Long ago, when the MMORPG genre was young, cooperation between players was considered to be almost a necessity. If you were to roam about solo in Ultima Online, you would likely fall prey to a roaming band of player killers. Similarly, should you forgo companions in EverQuest, you would be greatly limited in what you could achieve. As the industry has matured not only has this notion been weakened, it is almost lost. Massively has asked bloggers to contribute to their Redefining MMOs series and I intend to put the shift from group to solo under the microscope.
EverQuest was not the first graphical MMO on the block but it was the title that really brought the genre to the attention of a lot of PC gamers. It added a new perspective on how these games should be played and opened up a world not unlike the ones many table top players experienced in AD&D. From the first moment you stepped out of a newbie zone you were encouraged to find complementary adventurers and form a band to increase your chance of success. It is this very mechanic that led to cries of the fictional “forced grouping” and the general negative reaction to having to depend on others to ensure your entertainment. These cries were so loud that developers took notice and began down a rather dangerous slope.
In each successive launch year the MMO industry has released games that reduce the need for other players’ assistance to progress. This in itself is not a negative thing. It is very natural and reasonable to want to be able to log in and achieve something without having to waste valuable time to find help. If the industry had stopped at this balance of group content being the focus with a solo option always existing our communities would be far stronger. Unfortunately we went well beyond that and the solo game changed from a choice if you picked a specific class to possible by virtually all classes. Eventually, developers saw soloing as being essentially mandatory so that any class played by any average player could reach max level without ever speaking to anyone else. Soloing is no longer considered an option but, instead, an unalienable human right. In many games it is the most effective way to level and grouping literally penalizes players due to poor experience splits and related mechanics. This seemed like a good plan business-wise but we are just now starting to see some of the negative effects.
The most obvious effect of creating a solo culture in MMOs is that players are less experienced when it comes to dealing with others in game. Most MMOs that offer the solo path to max level still focus on group and guild achievement at the top. The learning curve is far steeper for players that mostly soloed on the path to max level because they do not understand the synergy between classes and group dynamics. Who hasn’t heard a horror story about how one player ruined a perfectly good group or raid because they just didn’t get it? In truth, however, it is not the player’s fault. After all, how logical is it to encourage soloing as the best possible option for the first portion of a game, only to turn around and make grouping the only option at the end? If an MMO’s end game is raiding, grouping or team PvP, then it’s beginning content should reduce the emphasis on solo play and return that focus to grouping. Changing the focus in that type of game will also solve the issue of the dwindling community.
In my eyes and the eyes of many other “old” players, I know the sense of community within MMOs has been diminished over time. Solo players generally do not lay down the deep roots that group and guild players do. They don’t feel the need to join guilds since those organizations no longer offer them anything of value like they once could. Guilds used to ensure good groups, access to raids and numerous other perks. They helped players stay engaged with a game and literally built social connections that were as real and important as real life friendships. I know first hand just how strong those connections can be. I challenge any player to ask themselves if they’ve remained subscribed to an MMO longer simply because the idea of leaving their guild seemed wrong. This is not supposition for me but instead fact. Being the member of a guild and player in a community has kept me in multiple MMOs months longer than I would have stayed otherwise. Sanya Weathers has some data to back up that very point. In short, guilds and groups are good for business.
It is time that we stand up and ask for the second M back in MMORPG because I am tired of being in a world where I play around other players instead of with them. I am tired of spending countless hours alone because group content is so anemic that it is generally a waste of time compared to easily completed solo quests. Developers I ask you to bring back the glory of the group and ensure that they are the best way to achieve max level. Give us inducements to join guilds and remain with them. Keep that solo option there but only for when finding a group isn’t practical or is temporarily impossible. There are plenty of games that can be played solo only so take the chance and push back against the tide. In doing so you’ll empower guild leaders once more, energize your community, and help your bottom line. A player with strong roots has a hard time moving and a reduction in guild and game jumping benefits us all.
Consider discussing “Redefining MMOS: Removing Multiplayer from MMORPG” on the new Epic Slant Forum! You may also end an semail to Ferrel [at] mmology.org