Thursday, August 10, 2006

Group Versus Solo Play

While on the subject of grouping, game designers in MMORPGs are faced with a difficult dilemma when it comes to solo versus group play options. Back in the day when Everquest was the only game in town (MMORPG speaking), its designers had free reign over the amount of options available for solo play. In their case, none really. Unless you selected a one of the few classes that could solo or were very skillful you really were stuck if you could not find a group of players.

With the plethora of MMORPGs now available, each one is vying for a market share. That means trying to provide an even balance of both solo and group options. This may be an impossible goal. Gamers, by and large, are anti-social. Perhaps it’s this anti-social nature that draws them to games, or perhaps playing so many stand-alone games makes them anti-group. Regardless, if players CAN solo, regardless of the benefits of grouping, they will, and in large numbers.

In nearly every MMORPG, the advancement gains for grouping far out way those soloing, yet the die-hard anti-social of the anti-social soloers loudly clings to the firm belief that solo play is faster. They cite how much they gain per defeated creature; all the while neglecting to take into account that while the individual gains are much more than when in a group, a group gains more over time.
For example:

Nevehcus defeats High Cleric Amica, gaining 1000xp in the process. The combat took 5 minutes leaving poor Nevehcus drained and needing another 5 minutes to replenish his powers before taking on another creature. A group of 5 players defeated the same High Cleric Amica but were rewarded only 200xp per person. But, in that same 10 minutes, they defeated High Cleric Amica's entire 6-person entourage, her outer chamber guards, and a few wandering creatures that were foolish enough to get in the way. During the non-stop action, each player was able to draw on the group strength to share the burden of combat. When the dust clears, each group member gained more than 1,200xp. Using these fictitious numbers, Nevehcus would see 6,000exp in an hour, but the group members would see 7,200.


If a solo play option exists, even if it’s just a mindless grind of wandering opponents, it will be the major option selected by the player base much to the frustration of players who prefer to group. Making a game more group friendly is not a matter of penalizing soloing, it's a matter of overcoming that innate anti-social nature. The rewards for grouping must be far greater than those for soloing; otherwise, you have almost all soloers. However, if any options that exist for groups only, the soloers become very vocal and demand equal access. It starts a viscous circle that spirals down until everything that can be done, can be done solo, and that is all anybody does. Groups effectively cease to exist.

Why is grouping so important? Why does it matter? From a design point, it doesn’t. From a long-term growth viewpoint, it does. Grouping forces players to interact with each other, in some fashion. Players may chafe and grind playing in a group, but under these conditions they will, eventually, build a social network that will keep them playing even when the next MMOPRG game comes along. It fosters a need to play, to socialize, to be with friends made during these grouping sessions. It helps make a game, to use a web development term – sticky. Players stick with it through the ups and downs, and long after the game has ceased to be envogue.

1 comment:

Corith said...

Addendum

Taking advantage of Sony's free month to entice previous players to return to Everquest, the long-standing advocate of grouping, I popped into the game. While I found lots of players, they were all soloing with no interest in other. Grouping had become a thing of the past. Because of Mudflation, mid-level characters overloaded with high-end equipment were pushing the boundaries of solo play. With solo play now an option, most gamers were electing to go that route -- because they can solo, they do. Game designs that required a group, such as dungeon instances, were utterly devoid of willing participants.