What have we lost to solo play?
A Companion Piece to “Of Augury and Speculation”
Musing on Massively Multiplayer Games
Edited Note: This is the companion piece to my 30-Jan, MMORPG.com article. There is a second companion to this column called “Enough with the (solo) quest hubs.” You can see the rest of my MMORPG.com column here.
In a companion piece to my MMORPG.com column about combat, I queried “what have we lost to the global cooldown?” In those articles, I observe that the pursuit of immersive MMO combat has paradoxically produced the opposite. MMO combat is largely repetitive and trivial and winning is virtually guaranteed in all but the hardest of encounters. While I noted that some of that triviality is an aspect of moving away from strategic combat, there is more afoot. I noted that:
“I also think it’s part of a number of MMO elements that have had their complexity simply watered down over the past decade. Some of it could also be the natural evolution of “solo based” character advancement, requiring PVE encounters that can be beaten by pretty much anybody with pretty much any build. It’s hard to design interesting encounters to that low of a denominator.”
In this entry, I want to muse a bit about solo-based gameplay and what it has cost us. In the earliest MMO’s, you often needed a group to get by. Aside from a few classes in Everquest, everyone grouped all the time out of necessity. While games such as Anarchy Online offered solo based missions for advancement, those titles still expected you to spend much of your time in a team. This all changed in 2005 with the launch of World of Warcraft. WoW offered the ability to progress via solo capable structured quests. While quests were certainly not new to MMO’s, these new solo quests were fairly simple and rewarded pretty extensive amounts of experience and loot.
It’s safe to say that the solo quest-hub is a staple feature to MMO’s launched after WoW. Whether these include the near-ubiquitous punctuation marks over the quest givers head or not, we now expect games to offer a set of quests for every block of the map. On top of that, we expect to find a bread crumb quest when we complete one block. This bread crumb will handily point us to the next quest hub where we will then find a new series of NPC’s with rats to kill, shrubs to clean and packages to deliver.
Solo Game Design Killed the Massively Multiplayer Game?
Hyperbole aside, it is my position that the move to solo-based character progression has greatly harmed MMO’s. I do not mean to say that solo play should be impossible. Nor do I mean that solo time should be a red-headed stepchild with sub-optimal outcomes. I mean, simply, that building our worlds around solo based progression has trivialized our games and turned MMO’s in a series of parallel single-player games. Indeed, these are games which are infinitely inferior to their truly single-player competitors. Say what you will about the ending for Mass Effect 3, but it had a far more cathartic finish than any ending in Star Wars: the Old Republic and SWTOR is a high-water mark for story-based MMO’s.
The Uncanny Valley effect – The uncanny valley hypothesis argues that there is a sweet spot in how realistic an artificial construct can/must be for humans to react to it positively. Make it too real and we become disturbed by its flaws. But the converse also holds true, if it becomes too fake; we are equally uncomfortable with its fakeness. The quest hub game suffers from the latter situation. Since nothing ever changes in the quest hub world, the quests simply reinforce how artificial it all is. Picking on the Lord of the Rings Online for a moment, the same Ranger has been sitting, injured by the same campfire for about five years now and he still needs help with the same bugs and vermin. In a single-player game, the player changes the world through their deeds. Since an MMO mandates that the same deeds must be available for every customer, the world can’t change and the deed becomes meaningless.
Monsters become punching bags – In early MMO’s, the worlds were dangerous. That’s not a “get off my lawn” statement; it’s a reflection of how things worked. Monsters in Everquest would mangle same-level players and could still be deadly even for higher level players. We’re not just talking “a close fight” either I mean “BAM you’re dead, loading please wait…” The world could be that way because you were intended to venture into it with a team. That team would have complementary abilities allowing synergies between roles. Those same roles, though, hinder the ability to build solo advancement environments. A class that is founded on buffing and healing, for example, has a very hard time getting past solo encounters. One way around that is to simply reduce the difficulty of those encounters so that any class, and any build, can overcome any solo obstacle. That’s a pretty low bar and meeting it requires turning your monsters into simplistic caricatures of themselves.
Homogenized Classes – In a hard single-player game like Devil May Cry or Demon Soul, the developers can make challenging content while offering you some build/gear choices because they can constrain which builds and tools you have access to. You always have the tools you need; it’s your job to figure out how to use them. With the MMO, though, the goal of “everyone must be able to solo everything,” creates a second problem. There are too many possible toolsets to make certain a player will have the right tools to overcome an encounter. One solution is to make encounters simpler, but a second option is to make sure every class has the same tools available. Healers need DPS, DPS need survivability, and tanks need DPS. At some point, the entire premise of classes and roles becomes untenable and the result of this is Guild Wars 2 where everyone can be everything, nothing is very hard, we all zerg and we always win.
Conan: the Librarian – In order for the solo player to advance through quests, we need quests. Lots and lots of quests. That’s a tall order to fill and its unsurprising no studio has successfully pulled this off in an engaging manner. From a literary perspective there are only a few types of conflict and a few possible story arcs which make up all of our stories, myths and legends. If you can limit the number of stories you have to tell, these can all be kept fairly intriguing. When you need to create hundreds, or thousands, of stories in a tight development window they are going to be a bit more formulaic than a Hollywood blockbuster. The end result of this is that the hero’s journey of a role-playing game has devolved into a not-so-exotic “honey-do” list in the MMO. For the next step in your epic journey young hero, collate and alphabetize this stack of papers!
Resource Constraints – In time allocation it’s useful to think in percentages. You never have more than 100% of your resources to allocate; time allocated to one activity cannot be spent on another activity. While different types of people work on different aspects of MMO creation, the people who make and populate our playfields come from a largely overlapping talent pool. Developer time devoted to the creation of one type of content means less time developing other types of content.
You can see this in the group oriented content available in the modern MMO. Everquest (at launch) featured sixteen distinct dungeons ranging from low-level to high-level content. These were also enormous zones, some of which you could literally adventure in across the vast majority of your character’s leveling progression. The most recent group-focused MMO to release, Vanguard had in excess of forty.
By comparison RIFT had ten, TOR 10-12 (depending on how you count faction specific dungeons) and the Secret World had eight. Not only are they fewer, they are shorter to boot and completely linear. Rather than more varied group content and environments, we get story-mode, hard-mode and super-duper-we-really-mean-it-this-time hard mode. I’m not knocking the idea of content modes; I think the core idea is a good one. I am, though, saddened by the limited number of parts of our game worlds that are even remotely dangerous.
But I don’t want forced grouping
As I stated earlier in this piece, I’m sympathetic to the desire to solo. However, the entire game suffers if it is built around solo advancement. The content is trivialized, the players are homogenized and the game play becomes increasingly atomized.
I also recognize that a number of people state that they prefer to solo or, at the very least, they prefer to not be forced to group. I wonder, though, in a game market with amazing solo options like the Fallout and Elder Scroll series and the sandbox wonderment of Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress, why one would pay to solo play through an MMO?
Further, I wonder to what extent developers have overly influenced us to WANT to play solo by simply building solo games. If, for example, we surveyed how players played Everquest we might conclude that everyone loved grouping because everyone always grouped. Such an extreme conclusion would be just as erroneous as I suspect is the current conclusion that everyone prefers soloing (including those who say they do).
The game world influences our behaviors in those worlds and solo designs influence solo game play. As an anecdote (and yes, I recognize the dangers of example via anecdote), I offer our guild’s experience in Star Wars: the Old Republic. We are a reasonably friendly social group of guild mates. Prior to starting TOR, it was normal to see 15-18 of us in Ventrilo (a voice client), regardless of whether we were grouped or not. After a few days of playing TOR, though, we started muting ourselves. Then we stopped logging into vent altogether. It’s not that we stopped liking each other, it’s that the vent chatter was getting in the way of TOR cut-scenes. Once we all stopped leveling, you started seeing people pop back into vent. We have seen the same thing happen in the Secret World – all that voice over work gets in the way of our voices.
I think solo game elements are a necessary aspect of MMO’s, certainly more so in the modern era. The thing is we don’t have to build a world of solo quest hubs. There are better ways to build dangerous worlds, where your friends matter, while still offering you some interesting solo entertainment. In the next companion piece, I’ll opine on “giving us better options than solo quest hubs.”