Phasing out ‘multiplayer’ in MMOs

Tobold has a post up today talking about direct and indirect social interactions in MMO games. It’s a good read with interesting points, but is a somewhat odd topic to be discussing in a genre with Massive and Multiplayer in its name. Or at least, one would think it would be.

Simple test: How much of your current MMO would still be possible if you were the only player on the server? What would remain unchanged, what would be different, and what would be impossible?

Now, create a list of your personal top 5 MMO moments.

For me at least, my top 5 are impossible without other players, and actually have little to do with game mechanics and far more with who was there. In addition to that, what I look for in an MMO is directly related to other players (PvP, working economy/crafting, group PvE, player-driven stories), and while I still partake and enjoy the more solo aspects (solo PvE, harvesting or other character development activities), I only enjoy them in the context of the virtual world and the competition/environment it brings. My time in DarkFall is reduced currently not because the game itself changed, but because soon we will be moving to a new server and what happens between now and then ‘does not matter’. It mattered when I knew my actions today would influence future events both for myself and others. It’s just pixels, but when those pixels ‘count’, it’s a lot more motivating and fun to continue, which for me is the huge separation between the MMO genre and non-persistent games.

To get back on point, it’s both disappointing and understandable that the mass market section of the MMO genre is moving towards the ‘single player online game’, where logging in is just a formality (and excuse to charge $15 a month or open an RMT shop), and the majority of a players actions are done within his/her own little bubble.

It’s disappointing because the ‘it’ moments in an MMO are not based around cleverly scripted instances or great quest content, but rather in sharing whatever accomplishment you and others have worked for and finally reaching that goal together. Traditionally the ‘game’ part of an MMO has been mediocre at best (hence the term ‘grind’ and not ‘gameplay’), with the obvious selling point being that this mediocrity is performed in a living breathing world, and in that setting it goes from mediocre to (if you are a fan of MMOs) as good a gaming experience as you will find. Remove the world aspect, and is it any wonder that the mediocrity begins to show? And while not always the case, why is it that the more time spent trying to improve the ‘game’ aspect of an MMO, the more the ‘world’ aspect is pushed aside or minimized? Is it as simple as saying they are mutually exclusive?

The ‘understandable’ comes in when you look at the mass market and what is required to appeal to it. It has to be ‘accessible’, which means catering to as many people as possible. Or in other words, no focusing on one particular group at the expense of others, and simply trying to gravitate as close as possible to the happy middle. Raiding in WoW was not ‘accessible’ because only those with time to understand and work towards a higher level in the game could experience the content. Of course, in order to make raiding ‘accessible’, Blizzard had to lower the bar, and in turn remove the aspect that the previous group actually enjoyed, the challenge. As other games chase the mass market, one area identified as being a potential ‘problem’ was the reliance on others in a virtual world. As a dev you can’t control other players, and make everyone play nice to get the most out of that dungeon you designed or to player that battleground how you had hoped it would be played. Working with others is a challenge (hence it’s value in the work force), and it’s a challenge ‘the masses’ would rather see removed. In order for the MMO genre to cater to ‘the masses’, MMO devs must deal with the challenge of other players; the current solution seems to be to remove them.

At what point does it become impossible to identify a casual MMO and a single player game with an RMT shop attached to it?

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Combat Systems, Darkfall Online, Mass Media, MMO design, PvP, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Phasing out ‘multiplayer’ in MMOs

  1. willee says:

    This is one of the reasons why i can’t stand the direction the genre is going. As devs continue to try to appeal to the masses (and really who can blame them) they will slowly phase out the old dinosaurs like myself who enjoy the “MM” part of mmorpgs, along with challenging gameplay, long character progression (either leveling or skillups), etc. etc.

    Couldn’t agree more with the article though, my favorite mmorpg moments are either things i accomplished in coop with others or things i accomplished myself but had an impact on how others viewed me etc.

    I can still name players i met in EQ to this day that i hung around with for either weeks or months as we became friends in game. Hell even some EQ “acquaintances” i can remember…while i probably couldn’t give you a single name from any other mmorpg i’ve played (if i thought long enough i could probably think of a few from Vanguard…or not).

    This is why i hate instancing as well, along with the fact that it destroys my immersion in whatever game i’m playing.

    Ughh…hopefully smaller companies out there continue to try to make games for the niche markets. You can still make some damn good money doing it if you do it right, and you won’t have to take on the big boys with the unlimited budgets either.

  2. Thallian says:

    they aren’t mutually exclusive, but nobody has infinite resources to develop either. Priorities have to be made and the more focused they are on the most important things the better the end product.

  3. smakendahed says:

    “Priorities have to be made and the more focused they are on the most important things the better the end product.”

    Only for those people who fall in with the priorities, to the rest? They’ll question the resulting product being better or not.

    Good stuff, Syncaine. I can think of only one fond memory that didn’t involve others. I was playing a Barbarian Warrior in Black Burrow. I just died in a close fight and had worked my way back in (naked) to where my corpse was but a yellow con Guardsman was standing over it. I waited a bit but it wasn’t moving… I was being camped! ;)

    I decided I’d jump forward, loot the corpse and equip the sword (it was a fine steel two hander!) then beat down the Guardsman. It was a really close fight and I managed to loot more than just the sword.

    I don’t remember why I was solo down there, I vaguely remember the group I was in disbanded and people gated out leaving the Warrior (who didn’t get Gate) hanging.

    All my other fond memories usually involve someone getting charmed and chasing the healer around or being led off into the depths of a dungeon after they took part in wiping the group. But, yeah, they involved having other people around and interacting with them in some way.

  4. syncaine says:

    I think my earliest ‘best’ memory was in UO in 97, being very new to the game and randomly walking in a forest, I came across a small player house with a vendor. I checked the vendor to see what he was selling, and all I saw were severed heads of other players. As soon as I saw that I started running as fast as I could away from that house, thinking the PK must be inside or around and he was going to add my head to his collection and take my noob gear. I got away, and made it a point to avoid that area.

    A ‘solo’ event, but completely inspired by another player and the general ‘worldly’ aspect of the game. That very natural feeling of fear from not knowing where the PK was, whether I was going to die, and how long I should run to get away; all of that really sold me on the genre. Hard to replicate that when your inside your solo instance…

  5. Centuri says:

    I wonder if the solo to level cap then forced grouping formula will survive much longer. Standing around for hours or even days looking for a group in FFXI several years ago has taught me that forced grouping is a bad way to go. Surely there must be an equilibrium between solo and group advancement that rewards the extra time and annoyances of dealing with other players…

  6. BiggDawg says:

    I could do without the Massively part, but not the multiplayer.

  7. syncaine says:

    @Centuri: The core problem in FFXI is not grouping, but how strict it has to be. Players do a lot of grouping in UO/EVE/DF, but because close to anyone can join any group, it’s only a matter of ‘how many’ rather than ‘who’. If you have 5 online, you do whatever that 5 can do. If you have 10, you do that. In FFXI (and others), if you don’t have a tank or healer, 20 DPS characters can sit around all day and not accomplish much, but the solution is not to do away with grouping, but the barriers between players to form those groups. The easy way out of course is to just provide a solo option, but since we know players will always take the easy way out (even if its less fun), the solo option makes the group version useless.

  8. Damage Inc says:

    What I think is really funny is that two of the first three major MMORPG’s were much more geared to the single player than to the group but yet were very MM. In both UO and AC you could accomplish your goals without having to be in a group. The difference is that both of these games had PvE that brought the people playing it together in areas and friendships were formed.

    EQ on the other hand was more about forcing groups to work together. Since EQ though, pretty much all MMORPG’s have followed EQ’s lead in their design. Now you take EQ’s design and try to make it for the single player and you get where WoW is moving too as well as the rest of the development community and us old MMORPGers hate it.

    As it has been said before, no longer do you feel like you are inside a living breathing world, you’re just playing a game.

  9. Julian says:

    As a roleplayer I can tell you that my 5 top MMO moments no doubt wouldn’t have been possible without other players and the storylines they/we generated. However, all this barely touched the ‘game’ part. There were no instances, items, quests, groups, combat or skill involved.

    When it comes to the ‘game’ I’m way, way too much of a soloist, and while I’ve had my grouping moments like anyone else, they’re hardly memorable and range from okay/tolerable to borderline vomitive.

    Nothing against other people, nothing personal at all (since I don’t ‘know’ any of the people I play with, by large) but the act of grouping and the hoops you normally have to go through when it comes to ‘group content’, to me, is 90% bullshit and 10% fun. I get a much, much better ratio by myself or by doing things with others outside “game group content”.

  10. Anjin says:

    I was all ready to lay down the rant until I got to the last question, a question that is absolutely fascinating. You are absolutely right that MMOs are drifting away from what made them MM in the first place. I don’t think that’s a bad thing unless everyone follows the trend like money-hungry lemmings.

    My big online debut took place in Guild Wars, a game people keep trying to call an MMO even though it is not. It’s a cooperative game in much the same way Army of Two or Halo is, just with large in-world lobbies. That’s the style MMOs seem to be chasing. I hope beyond hope that more companies follow the example of Aventurine and design for the vacuum that’s being left by everyone chasing the masses.

  11. smakendahed says:

    “That very natural feeling of fear from not knowing where the PK was, whether I was going to die, and how long I should run to get away; all of that really sold me on the genre. Hard to replicate that when your inside your solo instance…”
    Or when the cost of dying is so trivial that there is no reason to fear anything.

    Another good point about required classes.

    Perhaps forced grouping could work if the class system was different or, perhaps, more MMOs adopted a system like in FreeRealms or The Agency. Basically, need a healer? Someone switches to that role.

    It breaks the immersion or role play of the character if they can switch so easily, but maybe it’s worth it.

  12. smakendahed says:

    Oh, WoW sort of did this with the dual spec they set up but that really only works with certain classes. Take a Paladin or Druid, for example. You can be DPS, Healer or a Tank, but the same cannot be said for a Warrior that can really only be a tank or DPS or a Mage or Rogue which ends up just being another type of DPS.

    It could work… everyone just needs to play a Paladin or Druid though. :)

  13. Bhagpuss says:

    I like other players being around. They act as highly original, unpredictable background NPCs and keep the experience fresh.

    I also like knowing that the “world” I am inhabiting is somewhere outside of my own local environment. The fact that it goes on even when I switch my PC off is a very significant factor that makes playing online much more immersive than playing offline.

    On the other hand, after years of playing with others in both guild groups and PUGs, nowadays I do prefer to play just with my girlfriend, or to solo.
    The convenience considerably outweighs any loss of community. Not that I don’t enjoy grouping when I’m in the mood; it’s more that I like it be my mood that dictates when I group, not the requirements of the gameplay.

  14. Saylah says:

    I think the problem started with developers/designers that made grouping VERY inconvenient. On top of creating encounters that excluded large swags of players unless they were willing to bow down to the inconveniences and restrictions. Once someone provided other content that you could do without a group and those hardships, hell, it was only natural that a many players gravitated toward that content. In some cases it’s more efficient, enjoyable and profitable (time vs. reward) to do the solo content. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that many players value their time more than “group hug” experiences. They want to get in, get something accomplished, have some fun and move on to other obligations in their lives.

    I did group content plus soloed. I raided. I built my Tue, Wed and Sun around raid schedules. I pre-planned dinner and work commitments to be able to raid and farm for raiding. That was five years ago. There’s no way in HELL I can sustain that type of closed and restrictive commitment to play a game’s group content. It’s just not an option.

    However, I don’t love MMOs any less. I just avoid that sort of content and most things that require me to wait on others. I haven’t the time nor the inclination.

    Now you add in players that prefer solo to from jump street and you have a large population that is no longer sold on group content. *shrug* Not really all that surprising to me.

  15. Tesh says:

    Y’know, if people are buying the more solo experience, all the purist hardcore rants in the world won’t help. These are businesses, and exist to sell stuff.

    The best you can hope for is a game that caters to your tastes, and the best you can do is either make that game yourself, or encourage those who will.

  16. Anne says:

    Couldn’t agree more, the core trouble atm with MMORPGs is the lack of multi-players, the point of MMORPGs is to come together with many players in many situations because they can’t be done alone. You can tell if a MMORPG is losing its touch by the simple fact of, do you need to make/have friends and do you make more friends all the time because content requires it?

    Meh, I can only hope someone gives a real MMORPG instead of these fakes some day. Darkfall brings the PVP side back, but a PVE game is still missing.

  17. Einherjer says:


    I read you. But in that case, why not playing games where you won’t have to be subjected to the idiosyncrasies of others? More and more I think that single-player games should be developed with partnerships with Microsoft (MSN), AOL (AIM), Facebook etc. Like that we would have an chat interface from within the game where we could communicate with our friends even if they didn’t play the same game.

    I think that if devs start doing this some people will find out that they do not like MMO’s that much.

    • Tesh says:

      Ein, offhand, did you read Tobold’s article, or any of Saylah’s other articles about soloing in MMOs? Part of the draw for soloers is the persistent world with *indirect* interaction with other people. Those people, even if not in your direct group, are still changing the world, making it more interesting than something like Morrowind or Oblivion.

  18. Saylah says:

    @Ein – The reasons are that there is a vast difference between solo RPGs and MMOs. I don’t mind others, I just don’t like the group content all that much. I have just as much fun bopping around doing my own thing and conversing with a closed group of people. I enjoy being in guilds and doing guild events. However, that doesn’t mean that I want a large % of my game time oriented toward group encounters.

    And I’m not looking to chat with others. I don’t do the whole social thing – facebook, myspace, twitter, etc. None of that appeals to me. What appeals to me is being a game where it changes and evolves because other people are there doing what they do too. I didn’t like GW either for reason that it’s a lobby/chatroom unless you’re with a group because the minute you leave the cities to adventure the whole game world is a private instance.

  19. Saylah says:

    P.S. I honestly don’t think you’re going to get your wish. Few companies aim for low-pop or niche populations. These are businesses after all and they’ve been shown just how deep the rabbit hole goes AND casual gamers and solo players have risen as a force in numbers, who are wiling to spend dollars to play MMOs. It’s only common sense for games to attempt to capture the widest (profitable) audience they can give the cost, effort and time required to build a successful MMO.

    • syncaine says:

      WoW aside, which company would not trade it’s top MMO for EVE and it’s profit margin? SOE, Turbine, Mythic, etc would all be lining up for that deal.

      If done well, a product can have just as good a ROI catering to a niche than one catering to the masses. And considering the current cost to produce a triple A mass market MMO, the risk is significantly higher. Which game’s failure hurt more financially, Shadowbane or Tabula Rasa?

      • Saylah says:

        Yet we don’t see them lining up to do that from where I sit. We see them trying for the bigger price and the broader audience, hence these types of posts.

  20. syncaine says:

    @Saylah: The world changes and evolves how? You mention player action, so dev-drive game updates (like a new instance) don’t count right? I mean Oblivion gets new instances when you download a content pack or user made content.

    Are we talking change like WAR’s campaign? The player’s change it’s current status, but beyond changing the star rating of a city, they can’t ultimately change much beyond colors on a map.

    Or are we talking EVE/DF change, where the players drive 99% of what the content is, and can cause dramatic changes with stations/cities changing hands and alliances being forced out of their homes?

    I’m just trying to understand what ‘changes and evolves’ is in your book, being a mostly solo player.

  21. Saylah says:

    I mean that even the simplest activity is never exactly the same because other players are there and interacting with the environment. I could be out farming the same zone but that event unfolds differently if others are there competing for the same resources. If others are there that are of the opposing faction, since I tend to play on PVP servers in most games, my farming activity yet again plays out differently.

    It’s the ripples and butterfly affects of others players that I enjoy in MMOs. It’s not about the content updates. I’m also a HUGE fan of crafting and taking part in the economy. However poorly executed it’s still player driven activity that changes, impacts and broadens my personal experiences and enjoyment. It’s not nearly as fun just making items for yourself alone or selling them to vendors. Running your own little crafting business to help support your other activity is largely only possible in MMOs.

    So it’s most definitely not about the content. Even if everything in WOW could be done solo and offline in a RPG, it’s NOT the same as experiencing the game within the ebb and flow of other players.

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