors of challenge. Some players just want to be entertained, some want reflex challenges like a Dance Dance Revolution, and others want turn-based strategy. That’s why the “big tent” mentality of an MMO that needs critical mass ultimately leans to the lowest common denominator; it’s common ground for those different play types.

Whether that means more niche games to cater to different tastes or separate content “zones” in a “big tent” MMO is up for grabs, but there really isn’t any other way to have 11 million + players without winding up with the core experience as one that is really bland so that it can appeal to every different style. WoW hasn’t really catered well to the divergent styles (notably raiders who feel the game is in easy mode), to their discredit, but really, the core WoW experience *must* be as bland as it is to maintain the population base it is.

Unfortunately, perhaps, but wholly sensibly.

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Sharon June 26, 2009 at 7:22 pm

As a 30-something woman, my issue with grouping in MMOs at this point, particularly WoW, is that the demographic appears to have gotten less mature, less literate, and more idiotic. Maybe I’m just getting old. ;) I’m tired of having to turn off chat channels in every game I play (with the exceptions of LOTRO and EVE), because the signal to noise ratio is so bad.

In MUDs and earlier MMOs, I grouped all the time. I pugged with no issues at all. If people were jerks, and yes, there were always a few wandering around, they were the minority and they didn’t last long.

But if WoW wasn’t largely a solo game and if I hadn’t found such a great little group of guildies, I wouldn’t have lasted four years with it. I’ll still pug occasionally, but a good pug, with mature players, seems the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe as the games have become more accessible, as chat speak has become more socially acceptable, as parents stop taking responsibility for supervising their kids, and as the anonymity of the internet has provided an outlet for psychological wackiness of some people, the collective IQ of the gaming demographic has declined? Who knows. But if I’m going to have to group to play a game, I need the population to be fairly mature, or I’m out.

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Wolfshead June 29, 2009 at 7:40 pm

As a 30-something woman, my issue with grouping in MMOs at this point, particularly WoW, is that the demographic appears to have gotten less mature, less literate, and more idiotic. Maybe I’m just getting old. ;) I’m tired of having to turn off chat channels in every game I play (with the exceptions of LOTRO and EVE), because the signal to noise ratio is so bad.

This is a great point and something I’ve been railing about for quite a while now — the continual erosion of the caliber of the people who play today’s commercially successful MMOs. This has happened because MMO companies are concerned with expanding their demographics. (I even saw an ad for WoW on the Drudge Report the other day…go figure!).

At what point is the quality of the average WoW player so bad that the community itself becomes a disincentive to play the MMO? I think the MMO industry is perilously close to this tipping point now.

I think a lot of people have decided to turn off general chat entirely. If you are lucky and find a good guild with mature people who are compatible then yes you can turn off chat and isolate yourself from it all. It should be of major concern to Blizzard hat some players feel they have to turn off chat channels now in order to avoid the noise of the rabble out there.

MMOs don’t work as a melting pot for me. I still can’t believe that 10 years after the release of EverQuest that we still don’t have “adults only” servers. We have adult only apartments and swimming pool hours why can’t we have adult servers?

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Spinks June 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm

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.

I think this is very true. Both that grouping players need more help than soloers, and that soloers often don’t understand or sympathise with this.

I remember hearing this in my first ever guild. “We’re very fair. We say that everyone should be able to do whatever they want so we won’t organise guild events.” But it’s not fair. Because soloers don’t need anyone else to go do whatever they want. Groupers need other people to be motivated to group, they need it to be easy to find those players, they need it to be easy to get to those players, they need it to be easy to organise those players.

So if you assume that most people are not pure soloers or pure groupers, you need to tilt them towards grouping in order to get the groups running regularly.

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Ramon June 27, 2009 at 1:51 am

You make a few eye-opening observations in there.

What I suspect is the real issue is that some players want guaranteed progress via easy soloing.

That’s one of them. Like you, I remember 1999 in EverQuest and how solo progress, for any of the “groupable” classes, ended somewhere around level 20. I’m experiencing the same in Shards of Dalaya now. This would be unacceptable to today’s players, I presume, or at least to the ones that make up the largest portion of the paying market (i.e. WoW’s target audience).

The good thing is that now that there are so many MMOs out there, we’re seeing a lot of “niche gameplay”, and good grouping mechanics are now a niche!

Look at Dungeons & Dragons Online, Shards of Dalaya or Saga of Ryzom for games with strong social/grouping components. You may add Luminary, but I think Tobold can judge that one better.

Jade Dynasty tries to get people together in a different way, there are dozens of events every week where people can attend. Why not? And I don’t know what the end game is like, maybe the slick and fast soloing of the first few JD levels ends at some point as well.

So my conclusion here is, leave Blizzard out of the game. If grouping (from start to finish) is your play style, seek out those games that support it, because they are out there. And because they are populated by others like you, it’s not hard to find people that are happy to group.

See you in Dalaya :P

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Wolfshead June 27, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Thanks for the info on Shards of Dalaya and the other games Ramon. They look very interesting!

I think I’ve pretty much exhausted WoW right now and have said all I can say regarding what they are doing with WoW. It’s pretty clear that Blizzard is all about making as much money as possible by catering to the lowest common denominator and last I checked the number one is just that. :)

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Longasc June 27, 2009 at 2:55 am

Excellent article, Wolfshead.
I want to add a few things that also bother me in modern MMOs:

1.) The WoW “Donut”: They probably forgot something as they were dumbing down the difficulty of the whole levelling game. People LOVED the levels 1-59, and many did not even play all the dungeons, and not many got into raiding at all.

So raiding was declared the endgame, because Kaplan and Pardo were among the crowd who made raiding the endgame in EQ. It was initially never intended to be the end-all of gameplay in EverQuest, another example of emergent gameplay!

2.) Grouping gets punished
You are right that potential group players are turned into soloers and achievers over time. WoW and LOTRO are perfect examples of this.

I made some very good friends while playing MMOs with them. It was next to impossible to group in WoW, and nowadays it is even worse: The quests are designed with 1 person in mind.

And they got dumbed down over time more and more. Doing them together makes you often progress slower than alone. You get less experience. You get less loot. The personal playing experience is shallow, and it is already very shallow if you can aggro half a zone and survive it without breaking a sweat all alone.

-> I found playing with my friends very unsatisfying. In the early days of WoW, duo-ing mobs was fun. You could use a hand and help was appreciated! Nowadays it is just not “enough” to do for two persons.

(Right after WoW launch I was playing together with another Paladin and we swam through the sea (I believed Nagas to be sea dragons at this time, btw…^^) to Shadowfang Keep to do the Paladin’s Quest chain for the once legendary hammer Verigan’s Fist. That was cool.)

3.) Epic Items & Achievements vs actually playing the game
Today, people mainly play for better gear and achievements in WoW. Now people can say that progression and item hunt was ALWAYS part of MMOs, and this is true.

But the priorities have shifted somewhat: Items were often more a means to an end, also the ultimate reward. But nowadays they are the game. Even raids got dumbed down, putting off the more challenge interested “hardcore” raiders, offering “welfare epics” to the public.

Games were harder, you had to fight for items. You had to be lucky. All that. There was action, success was not guaranteed.
Even in hard mode, many MMOs nowadays are just pure FARMING and GRINDING for gear. The act of grinding itself is even more boring, as the mobs might die from auto-attacking.

4.) Another example of two games in one soul: Guild Wars

ArenaNet expected players after playing PvE through the whole continent of Tyria, with a PvP style tutorial in some late PvE missions, to turn to arena-style PvP, the name-giving “Guild versus Guild” and the elimination style tournament arena “Heroes Ascent”.

The PvP game Guild Wars became more and more and moooooooore a PvE game over time. The developers really tried to lure people into playing PvP, but it did not work out. It is also very hard to get into the not so casual pvp part of GW for starters nowadays.

There are some WoW style battlegrounds called Alliance Battles that are very popular. This reminds me a bit of WoW and Blizzard trying to make their new Arenas popular, the BGs are infinitely more popular among the masses.

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Brian 'Psychochild' Green June 27, 2009 at 2:55 am

Wow, I imagine the hate will start in earnest later. This is always a touchy topic.

Like Wolfshead, I learned how to socialize better in text MUDs. I’m rather (almost painfully) introverted. The only reason I have any social graces (such as they are) is because I learned my limits in how long I can socialize online. Extroverts (and even some introverts) just don’t understand how valuable this is.

The big issue is what everyone brings up: soloing is the way to bring the largest audience to a game as WoW demonstrates. There are a lot of people who lash out against “forced grouping” and just want to play the game as they want to. How do you make a business case for putting a focus on grouping in a triple-A title?

Personally, I’m on the fence. I don’t mind grouping up with other people in principle. I just want to have a good way to meet up with good people. I also don’t want too be forced into max-sized groups. If I have 1-4 other friends along for the ride (and especially if I’m playing with my GF), I don’t want our fun to be put on hold as we invite a relative stranger into our group to round it out. Sometimes I just want a relaxing night of duoing or whatever with some friends.

I also don’t like the “bait and switch” as Tesh points out. If I’m doing something solo-friend, don’t force me to group for a vital part of the quest. Likewise, don’t make me break up a group because you think this bit of story should be solo; yeah, LotRO is guilty here, too.

In theory, the best solution here is to do what WoW did with raids. You can do solo content, or you can do group content and get better rewards. I figure the soloers will then complain that they are “forced” to group to get the niftier shiny things.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other way and grouping will come into vogue later. Maybe niche games will provide the solution. :)

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Tesh June 27, 2009 at 8:43 am

“I figure the soloers will then complain that they are “forced” to group to get the niftier shiny things.”

That’s where I draw the line as a confirmed soloer. If I want niftier shiny things, I know that I’ve got to play by the rules to get them. I have no sympathy for those who might argue for rewards that really should be reserved for the greater effort of group-based content. (Which is odd, since grouping is at least partially meant to make content easier… but I digress.) If I want raid shinies, I have to raid, and I’m perfectly OK with that.

What bugs me is content access. Though I’m OK with raids and group dungeons being reserved for groups, if I’m paying for the game, I want access to as much of it as possible. (I point again to Wizard 101, where I had the option to *not* pay for a group instance via Access Passes, and for a long time I didn’t pay for it. When I made a few good friends in the game, I went ahead and bought access to what is effectively a low level raid/group instance. And I liked it as group content or as a solo challenge. The key is that it is optional, and not necessary for progress.)

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golergka June 27, 2009 at 5:51 am

I can’t agree with you when you say that WoW becomes grouping game at 80. The game gives the “group” option to the players that want it much earlier. My last character, 39 lvl Mage at the moment, didn’t complete a single non-dungeon quest since 28 – I switch to her every time a guildmate twink wants to go to instance.
If you want solo gameplay only, the WoW just ends for you at 80 – but there is plenty of content to level-up another character or two.

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Karl Gallagher June 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

Golergka is right, you can group the whole way in WoW if you want to. That what I did. A friend convinced my wife and I to check it out, rolled a new character with us, and we went up as a trio the whole way to (then) 70. Since we had a tank and a healer we could pull in a couple of dps easily for the five-man instances and quests.

Now if I’d had to team with 13-year-old strangers to play the game I probably wouldn’t have lasted a week.

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Stabs June 28, 2009 at 8:49 am

“Players/consumers continue to make unceasing demands on the developers and they are only too eager to comply”

I think this subtly misstates the scenario.

I don’t think any developer gets overly stressed by what people say on the forums. In fact the last couple of years worth of development have been quite counter to what players have been demanding as WoW forum posters are generally hardcore and somewhat elitist.

What they look at is actual movements or anticipated movements in subscriber numbers.

Now the R&D forums are full of elitist hardcore players who complain bitterly about dumbing down while still maintaining their subscriptions. These players although vocal are not worth worrying about because they pay even when not happy.

The guys who never post, maybe don’t even know where the forums are, but cancel and play another game if they can’t get easy access to raids are what drives the direction of development.

In other words it’s the least vocal players. Vocal players believe to some extent in their capacity to effect change by vocalising, otherwise there would not be much point complaining.

People who don’t post anything but who just leave if stonewalled is a much more significant demographic in terms of company profit.

It’s a subtle distinction but I think an important one. Explaining game development by observing player forums is like measuring how high the grass is by counting the raindrops.

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Modran June 29, 2009 at 4:34 am

Heh, sometimes I feel like I’m always typing the same comment again and again.

@Golegka: yes, WoW gives you the option of grouping early. The problem is that it’s an incredibly difficult option to undergo !

I quit WoW because I wanted to play a multiplayer game and ended up soloing. I had sweet memories of grouping in DAoC or EQ.
In WoW, I started by playing with a friend. At most, we were 4 friends. The more we were, the less interesting it was. Quests to a lot more time, fights weren’t that shorter, and awarded far less XP. And I don’t really have that many “whoah” moments.
When I played without my friends, it was next to impossible to join groups, and when I managed it, it lasted one quest. All in all, in 3 months, from level 1 to 25, I did not do a single instance.
Compared to that, in Tabula Rasa, I did them all on the first 5 maps. Numerous times, just for fun. And always in PUGs. I had a blast.

I have a friend who until recently was playing WoW. Solo. She was telling me that she was aware of the oddity of playing a Massively Multiplayer game alone. I… Did not really have the heart to tell her that she was no oddity…

I’m like many of you: I like to group, I don’t want people to be forced to group, but I’d like to be catered to, too…

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Tesh June 29, 2009 at 9:23 am

What I’m curious about is how much of that can be attributed to the highly stratified vertical DIKU design (just a structural problem), how much is simple neglect, and how much is active discouragement.

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SsandmanN June 30, 2009 at 4:34 am

@ Stabs

So you are implying that Blizzard game developers pay no attention to the forums they provided, but instead cater to some unseen demographic that is measured only in subscription numbers and is supposedly unseen/unheard?

Sorry, I find that impossible to believe.
This defeats any logic. You provide a forum, seek the public oppinion, and then do what you “suppose” people, who have not bothered to state their oppinion, want.

Nah, Blizzard may not listen to everything on the forums, but when they dont, they do whatever the devs like, not some unseen group.
And when they do listen to the forums, they end up catering to the piles of crybabies that are abundant there, and no, they are not mostly elitist. In fact the elitsts are a minority, in my oppinion. They may be a vocal minority, but most whines are coming from average, mediocre players.

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Stabs July 1, 2009 at 4:57 pm

It’s rather old but:

“Diablo II and the expansion are the games that we at Blizzard want to play. That is our formula for success. Companies that design games based on focus groups, marketing opinions, and even fan input do not succeed. Although hearing the opinions of others are valuable to us, every design decision must pass the test of whether or not WE would want it in the game.”

Source: Max Schaeffer, then Blizzard VP
http://www.warpcore.org/~sirian/diablo2/protest-2a.html

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Ferrel July 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I am in the same boat when it comes to my social skills improving through MMOs. It goes beyond that though. My real world management abilities improved through my experiences as a guild leader. It is simply impossible not to improve if you want to run a successful high end raid guild.

I would also say that working as a team in a raid guild improved my work ethic. It taught me that others were dependent on my participation and doing a good job.

The longer I’ve played MMOs, however, I find that those skills don’t always rub off on others. Many players don’t make the commitments to guilds that they used to. And why would they?

Guilds can’t offer anything like they once could. In essence, they controlled access to content. Due to the solo focus of all the games out there the traditional role of the guild is gone. Finding a group? Who needs one! Socialize? I have general chat! Even some raids can be “PUG’d.” The gateway, so to speak is gone or has been marginalized. Many see top end raiding as nothing more than a gear grind and waste of resources. I consider that a huge shame.

Even saying all that, however, I can understand the pressures behind creating solo content but there are other options in my eyes. Why not create inducements to group? Once more I’m sure we’d hear the “forced grouping” argument but it isn’t. Being able to solo is enough. Solo being the most effective means to leveling is not a necessity and, if it isn’t, that doesn’t equate to “forced grouping.” I’m not sure where that concept came into being.

Grouping should offer rewards for cooperating. By the fact that players don’t want to group suggests that anything that requires grouping is harder. They don’t want to spend the time finding group-mates but, more importantly, they don’t want to rely on others. That is what makes grouping all the more challenging and why it should be more rewarding. With that the case I frequently feel penalized by wanting to group since that is often the least effective way to level. It just boggles my mind.

Ultimately I miss the days where guild’s mattered and were not something to be used and thrown away on a whim. I miss the thrill of grouping with my friends and going out to do something challenging. Doing so now just feels like I’m wasting my time and theirs and that is a sorry thing to say about a genre titled: Massively Multi-player.

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Wolfshead July 1, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Really excellent points here Ferrel! I agree that MMO devs are losing a wonderful opportunity to reward players and unlock content by having them have to do things. Both the idea of rewards and unlocking are major game design philosophies and Blizzard seems intent on continually watering them down.

Not only is grouping on the endangered species list of MMO features guilds are probably in danger as well. Who needs them if players no longer have to work both socially and improve as players to get the same rewards?

I’m all for the sandbox approach and I believe in virtual worlds but you still need a healthy “game” component too. Socializing is a game just as combat is a game. All of those games work because they are cohesive and connected.

Blizzard is so eager to make money that in the process they’ve thrown almost every notion of game design off the cliff.

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Kristine Ask July 2, 2009 at 5:31 am

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

I think it kinda did. The devs realized that much of the raidcontent were unaccessable for a large group of players, and since WOTLK they have implemented many changes to make that part of the game more attractivle and plausible for the majority of players. They are trying to minimize the gap thats created between the bleeding edge and the newer players, and make entry level raiding viable. The reduction of raids to 10 and 25 mans is an example of this, same is the many raid instances that can be done in 20-30 mins (such as Malygos, Sartharion etc.). The casual people (the ones biting the edges of the doughnut) is given a boost to get to the juicy centre, cause like it or not: WoW is the leading game when it comes to PvE raid content, and they are now doing their best to let the most amount of customers enjoy that. More players now are entering raidcontent (which by all accounts are group based) then ever before!

Reading the commentary, it also strikes me that the “socializing” or “grouping” that people refer to seems to be only one type of grouping and socializing: the random encounters with other players, teaming up to do quests – having a world where everyone is a potential partner. Like it was in “ye olde days”.
I am sure that MMOs will be made to cater to those who want back to the early MMO-days, but for the rest of us: we will ignore the spam of strangers, and we will have fun with our friends. We will stay in guilds and get groups through wellbuilt social networks. We will adapt to the new type of player environment where /ignore is just as important as /friend, and we will have lots of fun :)

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Longasc July 8, 2009 at 7:35 am

I do not understand the separation of “oldstyle” and “newstyle” MMO players in your last paragraph, Kristine. I always had my favorite group of friends and rl friends that I usually played with. This is nothing new to the MMO genre.

I also wonder what is up with our perception of strangers nowadays, and how the hell did you build a social network, how do you get to know friends if you have this attitude towards strangers! :)

Guilds also changed over time to what Ferrel described, a means of players who band together to get better gear. Guild hopping and having not much to do with other guildmates besides the weekly raid is quite common nowadays in WoW.

Right now i am beta-testing AION and I wonder if the strong PvP component will encourage grouping with strangers in a natural way, not penalizing players for grouping or forcing them to do so.

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Dain July 15, 2009 at 11:16 am

Hi,
I’ve seen your site mentioned by a few people and thought I would check it out.

It is nice to see someone who actually discusses things with a well spoken manner, and full presentation, instead of cutting everything down to fit the diminishing attention spans ;)

About Final Fantasy XI

Final Fantasy XI was basically just like EQ, you were not required to group, but it was geared towards grouping.
A few classes could not solo at all, a few could do it very slowly, and the Beast Tamer excelled at it.

Things have changed though, they have increased the experience for “easy prey” mobs (The EQ equivalent of green), and increased the level range they would remain viable kills.
They have also added in books which give small kill tasks to increase exp gain when you have to solo. These are limited to one per hour, so it’s not a constant grind the book situation.
Although this by no means removes grouping from the equation.
Just the other day I went from a bit of solo grinding to a group, suddenly I was earning 4x the exp per kill, and getting kills faster.

At the same time they made soloing more viable, they also made it easier to find a group, they added in a mentoring system like eq2 has, but made it where the mentor actually receives the same amount of exp they would be receiving in a group of their own level.

The improvements allow you to make some progress while solo, but also still encourage grouping. While it’s not perfect they seem to be coming to a balance between grouping and solo that works. If the game were new I would be interested to see how fresh eyes would perceive it.

On to the subject of the decline of grouping.

One of the main problems WoW introduced into grouping is quest progression.

In the Eq and Asheron’s call days, quests rewarded you with lore, or items. They were not the next stepping stone on the way to cap. (It is the same with FFXI btw)

With WoW if you aren’t all on the same quest it’s pretty much useless to group together, at least one person will be wasting their time killing things they don’t need. Then add in the fact that so many will drop group the second they get all they need so they can go on to the next step. Not many want to waste the time helping someone else when the other will probably leave and not help them.

Off topic but this has also contributed to the lessening of storyline to the quests. You hear so many up coming developers talk about how studies show people skip over walls of text, and just read the blurb of what to do. Because of this the quest writers are now being told to limit how much they do for a quest, limiting good storyline to the epic questing.
I see part of the cause behind this being that people want to progress, and reading a storyline slows your progression.

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xcxvb August 18, 2009 at 7:54 am

I haven’t hit level 80 yet myself on WoW but i have grouped since level 7 when i got my first “suggested” grouping quest. Which if you didn’t have a higher level friend helping you than you found some other player(s) to team up with. Even if you had a high level friend kill the mob in one sec you still were grouping. Granted WoW can be a grind and you do solo a lot but you also group a lot if you know how the game works. In order to get the good gear regardless of level you have to do 5 man instances. If you completely ignore all of those you’ll more than likely never see any end-game content.

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