7 July, 2009
The issue of grouping vs. soling has been going on for a while. The fashion has been to be a defiantly proud soloer ranting against the a faceless group that wants to force everyone to group up. But, recently, the group fans have struck back, describing the benefits of being in a group in an MMO. One of my first few posts on this blog was about how grouping isn't evil.
So, let's take a look at grouping and why it's so painful in games.
Grouping: it's less common than you think
One issue that's skewing the discussion is that grouping really isn't that common. The game-focused MUDs (LP-MUDs, DIKU, etc.) were mostly solo activities. The social text worlds (MOO, MUSH, etc.) encouraged a lot more collaboration between players, though, but you could often spend time by yourself if you wanted. Early MMOs really didn't encourage a lot of grouping. In fact, Meridian 59 doesn't even have a formal grouping mechanic because there are no experience points to divide up. It wasn't until EQ came along that you saw strong encouragement to join a group, and even then soloing was possible with some classes in some situations.
The thing is, though, that the earlier games tended to have much smaller server populations. Except for UO, most games barely had more than a few hundred people on a server. So, it was easy enough to get to know people and ask for help in an area where you really needed it. As Wolfshead pointed out, though, grouping was a great way to meet people on a large server and form social bonds that would last a long time. For developers, this is important because social bonds will keep a person interested in a game longer than we can in most situations.
One problem pointed out in the fights between soloers and groupers is that groupers need others to really play the game the way they want. Soloers can wander off and have fun on their own because, well, that's what they like. Most games cater to that desire. This means the groupers are left without people to group with. They might hold their nose and race through a bunch of levels to get to the "real game" at the end where they can finally get together and play with others.
Some people just see no point in playing a game alone. As I said in my early post, if I wanted to play a game alone, I could pick from any number of quality single-player games that don't charge a subscription. Some of the best experiences I had in text MUDs back in the day was meeting and talking with other people. Even though I mostly soloed, the game was small enough that I could meet people. In a larger game, people are running around completing quests, so it's harder to make those same connections.
Not built for you
As I pointed out before, some games don't really build content intended for people who like small groups. Content seems designed for a single person or a full group, without much in the middle. This kind of sucks for people who want to game as a couple. While mowing through solo content can be somewhat fun, it'd be nice to have some interesting challenges. Unfortunately, duos are often limited in what content they can tackle in a level-based MMO because superior numbers don't really compensate for a lower level in some of the mechanics.
I think this is the core thrust of the grouper arguments: if the game is focused on soloers, then there's no incentive to group. Even worse, grouping could actually be discouraged.
There are a lot of mechanics in MMOs that are there for no other reason than tradition. The problem with mindlessly cloning other games is that some design decisions don't make sense as gameplay changes. Let me point out one specific example here: the experience split between people in a group. This means that if a group of 5 people kill a monster, they get only part of the experience a solo character would get.
This made some sense in a group-based game, because a group could theoretically kill monsters much faster as a group than they could alone (if they could even kill monsters alone). But, with games that focus more on solo gameplay, this is no longer the case. Five characters working together often cannot kill solo monsters five times as fast, because a solo character can kill them so fast. This means that grouping is actually counter-productive in some situations, especially at the early stages of the game. The only real advantage a group has is that the people can be a lot more sloppy and have others able to pick up the pieces. Not exactly good training for when players get to group-required content.
There's also an issue with quest objects in the world. Sometimes you have to kill a monster many times to get one drop for everyone. DAoC showed the way fix this by allowing everyone to loot the quest item from a defeated monster. LotRO also allows multiple people to pick up some of the world quest items. But, there's also some level of silliness when every person in a group has to individually "rescue" a certain person.
All these mechanics are on top of the normal costs to group: taking time to find a group, travel to a location, figure out who has to do which quest, etc. Added together, it's a small wonder that grouping is seen with such disdain by so many people.
Fear of players succeeding
Unfortunately, it's not just cloning game mechanics here. DAoC had a mechanic where experience for a kill was split between people even if not grouped; one of the most confusing things was when players didn't want you to heal them because you'd "leech xp" from them. LotRO also goes out of its way to punish people who help each other. If a wandering passer by heals you or strikes your enemy, you'll get less experience as a reward despite them getting nothing. On the other hand, a group in LotRO will actually gain more total xp for a monster than a soloer would.
Part of the design goal here is probably to prevent "twinking", where a high level character comes along and helps out a low level character who isn't in his group. This usually means that the lower level character is able to advance faster than others without a helper. (Oh, no, social interaction!) The conspiracy theorists in the audience will probably point out this is to keep people paying money longer.
So, what are some solutions? First of all, get rid of the "group xp split" mechanic. Let people group together and have fun with each other. Let people twink their friends and people they meet. We know by now that people will stick with a game longer if they have friends than if they have a longer "grind" in front of them.
Another interesting solution is Warhammer Online's "public quests". For those that haven't played that game, public quests were events that started on certain timers where everyone in an area was considered part of the quest and working together to accomplish goals without having to be in an explicit party. Unfortunately, these kind of fell apart if there were not enough people participating, and they really encouraged competition more than cooperation; your chance to win loot from the public quest was modified by how "well" you did (doing damage or healing).
Why not fix that concept and extend this concept to the whole world? Players are thrown into ad-hoc groups if they're in the same area. This means full xp, money, and quest drops for all active participants in a fight so that people have a reason to want others around instead of viewing another player as competition for resources. People who enjoy playing together are encouraged to form social bonds, but without the explicit structure of a group as it is now known, there's no need to "stick around" a bad situation just to not disappoint other party members. Finding a new group member is as easy as someone else wandering by.
I think there also needs to be a greater focus on how multiple players interact in the world. As much as I love LotRO's Shire starting area, doing the running quests (pies and mail bags) are a chore. It especially sucks if one person fails for some reason and the other person has to wait for them to do the run again to catch up. Why not allow players to really cooperate? Grab one pie or mailbag, and let other group members run interference against and distract the NPCs that would ruin the quest for you. Or, if an NPC wants X of an item, only require that a group collaborating bring X total between them, instead of each person having to find X individually.
Yes, people will try to sleaze their way into groups to get stuff done quickly. In many cases, I don't see this as a problem. But, if people are truly abusing such a system to run up and claim credit for a boss kill at the last moment, we can implement some restrictions such as having to have fought the boss for a certain amount of time. But, the focus should be on enhancing the group experience. And, it doesn't have to take a way from the solo experience one bit.
What do you think? Would this bring back grouping to games without hurting soloers? Will it keep group-orientated people happy to be able to meet others? Would it keep soloers happy without making them feel "forced" to group?