Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The rewards of grouping

Soloing is easy, grouping is hard. Everybody knows that. Well, at least everybody who thinks that World of Warcraft was the first MMORPG out there. Those who have been around a bit longer are maybe aware that soloing being easier than grouping is actually a complete reversal from how things were a decade ago. In Everquest in 2001 players started out soloing at level 1, but while they became stronger with every level, the monsters became stronger even more so. At some point even the "green" monsters several levels lower than you, the lowest that would still give you xp, were too hard for you to solo. People grouped not because of a dungeon finder or anything, but because most classes needed a group to kill any monsters that gave xp. If you think about it, being stronger when several people help you than if you are alone makes sense.

As soon as you make a game which can be soloed up to the level cap, that concept of needing friends to help you goes out of the window. Why would you bother to get a group together to kill 10 foozles for a quest if you can do it much faster alone? That thought quickly leads to "elite" monsters, which again are too strong to solo. And then you need better loot on these elite monsters to make players interested in making the extra effort to get a group together. And before long you find yourself in a system where players at the level cap raid for epics, while having leveled solo most of the way to that level cap. For any given monster it is obviously easier to kill it in a group than to kill it solo, but now we have strictly separated parts of the game, one in which only soloing makes sense, and another in which only grouping makes sense. And then you can reverse difficulty and make the grouping part harder than the soloing.

Of course now the same people who grumbled over "forced grouping" in Everquest will complain that soloing only gets them to the nominal level cap, while the best epic rewards are still unattainable for them in group only dungeons. They would love to be able to keep soloing up to killing the final raid boss in the final dungeon. Other players prefer going to dungeons in groups, and consider the leveling part of the game to be an annoying obstacle on the way there. But would these players still group if the same rewards could be had in a solo variant of the dungeons?

Raph Koster says that "Community ties are the single biggest predictor of retention. And in the subscription game (really, in the microtransaction game too, though the effect is more complicated), retention = money. Therefore, community ties = money." But that would mean that the people who claim that WoW has the worst community ever can't be right, because it is really hard to argue that WoW has a problem with making money.

Somewhere there is a contradiction. Even the people who like groups think that game developers need to either force people into groups, or at least offer group only content with better rewards to encourage people to group. How can you have in the same game a better player retention through stronger community ties, and a frequently expressed feeling of players resenting the other players which with they are forced to group to get certain rewards or see certain content?

I believe that the strict separation of the soloing part and the grouping part of content is harmful here. I would prefer a game in which everything is soloable, but where soloing is hard, and grouping is the obviously more efficient and easier way to progress. Instead of having any content which you are forced to group for, all the content should be set up in a way that players have the choice of doing it solo, or doing it faster and more efficient in a group. Instead of dividing soloers and groupers in two strictly separate camps playing through separate content, players would sort themselves naturally, playing solo one days when they feel unsociable or don't have the time to set up a group, and playing in a group another day.

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