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

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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