Solo vs Group MMO design

If you’ve been keeping up with DarkFall impressions you might have noticed a trend. Solo players hate it; people in active guilds love it. If you are thinking of this breakdown in terms of a MMORPG, it’s not all that surprising; this is a massively MULTIPLAYER game after all. If you are thinking of it in post-WoW MMO land, you probably consider this bad game design.

The rise of the solo MMO player can’t be purely attributed to WoW, but when WoW is the first and only MMO for so many players, it’s hard not to make the connection. Clearly charging $15 for a single player game with a chat window and a yearly update is a solid business model, but it’s not one that necessarily caters to the more core MMORPG audience, and that audience is big enough to still support a profitable product. It won’t ever reach 11 million, but there is a huge difference between failure and 11 million. (And until another sub MMO comes close to that number, it’s an outlier rather than an indicator of the actual market size. When pop culture moves on to the next ‘it’ thing in gaming, are we really confident we will see multi-million sub MMO games?)

This is not to say a player must have ZERO solo options, as designing around the idea that all players always have an hour+ (or whatever time frame we want to use as long enough to group) is not wise. Again there is space between a single player game and the forced grouping of a game like EQ1 or FFXI. However, designing your game to allow a solo player to experience most, if not all of your content also hurts your game in a number of ways. First and foremost, it diminishes the value of the community, particularly guilds. If you can solo the entire time, you don’t need to rely on the community for anything, and therefore how the community perceives you is a non-factor. Consider the differences in an average WoW pug group and one in LoTRO. LoTRO offers a good amount of solo content, yet the best content is reserved for groups (book quests). Consider guild loyalty in WoW, where your guild is only as good as the last raid boss they took down, to a Corp in EVE. Players leave EVE corps for various reasons (sometimes in headline grabbing ways), but if you are in an Industrial corp with good people, you are not going to jump to another Industrial corp because they have access to shinier asteroids. Human behavior factors in at all times (your EVE corp might be jerks, or your WoW guild might be awesome people), but the effect game rules have on this structure is noticeable.

In our last DarkFall guild meeting, a large amount of time was spent talking about recruiting people to join the guild. The focus was not because we needed to fill some raid spots, but to generally increase the guilds presence and open up more options for everyone. The emphasis was placed on solid people, rather than their gear level or how many reputation bars they have maxed. Part of this is just the character of the guild leadership, but another aspect is that the game rules themselves allow us to bring in a fresh character and integrate them into our regular activities from day one. No gear-up process, no xp grind, no “you must be this tall to enter” barriers. If you are willing to listen, learn, and mix well with the culture of the guild, you will enjoy DarkFall with us. Solid camaraderie makes even brain-dead activities like harvesting a good time, and stuff like PvP raids an absolute blast. This ‘person first’ focus would be more difficult, if not impossible, under a more solo player focused game.

The over-simplified difference in game design is this: in a solo-friendly game, the barrier of entry is character-specific (level, gear, rep, etc). In a more group-focused game, the barrier is you must bring X number of players. The stronger your character, the lower you can drop that number, but rarely is a character excluded due to a lack of character growth. Content is gated according to the above rules. In WoW you can’t bring 100 level 5 character to a raid, while in DarkFall a single character won’t be successful regardless of time spent skilling/gearing up.

The mass market is currently clearly behind the solo-focus, while the original appeal of the MMO genre is based on group-focus. They also don’t mix very well; solo players don’t like forced grouping, and groups of players don’t like being separated by artificial in-game barriers. The ‘land of make believe’ answer is cater to both; the realistic answer is design for a specific group. If you have the budget, aim for the crowded mass market space. Otherwise, there are plenty of niche markets to fill.

13 Responses to Solo vs Group MMO design

  1. syncaine says:

    And for anyone interested, my guild can be found at Inqguild.com, Orc/Mahirim.

  2. Bonedead says:

    Someone posted my blog on the DF forums, so if a guildie goes there and doesn’t like what he finds, I may just be hitting you up on that. Since I’m an Ork and all.

    Hopefully it doesn’t have to come to that though.

  3. Thallian says:

    great article. Game design definitely has an effect on guild loyalty and grouping fun levels. I also think aiming for niche is a very wise idea for most MMO designers except big companies that have to have huge profits for their huge stocks and stockholders.

  4. Swift Voyager says:

    From what I’ve read, the biggest difference in design between group and solo is pace, then geometry is a close second. How the content is gated may not even be a factor at all.

    In a single player game, you can make game tasks short, have many of them, and make them happen often. In a group game, you need to have idle time for people to talk to eachother and when people get together to do a task, you need to make the task take a long enough amount of time for it to be worth grouping. So, the pace of a single player game is usually much faster than a group game.

    Geometry is second because without giving people idle time, there’s no need to have a place for being idle. You can build a nice little public meeting place, but if everyone in the game just runs from one solo quest to the next they are not likely to visit your public meeting place.

    I haven’t played Warhammer online, but I’ve heard that it’s all about group play and I’ve heard that the major content is gated by levels. I’m quite sure that there are many games based on group play where levels and gear are important.

  5. syncaine says:

    WAR is a good example of the flaw though, as the 1-39 content can be done solo (and hence people over-focus on that), and then at 40 to really make progress you need a solid guild (both for the PvE instances and because oRvR is better in a guild group than a PuG warband. WAR is at least nice in that a PuG warband is possible)

    WAR would be a MUCH better game if the game was not tiered, or if the tiers were not as restrictive (a character could jump into T4, but would be less effective, and vice versa)

  6. mbp says:

    Ah come on Syncaine, I expected a more forthright response to Tobold’s “Tourettes” jibe :)

    Nice post though.

  7. Wizarth says:

    This Darkfall game sounds more and more interesting. Not in a “I’ll play this game for the rest of my life” kind of way, but as something that’d be fun to run around in for a while. I’ve tried other MMO’s, but in each case the friends who brought be in quickly outpaced me and I became irrelevant to them. Sure, the good friends would roll extra characters just to have someone of my level range to play with me, but the more the distance separated, the less this happened.

    If Darkfall’s design allows a slow (not hardcore) player to still contribute with a group of ZOMG HARDCORE! players, then I think that is good.

    And what is it with people thinking something has to be #1 or it’s worthless? Sure hope they don’t apply that to their personal incomes, or they’ll be very depressed… actually, that might explain a bit.

  8. Jenaka says:

    I still don’t understand the whole issue of solo vs. group. From what was said Darkfall is a game that rewards grouping because of it’s mechanics. And you state that in Darkfall you find solid camaraderie playing with people in your group/guild and that you look to recruit ‘solid’ people to your guild. Now, if you took your whole guild to WOW, where people solo a great deal, would you not like to group with your guild mates? Would you boot some of these same people from your guild if their gear wasn’t good enough? Is playing with these people only enjoyable with certain types of game play? You can group in just about any “solo” game if you want to. It’s people who put the limitations on grouping, not the game itself.

  9. Malakili says:

    Jenaka, heres the thing.

    In WoW, if you are a raiding guild, if your “solid players” are level 40 or 50, or don’t have the requisite gear requirements you CAN’T bring them to the content. They simply aren’t capable of contributing. I haven’t played DF, but it does sound similar to EVE in that you can basically be effective straight out of the gate, or with a small amount of training. Sure, a capital ship can take a year of training to really fly well in EVE, but a guy who has been playing 2 days in a frigate fitted for tackling is also an essential part of any fleet.

    So, the point is, sure you could have these people in your guild in WoW, but you wouldn’t be able to do the same content..

  10. Jenaka says:

    OK I can understand your point better when you put it like that. However, my point is this. In various games it’s not unusual to see guilds recruiting like this: “Guild Awesomesauce looking for new members! We are a friendly bunch of folks who enjoy helping each other, have a guild house, blah, blah, we’re like one big family! You must be [level cap] and [this class] to join!” What I hear is “We don’t want to play with you unless you can help us do the content we want to play. It’s not the person behind the character who’s important, it’s the character and what it can do for us.”

    Yeah I do solo a lot and I duo with a friend in a couple of games currently. I have high level characters and he does not. So I have alts to play with him. I guess it’s how you look at things and what kind of content you like doing.

    People seem to look at soloists as “me first” types. I feel many groupers tend to be like that myself. Maybe it’s not the design of a game that fosters that attitude, it’s just people in general. :)

  11. Tallon says:

    I agree with the article but think I’m an exception to the rule, I plan on soloing in DF (at least to start with) to see how well I can do, I think I just like extreme difficulty.

    I wrote a post regarding this article and linked to it, hope you don’t mind me linking it here.

    http://darkfallgame.blogspot.com/2009/03/going-solo.html

  12. Daniel White says:

    I have been thinking of a way to group people in an mmo. Perhaps if in the mmo were buildings each made for a state in the US. The avatars in that mmo might group together because there would be the people in the building belonging to the state would be in driving distance in real life. I call it a dating MMO. and it would have no plot or monsters to distract the players from each other. It would be a new form of mmo where grouping is the main thing. it’s still in the concept phase.

  13. bishopscourt says:

    Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles or blog posts as long as I provide credit
    and sources back to your weblog: http://syncaine.com/2009/03/20/solo-vs-group-mmo-design/.
    Please let me know if this is okay with you. Many thanks

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