Soloing Difficulty

To the chagrin of many of the old school, whatever games we see inclusive of the MMO genre now have soloability as a necessity to gameplay.  Many of the millions are playing their own little game where a bit of social contact is never more than a Party-With click away, should they choose.  Even those that crave group challenges as the epitome of their MMO gameplay will find themselves crafting, leveling alts, or advancing rep until the event group starts gathering.  Raids have become some paramount achievement because they are easily made difficult requiring a herding of cat-minded guild members to a number of dance steps.  Yet, solo content is often just considered going through the grind.  “Exalted rep with all the factions,” you say to your guild mate of leisure, “glad you had the time to do that.”  The connotation that skill was not required for the achievement would not be missed between the lines of congratulations.

I personally believe that the answer is scalability, which Dungeons and Dragons Online, City of Heroes/Villians, and Wizard 101 all possess.  I am most familiar with the latter, but thoughts on the first two are more than welcome in comments.  In Wizard 101, most content is soloable, but it definitely is not an easy chore.  In most fights, solo players are outnumbered two-to-one.  The razor’s edge decision to mitigate, heal or nuke is present in every solo boss battle.  Once another player joins the battle, the uneven playing field drops to three-to-two, and healing and nuking can occur in the same turn with a little communication.  It’s a balance between perfect communication (with oneself) and greater enemy difficulty, or imperfect communication (with another player) and lesser enemy difficulty.  Then it becomes an easier choice to give soloers some of the best loot as well instead of always just passing it on to the raid-level content.

I have to note Guild Wars with it’s AI-controlled party members.  In the days before Heroes, Guild Wars followed the aforementioned solo/grouping tradeoff.  With 8 players, the enemies were easier to handle, but then the 8 players had to maintain a cohesive-focused group.  With 7 henchmen, the solo player had be extremely careful because the henchmens’ skills were not the most efficient and the AI could do dumb things, but the solo player had near-perfect control.  When customizable Heroes came about, the tradeoff nearly disappeared.  Heroes with perfect interrupt ability and skills for each challenge, were more better controlled, and their AI was raised to be closer to that of a skilled player.  Now, grouping up with other players in Guild Wars to do such things as vanquish a zone or farm some rep is seen as being nothing more than a social exercise.  Efficiency belongs to the soloer now.

And, that’s the danger.  It’s so much easier just to give challenging content to groups and time-consuming content to soloers.  It keeps players wanting to group up for the tastier carrots.  It keeps the efficiency of hardcore soloers down as much as possible.  I do think that some MMO developers are on the right track for creating a good balance of soloer difficulty vs. soloer reward.  They are making games about stories or events or soloer scalability where the division between a group and a solo player is one of playstyle, not consequence. 

–Ravious
on a steel horse I ride

9 thoughts on “Soloing Difficulty”

  1. I think solo play is a necessity for any MMORPG and despite nostalgia I think it would be difficult for players to accept an AAA title without it.

    Even aside from the other good reasons to have good soloing, an MMO runs 24/7 and I don’t know about you but I’ve had troubles finding a decent group at 3am.

    That said, I’m not fond of bots filling the role of group members. If I want to solo, I want to solo.

  2. I’ve heard reports about W101 being “easier” with another player than solo before, but it definitley wasn’t my experience, nor Mrs Bhagpuss’s. We both found that if any other player joined in it made fights take longer, often much longer. Even worse, it was very common for athe arrival of another player mid-fight , with new mobs in tow, to result in the original player dying while the johnny-come-lately survived.

    There is probably more fighting of “trash” mobs in W101 than any other MMO I have ever played. The very last thing you want to do is fight even one encounter more than absolutely necessary, and a great element of gameplay, for me, was moving from one place to another without aggroing mobs. Similarly, with highly specific “kill 10” quests, you really, really want to pull exactly and only the mobs you need.

    It was my experience that you could only do this solo.

  3. Well, I don’t want to argue Bhagpuss because I am well aware of your position on W101. :) But, I think we are talking of two alike, but different, mechanics. The amount of mobs fought can be controlled with two players “partying up.” When you add in the mechanic you hate (open fights available to johnny-come-lately’s), then not so much. But, IMHO when two players start a fight together, the difficulty scales appropriately.

  4. I can babble about City of Heroes, but I haven’t really played the game in over a year, so I can’t comment on any recent changes like the Mission Architect.

    City of Heroes’ scalability comes from the heavy instancing of missions. There are a handful of “Kill X Clockwork” missions, aka streetsweeping missions, but most missions take place in instances of offices, sewers, etc.

    The spawn sizes and difficulties that appear within the instance vary with the number of people in the team (group). Going solo you may typically see a spawn group of two minions and a lieutenant, while a team of 3 may see six minions, two lieutenants, and a boss. (Something like that, anyhow.) Additionally, the mission owner can adjust their mission difficulty, so spawns will increase in size and relative level according to taste. The lowest difficulty and the solo spawn sizes are quite manageable if you want to go it alone.

    The down side is a pretty brutal levelling curve. The common consensus is (was?) that around level 30 the dings started coming very slowly. Fortunately, ramping up your mission difficulty brings more experience, and since the game gets easier as you progress, you can take on tougher foes for better rewards in the higher levels.

    Also, every archetype (class, profession, what-have-you) is fairly solo-friendly compared to my typical MMO experience. Defenders and Controllers can have a tricky time of it during the lower levels, but in the main you can solo just about any powerset combo. I gathered that the villain-side archetypes are even more solo-friendly, but I didn’t spend much time on the dark side.

    Even though the game is very solo friendly, it’s also very group friendly, and I found myself teaming up much more in City of Heroes than any other game. Briefly:

    * Instances reacting to team sizes meant that teams could get good challenges regardless of the number of players,

    * You got a blatantly better XP bonus for having more people on a team,

    * The team finding/building UI is very good, and

    *You rarely need to have specific archetypes or powersets to function – a team of all blasters could cope pretty well, for example.

  5. Three quick observations on Wizard 101

    1. Agree with Ravious, Johny Come Latelys is very different from starting encounters together. Boss battles are also a different beast from regular pats. I would say that generally more is always better on bosses.
    2. Spec makes a big difference. Adds are a lot more challenging for some than others in my experience.
    3. An aside, but related to grouping. Like that if a friend is on, you can instantly teleport to them wherever they are.

  6. I general, I agree with Ravious, that scalable solo-group content is the way to go.

    As a long term player of Guild Wars, I saw the change from henchmen being the pill you had to swallow if you wanted to solo, to heroes and henchmen being more efficient, and downright better in most situations.

    Incidentally, I never considered GW’s solo content with heroes/henchmen to be ‘true’ soloing. Solo to me means, by my self; not ‘by myself +AI NPC’s’. As they basically do most of the work for you, it’s a bit of a buzz kill.

    If you wanted to go out on you own,….. hahahahaaa…. your going to die….. badly. Yeah you could go out on you own to farm and such, and do some stuff near the beginning of the game, but that’s really about it.
    You just couldn’t complete content only by yourself.

    I’d like to see how they are going to handle it in Guild Wars 2, as they said they are going to head towards more ‘true’ solobility.
    Something about a companion system, that gives you a buff if you go without…… eh, yeah….. we’ll see what it is when they flesh it out some more.
    Should be interesting all the same.

    ~Yoh

  7. This shines a spotlight on a really puzzling question for me. Just why IS it that challenging content for groups is designed to be more complex and “challenging” content for solos is simply designed to be more repetitive?

    Well… A group is a helluva lot more robust, I suppose. Members of a group can compensate for each other. But if you have a deficiency in your individual character build then there’s not much of a way to compensate for us if the strict requirements of a solo encounter demand it.

    So that shifts the burden of challenge to the player, rather than the character. Most group content doesn’t do this, it simply gives the “herd of cats” (as Rav seemed to be trying to refer to ;-}) a more complex recipe to follow.

    Come to think of it, LOTRO’s monster dev has done some great things since MoM to really spice things up for solos and groups. Moving your character, timing attacks and watching for certain cues… these all matter now (against certain enemy types) and they don’t in most MMOS.

    Champions Online seems to have built that concept in from the beginning, however. Blocking, dodging, resisting… these things are all done manually by the player rather than the character.

    Obviously these features were not parts of MMOs from the get go for a reason… programming, latency, server loads… and of course the fact that you don’t want to frustrate players without uber motor skills (aka twitch) nor bore players with them.

    hmmmmmmmmmmm…

  8. That’s a good point, Moondog548. In CO, afaik, every character has the console-like mechanics and that can be factored in to the skill/difficulty of the game. In LOTRO, the skill/difficulty is using the class skills, and with 9 classes the way each is played can be pretty varied. Take the original IXP solo instances in Dolven View, I think the devs did their best to make it equally challenging to every class, but the way the core game is set up a DPS will usually burn through the instance while a healer/tank might get it in just under the wire.

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