Casual Play: Solo Content Builds Communities
By: Steve Wilson
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
It may seem contrary, but solo content really does more to encourage the building of long-term communities than forced grouping.
Traditionally it’s been held that solo content hurts MOGs which were meant to be played as group efforts. Many games enforce this philosophy by making the environment more difficult to defeat than a single player can handle. In the teens to twenties players began to discover that monsters began attacking in packs or are tougher than they can handle by a lone player. In order to continue playing, the player is forced to seek out a group to adventure with. On the surface this would seem to be pretty straightforward design, players have to group, which forces them to meet other players, which leads to friendships. These forced friendships potentially increase subscription times, since most studies have shown that players will continue long after the game is no longer fun if they have friends that they enjoy hanging out with. It’s assumed that grouping is obviously a good thing when in fact it’s having friends that lengthen subscription times.
Allowing players to solo is believed to actually hurt the game. These solo players aren’t contributing to the community. Instead of tackling the world with others, they are out exploring things on their own. It’s frequently said they ought to be playing a single player game instead, but that doesn’t take into account the more interesting things that can be accomplished in groups when a solo player chooses. Under the right circumstances, adventuring is much more fun with friends. Having to do it with obsessive-compulsive know it alls, or someone that insists on getting the party killed over and over, the ultra greedy, or individuals destined to bump heads with the GMs through intolerable behavior, doesn’t make the game more interesting. A single player game typically doesn’t have the option allowing a player to hang out with friends when it’s convenient, MOGs on the hand do.
One side effect of solo content is that it makes the environment too easy for groups. Guilds can rip through content without worry, reaping the benefits of very easy loot and experience. But this is the case in every game. No matter how difficult, guilds have always dominated grinding through the environment as fast as possible. Guilds with dedicated, experienced players will rarely find any content too difficult. If they do, they will tackle it over and over until it’s conquered. Casual players won’t. When frustration sets in casual players will seek another form of entertainment. If casuals continue to grow as a market segment, solo environments are essential for long-term subscriptions. Not because casuals don’t value some form of achievement, but because they abhor frustration.
One thing all of the above doesn’t take into consideration however is the level of frustration for players with limited time. My experience in EverQuest was that it could take up to a quarter of my gaming session just trying to find a group, and if it was a terrible group there was little to do except suffer through the experience. There wasn’t enough time to try finding another group. Repeated night after night the experience was one of aggravation, not challenge. It was also the point at which subscriptions to many games were cancelled.
Allowing a player to do portions alone without requiring their game play to depend on others actually improves subscription lengths. If, at level 15, I start finding that the game requires me to group with strangers I don’t like chances are I’ll move on. If there’s an option to continue playing solo, however, I will spend more time exploring the world. And in general there is no downtime to jumping into solo content. Every moment of game time is spent enjoying the game itself.
Smaller more casual friendly guilds also benefit greatly from solo content. Larger guilds have no problems fielding enough people to overcome any content. But for guilds with fewer people the opportunity to field a full group isn’t always available. Solo content allows the members of smaller guilds the opportunity for each member to do their own thing while maintain relationships through guild chat. This is a play style I personally enjoy daily. I’m able to play within the same world as friends, can meet up with them as needed, but am still free to do my own thing while having conversations with them. This isn’t an option in a single player game.
There are also a number of arenas where solo players contribute to the multiplayer aspects of the world. Item sales and crafting are such areas. A solo player can grind out the materials needed and still produce something that is desired by the community, even if the community is not playing directly with that player. That has benefits and side effects that can never be experienced in a single player game with any meaningful context.
One of the biggest problems with forced grouping is that it requires players to play with people they don’t like. At one point, when achievers dominated these games that might have been acceptable. The casual player on the other hand is less tolerant of being railroaded into doing things that they don’t consider fun. Or forced to play with folks they find annoying. Maybe my experiences are unique, but forced grouping has always led to me being involved very short term with people I’d never associate with normally, often not in good ways. This always led to much shorter subscriptions.
Ultimately, it’s all about lengthening subscription times. Having in-game friends lengthens a player’s subscription time and also builds a consistent community. The question is whether games should force this behavior, or give players the freedom to develop their own relations. As a casual player, I tend to favor the system that allows me to explore the world at my leisure. As WoW has proven, I’ll do this much longer than if forced into groups of people that irritate me. If in the course of exploring on my own I bump into interesting people that I want to group with the game has doubly enticed me to stay. Letting me solo through content allowed that extra time so that I meet my own friends rather than having them pushed upon me. I appreciate it as a design implementation much more, will continue playing those games, and incidentally making new friends in them at my own pace. The personal community I’ve made in WoW has lasted longer than all my subscriptions in other games combined.