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.