Turning RPG players into MMO players: Solutions

As first mentioned here, there seem to be a high number of RPG fans who turn to MMOs to get their gaming fix, yet most MMOs do a rather poor job of getting those solo-minded players into what really makes MMOs great: massive AND multiplayer content.

The major flaw in games like WoW and its ilk is well known: for the entire leveling process, going solo is OPTIMAL, grouping hurts you most of the time, and then everything gets flipped on its head when you hit the cap and raid or die. In more sandbox titles, the entire game seems so arcane to RPG fans that they have a tough time just getting over the initial hurdle. EVE is famous for this, but games like Darkfall are also daunting mountains to climb.

For too long the solution to getting RPG fans to stick around was to try and mimic their games of choice by letting them be the solo hero and letting them be the focus of the entire world with stuff like phasing or instances. After all, in how many RPGs does the big bad get killed while you are not playing, or off finishing a side quest? In first-gen MMOs like UO/AC/EQ1, it happened all the time. Long-time MMO fans will know this is somewhat of a non-issue, as a good MMO will have lots (or in AC1’s case, monthly) epic events, so missing one is not the end of the world. Players unfamiliar with the genre will see this as lost content or being forced to play at certain times however. At the end of the day, this is more a PR issue than an actual in-game issue. Once fans see that being part of something special, while very cool, is not a one time or “must attend” event, they relax and participate in what they can, when they can (forums aside: on the forums you will ALWAYS have crybabies crying about missing an event, but forum opinions don’t count anyway).

The bigger issue however is creating content that naturally transitions someone use to playing solo into an MMO player. As already mentioned, stuff like phasing and solo instances do the exact opposite, but what content do you actually need to accomplish this?

For starters, solo content IS important. If you log in and no one is around, not having SOMETHING to do is not good. It won’t take long for most players to get bored staring at their character’s butt while they hope someone else logs on, and unless you are in a very active guild (the ultimate goal, but not something that newer fans all have), odds are decent that’s going to happen. If someone logs in for 5 minutes, has nothing to do, and logs off, guess how hard it gets to actually get anything done in a semi-active guild? It’s a really, really bad domino effect.

With that said, solo content should be the last resort. It should only be an attractive option when no one else is around, or for those times when you have only 30 minutes or so (note that if you only ever have 30 minute chunks, MMOs are not the genre for you). In all other situations, grouping with even just one other person should always be optimal, even if it’s just to continue working on something that could otherwise be done solo. Themeparks traditionally fail here for a few reasons. First, solo quest content is already silly-easy, so grouping up makes this even worse. Second, many quest goals are optimal when no one else is around (collecting for instance), so bringing more people actually hurts progress. It amazes me that such basic design flaws continue to get reproduced game after game, but that’s another rant.

Instead, farming should become easier and more enjoyable with others. Mobs should be tough but doable solo, but with a buddy they should go down fast enough to increase profits, while still having them respawn fast enough to not force downtime. Apply this to quests, actual gold farming, or collection materials for crafting. Whatever the objective, the system should be designed in such a way as to encourage bringing friends. First-gen MMOs got this (mostly) right, and it’s crazy that current-gen games get it so wrong.

Another key factor is establishing systems to encourage community and player interaction. Queue hubs and instances destroy server communities because they don’t allow for ‘random’ interaction. This is why heavily instances games (GW1 being a great example) are often called non-MMO titles, because they lack that very basic ‘run into someone random’ possibility and what it brings. Darkfall pre-alignment revamp is another good example of mistakes made. By actually encouraging everyone to attack everyone, randomly grouping for PvE never happened (or only happened when a vet was scamming a noob), which is terrible. Since the re-vamp, blue (good) players can be trusted, and you see more natural grouping as a result. This of course leads to guild recruitment, which fosters communities, and up and up we go.

Finally, and at the highest level, goals have to be group/community based rather than the traditional RPG goal of personal character growth. Current-day themepark raiding, while technically a group activity, is mostly about gearing up your own character rather than succeeding as a group. The side-effects of guild-hopping, selecting participation, personally being ‘done’, etc.  are well documented.  Larger, group-centric goals not only tend to motivate more people, but also keep everyone ‘busy’ until the goal is done, which alleviates some of the “you play more than me” issue, and then allows the entire group to transition together to the next goal. This keeps people together, and spreads the sense of accomplishment around, strengthening bonds and communities. Goals can be group-sized, for guilds, or even server-wide. Generally, the bigger the better.

The overall point is that MMOs have tried to become more ‘accessible’ by becoming more like solo RPGs, but in doing so have lost the key quality that makes an MMO work, and more importantly, makes that $15 a month seem worthwhile. It’s no surprise that we see so many ‘MMOs’ today start as sub games and quickly switch to F2P, jump-in jump-out titles. Simply put, they’re not really MMOs.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Asheron's Call, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Turning RPG players into MMO players: Solutions

  1. Derrick says:

    You’re right, that accessibility makes them less MMO, but the real irony is that no matter how accessible, an MMO makes a TERRIBLE single player RPG. All the good elements of a spRPG cannot exist in your average MMO – or any MMO I’ve seen to date. You can’t really impact the world, your achievements are shallow at best, nothing can really change.

    The MMO loses MMOness but gains… What?

  2. bhagpuss says:

    That’s a very good, well-argued piece. Moreover, I generally agree with both your proposition and your conclusions. But…

    There are reasons why big AAA MMOs from large corporations are the way they are and it’s mostly not because the people who make them don’t know any better. I’d say the games are like they are for two main reasons: they cost a very large amount of money to make and take a very long time to develop and the audience for long-term co-operative gameplay is not large enough to repay development costs.

    If you can cast your mind back to pre-WoW days, when Everquest was the largest Western MMO, there were two main complaints about EQ.

    From outside the game the main issue was that EQ gameplay pretty much required you to abandon any other social activity. Choosing to play EQ was often seen as more akin to joining a cult than playing a game and the entire genre was routinely derided in the general gaming media for being so geeky that even geeks were embarrassed by it. From within the game, the constant complaint was that it was much too hard to solo and you needed a group to do anything.

    WoW didn’t appear out of a void. It was a direct reaction to what its creators saw as the flaws in the MMOs that came before it. They did such a good job of addressing those flaws that they managed to attract ten times as many players as the then-best-selling MMO, and keep that number for half a decade. It’s hardly surprising most other MMO producers decided WoW had got it about right.

    I tend to think you’re correct in believing that we’d have better MMOs if we turned the design clock back a little, but I also think we’d have much smaller MMOs. We might not mind that, but the people paying the bills to develop them would. Which is why I think you might as well forget the idea of any large games company coming up with a nifty fusion of old-school gameplay and state-of-the-art design.

    • SynCaine says:

      I see it like this, in terms of sub numbers:

      Forced-grouping (1st gen) = bad
      ‘Forced’ solo (WoW-ish MMOs) = not as bad
      Optimal grouping = good

      Problem is, we are stuck on the second step thanks to everyone with money being too busy trying to replicate a one-hit wonder. It somewhat works short-term because you can always solo, so you stay busy for a month or two. We all know the post-WoW boom-bust cycle. Community and social ties are what keep people subbed for YEARS, not months, and those are missing from most of the MMOs people play today.

  3. Wyrmrider says:

    So you want gameplay that’s always better with others, a world that encourages spontaneous grouping, eventually leading to strong communities… yet you still have no interest in Guild Wars 2? ;)

    • SynCaine says:

      My interest in GW2 is 50/50. On the one hand they have some nice ideas on paper. On the other, I think GW1 is pretty terrible and what I played of GW2 at PAX was also pretty meh. I sure as hell am not buying into the hype that somehow GW2 is going to solve all MMO woes. If it’s Rift minus the WoW-iffication, it will exceed my expectations.

      • bhagpuss says:

        I know Rift didn’t work for you after a while, but for me it’s still working very well, and the prime reason is the open raiding system. I agree with some of your criticisms of how Trion have chosen to use the toolset they created and I strongly agree that they have veered much to far in the “let’s out-WoW WoW” direction, but even allowing for that the zone invasions still just hit the sweet spot for me, and apparently for a lot of other people on my servers.

        If GW2 can build on this, that’d be great. I do think the best solution on view to getting a mass-market MMO to fly without having to bait&switch solo leveling with end-game raiding is some form of no-commitment, drop-in/drop-out auto-grouping, such as we’ve seen tried in a number of recent MMOs.

        In the end, though, I’d say this is still mostly a soloing solution. It pretty much allows you to play solo with others. I think that’s the future of the genre, like it or not, at least as far as big-budget goes. Be happy to be proved wrong, though.

        • SynCaine says:

          The open group mechanic is great for MMOs. It really is.

          The problem with Rift is the content built around that is lackluster. In beta invasions ‘mattered’ as they would actually impact a zone in terms of available NPCs and an increased danger level. Now they don’t.

          As a result, even though open grouping is the same, the “why” is just not there.

          Give me a game with open grouping, better zones (still can’t believe Rift went with the traditional 1-20, 20-30, 30-35, etc split to their world), and group content that matters, and those ‘random’ players stop being so random, and you start remembering names and skill levels, talking more, and so on.

          The pace of the baby steps the genre is taking is pretty frustrating.

  4. Azuriel says:

    I don’t think encouraging social behavior – of transitioning people looking for a single-player experience into an MMO experience – is necessarily the direction designers should go. For example, you say:

    Larger, group-centric goals not only tend to motivate more people, but also keep everyone ‘busy’ until the goal is done, which alleviates some of the “you play more than me” issue, and then allows the entire group to transition together to the next goal.

    …and I remember raid leading ICC runs 8 weeks after I was sick to death of the place. Social inertia kept me zoning in, not “group goals” (the guild killed the Lich King twice, which is what I felt was enough) – I continued grinding myself down into jaded bitterness in ICC because if I bailed, I’d have to make whole new friends to become indebted to in time for Cataclysm to experience the raiding content that I enjoyed. And believe me, I understand how bizarre it is to say I enjoyed the raiding content when that implies having to rely on other people. I dunno if it was simply difficult encounters I was looking for or what.

    The angle I would like to see is to continue to refine the social tools that allow players to find and play with like-minded individuals. There were 3-4 friends I met on WoW that are still around in Steam games, we chat in Vent every few days, and most of them have met each other IRL even though none of us play WoW anymore. That is the “MMO experience” IMO. Meeting them in-game was complete, dumb luck that was being at the right time, in the right place, getting connected through people that are not in either party’s lives anymore. They made raiding fun, and the other ~5 people required to run raids at all were tolerated (along with their drama) as means to an end. Our end.

    Spontaneous grouping and more social activities in-game is one thing. I met these guys at level ~28 in a Scarlet Monastery run. I could have just as easily never met them. But if there were a more specific way of finding people other than blind chance or realm forums (which almost no one reads), I might have found them sooner or more of them. The whole Looking For Guild thing is kinda a step in the right direction, but I’d almost like for the ability to create and search in-game gamer profiles. Maybe not a full eHarmony experience, but something. And maybe make it subtle too, like if you think Player X might be a fun person to hang out with or be grouped together, check a box on their profile and you have a higher chance of being grouped together in BGs or LFD or whatever. Less Facebook friend request, more Google+ circle.

    That is the angle I would like to see explored, not the circuitous anti-solo movement of making grouping more efficient. Grouping is better with friends; no additional incentive should be necessary.

  5. Zinn says:

    “for the entire leveling process, going solo is OPTIMAL, grouping hurts you most of the time,”

    I don’t agree with this, at least not when it comes to WoW. It used to be true, but I level new alts all the time, and nowadays the absolutely fastest and smoothest way to level is through dungeons. If you happen to be a dps you might have to wait some time between dungeons, in which time you have to resort to questing, but the more instance grouping you do, the better.

    I do agree however, that grouping up for questing generally isn’t the better way to go. I’m not sure if that is due to the nature of the quests as much as the nature of having to take your time with another player. If you do quests with a friend it probably goes a lot faster than doing it on your own, while questing with a stranger might take more time since you have to communicate what you’re going to do and all that. I think grouping has become a lot more rewarding in Cata and it’s nearly always the better choice over doing things solo.

    As for mmos overall I think you make a good point. Whenever I try new mmos that is definitely the feeling I get, that I have to work my way through a huge pile of solo content before I can get to the mmo-part.

    • SynCaine says:

      DungeonFinder is basically playing solo. You don’t talk to anyone you group with, and you never see them after the group. If Blizzard replaced the DF with bots, most WoW players would never notice.

      Any grouping you do in WoW though is almost always solo-minded: you do it to advance your character, because the ‘world’ in WoW does not exist.

      • Zinn says:

        Oh but that’s tricky. It’s kind of like the question “are there any actions that aren’t egoistical?”. What in any game wouldn’t be to further your own character, no matter in which way it was done? Is there anything we can do in a game that doesn’t in the end benefit us alone and our “solo”-self?

        I know the old discussion about how dungeons are basically solo-material. I don’t agree at all. If you’re silent, everyone else might be too. Very, very rarely have I ended up in groups that are completely void of interaction when I engage one. DF groups are what you make of them. I do agree that it’s sad that you don’t get a chance to befriend people, and play with people again, from other servers. RealID isn’t the best solution to that imo, I think you should be able to group up and add friends cross server.

        • SynCaine says:

          Shades of gray right?

          I mean if I’m collecting building materials to donate for my clans city, I do also benefit from the buildings those mats will build. I’d argue that the effort/reward ratio on a solo basis is pretty low though, compared to running a dungeon you need loot/tokens from.

  6. John Andrew says:

    Apply this to quests, actual gold farming, or collection materials for crafting. Whatever the objective, the system should be designed in such a way as to encourage bringing friends.

    To me, it depends on the nature of this “encouragement”. I enjoy soloing and grouping equally, and I really hate it when I’m penalized for grouping (which typically happens in any collection-type quest). But, by the same token, I don’t want to be penalized for refusing to group. It sounds like you want to make grouping the “better” choice in most cases, and while you may prefer that, I think the goal should be to make them completely equal choices (in terms of both challenging play and goal-completion efficiency).

    When I’m in one of my more fickle moods, I may feel like killing a few mobs here for an achievement, collecting some crafting mats nearby, fishing for a bit over there, and maybe working on some quest goals in the area while I putz around. When I’m feeling that way, I’m a terrible person to group with because there is no way that my minute-to-minute whims will match up with the minute-to-minute whims of someone else for that entire time.

    As a result, I see the biggest hurdle to encouraging more “grouping”, is the way groups, parties, fellowships, etc. are typically implemented. Ideally, if I see someone fighting some wolves, I could go right up and help them without having to “join a group”. The entire concept of having to form a special private party with a complete stranger in order to initiate co-operative play has always felt wrong to me. Now obviously I can just go up and start helping someone without creating a “group”, but then I’m either getting no benefit at all (which still may be ok from a karmic point of view), or I’m stealing something from the player I’m trying to help (kills, experience, challenge).

    I don’t know if what I want is even possible, but put simply, I want grouping to be seamless (eliminate the small-party concept entirely) and to never have a negative impact (perceived or tangible) on either the persons offering to help or the persons being helped.

    Now, I will add the caveat that if the person I’m trying to help really doesn’t want to be helped because he truly dislikes receiving help then that’s just too bad for them. The occasional “Please don’t help me, I’m trying to see if I can solo this mob” is fine, but the general attitude of “Never help me or interfere with me in any way, this is my world”, is stupid and inappropriate in an MMO.

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