First things first: what this is not going to be is a solo vs. grouping post. I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with you all and that particular can of worms just yet!
But RIFT launched this week and one of its mechanics made me think. RIFT boasts a system for what I'll call open grouping, though it's not the first time the system has made an appearance: Warhammer Online, notably, has a similar mechanic, and GW2 plans something even more freeform from what I've been reading.
The basic idea is that you can show up in a given area and look for then join any one of multiple open groups going (as in WAR), or you can just be automagically appended to whatever is moshing around at the time. Either way, what it does is remove the need to stand around trying to figure out who has a group going, or trying to make your own.
This is actually far more innovative than it appears at first glance. For long swathes of MMO history – about 7 years – almost every game out there relied on the complicated process of putting together a group from scratch. Which is lovely and all if you happen to have one ready-made with friends, but which can take far longer than it should if you don't.
In most games there are three modes of activity for the most part: solo, group or mega-group (raid). There's no denying that you can design content for groups, dungeon-wise, that probably can't be done as easily for a collection of single players who just happen to be in the same place at the same time. I don't happen to think instanced group-created dungeons are the only way to have fun multiple-player experiences, but this isn't a post about instanced vs. open either.
The point is, closed groups seem to be more of a design paradigm legacy from our tabletop days than an actual design requirement. Tabletop games used the term “party” to designate the player group, and MMOs naturally formalized that into the actual group. In most games there are abilities and spells that will only work on the caster and group members, though this isn't really an unbreakable requirement – more and more games these days are making use of friendly AOE spells and abilities that don't care whether Joe, next to you, is in your group or not.
Part of the problem with grouping, in my view, is that it has become too formalized and in many ways too constricting. Finding or setting up a group should really not become a major activity in one's gaming time, even if people have become pretty good at multi-tasking and looking for a group while they're doing something else. But given content that requires a group, which is most of the more challenging content in most games out there, many people end up spending at least part of their time trying to find other people to do stuff with.
Some games, like WoW, have attempted to streamline this process by introducing systems like the dungeon finder, where you pick one of the holy trinity roles and just go about your business while the rest of the role slots are filled. The advantage of the dungeon finder is that it's generally fairly quick, especially since it creates cross-server matches, so if all you're looking to do is get your dungeon quests done it's a pretty good deal. One of the downsides, however, is that it's a very specific system designed for a very specific purpose, which is to run dungeon content.
The dungeon finder is one size fits all for specific content, but if there's one thing we players are really good at as a community, it's that we're always thirsting for something more, something different, something new – and not just in the content we play but also in how we play.
Enter the concept of open grouping. I don't honestly know if Warhammer Online was the first game to introduce the mechanic, but it was the first game I encountered that had it. In WAR, open groups went hand in hand with the game's fun and innovative Public Quest system (smallish, localized repeating events with some nice rewards) and with the broader system for world-PvP. The way it worked in practice is that you could just show up at a PQ or PvP location and, if there were any open groups going, you could join one at the click of a button.
It's a simple enough mechanic, but it works really well provided there are actually groups around. Open groups are almost ideal for someone like me: when I get tired of bimbling around the world by myself, harvesting stuff and smelling the corpses, and decide that I want a bit of no-drama, no-strings action, I can just hop into an open group and experience content I would otherwise find either tedious or difficult by myself.
The basic principle of easy-come, easy-go membership, far from leading to the kind of trash-talking nightmare you might expect, actually worked excellently in WAR and I hope it'll work just as well in RIFT. People in open groups are generally relaxed and friendly, and the whole group performance anxiety thing doesn't really seem to apply; everyone knows the group's makeup is entirely pot-luck, and if you end up with nothing but healers you just try the content anyway – and generally have a blast. Among other things, open groups remove the strict tank-heal-multipleDPS paradigm that has become so common and so restrictive in games lately. You make do with what you've got, and stepping out of the box can be immensely enjoyable.
Open groups also remove some of the awkwardness involved in joining a group for a very specific purpose. If all you want is to kill a given boss, or if all you have is 20 minutes, it can be a real pain to find people willing to accept that you're not there to do everything the group is set up to do – or you simply don't tell them and bail when you've completed your objectives, which is even worse for everyone else. In almost all the open groups I experienced, people would come and go as they pleased with no pressure – which, as a gamer with a fair few RL demands and limitations on my gaming time, I found to be a breath of fresh air.
I'm not at all suggesting that open groups should replace formal groups, because the two systems serve entirely different purposes when it comes to experiencing content. But they're definitely a welcome addition to MMO mechanics.
We're asking more and more from our game designers these days; the thing is, innovation doesn't have to be earth-shattering to durable and a whole heap of fun, even for the most jaded old-timers among us. One of the things most of the players I know want these days is more ways in which to play together, more choices when it comes to structuring our often limited game time – and open groups are one more way of allowing people to get together quickly, painlessly and entertainingly. (The only caveat being what it is with any group activity: if there's nobody around, no amount of open-group mechanic will help you find people to play with.)
In MMOs, more choices are always good. They don't have to be perfect choices, and I think there are still ways in which open groups can be perfected and tweaked, but as long as they're available I'm a happier gamer.