Get Your Party Off Of My MMO

It seems that a recent Bioware interview for Star Wars: The Old Republic has caused quite a stir of echoes about allowing people to play the MMO solo.  It’s not too hard to stereotype the two camps.  On one hand we have Keen, a single male in college, and Tobold, who is sure to let readers know that he has plenty of liesurely time as he and his lady don’t have kids.  On the other hand we have the hardcore father-blogger-student-worker Syp, whose time is precious.  I fall in Syp’s crowd because my game time is very precious, and I agree with his assessment the most.

Grouped content is amazing; no one disputes that.  Even in Guild Wars which usually requires 8 party members to play, taking along 7 other warm bodies on a mission instead of 7 AI-controlled bots is quite an improved experience.  It just feels more organic.  Still, the one thing in MMOs that absolutely enrages me is waiting in the hopes a group will form.  Bugs or “bad” design implementation are mere itches by comparison.

The ultimate goal, in my opinion, is one that ArenaNet, Turbine, KingsIsle and now Bioware follow: supplement empty chairs with AI characters so that players can actually play.  Now, Tobold and Keen are upset because, gosh, a player might choose to go at it alone without experiencing the greatness of polite, helpful pick-up-groups or always-on-time, sober guildies.  Tobold, in an earlier post, asks why not just go play a single-player game because they are cheaper (highly debateable) and more convenient.  I’ll tell you why again.

Humans are social creatures that need interaction with others of their species.  MMOs are games that support that need, but the interactivity is not simply limited to partying in MMOs.  Interaction can be  a calculated game of cornering a market, it could be enjoying the buzz of the social hubs, and it could be the simple comfort of knowing that even sitting in a small, lonely apartment, the gamer is not alone as another player runs by in the forest.  Our connection runs deep.

I found it very interesting that the biggest complaint about Skirmishes, Turbine’s new scalable, instanced, instant content for Lord of the Rings Online, was that it was hard for just two people to play.  That’s the level of interaction these couples wanted out of an MMO.  Why don’t they just play a co-op game made for 2 players?  Because, I would guess, they want just a tad more interaction.  They might not want a third wheel in their Skirmish party, but they are playing an MMO because they don’t want to be completely insular.  The term “massively” is a term so hotly debated because at the end of the day it’s really not about the server population, number of players in a party, or soloability of the game… it’s about interaction.  And, meaningful interaction is relative to each and every person.

live together, die alone

31 thoughts on “Get Your Party Off Of My MMO”

  1. I just cant see SW:TOR working, sure all the Star Wars geeks will buy and love it but it just seems less and less of an actual MMO the more I read about it.

    It is going to be very instanced which is a pet hate of mine already however the biggie for me is the way it is so story driven and choices will matter – I prefer making my own stories and interacting with real people more, I dont know why but it just doesnt feel right to me. Perhaps I’ll be totally wrong and Bioware will create an MMO which takes things to the next level…. im not holding my breath though

    1. I personally am more worried about how elegantly they handle content gating and phasing in their MMO where choices are made than soloability. I mean if I kill off the Mon Calamari captain, and my buddy doesn’t… will we not be able to group up in certain content?

      1. That is the $64,000 question, Ravious. I’m really looking forward to how they handle grouping when people can be on such divergent versions of the same quest.

  2. Well said. I particularly like paragraph 4. I already responded to this “discussion” on Keen’s site.

    @Pitrelli Think LOTRO. LOTRO has instances to tell stories and they also have open world content. I prefer sandbox/open world over instanced too. But I enjoyed LOTRO and I would consider it an excellent game that is successful.

  3. I definiteley agree with your sentiment here. I wish I could have put it as eloquently though, but your thoughts about the world “Massively” and the need for people to not feel alone was really what I myself wished I could have written.

  4. Besides liking the option to either group or solo, I imagine there are a lot of people who play LoTRO and plan to play STO or SW:TOR because they are fans of the IP that they are based on and the massiveness are purely incidental.

  5. I don’t know if ultimately allowing everyone to solo everything is going to work out for SW:TOR (or maybe that will but something else will kill it), but it is the basis of why I’ll be skipping it.

    To me it comes down to what you expect out of the MMO genre, and to me that has always been playing in a world with thousands of others, and those thousands providing as much ‘content’ as the devs themselves. If I log off for a week and come back to find my situation and the world around me unchanged, that’s not an MMO to me. As the genre matures and expands, I think we are seeing some games continue on with that basic design, and others push more towards the single player online experience.

    The big money question, like Tobold has raised, is whether the single player online experience is worth playing/paying for months/years at a time, like we know the MMO experience is. I say no, but we will see with SW:TOR.

  6. Setting aside my personal situation, it is a fact that everyone who plays MMGs solo at some point. Sometimes you can’t get a group. Sometimes you don’t want to group. Solo should be the default design assumption. Group content should be built on top of that — ideally by giving them unique content scaling the challenge everywhere else (i.e., an encounter that spawns three orcs for a soloer spawns six for a party of three).

    As someone who – due to children and guidies with different schedules – has played LotRO almost exclusively solo for the last two years, I support use of AI companions. It’s not going to cause me to suddenly stop watching over and emergency-heal people I see losing a fight. It’s not going to stop me from applauding the minstrels playing “Don’t Stop Believing” in bad MIDI at the Hobbit races. It’s not going to stop me from chatting on the global and regional channels.

    What it is going to do is make it possible for me to experience all the content I’m theoretically paying for.

  7. This debate has been going on since the day I first stepped into an online virtual world and I have no doubt it will be going long after I finally step out of this one. It seems MMO players are never satisfied until they’ve set up a “them” an “us”, the more arbitrary the better.

    Even though it’s been established for more than a decade that MMOs can thrive and prosper with a mixed economy of soloists, small groups, full groups, raiders, crafters, economists, casuals, hardcore, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, we’re still arguing that it has to be one thing or the other and No Compromise! Never mind the evidence. Never mind all those dozens, scores of MMOs that have been offering a variety of gameplay year after year and not going out of business. No, if things aren’t done Just So then the whole pack of MMO cards falls down, apparently.

    Not that I don’t appreciate a bit of drama, but really…

    I’ve spent years soloing in MMOs. I’ve spent years grouping. I’ve been very actively guilded and I’ve gone from creation to max level without a guild tag ever appearing under my name. I’ve logged in every day for months when the first thing I did was out a LFG call, or started my own party, and I’ve played for weeks at a time without grouping with anyone. I’ve duoed so regularly it seemed like the characters couldn’t log on separately. About the only playstyle I haven’t given a fair crack is raiding, and even there I’ve done more than a few here and there.

    The whole point of MMOs is the option to do any and all of this. Offline you play the one way the game is designed to let you play and there’s an end to it. In an MMO you can be a soloist after work, a raider on weekends, a crafter in your lunch hours. You can be a hardcore raider for a year, burn out, duo with your husband for a while until you get your mojo back, do a few PUGs, end up in a casual guild that transfers to another game then breaks up, leaving you soloing and now loving it… until you get headhunted and end up in another hardcore raiding guild.

    It’s the game company’s job to make all that available all the time for all of us. They want our money and what we want from them changes constantly. So far, I’d say the industry has done a better than expected job of keeping the plates spinning. I think they are getting better at it all the time and our choices as players are deepening and widening in a very attractive way.

    I’m very optimistic for the future of this hobby. It was wonderful a decade ago and it’s getting better all the time. I intend to go on being a solo unguilded player who joins guilds and groups. Maybe one day I’ll even raid, who knows? Its all there for the asking.

    1. Well said.

      The whole point of MMOs is the option to do any and all of this.

      This is the key here. There is no specific way that these games should be played, but rather the range of options that they provide that is the attraction.

      1. Agreed, it’s all about opening the doors to allow different players and tastes. Of course, we see the same holy war of “Us” vs. “Them” when it comes to business models, too, while games like W101 and DDO quietly make everyone welcome.

  8. I think most people agree that a mix of playstyles works well with an MMO. What we don’t know yet is whether a MMO designed from the start to encourage soloers would ever grow a grouping culture. What will make people group?

    I’m enjoying the skirmishes in LOTRO, but that’s partly because I know I have other options in the game to go hang out with people if I want, and the game has grown some solid guilds. Will SWTOR do that, or will it really be a game of soloers where people only talk to their RL friends (or guildies from other games)?

    1. Would Guild Wars count? In Prophecies, you started out only being able to have two in your party, but it was very soloable. Once it got to four in your party, they heavily pointed to using henchmen. Nightfall is similar since they give you 2 Heroes right away.

      I would say Guild Wars definitely encourages solo-type play from the get go… only the end of the end game requires a group. (And PvP of course)

      1. I see this mentioned often in this discussion, and I have long said that I enjoy GW precisely for this design. Of course, I think that the business model is fantastic, too. What interests me of late is the intersection between the two. Single player games are classically a one time purchase, rather than a game one subscribes to. If SWTOR really is walking more on the GW side of the design spectrum, it makes sense to me to have a concurrent monetization model.

  9. Great post, agree 100%.

    The idea that allowing players to solo or group as they wish would destroy the MMO genre is the most idiotic hogwash I’ve seen in the blogosphere in a while. I’m a bit surprised to see it coming from commentators that are intelligent enough to know better. Tons of us mainly play these games solo and are still quite happy to pay a sub fee.

    Guild Wars did extremely well. True it didn’t have a sub fee, but the box prices never went down and those boxes sold like crazy. After buying 3 or 4 boxes you may as well have subbed for a year. It will be interesting to see how SW:TOR does.

  10. I suppose the two groups will continue to talk past each other, one repeatedly answering the question of why we don’t just play single player games if we like to solo (or have to out of time restrictions, etc.) and the other insisting on their immutable definition of what “massively multiplayer” *really* means, until the proverbial cows come home.

    In the meantime, hear hear! to your post.

  11. I agree Ravious but I also understand where their fear is seated. Grouping requires a critical mass of people willing to group. Will this game have that critical mass? Prolly during peak hours it will, but the rest of the time? Hmmm. Lots of questions and complex details to deal with here.

    1. In my experience even games with forced grouping rarely have critical mass for PUGs at odd hours, save for the first few months after launch. If you want to PUG, you pretty much need to be on during prime time and/ or play on the most popular server.

    2. That goes back to the whole “waaaaa, we want players to play our way, ’cause it’s the REAL way to play”,though. I am rather unsympathetic to that viewpoint (from either camp, to be sure).

      Also, one significant point of henchmen is to pad out that critical mass for precisely those times when there aren’t enough players. PUG nightmares aren’t just for those who grudgingly group up. Even those who love grouping have bad experiences with other players.

  12. I agree with everyone who agrees. Thallian brings the sooth rebuttal though. Of course both of you are right and the solution must take both perspectives into account, not choose one over the other.

    Also, seriously, what the hell does SW:TOR have in common with an MMO at this point? It seems less than Guild Wars. That’s not to say anything bad about the game, because great games can be of any sort. It does seem to be labeled incorrectly though!

    1. MMO? I think “massive” applies well enough. “Massively” works, too, if you’re using that version of the acronym. “Online” is pretty obvious. The hinge is “multiplayer”, and to be blunt, that can mean a lot of things. Grouping is only a subset of the word’s definition.

  13. As a game developer, I’m all to happy to charge people a subscription (or provide microtransactions) for people who want to play the game alone. Although, concerning microtransactions, given the way single-player games are going with DLC, maybe we don’t need to bother with a server to fleece people who want to play alone. ;)

    The main issue here is that having a game full of soloers makes it harder for people who prefer to group to play their way. If there is an element of forced grouping, then people who prefer to group have a pool of (perhaps unwilling) participants.

    I think the duoing argument at the end is interesting. As I’ve mentioned before, I play LotRO with my better half and duo most of our characters. If I weren’t in a really cool kinship, I’d probably be more upset about the lack of 2-person content. Even now, though, we probably won’t do Skirmishes with our lower level characters because that means finding someone level-appropriate.

    1. How useful are those who are unwillingly grouping up? Also, that’s just putting stress on a player that eventually kicks them out of the game, and in the meantime, those resentful players may well make other players miserable.

      As a designer, you want to be welcoming, not stressful. You just don’t make exit points in your game on purpose, and grouping can often be one.

      1. How useful are those who are unwillingly grouping up?

        Perhaps “unwilling” is too strong of a word. How long was EQ1 the top game in the west despite being the origin of “forced grouping”? I’ll politely note that many of the WoW clones that fail to match Blizzard’s numbers also fail to match EQ1’s numbers when it was number one among a half-dozen major games.

        1. Call it “grudging”, then. ;)

          Also, comparing EQ to WoW is a nice thought exercise, but if you sprung them both on an unsuspecting population, say, a Mars colony, that might be more instructive. I suspect that the “move” to soloability is just design evolution, and that if WoW and EQ (or any other representative “soloable” vs. “forced grouping” pair) were pitted head to head in a fresh race, perhaps even with the same art direction to kill the bling factor, soloability would give WoW’s gameplay and social structure the edge.

  14. Brian: Or just lower the level of a three man skirmish so you can handle it with two? We ran a 6 man skirmish with 4 people that way earlier. (I feel mean expressing disappointment with a new system that is so fun but I had kind of expected them to scale like CoH instances.)

    1. Someone actually suggested that in the forum thread linked in the post. You can read some of the counter-arguments there. The main one is questioning if the system is balanced for that or not.

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