I was reading Stubborn’s article yesterday about the erosion of social activities in the leveling experience as he ventures forth in SW:TOR. While I can’t say that I can talk about that game in particular, as someone who considers herself a somewhat sociable player in MMO’s, I found that the article didn’t really resonate with me. Although I commented, I wanted to expand and explore that comment, and the general topic a bit more.
The first time I encountered a companion system was in Neverwinter Nights, and I thought it was awesome. Although I had played many tabletop adaptations (Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Wizardry, Might & Magic… I could go on for a bit) these games all featured a party-type system. You controlled a party of adventurers that allowed you to select a wide range of skills to meet the many challenges you might face throughout the game. While a later play-through might feature a party comprised entirely of Barbarians, I know I tended to take a warrior, rogue, cleric, and mage as my base party whenever possible to cover all my bases.
NWN changed this up a bit. While it was still in the tabletop tradition, instead of a party of adventurers, you were now a solo hero. Depending on the class you chose to take, this could make some things a bit difficult. I usually play a paladin or cleric, and having to hope that I could smash open boxes without destroying the valuable cargo inside was always a bit of a frustrating point for me. And then came the companions. I almost always chose a thief to complement my meaty sword bashing skills. While early companions weren’t all that great in AI capability (no really stand HERE!), they enhanced the solo player experience without detracting from your solo hero storyline.
Taking this same concept and inserting into an MMO, however, makes me a bit uneasy. Sure, there have been times when I’ve run across a group quest and thought “Damn, now I’ve got to talk someone into completing this with me,” but it’s never really been a serious issue while content was fresh (in the same expansion pack at a minimum). Once that grace period is over, finding a group for a quest becomes a major pain in the rumpus, and I could understand how a companion could be awesome; however, I find bumping those quests down to solo content just as viable for “dated” content.
The main problem I have with a companion system is that it doesn’t give you any reason to interact with anyone until you reach the level cap. You might still choose to not do group quests because you don’t want to deal with other folks, but I find that group quests usually involve a strong enough incentive to make grouping a worthwhile endeavor. Especially for a fresh game, making those little connections while you’re all bright eyed and bushy tailed about new experiences gives you a stronger incentive to keep at the game later, when it bogs down either because you’re done with the “task” of leveling and getting ready for whatever end-game options are available or contemplating rolling a new character to repeat the leveling experience. Knowing that their are folks that you can chat with, even if you’re not actively grouped or participating in the same activity any longer, provides a nice incentive for players to keep playing your game instead of finding the next best thing.
On the flip side of all this, I know I have experienced group fatigue. Usually when I log into an MMO instead of a PC or console game, it’s because I want to chat or do a group activity. However, sometimes I’m between games, and you can only replay Metroid so many times before you start dreaming about marble balls in mazes. I like having the option to play by myself. I like the option of just breezing around doing my own thing at any level and still feel like I made some kind of progress (however truly insubstantial it might be). I think WoW has actually done a pretty good job of this providing a good mix of solo-able and group activities from L15 to end-game, and although I generally pursue solo activities in LoTRO, it also provides a great system for solo and group content.
I’ve played other MMO’s that put all the emphasis on group play, and although I can’t speak for everyone, it definitely diminished my time ponying up the bucks for their products. DDO, on the surface, seemed to take care of that pesky travel issue. The entire town is riddled with portals to sewers, islands, and deserts where an adventuring party can pulverize a wide range of baddies. Many of the instances are outdoor, providing a wonderful exploration experience for the new player. However, it got old so quickly, because the only thing to do in the game was log in, look for a group, and run an instance. I found myself relying on other games to fill in the gap. FFXI also lost my business after I started my 3rd character and realized I was going to be nothing but grouping once I hit level 8 or so. Although there was more outdoor travel available, depending on the location, you needed a group just to get somewhere, much less accomplish anything when you arrived.
I also found that play-time ended up being tiring in these games. It was almost impossible to pop on to play for a short 1/2 hour session–heck, it could take that long just to have someone notice you advertising for a group. Unless you had a block of time to commit to the game, then it wasn’t even worth logging in. While I understand and appreciate the social/group component in MMO play, if I can’t find activities that I enjoy doing solo & in a group, I likely won’t be playing the game very long. I expect my MMO to be robust, and to keep me engaged in a variety of ways, not because I think MMO’s are the end-all and be-all, but because MMO’s fill a unique niche in my gaming life.
Even worse, the games that I’ve played that limit play to group activities can sometimes end in frustration. Sure, you quickly build up a list of folks that you’ve enjoyed grouping with, but there always comes that time when insomnia hits, you have a day off, or you just have some extra time on a Saturday afternoon that you’ve devoted to spending in game and you can’t find a bloody soul to play with. “That’s ok,” you think, “I’ll just go with a new group. It’ll be nice to meet some new people.” And as you faithfully call out to fellow players to complete some task or just kill time for the day, you rapidly reach the wall because you can’t find a group. Even worse, you have absolutely nothing to while away the time with (unless you really like rearranging furniture at your ‘house’) because all activity is based on your ability to find a group. Talk about frustrating.
I suppose my continued exposure to MMO’s has left me with rather high standards. I expect robust communities with chatty folks and people interested in group play, but I don’t always want to participate. Being able to piddle around on my own, and still feel accomplished is an important requirement for me in any new MMO, but I also know that I am just as likely to leave when I find myself in a ghost town, or where it’s hard to find community activities on a regular basis.
Going solo isn’t a bad thing, but I think a robust MMO community must balance the needs of the players who MMO to group, and those who don’t.
How do you feel about solo activities in MMO’s? Do you find yourself connecting easily with others for group play, or are you discouraged (or disinclined) to participate with other players?