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.


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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