Ethic at Kill Ten Rats recently wrote a post called Where Did the Social Go? that laments the increasing focus on solo play in MMO games. In particular, he seems to feel that supporting solo play reduces the socialization in these games.This is unfortunately an attitude that I’ve run into all too often. As a player who prefers to solo almost exclusively, I vehemently disagree. The simple fact is that I don’t like to group — but I do like to:
- Chat with other players both in-game and out (via blogs, websites, and forums).
- Share game knowledge and help other players.
- Be part of a guild of friendly, helpful people.
- Hang out in town admiring other characters’ armor, pets, and wit.
- Participate in world events side-by-side with other players.
- Participate in the economy, both as a wheeler and dealer and as your friendly neighborhood crafter.
- Start new characters on new realms and race against others to level 20.
So tell me again how I’m anti-social? All of these activities involve engagement with other players and none of them necessarily involve grouping.
Shared Worlds, Shared Play
However, Ethic is not entirely wrong. The fact is that, outside of guilds and the economy, there are limited game-supported venues for massive persistent social play. At the beginning of his article, Ethic says:
” … games should be focusing on ways to take advantage of the fact that a large number of people are playing the same game at the same time.”
And he is absolutely correct — we should be taking advantage of our most unique feature. But why on earth would people assume that this means grouping? Grouping involves only a tiny handful of people. It hardly takes advantage of our massive nature at all! It irks me when people say, “Soloers should stick to their solo games,” because the counter-argument is just as (in)valid: Groupers should stick to their group games. I don’t go around demanding solo gameplay out of Team Fortress, do I? Face it: grouping is just one of many gameplay types that can thrive in a massive world, and it has absolutely nothing to do with how many people are sharing the same world as you.
Shared worlds are exciting and addictive because of their persistent and shared nature. There’s a very strong psychological draw that we get from these games because our characters exist somewhere else, somewhere that other people can see us and interact with us. The fact that we’re doing our own thing instead of being chummy 24/7 doesn’t detract from that at all, as we can see from WoW’s success.
Exploiting The Real Power of MMOs
So if neither grouping nor soloing really takes advantage of our key features, what can we do to further the “massiveness” of the game? Let’s brainstorm for a few minutes:
- Let players work together in a casual, no stress setting. How about a drum circle where anyone can walk up and start drumming; when enough characters are drumming, everyone in the zone gets a small buff for the next hour or two. Activate the drum circle on a set cycle (every three hours on the hour, for instance) and you have an optional but purposeful social gathering.
- Let players be creative together. How about an ongoing in-game haiku contest? Characters submit a haiku and then other players vote on it. Participants get points that can eventually be redeemed for cool hats. Once a month, the most popular entries go into an arena-style runoff vote; the winning haiku is performed by an NPC once a day in a main town.
- Let players network. Allow characters to hold membership in multiple guilds, or alternatively to form non-guild player associations for other purposes (roleplaying, crafting associations, class knowledge banks). And we could even map out the connections … You think a map of which faction owns which territory is cool? How about a live map of the network of player associations?
- Let players flaunt their success. Players are most excited about the persistent aspect of the world when their actions persist even when they are offline. KvK games where players can “own” castles and whatnot are a good example. Other examples are shops in town that players can own or rent, NPC’s that brag about how they met so-and-so high level player, etc. Maybe some towns let players “name” important locations. For 60,000 gold, the Ironforge Gate could be renamed “Joebob’s Ironforge Gate” for a month.
- Encourage small-scale competition. Another way for players to have a minor, modestly persistent role in the world is to compete. But if you do this on a massive scale, most players aren’t competitive. To make competition work in an MMO, you break it down to smaller groups. Perhaps each town has a leaderboard for a local game. One town has a sign that lists the top twenty players who have collected the most murloc heads in 10 minutes. Another town has a sign that lists the twenty players who have fallen from the highest points in the world and lived. These signs might reset each week or month.
These are just some off-the-cuff ideas, but as you can see, there are lots of ways to build on MMO’s core strengths. The unique character of MMO games is built on shared experience in a shared world. No matter what some old-school designers think, solo play does not violate that character, nor is grouping the only valid way to emphasize it. There is so much more we could be doing with this medium.
It can be frustrating for players who like grouping to think that there are millions of players out there who want to play MMO’s without grouping. As Eric wrote earlier in “Learning the Wrong Lessons from WoW“, this is a common misconception among game designers as well. But if you look at the vast possibilities in a shared persistent world, you’ll see that there are way more choices than just “playing by yourself” or “playing with 2 to 5 other individuals”. This isn’t some Xbox Live FPS. This is a shared persistent world. Think massive. Think long-lasting.