Solo != Anti-social

Sandra’s activities in World of Warcraft
I’m not anti-social; I spend most of my time interacting with
others. (Even soloing, I’m chatting and roleplaying.)

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.
  • Roleplay.
  • 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.

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17 Responses to Solo != Anti-social

  1. Grimwell says:

    There is just something fun about bobbing your head in agreement when reading something. When are you guys going to start to work on another MMO project? ;)

    Oh, beyond the flattery? Fine…

    I think what you are visiting here will become more and more important as online games continue to evolve. The key function in an online game is the interaction between the people in the game; anything that can be done to encourage and enable more interaction through venues we aren’t currently exploring is a huge boon to the game that employs it.

  2. Celestian says:

    If solo play isn’t anti-social please explain why in games like WoW it’s near impossible to find pickup groups at just about any level but games that promote grouping such as City of Heroes you can find groups easily.

    Sorry, but as much as I like to solo now-and-then I don’t want to give up the ability to find groups. I’d rather they have group oriented play over the solo play. On top of the grouping WoW’s game play mechanics also promote self over others. Anyone that has played it has seen this in action when a person just drops groups once their quest is completed regardless if the people still need that person to finish theirs. That doesn’t even cover the guild jumping to get “their” loot.

    You can disagree all you like but the fact remains that solo play is anti-social.

  3. Thunder says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the author. I love being part of a social atmosphere…though I do enjoy grouping on occasion. I just don’t want to be forced into grouping to play my game. I don’t want to be forced into it because of the bad apples that make up the majority of the pick up groups out there….the rude players.

    Celestian mentions people that leave quests once their’s is completed without staying to help others. True that is anti-social…but not all of us solo gamers are like that. Personally for me…if I can get into a good group that I enjoy I will stick around to help with whatever I can, even beyond what my goals for grouping were. If I don’t get into a good group and it’s all task oriented…I stick around till the task is done…but I make sure everyone is satisfied with how the group experience turned out. In other words…you won’t find me leaving when I’m done with my part. That’s just being rude…plain and simple. Celestian…you don’t have a problem with solo players…you have a problem with rude players…there is a very distinct difference. Rude players can be either solo players or group players…it is not limited to solo players.

  4. Talyn says:

    I’ve been saying the same thing on forums for the past year, as well as in Ethic’s post. “Grouping” has nothing whatsoever with “being social.” I’ve grouped with extremely anti-social people before, to the point I added them to my ignore list afterward with a note saying why. People group because it serves *their* individual goals, not because they’re social butterflies wanting to spread the love and cheer.

    I love grouping when I’m in the mood. I love soloing when I’m in the mood. More often than not when I’m soloing it’s because a) I work bizarre hours and my friends and I are rarely on at the same time, and b) it allows me more time to chat with online friends or guildmates because, since I’m soloing, I can pace my activities to *allow me to be social with my friends/guildies.* Imagine that! Other people solo their adventures but are talking in general chat the whole time. Talking is communication is social. Grouping is direct interaction, but that alone is not the same as being “social.”

  5. Zulika says:

    I also agree with the author and echo Thunder;s thoughts about rude players as well. A few of those ideas from that short list are great. I do alot of exploring and with groups it is hard sometimes to stop and smell the roses or even get to read all of the text related to the quest at hand -man that ticks me off!

    The best guilds I have been in came about as I spoke with people in game that I grew to like while I was doing solo type activity. Chatting while hunting (for years) increased my typing skills greatly – then again it may have adversely affected my hunting skills -hehe!

    And I actually miss assisting in the calls of fellow solo peeps corpse runs -those of guild mates and strangers alike at 3AM or chatting as I wait for my groups turn at the start of the next big quest -instancing and wussy death penalties killed those. Groups now are more like WhamBamThankYaMaam, on to the next one….so I tend to skip most forced group quests now.

    All forced grouping has done is forced me to look for other games.

    PS. Sandra you;ll always be Srand to me. Loved both your work and communication skills from my AC days – a game I and many are always trying to recapture the feelings of. I wish someone would dump a ton of money at your disposal in exchange for producing something new and creative for us.

  6. Ethic says:

    Just to be clearer, I’m not against solo play. I’m just hoping that future devs will look into making grouping (not even official grouping but simply playing together in some sort of shared way) more fun and rewarding than it is currently. I prefer to see soloing be a viable play style. I’m all for making several ways to play the game fun. Problem is, games lately have focused so much on solo play that grouping just isn’t that much fun. As polished as WoW is, they have removed a ton of things games used to have. We are going backwards creatively – but thankfully the quality has improved.

    Another thing I think that has led to reduced grouping is quest based advancement. Even people the same levels are not grouping up because they are on different quest lines. I love using quests to advance, but it really does make it a little harder to get in sync with other players.

  7. Sandra says:

    Ethic: I didn’t mean to pick on you — you just happened to post the perfect jumping off for this post I’d been wanting to make. :>

    Zulika: You are welcome to call me srand! And thank you — I wish someone would dump a ton of money on us also. *grin*

  8. Bart 'Flatfingers' Stewart says:

    Wow. It’s not often I read something that could have come directly out of my own brain. (Whether that’s a Good Thing or not I leave to others to decide. ;-)

    I’m another one who’s been irritated by this persistent canard that people who aren’t gregarious don’t contribute usefully in massively multiplayer online games. I’ve also observed more than once that the multiplayer aspect of these products is what’s most unique about them and therefore is what most needs to be leveraged through appropriate design features, but that doing so shouldn’t equate “social” with “grouped.”

    So I’m completely on board with your points, Sandra. The possible solution I’d like to offer can be summed up in one word: collaboration.

    Instead of perceiving right-here-right-now to be the only possible form of social interaction (as very social people tend to do because that’s what they enjoy), “collaboration” encompasses both highly personal and reserved styles of multiperson play. By analogy with other online activities, collaboration is not only synchronous like chat boards, it’s asynchronous like discussion forums.

    Which brings me to my argument that “asynchronous collaboration” is an accurate way of describing the non-local, non-immediate interactions favored by non-social players. And my point is that because asynchronous collaboration is a valid way of contributing to a MMOG, non-social players who participate in these indirect interactions absolutely do contribute to those gameworlds, just as people leaving messages on a discussion forum contribute to those discussions.

    Crafting and auction house activity is probably the most visible example of this kind of interaction. How effective would the in-game economy of any major MMOG be without the non-social people who collect resources, make things with those resources, and buy and sell them on a game’s open market? The indirect interactions of non-social players with many other players directly benefit everyone in the game by efficiently creating and distributing goods.

    But auction houses shouldn’t be the only way that non-social players can contribute. What about other kinds of asynchronous collaboration? More specifically, what are some other ways that players in a massively multiplayer world can collaborate that are either non-local, or non-immediate, or both?

    I don’t want to wear out whatever welcome I may have here (I suspect that I may already not be Eric’s Flavor Of The Month given that I’m the guy who brought his “Advice for Cryptic’s Star Trek Team” post to the attention of STOnet readers :D), so I’ll leave that question open. I’ll be interested to see if anyone thinks it’s worth pursuing.

  9. So Sandra, if you are chatting and role-playing at the same time you’re solo-adventuring then shouldn’t the percentages in you pie chart add up to more that 100%? You’re not counting your ultra-efficient multi-tasking! :P

    Then again, I seem to remember you role-playing a mute character so that you wouldn’t have to chat with people while playing in a group. ;)

  10. Sandra says:

    Hey Todd! Good to see you. Actually, Eric did the chart, and when he did I complained about that very same fact (that it doesn’t adequately represent multi-tasking) myself. But he still said it was better than the random picture of a woman singing a solo I found on He said she creeped him out. So I let his chart stay.

    Bart: Of course you are welcome here! Anything that encourages interesting discussion is a good thing, and I’ve been quite impressed with some of the comments that have come in about the STO posts. But back to this post …

    I really like your thoughts about asynchronous collaboration. I think that you’ve stopped right before the interesting bit, however — figuring out more in-game mechanics that support asynchronous collaboration.

    A lot of my favorite methods right now aren’t properly in-game: they revolve around blogs and niche fansites and similar out-of-game communities. I’d be happier, though, if I could come up with more in-game mechanics — the list here is a brief brainstorm, but I suspect that that’s where the neat innovation of the next generation games will come in.

  11. Bart Stewart says:

    Thanks, Sandra. I’ll try not to rattle on at too great a length (an awful habit of mine). :)

    I was actually being careful not to define collaboration in terms of being only inside the game world. I definitely agree that there’s big value for the typical MMORPG in finding in-game features suppporting fun collaboration, but I wouldn’t want to exclude out-of-game features. Handheld or mobile devices might become workable interfaces, for example, and the idea of allow players to have some limited access to the game world through generic Web browsers seems to be picking up steam — best not to foreclose those options if it’s not necessary to do so.

    That said, I admit to being mostly interested in in-game collaborative features, since (for now) that’s where the “massively multiplayer” stuff happens. I liked your suggestions as a starting point for features developers can offer that promote the asynchronous collaboration that invites non-social players to participate actively. What I was trying to get at with my questions is some sense of what makes those suggestions good, and I think it’s the notion of asynchrony. That’s the characteristic that allows players to contribute (within some limits) when and where they like, rather than only being able to do so according to the schedules of other players. So any other feature suggestions that share this characteristic should be good for non-social players as well.

    Of course, that raises the question: if non-social players like some asynchronous collaboration feature, what’s to keep it from also being popular with social players who, in their enthusiasm, might crowd out the non-social players?

    But maybe questions of gameplay balance should be left until after a few more feature ideas get brainstormed! I’m going to see if I can dream up some other ways that characters can interact with other characters that don’t require locality or immediacy — if anyone else wants to play along, that would be great. :)

  12. Wellstone says:

    Players may not enjoy those with whom they work, in real life.
    Part of the draw of MMOs is an opportunity to have challenge & adventure, with some socialization.
    Some people enjoy working on their own ‘project’ while engaging in community conversations.
    In manufacturing, women can perform tedious tasks, maintaing a higher level of morale, when able to chat with one-another.

    For some players, simply playing an MMO is a step outside of their comfort-zone. Trying to force people to be “more social” tries forcing a primarly-introverted person into an extroverted-role.

    Were the person mostly extroverted, passtimes other than video games likely would hold that person’s focus. Games that try to force socialization are run by people guided by a false view of their target market.

    Part of the market may be overseas military personnel, who are used to working in isolated jobs. They still may want to solo, since any real-life interruption could occur at any moment, causing them to abandon their group in an instanced-section. Until games instantly reconfigure the instance based upon the group’s composition, unexpected interruptions discourage many from grouping.

  13. John Petersen says:

    I just want to play in a world with as many people in it as it will possibly hold and still be free to do my own thing. If i don’t wanna group today, that’s my option. If I don’t ever wanna group, that’s my option. If i don’t wanna play the PK game, that another option I want.

    I can do people, but I can’t really do groups (thinking as one). You can call it antisocial, but it’s really not.

    I have to think for myself, but I wanna do it in a world with many, who do the same.

    For the record: I got no problem with people who do want to group up. I do it myself sometimes.

  14. Sevastyan says:

    cool you saytik! Write more!

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  16. PJC says:

    If I have no solo play to do when I’m waiting for group pay to materialize, I get bored and logout. If I do that often enough I lose my social connections and quit the game.

    Second, I’m a parent. I get interrupted. When I’m in that mode, I prefer to solo, but I can still be chatting with my guild.

    My issues are mine alone, and yet demographically I am legion (yes kids, your parents play games), and this is why I think good MMOs have good solo play. If that solo play can be made to have social effects — asynch stuff like accumulating “guild reputation” or whatver — hurrah! But don’t break my solo play when you do it please. :)

  17. Gathrog says:

    What many people don’t understand is:

    Grouping in theory is the most basic way to promote social contact in any MMO.

    Grouping in current MMO reality is stressful and annoying.

    Just as Sandra pointed out there are other ways to promote social activities other than the current conventional MMO grouping system. Most of her “off the top of her head” ideas are interesting and innovative. With that being said the current conventional grouping system isn’t all bad, it just needs a revamp for accessibility and fun.

    Celestian pointed out that finding players for a group is a major problem, but I think Celestian is wrong in his assumption that solo gameplay is the issue. I think most players don’t group unless they have to, because in addition to being difficult to find players, the current grouping system isn’t very rewarding either. In fact most games actually penalize you for grouping.

    When in a group most games will divide the experience gained from a mob not by a small percentage, but evenly by the number of players in your group. Any loot the mob drops must also be rolled on and can’t be divided. So in the current grouping system before anything else is said and done the group members know they will gain less experience and less loot just by deciding to group together.

    What should be done then to improve grouping? I think Warhammer online made lots of headway on the issue of finding groups with their open party and public quest systems. I also think that adding more rewards and/or reducing the penalties for grouping will encourage more players to group more often or, god forbid, group even when they don’t have to.