A lot of the players who play MMORPGs don’t want to group. This can be for a variety of reasons. Some players are fine with grouping sometimes, but don’t want to group all of the time. Some are fine with grouping in theory, but don’t like the hassle of it in practice. Some are fine with good groups, but hate grouping with idiots. Some just prefer to play solo and would even if all of the common objections to grouping could be fixed.
A number of game developers have noticed this, and tried to make their game accessible to soloers. Some make it so that you can solo some of the time, but also have to group sometimes. This works for the people who only want to solo sometimes, but not for the die-hard soloers. Some take the approach that some of the content will be doable solo, so that you can get far into the game, and possibly even all the way to the max level, without ever grouping. This may entertain a soloer for a while, but eventually he has to quit or be at a huge disadvantage compared to those who are willing to group (or worse, raid). Some make content doable solo, but easier in a group, which means that people who wish to group are just going through the motions of doing something stupid and trivial.
In all of those cases, games that try to appeal to soloers usually also try to appeal to those who prefer to group. This generally just makes a mess, and a game that isn’t especially good for soloers or for groupers. (Incidentally, a grouper is a fish. Calling them “groupies” doesn’t seem quite right, either, though.)
Why not make a game optimized to cater to soloers? Scrap any benefits to fighting in a group entirely. There are more than enough soloers in MMORPGs to make a game that does this very well extremely successful.
There is an obvious answer to that: if you want to play solo, why not play a single player game? There are several advantages to online games over single-player games, however. One is the possibility of considerable depth in the game economy. No single player game can come remotely near the challenge of economic competition against other players who can adjust their actions as the market changes. Another is having people around to chat with, whether in public or private chat channels. A third advantage is that having other players around rather than mere NPCs can make a world feel more alive and real. Finally, there simply isn’t any possibility of pvp in a single player game.
There are some advantages to single player games over MMORPGs, too. Some, such as the ability to play without an Internet connection, simply can’t be brought to an online game. Many things that are normally thought of as advantages of single player games could be done in an MMORPG that caters to soloers, however.
There are a lot of different directions that such a game could take, some of which would be better as single player games. In the remainder of this post, I’ll outline one that necessarily must be an MMORPG to work properly, but would never leave soloers at any disadvantage.
“Bob the Really Big Dragon is powerful and evil! We have to stop him before he conquers and/or destroys the entire known universe! And probably most of the unknown universe, too, except that we don’t know that,” the quest NPC bellows. “You are our only hope! Slay the dragon or we are all doomed! Doomed, I say!”
You’re the 293rd adventurer to whom the NPC has made exactly the same plea today alone. Of those, 182 have already brought back the “Head of Bob” quest item, and more will probably do so as the day goes along. Even after you slay Bob, the world will look exactly the same as before, and be in exactly as much peril. Don’t you feel special and heroic?
One of the advantages of single player games is that you can change the world. A typical MMORPG loses this, as one player cannot meaningfully change the world for everyone else. If everyone could each make a big difference, the world would be a chaotic mess.
I’m not going to give much detail on the storyline for the game. What would be interesting, however, is for completing certain major missions to make a large impact on the game world. This or that major threat would be defeated and gone. In their place would be other new (and often stronger) mobs, for whatever reasons the storyline details.
That’s easy to do in a single player game. In an MMORPG, it could still be done by making one map of the world as it is in 1243, and a separate map of the world as it is in 1244. The geography would be mostly the same, as mountains and oceans generally don’t move. Mob spawns and NPCs could change dramatically over the course of a year, and towns could be founded, expand, or be destroyed in some cases. When you complete whatever your main objectives in 1243 are, the game takes you to the 1244 map.
Just for fun, let’s allow time travel, but only to the past. That is, once you reach 1244, you can warp back in time to 1243, and then back to 1244. You cannot use the time machine to warp to a particular time until you’ve completed everything in the storyline up to that time. The time machine could be located in a particular place in a major town, and would be the only way to warp from one time to another. This could be the only loading screen that the game has, with the world otherwise nearly seamless, except for some tiny solo instances as described later.
One of the things that always bothered me about most MMORPGs (and some other games where you level, too) is the absurdity of leveling making such a huge difference. Yes, you get better at something by practicing. But how much better of a soldier is someone with two years of training than someone with only one year? Better, perhaps, but by enough to win 1 on 3 against three people with only half as much training? If so, the difference isn’t in the training.
One way that getting so dramatically stronger does make sense is via technological advancements. Any of the significant countries in World War II could have handily destroyed the armies of Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander, or any of the other great commanders of antiquity. Grinding mobs doesn’t make technological process come faster, however.
As such, the game’s concept of level is that when you advance to the next time period, you’ve essentially moved up in level. You can use stronger gear because the technological advances in the time that passed allow for the creation of stronger gear. If you get stronger gear and then go back in time, the stats on your gear temporarily scale down to what was available earlier, to avoid making farming unduly easy.
There would be an open world with lots of players running around fighting. You could see other players fight, as with many MMORPGs. Combat would be strictly solo, with no notion of grouping. In order to get credit for killing a mob, you must have landed the first hit, as well as a majority of the total damage. Thus, while players kind of could work together to kill some mobs, it would be less efficient than if each fights solo.
In order to prevent players from forming de facto groups to make things easier, the hardest fights (mainly selected bosses) would be in small solo instances. That way, you really do have to be competent to beat a boss in order to get credit, rather than just getting some high level to do everything for you.
In order to provide a challenge, the hardest of the solo bosses would be non-essential to the storyline. That is, you can clear an area and move on to the next year without having beaten the hardest bosses. Beating these challenging bosses would still give some nice rewards, but they would quickly become technologically obsolete as time passes. If you couldn’t kill some of them, you wouldn’t forever be stuck at that point in the game.
Next, let’s add an economy. If you complete the main storyline in the year 1243, and that warps you to the year 1244, what does your character do in the intervening year? Why, his day job, of course! That is, some crafting profession.
The economy would be based around getting materials either as mob drops or quest rewards, and then refining or combining them via various crafting professions. The end result would be making armor and weapons that you use to make your character stronger.
Labor gained from clearing an area could be saved until the player wishes to use it. Labor would also be tagged with the year it is from, so that that you cannot save labor from 1243 to make an item using technology discovered in 1247. A player at a given time might thus have 60 days of labor from 1244, 93 days of labor from 1245, 80 days of labor from 1247, and 250 days of labor from 1248 available. Any particular item he crafts should use the oldest labor available that is still late enough to have access to the necessary technologies.
Labor should be scarce enough that there isn’t enough to fully upgrade every character every single time he moves on to a new year. It should be plentiful enough that there is enough to give every character max level gear. The amount of labor needed to produce a full set of gear upgrades to the best possible gear for a particular year should increase as the years increase. Some (but not all) components that go into gear of a particular level could be made entirely from technology available in earlier years, allowing higher level players to effectively buy labor from lower level players.
There would be a number of crafting professions in the game, and to learn how to make one item in a profession, you must learn to make all of the previous ones. The cost of learning a profession is that the first of each item you make uses the labor and materials, but the item breaks, so you don’t get the completed item. For a player who specializes in only one profession, this should be a pretty trivial cost. Switching professions or adding a second profession would still be quite affordable. A player who wishes to learn all professions on a single character would use up most of his labor to do so.
After beating the game, the world would be mostly cleared, without innumerable mobs plaguing the countryside. After all that work to save the world, the world really should look like it has been saved. There would still be a handful of challenging quests (mainly in the solo instances) that max level players could do to gain additional labor. Several additional years of labor could be gained on a character this way. A player who manages to afford max gear without doing all of the quests (or perhaps without doing any of them) would not be gimped for the inability to complete all of the quests.
The end game should also have some pvp system, whether 1 on 1 sparring, larger survival matches with every player for himself, grouped matches or whatever. Pvp would be entirely consensual, and reasonably balanced with every player able to get perfect gear. (Note that there need not be one particular “best” set of gear, but could be several options available only at max level with it debatable which is the best.)
I’ve long thought that lower level pvp doesn’t really make sense unless different players are enemies of each other for storyline reasons. Otherwise, it’s as if to say, yeah, the world is going to be destroyed unless we do something about it, but we’re too busy fighting each other to bother.
The game should have an auction house, to make it easy for players to buy items crafted by others, whether raw materials, intermediate components or finished items. Players from a given year would not be able to see or purchase items that require technology from a later year. This would be mainly to make storyline sense, but also to prevent auction house manipulation by low level alts.
Having a variety of classes could be useful for replay value. All classes would have to be built to solo well, of course, so there could be no support classes as are common in some games. Sending money and materials between alts should be free and easy, with the restriction that a player cannot send an alt items that require technology above his level.
There would be guilds, but they would basically just be chat channels. Guild officers could kick people out of the chat channels, so while a guild could have many players, it wouldn’t be entirely a public chat channel. Furthermore, with guilds not having vital roles that demand player loyalty, one player could freely join many guilds. This would make it easy to find many other players to chat with, without having the “Barrens chat” effect of public chat channels not being able to exclude random idiots, except by every single player independently putting each one on ignore.
Obviously, I haven’t filled in a lot of details, such as how combat would work. Still, this outline demonstrates the possibility of creating a solo-friendly game that takes advantage of the things that can be done with the Internet, as outlined earlier in this entry.