What have we lost to solo play?

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.

Lord of the Rings Online - an injured Ranger

This guy has been stuck in this same spot for so long he has begun to grow roots.


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.”



Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What have we lost to solo play?

  1. Andre says:

    This was well written. It makes me long for the wonderful tight knit team I had in FFXI. Or he confusion but excitement of finding out how to be a better group in EQ.

    I so wish Vanguard would have been the game it could have and was meant to be. I might be playing int right now instead of feeling nostalgic and just waiting for the right IP to take my money and send me off into a world of fantasy, fun and mostly friends.

    • Ryahl says:


      Yeah, nostalgia has been hitting hard of late. More for the games than the people as most of the people are still about in my play arena.

      • Foxkoun says:

        I’ve gotta say that I do agree, but it’s important to remember a sad fact that people form statics, which can lead to people being left out.
        It does lead to need to join a guild, but there are too many cases I’ve seen where it was like signing up for a new phone.

        • Ryahl says:

          Certainly premades make it harder on those without such groups. I’m guilty of putting together premades and I get that I contribute to a problem in doing so. However, we have seen an array of more accessible grouping options pop up in the last half decade. Perhaps enough so that the initial solution (solo to max) can be set aside?

  2. kruunchKruunch says:

    There is a certain “instant gratification” mentality that’s exuded by the average MMO player (independent of age). We want stuff and we want it NOW! We don’t want to wait for groups; we don’t want to wait for random drops; we don’t want to wait for rare spawns; we don’t want to wait to level; we don’t want to wait for the boat; etc …

    People love to complain. However, in doing so, it appears that many MMO developers have bowed to the wishes of their customers (understandably … you want to make your customers happy) and given them this “fast food” content which has taken over the MMO genre (and caused much of the dilution posted about here).

    Here’s the rub … the customer is wrong. Or rather, they’re right in the short term … but the short term is antithetical to the MMO market (especially where a subscription fee is involved).

    If you give someone all that they want immediately, two things happen; 1) the value of that “thing” is diminished and 2) the someone, once satisfied, quickly gets bored and moves on.

    MMOs, by their very nature, are meant to be enjoyed for months and years. Accordingly, the learning curve and consumption of content should reflect that.

  3. asp says:

    this is a wonderfully written peice. it voiced what a gamer friend and i were speaking of earlier today. we were being nostalgic about ffxi befor the gimpdown started. and dreaming of a game that would be as indepth and difficult to play. where you actually formed friendships and groups to acclomplish a goal. and when thus acclomplished you KNEW you had done something. i miss our old linkshell. we all stayed in contact in hopes we could find another game that was worth the time we put into it. we tried gw2 but since we all (82 of us) finished out a toon in under 1 month, well that wasnt what we were looking for. i just wonder when the developers of games will get a clue and make a game for those that don’t mind working for what they get. and quit bowing down to underacheiving, lazy gameres with feelings of entitill.ment

  4. Fawst says:

    One thing I’ll point out XIV had going for it, that they sadly went away from, was physical level and class rank. The higher your physical level the easier it was to solo at lower class ranks, and your level could be raised by ranking up your crafting classes; which means if you really really really wanted to solo your battle classes all you needed to do was raise your physical level. It could have been expanded on to help solve this complex problem of making mobs so easy my little brother can solo everything in grey gear. They still have level quest difficulty levels and i love the new linking and cry for help system the implemented to help with the random encounters being more challenging.

  5. Valkayree says:

    “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?”

    I fit that bill. I’m in my thirties, married, kids, full time job, and don’t have all the time in the world to wait on a party or I will lose said job and family. I play games with a pause button now. Kids are first. So, I don’t mind slower progression. I can’t sit and wait on Azrael4390 (or whoever) to use the bathroom for 30 minutes so I can complete my quest. I want to still be able to get to that ultimate goal of super awesomeness eventually, but on my own time. Notice how colleges are transitioning from brick and mortar institutions to online classes? Same concept. And while the Elder Scroll and Fallout series are awesome, at the end of the day, I want to be able to show off my Blue Diamond Scale +8 armor and newly acquired Sword of Flaming Coolness +5 to my online friends. You simply can’t do that with those exclusively solo series. I have never played Dwarf Fortress. I played Minecraft for a while however. With Minecraft, the concept is amazing but I can’t get over the boxy textures. I don’t usually care about graphics, but boxes… I don’t know… I played FFXI for 4 years but quit because I was a lvl 65 blue mage (up to date on my spells) who sat waiting for days to get invited to parties and I could no longer sacrifice that time and still have a life outside of gaming. I enjoyed PSU on XBOX 360 because I literally soloed to level 180 over 6 years.

    In real life, I appreciate the social benefits of having other people around me but I am so happy that I am not forced to engage them in conversation to proceed in my life. I like that my MMO can be that way as well. Society has naturally progressed into the form it is in currently because it works for people. Cater to this in your MMO and you will get sales from those who are older than 18-24, guaranteed.

    I do agree, however, that the really good stuff should be reserved for those who do group. As in real life, you can’t get to the top without help, and it should be that way in an MMO. But you still should be able to have a satisfying experience solo. By the way, I love the concept of Duty Finder, and thank you SE for implementing this feature in ARR. It should make finding a party for group quests 1000 times easier. I am a lifelong XBOX owner and am buying a PS3 simply for this game. I am so glad to finally have a worthy MMO be released on a console.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Anti-Spam Quiz: