Over at KTR, thanks to a RSS trigger from TAGN, the topic of groups has been brought up. I’m generally a “pro groups” person, but playing DF:UW has reminded me why and how most MMOs get the basics wrong.
In most MMOs, the game makes the decision to group or not for you, and often tells you exactly how to group as well. You can’t enter a raid instance solo, just like you can’t bring 100 players to a 10 man raid. In Rift, the random finder goes so far as to insist you have the correct group makeup (tank, healer, dps) before zipping you inside.
Games do this in part because it makes designing the content easier. If you know that 100% of the time the players will only have a group of five, you have a much easier time designing enemy abilities and setting difficulty. This is not always a bad thing, but if it’s the ONLY thing going on in your MMO, you have robbed the players of a very interesting decision; do you group, and if so, how big will the group be?
In DF:UW, the content is not gated behind group requirements or class restrictions. If you want to try and solo the red dragon, you can do so. If you want to bring 100 to down it, go ahead. And while doing it solo is basically impossible, and bringing 100 makes victory almost assured, both results are acceptable because the game is balanced based on the reward; the dragon drops 50k gold whether one person or 100 kill it, so while more makes it easier, it also makes it less profitable per person.
This balance however only works in games without permanent Best-in-slot (BiS) systems; in DF:UW you can gain 50k gold in a number of ways, while in WoW only one raid boss drops the item you want. Additionally, in DF:UW and games like it, that 50k is fluid. You gain it and you can lose it. In BiS setups, once you have it only the devs can take it away from you (expansions).
In a PvP MMO like DF:UW there is also the added consideration of safety. Just because I can solo a mob spawn does not mean that’s always the best choice, even if bringing more will ultimately reduce the gain/hr. Sometimes having a group will be the difference between fending off enemy players and getting sent home naked. This goes one step further; even if I’m going to solo a spawn, if the spawn is close to my player city, that increases my chances of delaying a fight until allies can aid me; if I’m farming on the opposite side of the world, I’m alone. In most MMOs, the location of a spawn is often a non-factor, and again this robs the players of a choice/consideration.
The term sandbox gets thrown around a lot, and games will claim to have ‘sandbox features’. To me, what makes a game a sandbox isn’t always the big-picture stuff like whether PvP is FFA or the world is seamless, but the choices you are offered like those described above. Those choices, and dealing with the consequences, is why farming 180 mobs in DF:UW is entertaining, while a kill 10 quest in a themepark is a complete snooze.