Monday, March 31, 2008

The Solofication of MMORPGs

Once upon a time there was a MMORPG called Everquest, and it forced players to group to progress. For most classes you could only solo the newbie zones, and starting from about level 10 or so you would discover that the lowest level mob that still gave experience points to you was already too hard for you to kill alone. But a few classes could use special tactics to solo anyway, druid were kiting mobs after them, and necromancers were fear kiting mobs away from them. (I played a quad kiting druid.) And it turned out that soloing was popular: far more people played druids or necromancers than playing any other class.

So every new generation of MMORPGs made soloing easier and easier, because that was what the customer wanted, until we arrived at World of Warcraft, where every single class is basically expected to solo all the way up to the level cap. There are differences in the speed at which the different classes and talent trees can solo, but even least soloable class can kill mobs and do quests of his own level. And soloing is still popular, with classes that solo faster being played more than classes that solo slower.

And as soloing was what the customer wanted, some unknown developer at Blizzard came up with a brilliant idea: What if PvP could be made soloable too? That sounded crazy, because by definition you need at least 2 players for PvP, and if you wanted more than just duels you needed large groups on both sides of a battle. But that unknown dev realized that it wasn't necessary to have players actually form pre-arranged groups to do PvP. It wasn't absolutely necessary for players to cooperate in PvP. Sure, a group that cooperated would beat a group that didn't, but you could very well create a balanced battle between two groups as long as both of them were equally unorganized. And thus battlegrounds were born, and once Blizzard tweaked the PvP reward system they were extremely popular. And the majority of people basically solo battlegrounds, that is queue up for them alone, and then do whatever they want once inside. I call that pseudo-solo. This goes so far that people actually complain if they end up against an organized group.

I don't know if that unknown developer switched from Blizzard to EA Mythic, or whether EA Mythic had their own developer realizing that this solofication strategy could be applied to PvE raid content as well. Because what they did was they invented the "public quest". Which works basically like a battleground, just for PvE instead of PvP. People just join, without arranging groups, everyone does what he thinks is best, while a few frustrated players try to shout orders and are generally ignored. Pseudo-solo large group PvE content, where everyone gets rewarded, I'm sure people will love it. Soloing is what the customers want.

But a MMORPG has a large and diverse base of customers, and not all of them prefer solo play. As early as Everquest some people noticed that a group is stronger than the sums of its parts. The larger the group, and the better it is coordinated, the greater the challenges it can overcome. Moving from open world to instanced content, developers were able to limit how many players could attack a specific challenge. But they couldn't prevent players from organizing themselves better and better, training each encounter for hours and hours, until even a large raid group moved with a coordination that would make the bolshoi ballet green from envy. And thus an arms race evolved, on the other side of the MMORPG from the solo content, a race in which developers would design harder and harder challenges, and raiders would again and again prove that these challenges could be beaten with perfect coordination. To understand that arms race, Blizzard hired one of Everquest's top raiders as lead designer, and consequently spent a lot of development effort on designing ultra-hard raid content. There were clearly *some* customers that wanted this, and not solo content. And while the number of top raiders wasn't large, they were deemed to be influence leaders, the kind of people that other players looked up to, and also the kind of players who were most likely to post a lot of comments on game forums or other places of the internet. And it worked! While the number of players actually experiencing the highest level of raid content is still tiny, the desire to be a raider is certainly far more wide-spread.

The problem is that these two parts of the game are drifting further and further apart in World of Warcraft and the MMORPG genre in general. Soloing becomes easier and easier, the need to group during leveling up has been nearly completely removed, elite mobs turned into soloable non-elites, and the rewards for pseudo-solo PvP have been much increased. It is now possible to go from level 1 to level 70 and full epic gear in World of Warcraft without ever joining a group once. And the classes who are best at soloing fast or best at PvP are the most popular and most played. Meanwhile raiding remains hard, because that is the very reason of being for it, and even harder raid content as added to the end with every content patch. But to overcome these challenges, people need to learn how to play in a coordinated way. And the mix of classes, talents, and gear required for raiding is very different from what is most popular and easy to achieve in the soloing part of the game. Slowly but surely the two modes of gameplay drift so far apart that cracks begin to appear, threatening the whole model. From a raider's point of view the leveling game now fails to fulfil it's function of getting people ready to raid. Sure, they might be level 70 and have epic gear, but they might still be totally useless for a raid: they have not even the most basic training of how to play their class in a group, and they are of the wrong class, wrong spec, and wearing gear with the wrong bonuses to succeed in raids. If the 40 people in an average Alterac Valley group decided to kick out the 15 least suitable among them and take the remaining 25 to any one of the 25-man raid dungeons, they would not be able to get past the trash mobs. The average player who soloed up to 70, invested some effort in PvP to get epic gear, and now wants to raid, will find himself rejected and laughed at by the top raiding guilds on his server. He'll complain about them being elitist, but in fact it is game design that created the gap between average player and raider. The solofication of MMORPGs creates a large number of characters who simply aren't viable for the top end raid game.

What needs to be done is to rethink the concept of solofication. Why is soloing popular? A part of it is due to Real Life ® contraints, if you solo you can play in smaller bits and bites, group play needs longer periods. But another part of it is just a Skinner box: people like soloing because the game teaches them that soloing is the easiest way to advance. So even if they would have the time for a group, they rather keep on playing solo, because setting up a group is so not worth it. Assembling the group is made complicated by a bad LFG system in WoW. Doing quests that aren't marked a group quests in a group is often bringing less experience points per hour than soloing them. And WoW's concept of teaching players how to group is equivalent of throwing them into deep water to teach him how to swim: some people learn it that way, but many get hurt and frustrated in the process.

Solofication not only opens up a gap to end game raid content, it also moves MMORPGs in a direction where they become vulnerable to competition from single-player games. When I recently asked whether people would play a single-player version of WoW without monthly fees, I was surprised of how many people would prefer such a game over an online MMORPG with monthly fees. If game design minimizes your interaction with other players, then why pay $15 a month for that interaction?

I think that it is time for the pendulum to swing back towards MMORPGs being more about groups again. Not enforced grouping, nobody wants that. But to a situation where even during the leveling process forming a group would actually be easy and the incentives would encourage it. Where people would learn to cooperate, because it would be to their advantage, and where due to that cooperation they would make more friends and develop stronger social bonds. Where players would arrive at the end game and already know how to play well in a group. Where playing a "support class" like tank or healer was a reasonable choice, and not a niche way for raiders to gimp themselves for the rest of the game. Where MMORPGs would be massively multiplayer again, and not massively singleplayer in parallel, as they are now. Here's hoping.

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