March 13 2012
Given that most modern MMORPGs offer content for both solo and group play, there's a surprising amount of debate about whether MMORPGs have become overly solo friendly. I've even seen solo players accused of ruining games of this kind by demanding that all content be accessible to soloers. Does the ability to solo in a MMORPG detract from the experience?
Assuming that both types of content are available in a game, the issue is often dismissed out of hand. Let the soloers solo and the groupers group. Everyone's happy, right? In practice, it's a little more complicated than that. The problem is that most players won't bother with a group if there is a solo alternative, and if everyone's off soloing, the groupers struggle to find groups. This is one reason why a lot of end-game content in MMORPGs requires a group.
So, why would anyone want to solo in a "massively multiplayer" game? For starters, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition; many people enjoy both play styles. Being forced to group from an early stage in the game, however, usually doesn't go over very well.
Early MMORPGs tended to demand a lot more grouping than current games in the genre. Final Fantasy XI is well-known for this, but one of my favorite examples is the now-defunct Shadowbane. The way experience was rewarded in Shadowbane made it impossible to make any progress in the game whatsoever without a group. Every game session began with trying to find a group, and if you couldn't find one you either waited or logged off. You'd regularly see several people sitting outside a group doing nothing but waiting for an opening. Needless to say, it's not an approach that current MMORPGs are likely to adopt.
Forcing people to group opens up a plethora of pitfalls. A minimum population is needed for it to be functional, even outside of peak hours. As the average level of the player base increases, groups for low level content can become hard to find. Many people want to play in short spurts that aren't condusive to organizing or finding groups, and so on.
In the wake of World of Warcraft, most MMORPGs have made it possible to solo all the way to the level cap. Quite often that's when the solo options available become sparse and the emphasis shifts to group play. Many soloers lament this shift and would like to see more solo content at the level cap. Again, though, you can't really have it both ways; the more solo content your game has the fewer people that will group. It's not so much that people hate grouping - it's simply that soloing is more convenient.
And you can hardly blame people for prefering to solo after some of the elitism you'll inevitably encounter in groups. Heaven help you if you haven't studied the instance beforehand, are slightly undergeared, or even if you make an honest mistake. Some people are obsessed with beating the game quickly and efficiently, while others are just there for a good time, which doesn't necessarily include homework.
Of course, there are games that do well with no solo play, they're just not often what most of us classify as MMORPGs. Shooters and games like World of Tanks place you in a group automatically. We've also seen the implementation of public quest systems in games like Warhammer Online and Rift, which automate the grouping process quite effectively. Games such as Guild Wars give you the option to fill out your party with NPC henchmen if you can't find enough players for an encounter.
There isn't much alternative for developers but to try and find a suitable balance between solo content and group content. I'd wager that the games of the future will be more solo-friendly rather than less so. That said, I also believe that there is a lot more that could be done with group mechanics in the genre along the same lines as public quests, so all hope for games with a stronger sense of community is not lost.