I was reading something recently that cited figures on grouping vs soloing trends in current MMOs (I couldn’t find it again to link), and it bugged me; it wasn’t until last night that I could work out why.
I happened on a show about The Scablands, Mystery of the Megaflood. In short: The terrain was assumed to have formed very slowly. Almost everything we know about geology validated the theory and so geologists were very reluctant to hear that it might have been formed, instead, in just a few days. There were a few clues here and there that didn’t add up to a slow formation, and rather than trying to explain these aberrations a small few geologists instead tried to find an alternative explanation which showed how the traditional indicators of slow formation could be duplicated under extreme conditions.
So it seems to me that perhaps the behavior of players in current MMOs has to be some mix of the mindset of the player and the design of the games they play. I think that summarising a tendency to solo play from today’s MMORPGs isn’t neccessarily indicative of what players actually want.
My favorite moments in an MMORPG are usually group-related; but I spend a lot of time soloing because I hate grouping with idiots. Worse, idiots tend to see grouping as some kind of contract. So two aspects of my nature come into conflict. On the one hand, I want to group with other people, but on the other hand, I want to be able to leave those people easily.
Many MMOs make casual grouping difficult. EQ2 is a bitch for quest updates that are single player. I think the intent is to draw out the completion of the quest – e.g. Lore and Legend books dissapear as soon as one person picks them up. Meaning that you have to try and hold out while everyone picks up a copy with long, pointless gaps inbetween. These gaps are presumably mean’t to draw out the surrounding content. But all it actually does is make the content an irritant and it makes taking a group a penalty rather than a perk.
All too often I see people give up on a quest step because they just don’t want to have to kill this same group of mobs 6 times. EQ2 has enough content now and the rate of exp progression is fast enough that they could dispense with this aggravation and just make ground-spawns either update the group or instant respawn.
This sours the prospect of grouping, in games like EQ1 and EQ2 spectre of greed. Even when you are largely just interested in experience points, uou go into an ad-hoc/pickup group wondering if its going to be worth it. But what is the worth you are looking for? Items and cash, perhaps for a start: will I get anything either useful to me or that I can sell? But also, probably, something that will advance your characters storyline – i.e. quest updates.
There is also the the inevitable demon of debt and the zombie of burden. The group invited you, so helping them with this next mob is somehow your duty. After you’ve killed Fred the Fencer, you have to try and get out of the group before someone can say ‘You wanna help us kill Marge the Maggot 3 zones away’ because you probably don’t have that quest. Or perhaps it’ll be the group that wants rid of you before you confront them with your stupid shopping list of stuff they don’t have.
WoW solves this to a degree with shareable quests, but obviously once you’re a few steps into a quest its a bit different. However – allowing the sharing of fundamental quests goes a long way towards making it less onerous helping someone with a quest step and goes a long way towards making grouping a less daunting task.
I notice that D&DO has been adding solo content. For those who don’t know, Dungeons and Dragons Online originally had no real solo content. Most of the zones are instanced, with a few “communal” zones where groups form and get quests etc. The zones are full of puzzles and unique material which gives them less replay value but makes them a hell of a lot more fun on first play.
I’m not sure how adding solo content is going to work for them, I think that adding r&r content might have been better – like player housing and perhaps housing-related crafting. Putting people into solo content consumption undermines everything that I felt was great about the game where creating a sideline social aspect that is capable of occupying the players’ time would raise the online population and thus make building groups for content consumption that much easier. I’m sure the solo content helps with that to some degree, but it probably draws players away from group content consumption too.
Unarguably there are lonewolves who don’t want to be grouped with people and who simply want to play a game in the presence of other living beings, but I don’t think that’s most people. Maybe its most of today’s hardcore MMORPG players, because maybe that particular audience happens to coincide with the group of computer gamers who want a little more than single player games.