15 January, 2005
Time to rant a bit about the evils of soloing in online RPGs. Speaking more as a player than a developer, really.
Just to warn you ahead of time, this is a bit more loose than most of my previous writing. I’m trying to see if this helps me consider the issue more and/or makes the entry more interesting. Just an experiment, don’t think I’ve started taking (or have gone off) the appropriate wacky drugs. ;)
I hate to solo in online RPGs. About the only activity I like doing alone is exploring out a map. Since I heavily lean toward the Explorer type I tend to do this a lot; keep this in mind as you read my little rant here. I recognize that sometimes other players get in the way of the “fun parts”, but when I play an online RPG, I want to play with other people. If I wanted to play alone, there are a lot of quality computer RPGs out there for me to enjoy.
Fundamentally, online RPGs are about other people. I’m playing in a shared space with other people that I can interact with. This isn’t just a console game with a chat interface slapped on. (Well, usually it isn’t…) So, the game should be designed to be a multiplayer experience where players interact with each other in meaningful ways. Because of this, the game designers often expect a group of people to be playing together, so the developers create the game to anticipate that and set the challenge appropriately. Trying to play alone is often an exercise in frustration and tedium.
On the other hand, sometimes these games aren’t really designed to be truly multiplayer. When a group of players have to stand around waiting in line to unlock the cage with the key we all looted off the same monster, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity. Finish your part then get out of the way! I need to be the hero next! In these cases the thin shell breaks away and you see the (sometimes quality) single-player experience under the guise of being multi-player. This does more harm than good, of course.
But, now let me slip the developer hat fully on my head. I want players to group because it gets them together to form strong social bonds. Bonds that will keep them into the game much longer than the gameplay can ever hope to. But, the gameplay is also designed to be multiplayer. It’s much easier to design and implement a single-player game; you don’t have to worry about the vagaries of the Internet, billing problems, server issues, etc. Having players interact makes the game unique and interesting, and the resulting community is often more compelling on a human level than anything I can hope to put into any single-player game.
(Again, take this with a grain of salt. My own game, Meridian 59, is probably one of the most solo-friendly games out there. There’s not even a formal “grouping” mechanic as you find in other games, although you could just set up customized chat groups to organize a “party” in the traditional sense. Part of the appeal is that you can do part of the game alone, but then you can also be part of a guild that does interesting things like fight against enemies. Theory, practice, all that.)
It’s interesting to look at why people don’t like to group. The top two issues I hear are: 1) I don’t have enough time, and 2) I don’t like interacting with new/unproven people. Instead of eliminating grouping because of these issues, why not look at root causes.
The industry has been working on the time issue. “Looking for group” lists, teleportation and summon abilities, faster action once in the game. It’s hard to imagine someone playing a modern game and having to spend the “6 hours per night” horror stories we heard in the bad old days of online RPGs (a little bit after time flat rate subscription pricing came into vogue). These days you can use in-game tools to play for an hour or two and actually get a bit accomplished thanks to the advancements. Could we do better? Probably, but I think the proponents of the “15 minute” session might be a little misguided. I love the Axis and Allies board game, but I can’t play it in 15 minute chunks because of my cats. Unless I get a case to put it in. Even then 15 minutes is an awfully short time to get back into the game and make an interesting move, especially late in the game when you have wars on multiple fronts. Not every game is appropriate for every person, no matter how much people would love online RPGs to hit the “mass market”.
As for interacting with unknown/unproven people, that is again being worked on. There will always be some element of unpredictability when it comes to online interactions just as there is unpredictability in offline interaction. For example: will the person in traffic cut me off or let me change lanes? We theoretically have police officers that remove the worst offenders from the road, keeping it safer for the rest of us. But, what about in the online space? Reputation systems, community management, and various other steps have become much more common in recent times. Individuals are also becoming more savvy. Do you find a lot of mentally stunted rejects from the Foo guild? Time to avoid dealing with people from the Foo guild (or time to fight with them if you’re into those types of games).
In the end, though, being forced to do something sucks. As I said above, I enjoy soloing more when I’m alone; I don’t have to move at someone else’s pace, which is a big issue when exploring. Yet, we can’t really deny that these games are about the interaction between players. Allowing players to avoid interaction with other players completely seems to miss the point of an online RPG. As designers, our goals should be to facilitate the interaction, and that means improving it in places where it needs to be improved.