Massively Overthinking: Alone together vs. forced grouping in MMORPGs

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that everyone has at some point seen the xkcd called Isolation, but if not, there it is. No matter what the age and era, someone’s always preaching that people were more sociable in the long long ago. In this comic, however, Randall Munroe isn’t even contesting that. His point is basically no duh and so what. Yes, we become less sociable with random people in our immediate vicinity as we gain more and more access to ideas, entertainment, and people not in our immediate vicinity thanks to technology. Ultimately, replacing impromptu stranger interaction with the amusements of our choice appears to be what a lot of people wanted all along.

MMORPG players surely see where I’m going with this because we have the same eternal struggle when it comes to in-game socializing, grouping, community, and stickiness, the tug-of-war between the people who want to play alone together and the people who think that forced grouping is the only true path to enlightenment.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our staff to reflect on the alone together vs. forced grouping spectrum, to talk about where they stand on it, whether that position’s changed through the years, which games are addressing the divide the best, and how the two sides can move forward in a dynamic MMO genre.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’ve always disliked the “alone together” model but understand the perspective. There are times where I want to play quick and get out (well, let’s be honest: grind – dailies, PvP currency, dungeons, etc), but managing social groups and relationships in MMOs can bog you down. Especially as a guild leader or officer, my quick log ins were often to make sure there wasn’t a drama fire threatening to burn down what we struggled to build. I totally understand why someone would want to play alone but have people around them for entertainment or pug help.

I don’t think “alone together” is exactly the problem, and I don’t necessarily believe it’s “worse,” just more salient. My first MMO, Asheron’s Call, was very solo friendly. However, playing with other people wasn’t just more rewarding on a personal level but an in-game level. That’s why I feelt the problem is when grouping with others is seen as a hindrance. As we focused more on jumping through quests which could only be done once for very specific rewards to reach a level cap everyone needed to hit for “end game” (which I actually experienced in Asheron’s Call 2 before Turbine brought it to the masses), people seemed to start to lose track of the people on the path. Those who couldn’t keep up got left behind more, not just because friends wanted to level up, but because basic things like access to dungeons or being able to see quest objects was withheld. When people – players and developers alike – don’t understand that others are more than entertainment and ammo, they treat them as disposable. That’s a huge problem, not just for those of us with higher values, but game developers.

Why make a big game that cultivates multiple users if people don’t need each other? What will keep them together while you’re developing new content? Worse, what keeps them coming back when the content you develop isn’t appreciated by the community? Pokemon Go is a good example of this. As much as I’d like to write something positive about it for MOP (and I may be getting closer), I still feel like POGO has been the very definition of bad game design. The fact that Ingress is better developed but still not on the casual gamer’s radar should be a constant reminder to the developer that POGO is alive because of the already existing Pokemon community. The current surge of player activity isn’t because Niantic made good group content with raids (it didn’t). It’s popular because there’s new “loot” (better Pokemon) that the average mass of players can’t steam roll without communicating (unless you live in a popular city where you can often zerg Pokemon down like an MMO tier 1 dungeon months after the tier 1 Raider Finder raid is on community farm status).

The best thing Niantic’s done is poorly communicate very basic aspects of the game in game. To give an example, in Asheron’s Call 1, my friend and I did a dungeon that was split into 2 paths, requiring one person to pull a switch to let the other one progress. You had to do this a few times. It was quite easy to understand, but even back then, a lot of players just didn’t get it. It didn’t matter though, because they could just sit around and wait for someone smarter who got it to come along and do it, much like lone POGO players may do in their car. The difference now isn’t that MMOs are smaller thanks to fast travel, nor that content is too easy (I’m really fighting my “back in my day,” old man mode here). Truthfully, POGO raiding is really easy if you know anything about the main series games. They seem hard because, well, most people actually don’t. While some raid Pokemon can just be steam rolled, I’ve seen people fail horribly because they never learned the game, and that’s important. What’s weird about socialization in online games is that the boring parts are usually where people bond.

Just as in Asheron’s Call, I’m still doing content that truly doesn’t seem difficult but people, for whatever reason, don’t get it. I don’t need to invite people to raid with me. Lord knows Niantic doesn’t give us in-game tools to communicate with others (which makes my earlier experience in Japan apparently worse in raids, especially because talking to strangers isn’t OK). However, I know teaching other people how to play and recruiting them into my neighborhood’s POGO “guild chat” benefits me. In game, I don’t have to search for raids as much or use a lot of websites, since we help each other out and cross-check our info. Raids go smoothly, and we don’t need as many people (which is important because my area has a fairly small POGO population). For the game, it’s great having more support.

However, socially, I feel like there are bonds that are growing. The Japanese grandmother I’ve played with on and off when we randomly meet in the park doesn’t live far from me, so she’s been even more friendly. Our power player feels like he’s more helpful on a personal level, giving people an idea of when he’ll be around and available to help others. Heck, we’re even having a get together soon, which will be the first time I don’t need to drive to a major city (or different state) to meet guildies. We’re at the point where (in our larger group) people will see some of us more active players and just start chatting it up before we realize we’re all in the same “guild.” My hometown never felt this friendly before.

There are tons of “alone together” people, in online and offline MMOs. People who come out, don’t listen to “raid leaders,” get their loot, and go. Real world puggers who are more “alone” than “together,” utilizing communities so they can progress without the social side of the game, and that sucks offline more than online because as I visibly see them more and more, and those people still act less than social, making me feel that some people’s fear that heavy online use makes people lose real social skills is very real (not blaming games, but this is a whole ‘nother topic).

I’ve always worried about games catering more to this crowd, increasing and decreasing depending on my personal real world social issues, but in the end, I always return to the same idea: it’s not just about how the game is designed, but how the individual players are approaching it. I loved TERA because I thought the action combat would get more people communicating on voice chat, but felt like it just drove them away. I thought ArcheAge’s labor points would get people to work together more, but second accounts and multiboxing fixed that. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s emphasis on personal story seemed like potential threat to grouping, but it was one of the MMOs I played guilded for more than a couple of months, probably because our collective desire to power through content to access that solo story motivated us. I still get annoyed with people who are around me and don’t want to group up, but obviously the real world is the same. We just need developers who keep making sure there’s content that requires groups and at least some need for communication.

Kittens!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The beauty of MMORPGs to me is that they provide a space for us to do whatever we want within the bounds of the rules and reason of what is ideally a vast virtual world. A virtual world, like the real world, should be made up of people coming and going, entering and leaving all manner of social circles and situations. A great many of them should realistically be alone — alone together — most of the time. That isn’t some new development bringing about the downfall of MMOs; it was always like this, even in the earliest MMORPGs like Ultima Online and EverQuest and Asheron’s Call, too. Their flashes of brilliance were reflected from their diversity of play and playstyle and player type, not in their homogeneity. No doubt your very best memories came from social encounters, as mine do, but those were the exception to play, not the rule, which is why they stand out.

The MMORPG that actually coined the term MMORPG and became the de facto founding father of the genre launched with neither guilds nor groups, but the community formed these things anyway, organically. Games don’t need to force us to do that; those of us who want to play that way always rise to the challenge. People are naturally social creatures, just not all of the time. If I wanted a game where I had to solo all the time, I would play a single-player game, which is fairly likely to be better at most types of mechanical gameplay than any MMORPG. If I wanted a game where I was grouped cooperatively or competitively all the time, I would play a team combat game like a MOBA or shooter, also fairly likely to be better at that type of play.

What I want out of MMORPGs is choice — to choose from a vast midfield of nuanced social interaction between the endzones of stark loneliness and team-murder simulation. Just as in real life.

But far too many MMORPGs do not recognize or accommodate that because doing so is expensive and hard. Let’s be honest here: Many, maybe even most, playable PvE MMOs in 2017 have been carefully tailored by psychologists and marketers to cater to addictive personalities willing to play alone to cap then group to win whatever endgame, with little content in between save what’s buyable in a cash shop. If you aren’t in that box, you’re not buying, so they’re not selling to you anyway.

The games that serve us best, that should be leading us into the future without shedding what makes MMORPGs unique, are the ones that reconcile a hundred player types and find ways to make the game sticky for all of them — not just the endgamer extroverts privileged since WoW rewrote the rules.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is one of those topics that I’ve spilled so much metaphorical ink upon over the years that I’m always unsure if I have anything new or interesting to say on the matter. It seems like one of the simplest things in the world to me – you can force people to group up for everything, but all that does is make them resentful of the fact that they must be grouped up for everything. Giving players more options means that they can group up for things and interact more organically in the world, while incentivizing actual socialization more acutely. I find myself more socially active in games where I have more choices, and talk about MMOs being “less social” seem to come from the people accustomed to being needed as a live body more than the people who everyone wanted around, at least in my experience.

Oddly, my views on the matter haven’t changed much over time; getting started in Final Fantasy XI pretty well locked in my feelings about being forced to group if you wanted to do literally anything. The game’s design has backed off from that hard at this point, and all glory to the original Guild Wars and its AI companions for proving how making content which always required a party reduced everyone to a functional ball of stats you needed at all times.

I’m obviously very pleased with how Final Fantasy XIV handles things; group content can almost universally be cleared just by queueing up, alone or with friends, and there’s plenty of opportunity to meet people and enjoy their presence or even just enjoy random strangers in parties because you don’t have to be there forever. (I’ve gotten commendations in groups just for making a few good jokes along the way.) The Elder Scrolls Online does a good job of giving you the opportunity to group up without it being mandatory, and up until the raiding scene arrived on the game I thought Guild Wars 2 really had a lovely set of encouragements for grouping without making it a mandatory part of playing the game at all.

Ultimately, the more your game focuses on “making groups is easy and making friends is a good thing but not required,” the better I think it’s doing. It’s wonderful when you make friends in a game, but you shouldn’t have to have your friends all be elite players if you want to do anything meaningful in the game. The more you have to form your group before you’ve done anything, the less you actually remember the people you’re teaming up with.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): A couple of years ago I was showing Lord of the Rings Online to my dad, who was trying to grasp the whole “online together” concept. He did make a little remark about how these games seemed to offer escapism from reality, to which I countered “books are pretty anti-social when you think about it” and “at least I’m hanging out with other people!” He conceded the point.

We thought it was amusing.

People who argue for forced or dominant grouping in MMORPGs tend to oversimplify what makes a game social. Anyone who gives it more than a half-minute’s thought has to acknowledge that there are a lot of social contact points between players, from participating in a game-wide economy to talking in guilds to participating in the overall fandom of the game. The meta, if you will. MMORPGs are about options and possibilities, not extreme limitations. They’re larger than tales of small groups going on adventures, that’s for sure.

For me, it’s of great comfort and happiness to simply see people nearby, to know that others are sharing in these adventures even if they’re not my current ones. I might not be the most dedicated grouper, but I find myself starving for guild connections when I don’t have one. Fostering socialization means providing players with as many avenues to connect and letting them select what works best — not funneling them down into one or two channels. Sure, you might get a more critical mass, but you’re bound to alienate people who would otherwise want to become invested in your game.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Some people want to play alone. Some people want to play with friends. Some people want to play with random strangers they meet (who may or may not become friends!). And that’s all OK! I think all those playstyles are valid and should be available… but not necessarily in every game. That’s right, I don’t think everyone has to be catered to in every game. If a game is designed to have content that is only possible for groups and you don’t want to have to group, then don’t play the game — it isn’t for you. If you want to always be grouping up with lots of folks and you are in a game that is designed to do everything solo, either bring in some friends, convince others to group up anyways, or just realize that this particular game was not made with you in mind and find one that fits your play better. I’ll be honest that I am kind of sick of the idea that is still floating around that every play style has to be catered to in every single game. I do know there are some folks who feel that if they want <something> in a game, they should have it. That’s just not the case. There are so many titles out there to choose from. If a game has certain features you really like but others you don’t, then decide if having those positive points is worth the negative ones for you. But whatever you do, don’t go into the game demanding it change to cater to you, or complain loudly on the forums. Just don’t.

That all said, I think there are ways developers can design ways to include both solo and group play in games if that’s what works for their vision. And sometimes it really can’t fit in. When it can, it doesn’t need to encompass everything either: Sometimes the solo play would be these items over here, and group play would be those items over there. If you want to choose to do all the content, you just may have to put some time into playing a style that isn’t your favorite, or you forgo that content. (Neither way, I must emphasize, should be exclusively required to advance in story or successfully complete the game; two paths to the same objective is fine.) If groups are necessary, it is imperative that the game have a good group finder/matchmaking system so those who need to gather up groupmates can do so with ease.

I personally prefer to play with friends almost exclusively, so I am not a fan when I am forced to do much solo, like I was in many parts of The Secret World main story. However, I do think Secret World Legends made some good steps toward making most content available for both play styles by adding in the story-mode level in dungeons (those who want to do it alone can just get a bit more powerful and go in and do so) and by opening up some of the main story missions to allow for group participation. So you can choose to do it solo or with others. SWL scenarios also give you a choice: complete solo, duo, or as a group. I am a fan of having the choice.

And sometimes, it's all about winning.

Patron Archebius: I’m a bit of an odd duck on this one – I think that the ability to feel absolutely alone is essential to a good MMO. Whether we’re talking instanced zones in Guild Wars or drifting slowly amongst the stars in EVE, the ability to be free from other players has always made me feel more a part of the world than any amount of lore.

That being said, I believe offering compelling group content is just as important. I enjoy feeling like a part of the world, and a big piece of that is knowing you need other people to get things done. You should always be able to accomplish some things on your own, and should never feel like you have to have a group in order to find something to do – but I am not a fan of being able to complete 95% of a game without interacting with anyone.

Guild Wars 2 struck a good balance of encouraging socialization and group dynamics without requiring you to group up, but it was a little to far towards being able to do everything on your own for my tastes. The first Guild Wars struck the best balance, allowing you to explore alone with NPC companions or group up to tackle missions.

And the idea of Star Citizen – that you can accomplish single-pilot jobs alone, but to support larger ships you need more players working together – is an example of how the two sides can expand on that idea and advance together. If developers can create worlds with a compelling variety of things to accomplish, forced grouping versus solo play will be an outdated concept. It will just be what you want to do that day.

Your turn!

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53 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Alone together vs. forced grouping in MMORPGs"

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AussieEevee

To me, World of Warcraft is a single player game where I have the option of playing with other people…. within the same environment. Kinda like the old Doom multiplayer from the 90s.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing with my friends and I even enjoy popping into a Dungeon Finder group from time to time.. . but I want to group up on my terms, not because the game is forcing me to do it.

It is my play time, it is my relaxation and my leisure time. I should have the say in how I spend that time.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

There was a time I was researching stuff about people claiming video games did this or that in regards to violence and I found stuff pretty much like that comic above. It went backwards through all sorts of things being blamed, movies, TV, radio, magazines, books, early comics, stories told by mouth to others, pretty much everything you could think of. The older generation would always blame the new generation’s entertainment or interests, whatever it may be.

Maybe when VR becomes more popular it will take most of the blame. Although people don’t blame them as much now, generations have moved forward and a lot of people in control grew up playing them, plus as much as they tried to blame games research group after research group has shown there simply is not a credible correlation. Still, that hasn’t been proved about VR yet as it’s not even really to a place where it’s popular and good enough yet, it’s day of blame is still probably to come.

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Tandor

I don’t think people necessarily fall into one camp or another as a fixed position, their circumstances change over time and so does their approach to gaming.

Personally I did a lot of group and guild play in the early online days both in MUDs and MMORPGs and enjoyed being e.g. a guild officer, a kingdom founding ruler, a city minister, and various other things as well as a regular grouper. These days, however, I’m well into my 60s and with all my RL gaming friends having moved on in one way or another I prefer to play alone while enjoying cooperative play with other people around me in places like public dungeons or delves etc in ESO, for example. However, I no longer have any interest in socialising in games with people who are mainly 30 or 40 years younger and for which voice chat has become a norm I simply have no interest in. My socialising is family-based rather than pixel-based these days!

In any event, I’ve yet to be convinced that a much younger person who is sitting alone at their computer on a Saturday evening is truly socialising even if they are talking over voice chat with someone on the other side of the world as they smash some pixels together. At their age I would have been in the pub or a club with a girlfriend and other friends – and in due course out with the wife of course. Far too much is made of the “social play” aspect of gaming in my view.

Ultimately, the whole “solo” aspect of online games like MMOs is really just a reflection of the fact that MMORPGs, for example, are for many people neither more nor less than a single-player CRPG with an evolutionary development cycle and an emphasis on being surrounded by other players rather than having a strong storyline in which you are the only player character.

The important thing from a gaming point of view is that for commercial success games should cater on the whole for as wide a cross-section of gaming types as possible, other than where a particular game is intended to appeal solely to a specific niche market. Most games make a good job of catering for different playstyles in a voluntary way, whether it’s solo and groups or PvE and PvP, but once the “forced” word comes into the equation not many games succeed beyond a narrow appeal.

styopa
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styopa

comment image

I think growing social isolation has a lot more to do with this than with ‘those darn kids and their hobbies’.

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Tobasco da Gama

I’m definitely with Bree and Justin on this one. Too many people say “MMOs need to be more social!” when they really mean “MMOs should be all group dungeons all the time!” (At least implicitly.)

I just want to pull out these two quotes that I thought were both pertinent and somewhat poetic:

A virtual world, like the real world, should be made up of people coming and going, entering and leaving all manner of social circles and situations. A great many of them should realistically be alone — alone together — most of the time.

– Bree

People who argue for forced or dominant grouping in MMORPGs tend to oversimplify what makes a game social. Anyone who gives it more than a half-minute’s thought has to acknowledge that there are a lot of social contact points between players, from participating in a game-wide economy to talking in guilds to participating in the overall fandom of the game.

– Justin

MJ brings up a good point, though:

I’ll be honest that I am kind of sick of the idea that is still floating around that every play style has to be catered to in every single game. I do know there are some folks who feel that if they want in a game, they should have it. That’s just not the case.

– MJ

But I’m not sure it applies as much to the idea of forced grouping as it does to certain other features. (*cough, cough* PvP)

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Toy Clown

It’s been my experience that people on the swinging pendulum side of extrovertism have a hard time understanding an introvert’s need to be alone at times. One of the projects I did in my sociology studies was that the US is one of the few countries in the world that values extroverts over introverts because it’s tied into capitalism. The more outgoing a person is feeds into the psychological sales pitch ideal that capitalistic countries embrace.

The original Everquest was the first documented MMO to hire psychologists to help game designers create addictive gameplay to keep people playing together and thus paying that monthly sub. Other MMOs have developed further psychological tactics that borderline moral / legal to keep players dumping their money into an MMO.

I’m an ambivert. I love being social, but I have to spend a lot of time recharging my energy levels, and sidestepping people who drain my energy levels. Unfortunately, lots of people in “forced grouping” situations take away the ability for me to choose who I want to be around, thus I avoid games with that mindset like the plague. I spend a lot of time researching a new game before spending my money on it, trying to figure out how much forced people involvement is active, and of course how much PvP is part of a game as open-world PvPdraws, and encourages above-the-norm toxic behaviors.

Games that have been wonderful for my personality type are / were GW2, ESO, SWG, EQ2 and BDO. Every one of those MMOs gave me the freedom to do my own thing and giving me time to pick and choose the people I want to spend my creative free time with. That’s really important to me in a world where spending time with the wrong people wastes my energy levels. In other words, I’m friendlier and more social if I’m not forced to engage with people.

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kgptzac

This brings out an interesting tangent: is one being around people not of their liking/chosen considered more “social”? Is the ability of Internet and MMOs which let users to choose whom they want to be than who’s physically close to them, a form of escapism… and is it a bad thing? Is the term “I’m more social with my close friends” an oxymoron?

I think so. I think ‘being social’ means how well we cope with individuals that are different–not similar–to us. But I also like to have choices. Being social or not social is irrelevant in the larger picture here… which is me to be entertained by digital interactive media, known as video games. People complain when they perceive they aren’t sufficiently entertained… and sometimes at the wrong stuff.

Some of the game developers are to blame here when they create games to follow a fad: Hey look that game got super popular. Let’s rip off their core mechanics and make a clone and make money! When shit like this happens more often, players see a lot of new games that are too similar to each other; dissatisfaction ensues.

Lastly, due to the inflating definition of the term “mmo” and “mmorpg”, the premise of this article may also becoming irrelevant soon. Maybe we’ll be able to look at games for the choices they have; and they’d better have those choices.

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thalendor

I think MJ hit the nail on the head with the statement that, while different playstyles and preferences are valid, not all games need necessarily cater to all styles and preferences. My biggest gripe with any MMO is “forced soloing” where significant parts of the game or parts necessary for progressing force you to solo them, for example with SWTOR KOTFE. My girlfriend and I almost always play MMOs together and nothing is more irritating to us than being forced to play seperately. Yet, there’s nothing innately bad about forcing parts of the game to be done solo and if someone else likes that style, I think it’s great they have something that caters to them. My girlfriend and I? We’ll just look to other games.

My preference, then, is for games where grouping is encouraged and beneficial, though not necessarily forced for all parts of the game — perhaps a duo is ideal for some areas while a full group of 5 or 6 is needed for others. While WoW doesn’t force soloing, most of the world content I still find is done quicker soloing just due to less coordination necessary and whoever targets the mobs first usually has them half dead before the other even gets the first ability off. So in practice, my girlfriend and I will split a quest area into two zones, with each of us “soloing while grouped” in our zone because we just kill mobs faster overall when each of us is tackling a different group of mobs. So in this respect, I think vanilla WoW was much better. I can’t recall a single time from vanilla WoW, at least not before completly outleveling/overgearing an area, where I thought “this would be better if I just soloed it” even though soloing was possible. And looking to the future, I’m placing my hopes in upcoming MMOs, such as Pantheon, that are promising content more balanced around grouping rather than soloing… because it’s been quite a while since many MMOs have been designed that way.

plasmajohn
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plasmajohn

IMO there is no excuse for solo exclusive content in MMO’s. The best approach is “solo capable” like Wildstar‘s Expeditions.

At the other end of the spectrum fixed raid sizes need to be relegated to one of those “quaint” legacy ideas. Group content should support some sort of scaling that doesn’t depend on having overgeared folks in the party.

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thalendor

The problem I have with relegating some gameplay concept to a quaint legacy idea, or any other excuse for dimissing a gameplay style, is that there’s going to be some group of people out there who like that idea or even consider it critical to their enjoyment. While no one is entitled to have a game cater to their specific wants, I think we’re all collectively better off when each group that’s large enough to economically support a game style has a game or two that caters to their style. After all, while you might be able to prove, for example, that flexible raid sizes are more popular, you’ll have a much harder time proving it’s objectively better or superior.

plasmajohn
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plasmajohn

Have you ever managed a raid on a consistent basis? In my experience we’d constant run into both the “too few” and “too many” cases. Making sure everybody had at least one slot for the week was a second job. And I haven’t even gotten into the politics of who’s in and who gets benched.

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thalendor

I raided in the server leading guild on Durotan (later Turalyon after my guild switched servers) for around 2 years during vanilla WoW into early TBC. We raided 6 days a week most weeks. So yeah, I have experience that says it’s very much possible to make fixed-size raiding workable and enjoyable.

Does it make it easier to include everyone when raid sizes are flexible? Sure. But on the flip side, I imagine it makes it much easier to design a tightly balanced encounter when you have a fixed size… which I am guessing is why Mythic raids in WoW are fixed at 20 people.

In any case, you might note I didn’t even mention raids in my initial post. Frankly, raiding is not as important to me as it once was; these days, I emphasize small group content more while still enjoying some raiding. And let’s add to that my current preference for raiding is, in fact, for allowing flexible raid sizes.

But even so, if some people want a game with fixed raid sizes, like early WoW raids or curent WoW Mythic raids and some developer is willing to provide it to them… what’s wrong with that? And if no one wants it, developers will likely eventually stop making it, rendering the point moot.

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Tobasco da Gama

“Can I bring my Foominator on this run?”

“Ugh, total fucking waste of a slot with that shit-tier DPS. Get on your Barrior or find another group, noob.”

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thalendor

That still happens with flexible group sizes, particularly when difficulty scales with group size.

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Utakata

The best MMO’s are the ones that allow folks to play in both groups or by themselves at their choosing. No forcing is really required. To be fair though, MMO’s that allows players to do that is a rare beast indeed. (I am not sure even one exists at the top of my pigtails.)

However, developers and players should realize that because something is a MMO, doesn’t mean everything needs to be done in groups. It’s an all too common trap they fall into, when it never really existed in the first place. After all MMO’s is a metaverse with a set of game priorities. It’s more of a virtual casino where solo and group play are encouraged, as opposed to a team sports facility where everyone is forced to worked together. So forced grouping that happens in MMO’s is a direction choice for that game and not a necessity, IMO.

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draugris

For me it´s a two folded sword. Human beings tend to overglorify the past and imo the player base 15+ years ago and today can not be compared.

I started playing with computers on my C64 and online games as soon as modems became available (and affordable). Computer or online gaming was something that only,no offense, nerds did. It happened very often to spend hours and hours, sometimes a day and a night in front of the computer and i can remember serious talks with my parents on telephone bill topics. During that days where time had no other value, content was lenghty and hard to do, so grouping was a no brainer and since only like minded players were playing anyways nobody had a problem with that.

Today gaming is something nearly anybody is doing, young and old, people with a lot of time, people with very little time etc. so game developers nowadays have a lot of different expectations to meet. A dad with kids, a wife and a 40h per week work schedule does not have the time waiting for other people to group with. He just wants to play an hour and log off. So solo content is important.

I enjoy grouping with people i know but i hate to group with people anonymously through a group finder. you just hit queue,get paired with a bunch of strangers who barely say “hi”, do your thing, at the end you can be happy if nobody insulted anybody and that´s it. I am very curious how pantheon mmo will work out since they are so heavy group minded, we will see.

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Utakata

It should also be pointed out that forced groping particularly with strangers (when often players find their friends and/or associations are not available to the group content) is a good way to lead to more of a toxic environment. As the potential of running into someone with their head space stuck into performance meters and/or Reddit for example…which often doesn’t end well for the group.

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Utakata

Edit/Erratum: It should also be pointed out that forced *grouping…proper. (I can’t believe I made that typo. :( )

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Veldan

“get paired with a bunch of strangers who barely say “hi”, do your thing, at the end you can be happy if nobody insulted anybody and that´s it”

This is exactly how I feel about automated grouping tools, and why I dislike them. They turn group based gameplay into “alone together” at best.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

The premise of this article is flawed by “vs.” It doesn’t matter whether you prefer one or the other yourself; a game can nicely cater to both, and any game that does will be healthier and more fun because more people can and will enjoy it.

ESO proves that this works stunningly well when done right, where it has a range of content in every zone from solo quests, to “delves” that can be soloed but are easier with a duo or trio, to “public dungeons” and world bosses that require a small team, unless you’re extremely well geared and progressed, to instanced dungeons that only can be done with a full four-man group and a typical trinity comp.

The only catch with content that requires grouping is that the game has to be structured to ensure that it is always relevant, or inevitably it will be left behind and never played again when zones or instances become obsolete. ESO manages to do this with the universal bolstering system and making endgame relevant gear drop everywhere in the game, not just in a handful of the latest endgame instances. So you’re still able to get groups together as easily for world bosses in starter zones as you can in the latest expansion DLC areas.

Many games fail at balancing solo and group play and keeping all content relevant. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. This can be done right, and if you want your game to survive and thrive over many years, it should be.

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Rick Mills

I thought Andrew’s words were very insightful and provoking, but I loved Eliot’s statement

“It’s wonderful when you make friends in a game, but you shouldn’t have to have your friends all be elite players if you want to do anything meaningful in the game. ”

Things that require groups or guilds that are meaningful without requiring a highly skilled player are wonderful team builders – like BD’s guild farming for resources.

Thanks for the great comments!

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Witches

I was watching MJ yesterday, she was trying to play new content and couldn’t do it alone, content is new so she’ll have no trouble getting a larger group together to do that, but what happens 2 years from now when no one even remembers that zone exists?

Forced grouping assumes every single part of the game will be eternally relevant and populated, that never happened in any game.

MMOers are always musing about some people not being wanted or needed, and how they should go play some other type of game, my guess is that, with a few exceptions, their wish is being granted, when you chase away the undesirables, some of the people you want to play with will leave them.

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BDJ

Its been solved… by SE with how they handle FFXIV’s older content

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Josh

Yea, so few people think about how to design an MMO for not just today, but also tomorrow. A good design can keep an MMO alive for a long time. The original Guild Wars is a great example of this. It’s a game entirely designed around all content requiring a group, but since you can fill your group with AI-based henchmen/heroes and clear any content in the game, even if you can’t find another human being to join you.

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Alex Malone

In my opinion, creating a healthy, vibrant community should be one of the top goals for any MMO developer. Social connections increase the fun found in games and massively help increase retention rates, thus increasing the revenue for the developers.

Forced grouping is one way to increase social contact which increases the chances of creating social connections, but its a very blunt tool so needs to be used with care.

Like others have said, there needs to be many different options for gameplay in order to appeal to a wide range of player types. Diversity helps to create really strong communities, so diversity in gameplay is essential. This means a good mix of solo and group content, different types of gameplay other than just combat.

Beyond that, the industry needs to address a lot of other long standing design issues if they really want to foster a good community. The first is class/combat design. Too many games have simplified class and combat design to the point where it is very easy and there is no interdependence. Taking part in group content is generally no different to doing solo content – you’re still spamming the same skills and fighting like you normally would – which means that the need to communicate with your group is minimal. The second issue is vertical progression. Power gaps caused by vertical progression make working together very hard. You’re either carried by someone, or carry others yourself. This makes the experience feel less rewarding and engaging, decreasing the motivation to group. The final big issue is content design. The move to linear content (quest grinding) places further barriers to forming a group as it is rare to find other people at the same point along the linear path.

There is no point introducing more / forced grouping if these core issues are not addressed, otherwise you’re just creating a situation where your players experience frustration on a regular basis.

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Veldan

I find myself agreeing with Archebius (good job on your overthinking contributions btw, I always find them worth reading). I also love to be alone in an MMO sometimes. It makes the world feel more real to me if I can go to some remote place where noone typically goes.

A good MMO should have something that players can do solo. It doesn’t have to be lots of content, it can be something that an MOP commenter once called “coffee tasks”. Log in during coffee time for some quick gameplay. Run a gather round, do some daily quests, manage your auction house. Fun little things that make you feel productive and can be done alone.

A good MMO should also, always, have group content. I’ve seen the idea that people will naturally group up and form social structures disproved plenty of times by now. If there is no reason for social structures, people don’t make them. It has to be in the game design. There has to be something to accomplish together, that people can’t accomplish alone or “alone together”.

An example of people not making social structures was ArcheAge. In particular, trade runs. In theory, people would band together so that trade runs could be done with protection. In practice, noone did that, everyone ran trade packs only through safe zones and peace-time zones. If there is a way to avoid having to be social and organized, people will do it. They always choose the quickest path to rewards and socializing takes time. Devs have to design with that in mind. In ArcheAge, a simple fix would have been to not implement peace time, so that trade runs were never safe. That alone would have made the game a hundred times more interesting.

Of all the MMOs I played, RIFT was the one that had the solo-vs-group balance done best. Its endgame was group focused, with a typical dungeons / raids / PvP battlegrounds setup, but there were a ton of little things to do on your own. You could solo play for 20 minutes and get the basics done, or solo play for 3 hours and make some serious side progress. There were people who barely ever grouped and loved the solo content, while there were also people who never did any solo stuff and were only there for dungeons and raids. It catered to both the extreme playstyles, as well as those in between.

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Archebius

Thanks for the kind words! I’ve been trying to contribute more lately.

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Ken from Chicago

CITY OF HEROES (because I must, and in this case it’s a relevant reference) nailed this.

It gave players CHOICE.

TLDR: Make mmo’s soloable and reward players for teaming up so they’ll want to, not crippling the game so they’ll have to.

Still here? Allow me to show my math: ;-)

There was tons of game play you could play solo, but it gave you a very tangible, very noticeable boost in experience points and loot if you teamed up with even one other person, and moreso if you teamed up with up to 7 other people.

There were a few Task Forces (raids) that required teams, but those were relatively few and there was plenty of other game content where teaming was optional. Plus the nature of the game, being a superhero with a variety of super powers and archetypes (builds) meant many players LIKED repeating missions with different characters with different powers because it was fun. “Hello, my name is ‘Ken’ and I’m an alt-oholic.” The game was so much fun, plenty of people spent hours just creating new characters–not because the character creator was needlessly difficult (I’m looking at you CHAMPIONS ONLINE), but because we wanted to.

It was fun.

That’s the element that’s often lost with MMORPGs. For all the discussion and debate about them being massive, or in this discussion, multiplayer, or whether they truly let you role-play, for all that talk, what’s often overlooked is that they are supposed to be a GAME. For all the talk about realism and immersion and creating tension and risk, what’s often overlooked is that it’s suppose to be FUN.

If you’re forcing players to play in ways they don’t like, that’s not fun. If you have to team up to enjoy a mmo, then say so from the get go. Football is not a solo game. It requires a team of people to play (technically, two teams). As MJ said, if you don’t like playing in teams, then football is not the game for you. But we know that going in.

IMHO, MMOs should be solo-able (because not everyone has a schedule to allow them to wait for the right combination of people to show up) yet reward you for teaming up so that you WANT to vs forcing you to team up by crippling your character. Also nice, is if a particular mission requires a team to complete, we should know that upfront instead of an hour into a mission and suddenly hitting a “wall” you can’t solo over because the difficulty has suddenly ratcheted up (I’m surprisingly looking at you STAR TREK ONLINE “Stormbound” mission).

— Ken from Chicago

P.S. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Feel free to differ.

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Keir

modern WoW has all sorts of features for solo play. Quests have their own “phasing”/instancing, dungeons can be done effectively in solo play where you treat the other players like speechless, nameless AI. Theres player housing and everything to keep you contained by yourself.
I left modern WoW to play vanilla, which has none of these, and the difference is stunning. The game is much more challenging and there are few benefits to playing by yourself. It doesn’t necessarily ‘force’ you to play together, but it incentivises group play so much by making the solo experience so difficult. You get more XP, more loot, and finish quests quicker with other people, even when the mobs aren’t that hard.

It’s interesting to jump back a decade to the original game and see just how things have changed.

In my opinion, if you want to play a solo game… then just go and play a single player game, like a proper well designed RPG. I don’t get the point of playing an MMO for the single player experience.

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Dantos

I can only speak for myself, but I like the feeling and knowledge of other people being in the world with me, even if i dont interact with them on a regular basis. MMOs also provide an experience that doesnt end, unlike most SP games, people are playing for the progression.

Another thing SP games dont provide is the option of grouping up with others when the mood suits. I solo in most games, but also love dungeons.

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FreecczLaw

How about we do both. Some people don’t like forced grouping and some do. The problem with the genre right now is that it only caters to one of the two and although that group is bigger it doesn’t mean the rest should have to settle just because there are no options. There is no “better” here, it is just opinions on what people prefer. Give us an MMORPG market that caters to both, not in one game, but by making different types of games. The problem for me has never been that the market has turned more towards MMORPGs being single player games, it is that every single one has become it instead of giving the players a choice. The problem with WoW wasn’t how it was designed (I liked WoW for the record), it is that it created a market without any choice for players; either you like the WoW type MMORPG or you can’t play MMORPGs. Why? Because every company wanted a piece of the pie and tried to out-WoW WoW, which I think we all know how that went. There is room for nished games and it is good to see smaller developers finally aiming for the different nishes to a larger extent.

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Ken from Chicago

If a player wants to group, then is it really “forced” grouping?

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Sally Bowls

I mostly disagree with Bree’s “Let’s be honest here: Many, maybe even most, playable PvE MMOs in 2017 have been carefully tailored by psychologists and marketers to cater to addictive personalities willing to play alone to cap then group to win whatever endgame, ” Something similar may be true in the mobile world where they have a lot more data. But I don’t think that accurately reflects MMOs; not because I think they are nobler or more altruistic, rather because I don’t think they are that competent. If the products were even carefully tailored let alone carefully tailored by psychologists and marketers, we would not have the disasters we do. You don’t listen to psychologists and marketers and then piss away $100M of shareholders money on some #HARDCORE mess. You don’t listen to psychologists and marketers and then think you can get sheep to pay to be in your gankbox.

I see MMOs like SV in the 1991 bestseller “Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date by Robert X. Cringely”

In 1990, $70 billion worth of personal computer hardware and software were sold worldwide. After automobiles, energy production, and illegal drugs, personal computers are the largest manufacturing industry in the world and one of the great success stories for American business.

And I’m here to tell you three things:

1. It all happened more or less by accident.

2. The people who made it happen were amateurs.

3. And for the most part they still are.

——–

As always, WoW did not rewrite the rules. People were the same before and after WoW. What people wanted in a game was the same before and after WoW. McDonald’s selling 100B cheeseburgers did not cause people to like cheeseburgers; people liking cheeseburgers was what enabled them to sell 100B. It turns out that it is more profitable to sell people products they want rather than alternative products you think they should want.

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Herro Mongorian

I’m fine with grouping, but I often solo 4-man dungeons in ESO for the extra challenge. Mechanics that force me to group up are stupid and lazy design.

If I’m not the one making the choice to group up with people, then it’s not meaningful group play anyway.

borghive
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borghive

MJ, your post nails it as usual. :)

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Utakata

…conversely, if a game is designed to have content that is only possible by soloing and you want to have to group, then don’t play the game — it isn’t for you either.

Just pointing out that nail is a double edge sword too. :)

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Sally Bowls

I disagree with Eliot’s “you can force people to group up for everything.” The IRS and TSA can force me to do stuff, but not a game company. EA can say the monthly sub for SWTOR is $100/month. They absolutely can say that people who spend less can’t play it. But I can’t conceive of them being able to force or cajole me to pay $100/month. Same for features or playstyles, they can prohibit whatever they care to, but I think they have far less power to force than the “make other people play the way I want to play” crowd thinks. I think this is especially true for MMOs in ’17. Gaming is growing strongly. MMOs are shrinking, both absolutely and as a percentage of gaming. Just how many MMOs are in a position to cop an attitude and say “my way or the highway?” And how many gamers couldn’t find several alternative highways if they did?

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Sray

Testify, Sister Sally!

Personally, I’ve travelling on several alternate highways for most of the last year.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

.

wisdom.gif
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Ken from Chicago

Bree joins “team-murders” in real life?!! (Slowly backs away.) ;-)

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thalendor

That is a truly epic quote. Possibly even overpowered.

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Mark

Just like in “real life” (or so they call it), there can be people around whom I can interact with, but most of the time will choose not to. I kind of think about it like going to the mall – I can go to the mall by myself and get everything that I want to get done, done. But every once and a while it’s nice to go with my wife and/or friends. But I like the flexibility to go by myself.

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Schmidt.Capela

Bree, I believe you got the XKCD strip wrong. I don’t think it’s about people getting less social as time passes; rather, I believe it’s about how people keep finding something to blame for people becoming less social when, in truth, we are not becoming less social.

You might want to compare and contrast with The Pace of Modern Life; different complaint, same feeling.

BTW, I sit firmly in the “no forced grouping” camp. But then, I will never, ever, ask for help in (or with) a game, so forced grouping basically locks me out of a large part of the game, with the typical result being that I either discard the game out of hand before even trying it, or else I leave the game as soon as grouping becomes required for progression without ever attempting the group content.

(Ironically, if grouping is possible but not required, I will gladly join others and attempt group content. I have no issue playing in a group when I don’t need to, I just can’t stand needing a group.)

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Bobuliss

I guess I don’t really understand the point of “alone together” or maybe I just don’t understand what’s meant by the term. To me, there’s not much difference between alone together and a population of NPCs. While I don’t think that every single aspect of a game must require a group, I do think that if there isn’t some necessity for grouping, why be an MMO? I think the WoW model gets it very close to perfect. The vast majority of quests are soloable, but there is also a need for grouping to clear the more difficult quests, dungeons, and raids. If you could kill the Big Bad by yourself, how is the game an MMO?

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Sally Bowls

“alone together” is a term from outside gaming. I don’t know whether the term came before or after the book/TED talk ” Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,”

The first example I read of it is the people reading in a Starbucks. Clearly, they can read other places, but it was theorized there was some value/appeal about being around other people. But there was never the slightest hint that the readers in question wanted someone to come up and interrupt them.

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Schmidt.Capela

While I don’t think that every single aspect of a game must require a group, I do think that if there isn’t some necessity for grouping, why be an MMO?

Because the experience of organically finding other players, being able to talk to them or even just watch and tag along, is valuable even if grouping is not needed. Those are things that can’t be found in a single-player game, or even on a small scale multiplayer game. And there are players, myself included, who enjoy that kind of experience while hating any kind of forced grouping.

BTW, forced grouping — and in particular questlines that require raiding, including one required for gaining the ability to fly in the latest expansion — is one of the main reasons I don’t return to WoW. And adding raids to GW2 is the main reason I gave up on that game.

Nick Martin
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Nick Martin

I’m more or less a solo player in MMOs. I join guilds and the like in order to socialize, but have little interest in group content… especially raids. The reasons vary… I have a family and young kids that may require attention. I have things I may need to step away for. More than anything, I may only have a short amount of time to play, which puts dedicating hours to content impractical.

Ultimately, what I look for in a game is the freedom to play how I want to play. I tend to dislike any game that forces me into a particular path to advance. Final Fantasy XIV may have a fantastic story (though I’m willing to debate on that… it never grabbed me), but locking basic functionality behind a forced path into game modes I’m not especially interested in soured me on it forever.

Compulsory PvP is must the same for me, to be honest. It allows other players to dictate how my game is going to go, and often that translates to spoiling a session for me. Sure, it can occasionally be done in a way that’s fun (Black Desert’s node wars were entertaining when balanced well, and SWG still did the single best implementation of PvP I’ve ever seen)… but that’s seemingly rare.

Ultimately, what I dislike the most about that forced path is that they deny me, the player, of any real agency in choices. I have to do what they want me to do, and that feels contrary for what an MMO should be. And it most certainly is not what I want in a game. I also think that players like me make up a pretty sizable portion of most game populations…

And maybe that’s why I’ve moved away from almost all MMOs at this point.

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