Going solo in MMOs

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By Michael Lafferty GameZone.com

A dance of insanity, crystalline, chilling, expected … the wind, swirling across the ice flows of Halas could rend the body and soul of anyone foolish enough to not be wary of its presence. But that was not the only danger here. Concern for the stinging crystals of ice, hurled about by the wind, was but one of the hazards of this harsh land. An errant step and the lone warrior could find himself in the icy waters of the bay. And the bears were roaming, hungry, angered by the gods that created this land.

Still, the warrior trudged on. The quest was urgent; the reward for its completion would be one more step toward the goal of supremacy over this land, and over other lands to come.

When the acronym of “MMO” is tossed out, what usually pops to mind? Chances are it is not the very words that those three letters represent, or if so, perhaps those words define the style more than the intent. For many, it is not the massively multiplayer online element at all, but rather the worlds, the quest structure, the classes, the subscription fees, the number of levels, and so on. It seems that the concept of playing with others within a group structure is rarely the main consideration. Maybe it should be. After all, this is a massively multiplayer experience, meaning that the opportunity for social structures is in place.

Why, then, do we – as players – fight it so much?

After all, when you recount the adventures of others, what generally pops to mind? “Man, last night I was in a raid dungeon by myself, and the boss mob was this epic level, surrounded by five minions that were all 3-up heroics. I tried to pull them one at a time but that aggro’d the boss, who two-shot me. After two hours of rezzing, I finally gave up! It was so awesome!!”

Uhmm, no. How about …?

“So there were five of us out in this forest and we were looking for the temple. We were completely lost when one of the guys – he lives in Europe, and it was like 3 a.m. for him but he was there with us – said, ‘follow me, I know the way.’ So we all went into follow mode and he took off, running through the woods. All of a sudden he bursts past the trees and runs right over this cliff that was there that we knew nothing about. Of course, we were all behind him, following like lemmings, and everyone one of us fell to our deaths. All he could say was ‘oops.’ “

Maybe, you recount how you and a team entered a raid dungeon for loot (a.k.a. l33t) and after two hours, came out with stories and the coveted drops. Most of those tales are told with a smile, with a ‘this guy said,’ or ‘then he turns a corner’ type of moments. The key ingredient, though, is that others were there to share the experience.

And that is the essence of a good MMO. The grouping experience is always much more entertaining, more lively, and better remembered because of the company of others. But MMO developers know the player base better than that, and understand that getting players to group up can’t be forced – encouraged, but not forced. An MMO that focuses too much on the single-player element can develop a bad reputation. Take a look at Star Wars Galaxies, for instance – a game that tossed in pet classes for everyone and allowed the player base to run about alone with pets instead of with others. The game’s acronym “SWG” was sometimes interpreted as ‘Solo Wars Grind.’

EVE Online is a game where instances can require a couple of players, at the least, to enter because of the variety of enemy ships encountered. An intelligent and diverse (ship-wise) fighting team can be amazingly effective against the NPCs, and stand somewhat of a chance against the gangs of player thugs waiting on the other side of low-sec space portals to gank unsuspecting zoners. Developers know, though, that while the game could be changed to make it a more group-centric experience, players like to have the opportunity to solo when a group cannot be found (and let’s be honest here, how many times do you – as an MMO player – actually enter a game looking for a group and when disappointed that one cannot be found, leave the game for other diversions. The answer is likely not many. We plan out forays into the world in terms of the quests we have to do and most of the time settle for the notion of trying the ones we can solo). To force grouping is not good - not by a long shot.

Playing an MMO solo can be rather lonely - especially when the chat channels are alive; and going solo also defies both the logic of community-driven games, and the intent. But the fault is not with the developers, it is with the players. Until play styles change, and embrace the ‘MM’ part of the phrase, developers are going to be tasked with continuing to create viable solo content.

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Michael Lafferty
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