Long time no see, eh? Yeah, I've been quiet for a while on the Blog. Heated discussions have emerged on the Forum about a certain game that shall not be mentioned here for the time being. The discussions surrounding that game have grown far too emotional for them to be rational anymore.
Thus, I turn to a subject that has crept up, often before and, in latest news, with the announcement of SW: TOR, a game I personally look forward to (explanations on this later). The issue I am talking about is of course, the opinion of some people that the newer games are really Singleplayer Games with a Multiplayer component tacked on to justify the 15$ monthly cost.
I want to examine this claim for a moment and also present my personal thoughts on the matter. So let's do this step by step. Many people claim that modern day MMO's are no longer truly Massively Multiplayer. They bring forward some compelling reasons for that:
1) Modern MMO's are most often made in a way that they can be played solo for a majority of the content. The soloable content is usually the actual "Leveling" process (as demonstrated in WoW), while grouping is only starting to be really "necessary" if you want to delve into the endgame. People complain that this encourages people to play solo and thus destroys grouping in these games.
2) Instancing. A major problem for many people, instancing or zoning is a tool used by developers to lessen load on bandwidth and computers, oftentimes a sign of weak code or non-optimized engines (as thoroughly demonstrated by AoC at its launch). Instancing, they say, destroys the illusion of a large world and leaves you feeling much more -alone-. Furthermore, the use of instances for "Storylines" as demonstrated by LotRO and FFXI, also alienates players from each other, they say.
3) Accessibility or "EZ Mode". Games are too easy. This somewhat ties into point one, but goes beyond it. Many people claim that because games are so simple, the need for communication is cut down. Take for example EVE Online. The tutorial barely shows you the ropes of the UI. How do you play this game? You don't get many clues, and beyond mission-driving and mining, you will have to get in contact with other players to get anywhere. In contrast, WoW, a game that is praised for its accessibility. You log in, a simple tutorial explains the simple mechanics and from thenonout, anyone can play the game up to and including end-game (albeit it helps to actually know what you're doing and be good at it, it is -NOT- required).
This, I think, sums up the arguments that are most often used. I am not going to get into the discussion of Sandbox-games versus Linear games here, since that is another topic and too obstruse to even begin discussing at this point.
Anyway, my thoughts on these points:
1) To an extent that is certainly true. I often however say that the real reason why this way of making games leads to more soloers, is the players themselves, not the games. As an example, I'll use myself. I -always- play in a group. Minimum is two people, that would be me and my GF. We rarely, if ever, do anything alone. When the chance presents itself, we play with other people. When we need to, we group up with others, either in our guild, or randomly (guildies preferred, but hey, that's only human, isn't it?).
So despite the game being soloable and despite the fact I could, if I wanted to, level my characters all by myself, I do not do it. To continue my example, I will use a friend of mine, who is working a full-time job at odd hours. This means for him, he rarely gets to log on when most of his friends do, exept on weekends. It means that he is also more often than not, online when the server population is at a low due to the time of day. Still, he can do something. He can level, he can quest, he can progress and then when the time is there, he can continue to play with his friends.
So, making a game solo-accessible is not a problem. What I do agree with though, is that grouping and generally socializing, should have perks, advantages over soloing. It is all nice and well that I -can- do something by myself, but when it is all the same, progress-wise, why should I want to group up with other people (besides the obvious reasons of friendship and collegiality)? While I personally can't understand why people would solo in a game that allows them to play with their friends and other people, there are tendencies in younger players that go towards soloing despite the option of grouping/socializing. This needs to be adressed. Grouping must be attractive and must yield better rewards or faster progression.
2) Instancing. Oh the difficulty of the subject. Yes, instancing can, when done wrong, destroy any sort of illusion of a wide, open world with many people in it. Zoning and Instancing however are valuable tools and if used "wisely" they can work perfectly well. An example of this would be EVE. EVE is "zoned", as in, every system in eve, is a world of itself. You cannot fly from system to system without using the zone-doors (the Gates). In this universe, it fits. It doesn't bother people because the illusion of an open world is more or less left intact. The vastness of space makes this solution understandable and accepted. In the same vein, SWG was zoned. Each planet was a zone of itself, albeit a usually very large one. This also helped create the illusion of openness. You had to travel through an instance-door (a shuttle) to get from planet to planet, but that didn#t bother people, it was alright in the context.
Much different in Fantasy MMO's where cutting up the world into instances/zones is uch more difficult to explain. I can understand why people have a problem with going through a pass and being unable to see 10 meters ahead because the zone-border is there. It destroys the illusion. Plus, it leaves players feeling more alone, particularily if we get to zoning of the kind where multiple copies of the same area are created to lessen server-load. This leads to situations where two players are at exactly the same spot, but can't see each other because they are in different instances.
While I understand the frustration with this, I also think that instancing and zoning are not necessarily a complete evil, even in Fantasy MMO's. Story Instances like in LotRO and FFXI helped you immerse yourself in the storyline. Scripted cutscenes in said instance would not be destroyed by random people jumping in and shouting ROFLMAOLULZNUB! and while some may see that as a lack of realism, I see it as an advantage to my gaming experience. When I live a story, I want to experience it fully, not be distracted by a horde of stupid people wanting to ruin my experience.
Following this logic, I would say that instancing can be used, it can be good for the atmosphere of a game, but it heavily depends on how it is implemented. Do the zones feel too small, too constricting? Do we have multiple copies of a public zone? Or are there wide, open zones/instances that let you roam for quite a bit before finding any borders, and these borders being presented in a somewhat plausible fashion (a thick jungle, a steep mountain-wall, a roaring river with no bridge etc etc)? Do I still have places where I meet everyone, where social activity is at its height and no one feels left out because they are not in the right copy of the instance?
Balancing instancing/zoning out and integrating it in smart ways is vital. If it is done right, it is not much of a bother (to me), but it can indeed hurt the immersion and the feeling of "massiveness".
3) The famed EZ-Mode. Games are too easy. They no longer challenge you. This dicussion touches on the subject described by me in another post, but I will not go there today. Today I want to speak solely about the problems that surface with grouping/social issues in a -too- easy game. Much like the first issue presented here, I believe most of this is a problem of the people playing the game, not the game itself. Playing a game should be fun, you should be able to jump into the world and start having fun right away, at least that is the opinion of many. I can understand and value games like EVE however, which offer you little to no help and just sort of...throw you into the mix.
However, let's ask ourselves, is it really the games accessibility that creates solo-ers and anti-social players? Are we really blind enough to think that because a game is easy, a social and friendly person would suddenly stop being that way and resort to being all alone and mopey?
Seriously, I believe many issues with the solo-friendliness in games are directly related to the decline of social skills in people, in RL, as opposed to the more simple/easier ways to get into a game. Ideally, a game should be easy to play, difficult to master. The basic mechanics and basic ways of playing should be quick to understand, the UI should be easy to figure out and the controls should be intuitive and responsive. To become -good- in the game however, investment should be required.That is learning how to play your character the most effective, learning how to cooperate in a team, learning how to respond to a multitude of situations, learning how to correctly assess a situation and react to it accordingly etc etc.
Investment has to pay off, otherwise we're out of the RPG genre, but it should nonetheless be easy to first get into the game, because otherwise many people will ask what they are doing there in the first place, when all they wanted was to have a bit of fun in a game with friends.
Yes, games have been getting more simple, more accessible. Yes the claims put forward on this matter are valid and correct in a way, however I see a lot of black and white painting on this subject. It is not as easy as to say "any game with instances is crap", or "any game where you can solo is crap". These are gross generalizations and most often false. It depends on many things. The community, the way of implementing those features, the content and last but not least, the way you, yourself play the game.
Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the issue. Thanks for reading and see ya around!