A Defence of Solo Play in MMOs [Game Theory]

In his post on Tuesday, Keen questioned why developers such as Bioware and Zenimax Online are courting disaster by implementing single-player content in their MMOs:

 I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.  Blatant examples include SWTOR’s heavy instancing and personal story, and now The Elder Scrolls Online.

Whilst I am strong advocate for the importance of group play and communities in MMOs, I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

To explain: playing with other gamers in MMO typically requires time to assemble a group and preparation for the targeted content, as well as commitment to stay until either it has finished or your group stops by mutual consent. If you can only play for 20 minute stints or your work forces you to log on at unsociable hours, you are out of luck. Similarly, if you find yourself behind the gear/skill/social progression curve, you can find yourself locked out of content for good. And that’s not to mention the other risks such as ninja looting, griefing, inappropriate language and Chuck Norris jokes.

I found an interesting survey on browsing the web which shows a breakdown of reasons why some WoW players like to solo. I don’t stand behind these numbers – I think it just makes for an interesting discussion item.

Solo content is that ‘something else’ you can do without being in a group. In Ultima Online, I used to work on my lumberjacking and carpentry. In Meridian 59, I would explore/run around like a headless chicken. If a new player starts up the game and cannot find something to do without other people, they will not hang around for very long.

It is my belief that many of the commenters that would omit single player content from their MMOs typically have established guilds and/or friendship groups that play a range of games. They rarely have the need to solo or to use automated grouping tools.

Conversely, I believe that this ‘mystery demographic’ as referred to by Keen actually makes up a large proportion of the MMO community. Indeed WoW, one of the first MMOs to really target content specifically at this group, has profited greatly from the recognition of soloing as a legitimate play style.

In his entry on the topic, Azuriel reminds us that less than 20% of WoW players raid. So building a new game which focuses on this 20% is to leave a considerable amount of money on the table.

With all that said, many of the criticisms leveled at single-player content introduced to MMOs are entirely accurate. The overuse of instances and phasing can diminish a sense of the seamless ‘virtual world’. Furthermore, casual players who solo and do not set down community roots are likely to be the first ones to leave the game when they get bored.

Ultimately I do not feel that we have achieved the perfect balance of solo/group experiences in any MMO yet. However this doesn’t mean that they should be ignored -developers should continue to experiment with group content and single player stories to find the perfect balance.

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About bernardparsnip

Gamer, Blogger, Poet
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3 Responses to A Defence of Solo Play in MMOs [Game Theory]

  1. Pingback: [Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars? « Welcome to Spinksville!

  2. Pai says:

    Solo content is, however, different than single-player scripted cutscenes (which is what SWTOR has). Those have no replayability and therefore are detrimental to a MMO’s longterm success since people play those once and are done.

    But something like scaling dungeons that could be run solo for quest credit and perhaps a lowered chance of item drops could work though, I’d think. Those sorts of things could be replayable without requiring a group. Also, a system like GW2 where dynamic events scale to the people participating in them to reduce the need for people to party to finish them.

    • I don’t think that cut-scenes are a very good tool in any multiplayer game. Diablo 3 has too many, for instance. But I have seen a trend of bloggers recently reminiscing over the days when playing solo was difficult and suggesting it would be better for the industry if we turned back the clock to 2003. For the reasons stated, I believe this would do more harm than good.

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