When I was younger, I’d sometimes imagine playing a multiplayer equivalent of some of the single-player games I liked. I didn’t expect it would ever happen, as Internet was hardly suitable for MMORPGs yet.
Today, of course, we can play online games with (or against) other people whom we’ve never met in real life. Fighting alongside a good group in a good MMORPG can be a lot of fun. But it hasn’t worked out the way I imagined it.
I hadn’t really considered the question of where the other people to group with would come from. Unfortunately, a lot of MMORPG designers seem not to have considered that question, either.
While fighting with a good group can be fun, taking half an hour to try to assemble that group is not. People who commonly play for five hours in one sitting may not be terribly bothered by spending half an hour to get a group together at the start of that session. But for people who are only going to be on for half an hour in total, it’s a much bigger problem.
The great advantage of single-player games is that you can start playing whenever you like or as fits your real-life schedule, play the game for a while, and then turn the game off when you wish to do so. There’s no need to spend a considerable fraction of your time trying in vain to find people to group with. That’s why so many people who play MMORPGs treat them mostly as single-player games.
That can work out pretty well if you’re playing primarily an economic game. Competing against other players allows for much greater economic depth than the AI in any single-player game can offer. But most MMORPGs don’t have much of an economy. If they have a crafting system, it’s often just something stupid to grind levels in. You can do that just as well in a single-player game.
Otherwise, an MMORPG is essentially a Massively Multiplayer Online Single Player Game. Single player games can be fun, but if that’s what you’re after, you might as well pick one that doesn’t require an internet connection or charge a monthly fee.
The question, then, is how to make an MMORPG where you group with other players to do quests or whatever, but don’t have to spend much time searching for groups to get one. Some purely pvp games can do this by distributing players into teams at random to let them fight each other, but that’s not really an MMORPG. As I’m not aware of any MMORPG that has a viable solution to this, I’d like to propose one.
The first key point is that the game has to force players to group. Doing content solo cannot be viable. There can be a handful of exceptions, such as a tutorial at the very start of a game. But beyond that, if players can solo, then many will, and that will leave fewer potential group mates available for those who wish to group.
Next, if there are enough players who wish to do the same content, they should be able to form a group. Many games have a variety of classes that fill different roles within a group. If you have all but one slot full, and need some particular role for that last group spot, it can be a major pain to find the last player of a particular class that you need.
The solution is to have AI characters who can function as group members. Guild Wars did this with henchmen and heroes, and it works pretty well for what it does. Unfortunately, if you need a group of eight and can bring seven AI characters, most players do. That puts you back in single-player territory, so for our grouping game, that can’t be allowed.
Restrict the group to one AI character per human player and you’re fine. The AI characters could be locals from whatever town sends you out on the quest. For reasons that I’ll get to later, I wouldn’t favor letting players level their own heroes as Guild Wars does in this proposal.
The great advantage of this is that you no longer need to find players of particular classes. If you need a group of eight, in order to get the right class mix, you might need 12 players before some subset of eight of them is a suitable class mix. Even if you get 12 players, they can’t all be in the same group, so some of them still don’t have a group.
On the other hand, if you get five or six players at random, most of the time it’s possible to selectively pick the classes for the remaining spots to fill out a well-rounded group. Being able to fill in AI characters for your group makes this easy to do.
It is essential that players be able to easily join and leave a group. The solution on joining a group is to let a player who joins a group immediately warp to the group. However unrealistic this may be, having to wait 15 minutes every time you replace a player is a major nuisance.
Letting players leave a group is easy enough. The problem is what happens to the group when players leave. Leaving a group shorthanded and unable to finish its content can be disastrous. It’s not fun to be 45 minutes into a one hour mission, and then be unable to finish and have to start over because someone else in your group got called away by his parents to go eat dinner.
This can be partially fixed by letting late joiners warp to join the group at any time. But it can be almost entirely fixed by letting groups summon or dismiss the AI group members at will, or at least when out of combat.
For example, suppose that you need eight characters for a quest. You fish around a bit and come up with five players. You look at your class distribution, pick out which classes would be nice for the remaining spot, and bring AI characters of those classes. Meanwhile, you leave a group recruiting message up on some in-game bulletin board to organize groups.
Five minutes into the quest, another player of a class you want contacts you asking to join your group. You kick one of the AI characters from your group, invite the player, he warps to your group, and you resume work on the quest. Ten minutes later, someone else in your group has to log off and can’t finish the quest. He leaves the group, and you summon an AI character of a suitable replacement class, and go on to complete the quest. In both cases, the group has under a minute of downtime caused by the membership change. That’s a huge advantage over the grouping systems commonly in place in the existing MMORPGs that I‘m aware of.
This would greatly improve the quality of pickup groups, and not just the ease of organizing them. If you get a group together and find out that one of the people in your group is an idiot, in most games, to replace him could be a considerable hassle, and sometimes even require restarting. Here, you could kick the idiot and immediately summon an AI character to replace him. The rest of the group could fight on while you hope for another player to fill in. No longer would you need to drag the idiot along with you to avoid being shorthanded.
One of the implicit assumptions here is that there are enough people who want to do the same quest. That needs to be addressed as well.
One of the big dividers that prevents players from grouping with each other is level and gear differences. If a level 30 player and a level 50 player happen to be in the same guild, or friends in real life, and would like to group together, well, they really can’t. If they do level 50 content, then the level 30 player is probably pretty useless and just tagging along. If they do level 30 content, then the level 50 player is way too strong and handily slaughters everything, which is rather boring.
The solution is to make the various regions of the game particular levels, and set everyone in a given region to that level. Players would not be able to access regions above their “real” level, but going to lower level regions would be easy. If a level 50 player wishes to group with his level 30 friend, he goes to a level 30 region and is magically level 30 himself, with all of the restrictions that entails. He cannot use skills obtained after level 30, equip gear that requires a level above 30, and so forth.
This would require switching to alternate gear, skill builds, and so forth, which could become an enormous hassle if handled improperly. To avoid the hassle, the game would record the gear and skills that a player had when he was at each level, immediately before he gained a level. When the level 50 player goes back to the level 30 zone, it gives him back the gear and skills he had when he was level 30. He could update them if he has since obtained better gear also useable at level 30, for example, and the changes would be saved as his new level 30 build.
To avoid twinking, all gear dropped in a particular area should require the level of that area. If you’re in a level 30 area, all gear dropped requires you to be level 30 or higher to equip it. Thus, you could never get gear in a higher level area and use it to make a lower level area trivial. That preserves the challenge necessary to make the combat interesting.
This would make guild groups work a lot better, too. If several people in a guild wish to group together, they usually aren’t terribly close to each other in level. Under this system, they could all go to an area suitable for the lowest level member of the prospective group, and all be an appropriate level for that area. That would allow guild groups not at the level cap to do content of a suitable level for the members of the group.
Players would still gain experience from killing mobs, of course, even in an area far below their “real“ level. In order to avoid accidentally creating incentives to stay in low level areas for a long time, the game should give experience at a faster rate in higher level areas, as most games do.
What the experience level would do is to give players access to higher level areas, rather than making them directly stronger everywhere. Players would be stronger, have better gear, better skills, and the rest of the usual benefits of being higher level, but only in the higher level areas that they could now access.
The next problem that makes it difficult to group is that the players who are in a given area and are of a suitable level for the area often wish to do different quests. If a server has 2000 players online, but the game has 1000 quests, most of the quests aren’t going to have five people who wish to do the quest at any given time. Someone may wish to do one quest, while someone else of the same level and in the same area has already done that quest and doesn’t want to repeat it.
This could be fixed by making all quests repeatable. The obvious problem with this is that players will pick out the quests that give the best rewards and do those repeatedly, while ignoring the other quests. Doing one quest twenty times in a row is a lot less interesting than doing twenty quests once each.
That can be fixed by having the game scale quest rewards by how often players are doing the quest. Keep track of how many groups complete a quest each day (or week or whatever). If a lot more players are doing one quest than are doing another in the same area, tone down the rewards for the former quest, while increasing the rewards for the latter. Keep incrementally changing the rewards until, in equlibrium, all quests in an area give rewards commensurate with the length and difficulty of the quest.
Above, it was assumed that groups would sometimes get replacement players in the middle of a quest. This requires that players be willing to join in the middle of a quest. With quest structure as it is often done, if you need to kill 50 furbolgs and a group has already killed 10, when you join, they’ll probably want to kill 40 more and then stop. You’d thus have to get another group to finish the quest.
The solution to this is to make it so that when a group finishes a quest, everyone gets credit, even if they joined late. Late joiners should only get a pro-rated portion of the quest reward based on how much of the quest they were present for, to prevent abuse from people inviting their friends seconds before a quest is completed. This would still make joining a group late an attractive prospect, as it would mean you could jump in and immediately be in a group that is ready to go, rather than having to fish around a while for people to group with.
I’m not arguing that all MMORPGs ought to implement the above system or something vaguely like it. However, if a game is going to be built around players doing content in groups, then the game ought to provide the means to quickly organize groups.