Vague Patch Notes: Considering the soloer’s experience in MMOs

    
22
In a world of human wreckage

I sized him up from where he sat across from me. He was intelligent, that much I could tell just at a glance – or if not intelligent, at least possessed of a mind that continued to whirl about a problem, poking and prodding it until he could suss it out. He looked like he was waiting for me to speak first, but he knew why we were here, and so he had most likely already figured out what he wanted to say. I took a sip from my glass of water and stared for a moment longer, then cleared my throat.

“So let’s talk about the solo experience in MMOs,” I said. “We both know that’s why we’re here.”

“Is it?” He laughed. “I think we’re here to discuss what even qualifies as a solo experience in an MMO first and foremost.”

“Do you really need to be contrary about everything?”

“If I didn’t, our conversation wouldn’t be worth having.”

That was bait. I waved it off. “Fine, let’s start there. The solo experience is pretty easy to define, isn’t it? It’s playing by your lonesome and without a larger support structure in place to facilitate your playtime.”

“But is that the solo experience?” he asked, drumming his fingers on the side of his own glass of water. “You could argue that it’s really not.”

“Almost by definition -”

“Isn’t it just as much of a solo experience to queue into content, though? If you think about it, content that lets you queue in and go is the apotheosis of MMO systems and solo play experience. It doesn’t require you to have a group of friends to engage with the game, but it still involves you taking on something with multiple other people. No need for a guild, just your own patience and willingness.”

“But it’s also definitionally not solo. If you’re grouping up for something, even if you’re doing so in a random fashion, you’re not playing alone any more.” I pointed at him in a manner that almost seemed accusatory, though it certainly wasn’t meant to be. “Don’t we have to make separate accommodations for players who are truly alone?”

“That depends entirely on the why, though. Solo players might just be players not playing with friends, either from lack of having them or a desire to just do something when they’re not available. In spirit, this is part of the same general content group.”

I paused for a second, looking him over, trying to see whether he was really trying to just be trollish about this or he had a larger point to make. Certainly he could be impish, but I didn’t know him for someone who would argue a point just because it was possible to argue it. There was always something underlying.

“We’re not going to altogether agree on this,” I said at length.

Should or shouldn't?

“Maybe not,” he replied with a shrug. “So let’s meet halfway. The point here is that we can establish there is a spectrum of solo players, ranging from just those who have no larger organized groups to take on content -”

“To those who are aggressively solitary and would prefer to take on everything by themselves,” I finished with a nod.

His own nod seemed to be in agreement with mine, but a moment later he frowned. “Although that setup does leave a whole lot of space in the middle, doesn’t it? It’s hard to talk definitively about solo players when that could cover such a wide range of playstyles.”

“Well, let’s engage on that level. Would you say that’s the majority of MMO players at this point?”

“Oh, that’s a fool’s errand; you know as well as I do that it’s a pain in the ass to figure out what any sort of average player looks like. It’s pointless guesswork.” He shrugged. “I definitely think that there are more people out there likely to be playing with three or four friends than ten or fifteen, though, when it comes to content sizes.”

“So we are in agreement at least about the overall shape of things. Most larger content ventures are being done less with a group of friends -”

“And more with a group of people assembled for a mercenary purpose like clearing the content, yes. That seems reasonable, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily say it’s true.” He took a sip of his water, then pointed at me. “Just because you’re a cantankerous weirdo who finds it basically impossible to fit in anywhere doesn’t mean most people are.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. I shrugged. “True. But we were, at least theoretically, addressing the question of what solo players should be getting out of a game. Where is the cutoff for stuff that should be exclusive to non-solo players?”

“Ah, but that requires us to actually be sure if that spectrum is the majority of players, don’t we? If what we’re defining as our solo player spectrum is the majority, then it makes more sense for the game to be as solo-friendly as possible.”

Can't or won't?

“Not necessarily!” I held up a finger, taking a sip of water before continuing; this was what I’d been waiting to get into. “After all, if you think about it, the whole point of having an MMO is having a spectrum of social experiences -”

“Something you yourself have noted isn’t confined to just partying up for content -”

“No, no, listen! The point is that if that is part of the point of an MMO, doesn’t it behoove the game to put some amount of pressure on players to form social bonds? When you’re dealing with the far outliers of the solo spectrum, don’t you want to nudge them more into doing things with other people in the first place?”

He paused, stroking his chin for a moment, turning the concept over in his head almost audibly. “There’s a logic to that,” he admitted at length. “But at the same time, forcing people to play in a way counter to their enjoyment is a fool’s errand.”

“So what would you say, then?”

“I’d say that if we’re going to call this a spectrum, we’d have to really move it beyond just a ‘solo’ spectrum and note the whole breadth of player types, from wanting to do everything in a group to wanting to do nothing in a group. And ideally, that would suggest that the best place for balancing rewards and content would lie in the middle of that.” He paused for a moment. “Which would suggest right about at the far end of the solo spectrum, with people queueing up for things, wouldn’t it?”

“You said it, not me.”

“Ah, but therein lies the big question: Do you think that’s the right answer because it’s right, or do you think that’s a good answer because it happens to facilitate your own preferences?”

I frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Well, isn’t part of the discussion the idea that many people think their particular way of playing is the ideal path? So isn’t there a certain degree of rewarding your own preference by putting forth a series of logical premises that argue convincingly for your existing conclusion?”

Now it was time to just sigh. “So what are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just pointing out that at a certain point, talking with yourself about these things doesn’t really give you a clear picture of what other players want.”

That one I had to give myself. He was on the money. I took another sip of water.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Alyn
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Alyn

There are times we solo and it’s a very personal take on the experience. Then there are times we must work together cooperatively for a larger goal completion. It is a balance. A strong foundation of any truly worthwhile mmorpg includes both styles.

Now, I have seen a few posts in which it is pointed out that one must be forced to complete a “group content” in order to continue with your story. Yes, that content would include dungeons, for the most part. Here’s my perspective on Final Fantasy 14 and the fact that there are BOTH cooperative and solo content that must be completed before moving on. I noticed that the complaints did not mention that there is a personal side to story content in FF14. There is and it is an important part of building your job class and character portrayal in the story. For Final Fantasy 14 and many of the more popular MMORPG’s still showing commercial success, there is a way to balance and enjoy both the solo and cooperative part of said mmo’s. Join a guild or, in the case of Final Fantasy 14, join a fairly well organized Free Company.

What do the letters in MMORPG mean, really? To me, it is choice and yes I do understand the frustration of folks that would rather solo the content all the way through. Several mmo’s allow you to experience this. I suppose not cooperating and working with others is satisfying for some. However for my nearly 20 years, I have learned to balance both the desire to play alone with the equally strong desire to socialize with others. In defense of Final Fantasy 14 it does this quite well, really. However, yes you must get through story content to arrive at your top leveling stance for that particular expansion. Once you have finally attained the “top level” , then you begin to see more choices appear before you. My particular FC is found on Malboro server in the Crystal Data Center. We are fortunate to run FIVE separate, but equal, FC’s combined under one banner. Yes, really! We take “Activity Checks” every two or three days to estimate how we are doing community-wise in comparison to other large FC’s. We average between 220 (low side) upwards to 280 (upper end) average attendance during the week. This is rather amazing considering that Malboro isn’t the largest server on the Data center. Now, what does this have to do with said topic? Well, I ask you to consider this average attendance for a minute. People are invited to join. Most will stay. Why? I would think that are enjoying their experience. I point this out because a truly well organized Fc or guild, (in other mmo’s), will provide events and challenges that bring together the membership from time to time. My FC does this monthly with one rather huge event. However, if you were to peruse our monthly calendar of events you would be amazed that we have a multitude of cooperative events per day! Now, with that said, most of the average, say, 250, are still largely engaged in SOLO past times, whether they be crafting, housing, gathering, or playing the Auction House. We collect positive remarks usually found from large FC events to bolster officer moral in the Free Company. I received a tell after one of our huge weekly Cafe events that read, “——,(my in game name), thanks for inviting me to the S—D Cafe tonight! I kinda have played in most games solo and don’t really talk much to people. But, this was really cool. The music you guys played was awesome! I got both leveling food buffs and also some crafting food buffs! I had a blast and you and the staff were so excellent and nice. Man, I’m coming back this weekend! TY again ——!” Not a promo, I promise, , this is just one of many that come to us expected the usual and experiencing a more family feel that slowly but surely draws them in.

In conclusion, play the way you want. However, I will still defend a more balanced mmo style of playing. Some of the friendships I have made between 4 separate MMORPG’s are still holding true although I largely play one now. Discord can really help those struggling with the cooperative and solo challenges of FF 14’s MSQ’s. Those that have logged on and met those of us that have struggled through get quite a bit of support and sympathy. They also receive direction in how to “beat” challenging solo MSQ and we help with the dungeon part. In doing this, eventually those solo only players become more acclimated to cooperative helpful style of play. They truly pay it forward.

“Competition has been shown to be useful
up to a certain point and no further,
but cooperation, which is the thing
we must strive for today,
begins where competition leaves off.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

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NeoWolf

An amusing read, more so that it touches upon many of the usual tropes we soloers have all heard a million times.. e.g “Oh you solo because you don’t have a group” lol..urgh

It still to this day tickles me that there are some people out there who think solo content has no place in MMO’s and then you explain to them hang on, think about how MMO’s are built. The majority of content is what you call “progression content” i.e the content that forms the story and takes characters from minimum level to maximum level and in EVERY MMO, that content usually accounts for a good 90% or so of a games content is soloable BY DESIGN and what is left are the few raids/dungeons, crafting, the games pvp and the appalling shambles that is always an MMOs endgame. So in fact MMO’s are more solo-friendly than group-friendly BY DESIGN.. but NEVER do you hear solo players saying this MMO is ours, everyone else go away.. whereas those who like to group, well they struggle with the idea of soloers existing in “their” space at times it seems (you see the same thing with PVP’ers and PVe’ers too with them wanting us gone, and us not really caring that they are there just so long as they leave us alone lol).

And this isn’t even touching on the erroneous assumption again that some people have that Multiplayer equates to grouped, when in fact all it means is many players in the same space and in fact makes ZERO implication to what ANY of those players may or may not be doing beyond simply existing in that space together.

But when all is said and done the important thing for everyone to keep in mind with MMO’s is that they are inclusive, not EXclusive and are intended for many different playstyles to exist together, pve’ers, pvp’ers, soloers, group content, raiders, crafters, twinks, min-maxers, and everything in between.. and that THAT is what an MMO is and should be. MMO’s are the switzerlands of gaming genres where we can all play together or apart and in our own way so long as it is not at the expense of someone else and that that is how it is meant to be because MMOs are social and you can be social whatever your playstyle.

MMO’s simply cannot afford the luxury of not considering the solo experience because it is intrinsic. Every customer is individuals and you cannot work on the assumption that their enjoyment that is not free be dependant upon them being required to interact with other players. You have to be able to ensure someone can enjoy the game whether they have other people available or not.

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Anstalt

I really liked this article, good self-discussion :-)

From my point of view, “massively multiplayer” is the unique selling point of the genre. You literally cannot find it elsewhere.

You can get your fixing of normal multiplayer, of roleplaying, in other genres, but you cannot find massively multiplayer anywhere else.

So, to me, it would make sense to focus on massively multiplayer gameplay, actually make use of the unique selling point of the genre, make it stand out from everything else. I believe it would be great to guide everyone towards participating in this type of content.

That said, being massively multiplayer means being reliant on other people for your fun, but other people are unreliable. This is why the solo experience exists and why it should continue to exist. You need solo content so that you can learn the gameplay safely, without fear of criticism. You need solo content for when you are feeling tired and don’t have the energy to deal with other people. You need solo content for when there aren’t enough other players around, or you just don’t like those other players.

My final thought is that if your roleplaying game includes combat roles (nearly all do), then balancing content for the solo player is next to impossible. What one role finds easy, another finds hard. This is why solo content is almost always mind-numbingly easy: you have to balance around the worst solo role, otherwise players playing the worst roles will hit blocks in content, get frustrated and quit.

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Rndomuser

then balancing content for the solo player is next to impossible

Of course it’s possible. You use a test group of players who work at your company to find the values (the health and the damage output) of the boss which will allow each role to kill that boss in reasonable amount of time. Then you add an optional menu choice where you also allow player to make this encounter different by adding more health/damage to the boss if they enjoy wasting more time on beating up the dumb AI with static attack pattern. That’s it, very easy to do.

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styopa

Very Socratic. I agree with your Prodicus of Ceos, though.

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jealouspirate

As you suggest, I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about “the solo player” vs “the group player”. They’re spectrums, and individual players move around that spectrum as well. I like difficult, organized group content in MMOs. I also like casual, easy, solo stuff I can do to unwind. What type of player am I? Does that even matter?

People also often falsely equate solo with easy and group with hard. Solo content can be hard, group content can be easy. Difficulty is independent of group size. Ideally an MMO would have a variety of content for solo, small, and large groups that range in difficulty as well.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Despite your arguments that forced teaming is somehow “solo content,” no, it is not.

The reason I will never even install Final Fantasy 14 is that I know it contains forced teaming to progress the story. I’m not interested in a game where my ability to *progress* the story is dependent on random teams of people being competent enough to finish team-only content. And where my ability to *experience* the story is dependent on every single one of them being patient enough to not have a goddamn siezure because I want to see the cutscenes. I had more than enough experience with that in SWOTOR, thanks.

“Spacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebarspacebar!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

phaedrux
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phaedrux

FWIW, I’ve been playing FFXIV for about two months (I come back to it every year or so) basically every day – using Duty Finder (random teams) every day. Not once has any of those teams been unable to complete content. Team wipes are very rare. The vast majority of runs no one even dies. The regular group content, and the story content in particular, is all fairly easy – and I say this as a non-expert, unskilled player.

Not once in the past two months of multiple duty finders have I found a single person protesting a new player watching cut scenes. The general consensus seems to be to let people do so, and if someone were to mouth off about it they’d be considered rude. It probably does happen sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm.

Your experience may vary, of course. But if those are the reasons you haven’t tried FFXIV, and you enjoy that type of MMO, then you might be missing out on some fun.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

As I said, the reason I’m never going to play it is: Mandatory teaming content. I don’t play MMOs for the teaming, I play because I like the setting and there’s no other way to get it.

I play Star Trek Online because it’s the only Star Trek RPG where I can make my own captain, rather than replaying a single preset character. (Usually one of the existing captains from the shows.) I played SWTOR because it was the only game where I can make (mostly) my own custom character in the Star Wars universe. I’m NOT playing them to team with random strangers.

phaedrux
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phaedrux

Ah, well that makes sense. If you don’t like MMOs as a game genre, but a particular MMO is the only thing around to get at the setting genre you’re after, that seems like a difficult position to be in. I’m more about the games themselves than the setting- if the “game” part doesn’t work for me then my love of the setting isn’t enough.

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Rndomuser

I’m not interested in a game where my ability to *progress* the story is dependent on random teams of people being competent enough to finish team-only content.

Oh yea, that’s one of the worst part of FFXIV and game design in general. You group up with random people to do story dungeon, say, at 3:00AM local time (because of real life reasons you cannot do this at other time of day), you wait for 1 hour to queue for dungeon which is REQUIRED to progress the main story, you go through it, some player performs poorly, others make remarks about it, this player gets annoyed and quits the dungeon or others simply vote this player out of dungeon, now you are sitting inside the dungeon without a necessary player, waiting for someone else to fill this role, at a time of the day where most people are asleep. And maybe in another 20-30 minutes you get lucky and new tank joins who knows what to do and has good gear and you finally complete the dungeon to finally be able to progress the main story. Seen that in FFXIV personally, never want to see this again.

And where my ability to *experience* the story is dependent on every single one of them being patient enough to not have a goddamn siezure because I want to see the cutscenes.

Yea, that is also an awful design. You reach the boss, then stand and enjoy watching cutscenes for the first time, after you’re done – you see other group members already engaging the boss, low on health, typing out all kind of words in group chat to let you know how disappointed they are that you wasted their time on watching cutscenes. Then you queue for next story-related dungeon, the cutscenes before boss fight start, and now you start to feel guilty of watching them because you don’t know if other group members will be willing to wait for you or will engage the boss without you expecting you to quickly skip cutscenes and join them in their fight.

All of this is an awful game design which should not exist in modern MMORPGs.

Spex
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Spex

Agreed – and I’m glad you mention this. I feel alone in this fact. With WoW’s ball dropping with Torghast leaving me with no solo content I see friends talking about FFXIV and I lament the fact that, like you, the one reason I don’t play FFXIV is the mandatory duties. I see it suggested over and over for alienated WoW players but forced grouping makes it impossible, and I’ve tried forcing myself more than once over the years and it always fails because solo queueing kills me inside and friends never want to group with me for all that catchup(understandable). If I could do the story without the forced teaming I’d be playing it right now, NO question! Housing, fishing, crafting, RPing, wandering the worlds…but nope, those many mandatory duty hurdles to get access to it all stops me. :(

T h e n o n y m o u s
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T h e n o n y m o u s

For what it’s worth, I’m an extremely solo MMO player, and I’ve never really had any issue with FFXIV’s mandatory group content. It’s pretty painless, doesn’t take too long, and those forced grouping situations aren’t all that common as you progress through the main story (maybe now there’s a sizable number if you’re starting fresh, but they feel pretty well spaced out based on my admittedly subjective and imperfect memory lol).

The raids on the other hand can be a pain in the ass, but honestly those are pretty much optional since they’re endgame content.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I tend to prefer playing solo nowadays because I have a social phobia IRL and avoid people like the plague (Because they currently are).

But when I was playing FFXIV I could basically do whatever the crud I wanted for most of the time, ignoring other players. It was only when I started to know the fights/battles etc, that I could (And occasionally wanted to) jump in with other players…after having ignored them all on purpose and just did the story my way…that I was able to participate quite well. Most of the people playing that have learned that most of the things they are grouping up for, a set select number are people who are watching story and you just ignore them/keep going without…because they sit there in their story mode and you all just run through doing the rest of it. It got to the point where pretty much every day’s daily was one of those. I never badgered any of the new people…what I did badger…was the people who’d get on others for their story watching because I’d JUST BEEN THROUGH THAT. I’d probably still be playing if not for basically getting to the ‘end’ of the content I cared to see and feeling no desire to participate in the tip top difficulty ‘stand in this one spot or else’ raids…

Personally, I loved doing FATES…because you could jump in whenever on open world, and/or leave if you weren’t having fun. I got to where I started solo-starting bigger FATES that involved team effort, and other people would show up and start joining in…and often it would lead to a conversation or two at the end of them…as people could tell I knew what I was doing…and they’d try and recruit me. (I ran around without a company tag.)

You have no idea how much some of these people wanted a decent player…but my desire to remain solo (to an extent) prevailed.

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TomTurtle

The rise of MMO solo play has in large part to do with respecting players who have limited, and potentially interrupted, play sessions.

If an MMO developer is aiming for a broader audience, I believe they need to firmly include those kinds of players in a meaningful way.

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Rndomuser

I mean, any rational MMORPG developer understands that accommodating more players – including solo players or players who like socialization but just want to be able to complete some dungeon quickly without waiting for queue for an hour because they have real life obligations or health issues preventing them from waiting that long – is a rational thing to do because more players will bring more money to company, and giving the players ability to complete all PvE content solo has absolutely 0 drawback on players who like to complete content in groups (the players who want to play in groups will still be able to do so). It’s just some developers are simply too lazy to implement proper dungeon scaling for solo players, even if it will mean more players and more income for them.

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jealouspirate

What I want personally is shorter content. I don’t necessarily want to play solo, but I also cannot raid for 2-3 hours straight. It just isn’t going to happen. However, give me a 20-30 minute group activity? I’m totally there.

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Schmidt.Capela

This is why I defend that the pinnacle of power be achievable in different ways, regardless of the player’s preferred group size, to minimize the chance people will be forced into things they don’t enjoy just to be able to fully progress in the game. And also why I consider it far better to build tools to facilitate socialization and cooperation than to force players into socializing and cooperating.

But then, I really hate feeling like I’m being forced into a particular activity or way of playing; any blatant attempt to force me into anything, including socializing and grouping, has a good chance to end either with myself figuring ways to avoid doing whatever the devs tried to force me to do or with myself leaving the game.

phaedrux
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phaedrux

I relate to this position philosophically. But when I look closely at it, it seems like the “pinnacle of power” is only useful(or necessary) in the contexts in which it is gained. The Generic Ultimate Raid Gear is really only helpful inside the Ultimate Raid, and exists as part of the structure incentivizing players to do Ultimate Raiding.

It’s like if we had astronauts with shitty equipment who just really liked being in space. Gradually, they improve their space equipment until it works great and lets them do all kinds of space stuff. Then there’s a bunch of brain surgeons who aren’t interested in space at all, but really want some space suits, and they’re like, “Hey, just give us space suits! We shouldn’t have to go to space though!” And the astronauts are like, “y tho?”

And it’s really just because the spacesuits have bigger numbers written on them than the surgeon hats, isn’t it? I mean, if you aren’t going to space, a space suit is a bit overkill for the temperature/pressure conditions at sea level – even though, technically, a space suit is “better” than a surgeon hat at protecting from hazards.

Anyway, here’s wonderw-

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Schmidt.Capela

That is, in itself, a huge issue; it means that the devs, in a misguided attempt to make raiders feel superior and everyone else feel like they are worth less than trash unless they start raiding, are willing to completely break the balance of non-raid content by making it all faceroll-easy for anyone who is even half-geared in raider gear.

(And yeah, I mean that. Back when I was playing WoW, my Paladin in raid gear could solo overworld bosses meant for 5 max-level players in the best solo gear while just auto-attacking and using passive health regeneration. Blizzard was willing to break the balance for solo content so much it wasn’t even merely faceroll-easy, but passive; I could literally beat bosses while not pressing any buttons after I turned my character towards the boss, started the passive health recovery, and started auto-attacking.)

Ideally, the highest tier of gear shouldn’t just be obtainable in content for every group size, but also needed for every group size, including solo; the hardest solo content should be challenging for everyone, including raiders in full BIS raid gear. This way not only raiders would have no gear advantage over solo players, they would actually need that gear in order to face the harder solo content.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

“they would actually need that gear in order to face the harder solo content.”

Only if there’s a solo option to get equivalent gear. Because if I have to max out gear in raids just so that I *don’t* have to team to finish content… no. Not going to happen. Especially not when I have the impulse control and budgeting skills of a hamster and have accumulated nearly 1000 games on Steam that I could play instead.

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Braud

I really enjoyed this article. It reminds me of essays I had to write in school.