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The Devil's Advocate: On MMOs Going Solo

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on September 26, 2012

There is a subtle but distinct trend in the MMO industry towards the “solofication” or “single-playerization” of the MMORPG. MMOs are still generally social experiences, but there are design choices and tweaks to how certain things work that make it easier to think of an MMORPG as a sort of expandable single-player experience. While it's not exactly a topic of scholarly or philosophical study, it doesn't mean we can't shine a light on this shift in the MMORPG. Today's Devil's Advocate attempts to look at the main reason people think MMORPGs are becoming Massively Single-Player Online Role-Playing Games... and then throws another idea into the mix for some extra tidbits of thought.

Solo Mode

The rise of single-player fun in MMO gaming is a more recent development that I'm assuming has been burrowing into the minds of many players since 2011.

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While I can't peg a definitive start, the rise of mob-style gaming - where people can go through content and be a part of groups that are actually masses of people rather than well-organized fighting teams - took a rather discernible leap forward with RIFT's style of play. Mob-style gaming can also be attributed to dungeon finder technology, to the match-finding tech from other games like MOBAs and team-based FPS titles, or even to whatever patch introduced whatever group content in whatever game that was both popular and trivial to complete at the same time.

Recent weeks have also made it clear to me that single-player friendliness is here to stay though, seeing as the same day brought both word of Blizzard's plans to introduce an “Appear Offline” option on Battle.net and Turbine's LOTRO developer diary on the single-player friendly endgame activity of Hytbold, which are both attempts to allow people to play an MMORPG without necessarily interacting with other people.

Market Forces at Work

As far as I can tell, the common idea put up as a reason for the rise of single-player friendliness in MMORPGs is the increase of the player base. With this increase in the number of people playing online games, the focus of design efforts has shifted to reasonably appeasing the greatest number of people based on market research, as well as what their data seems to suggest as a trend.

In the past, with a smaller number of players enjoying MMORPGs, it was alright to make games extremely challenging team-based endeavors where survival was hinged upon working as a team. The current direction of gaming relative to how MMOs used to be seems to imply that consumers want to be able to play more of the content created in games, without necessarily having to slave over the game, team up with others, and become devoted to a particular title's idiosyncrasies and nuances.

As someone who came into MMORPGs during the infancy of World of Warcraft, I'm somewhere in between the two warring factions: those who want challenging team-based adventures and those who want to play a game without having to think about other folks. My personal leaning is neutrality towards the shift, so long as MMORPGs can cater to both parties adequately by providing options. For games to succeed in the long-term these days, it has to cater to a wider demographic, bound both by personal tastes and economic forces, and that's perfectly fine.

One thing bothered me, however, when it came time to writing this. The common idea is that market forces are at work in shaping the future of games, but what is shaping the idea that pushes these market forces onto the MMO gaming ecosystem? In other words, why does the expanded playerbase of gamers want options that allow them to not interact with others in games that were originally designed with teamwork and socialization in mind?

The Rise of Hytbold

To explain this crazy idea that came to me, I have to backtrack a bit and explain how this alternate theory formed in my head. The original reason for today's Devil's Advocate was to highlight the advent of the solo-friendly Hytbold endgame in LOTRO and two articles that took the same idea and highlighted the same things in a different frame.

A Casual Stroll to Mordor discussed Hytbold with some optimism, noting that you basically get rewards for your characters by rebuilding a town and engaging in randomized daily quests to restore it and earn the goodies from the townsfolk. The MMO Troll (not actually a troll, but well...) took the opposing viewpoint, noting how Hytbold “will truly be a mostly-solo game” as a result of phasing technology. With very little information to go on regarding how individuals and groups will get the same phased village, the idea seems to lean towards every person getting their own personal village to restore.

One thing The MMO Troll said stuck with me. He wrote, “Grouping in MMOs isn't dead, but more and more players are demanding things to do on their own throughout the game experience, including at endgame, that provides top-quality rewards.” He went on to explain how the old MMO models favored an elite that would potentially drive others to strive towards teamwork and raiding, but that was turned on its head when more people came into the game and wanted the reverse instead.

Reading that made me say, “Hell is other people,” and the gears in my head started turning, because that one simple quote is more complicated than most people think.

No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre penned the now-famous phrase back in 1944, as a line for one of his characters in an existential play called No Exit. The common use of the term seems to beg the idea that hell is being with others because they are annoying as all heck, but the term has a deeper meaning within the context of the play and within existential philosophy.

Without delving too deeply into the play, the line was originally used in the context mentioned above in a literal sense, because the three main characters of the play were forced to spend an eternity with each other, eventually making each other miserable due to their quirks and interactions with each other in a small room.

In existential philosophy, however, Sartre's thoughts were a little different. I'll refer now to an excellent piece from 2009 about No Exit and that particular phrase, which I'll try to sum up. For Sartre, “Hell is other people” because we want to loved and accepted for ourselves, but we intrinsically know deep down that people want to be with us (or use us) for their own reasons and machinations, which may not be because our individual selves are awesome.

In terms of MMO gaming today, the idea that people team up to group or raid and earn loot is an example of people banding together because they want something they can't get by themselves. They aren't joining together because they know all the other people and think they're great. They want a person because he's skilled, or knows the boss strategies, or is generally one able-bodied DPS, healer or tank away from party death.

This particular idea is easy to reject because it goes against the core tenets of our ego, which is to think that we are generally decent people. The sooner you accept the idea posited by “Hell is other people,” however, the sooner you can get to readjusting your mindset to try and accept people for their inner greatness and for no other reason than that.

How does this tie in to the single-player friendliness of games? There are a few ways to look at it.

In the simplest sense, single-player friendliness allows us to avoid the literal aspect of “Hell is other people,” which is to say that we can avoid jerks, ninjas, and folks who are really in tune with the less savory aspects of their personalities.

For those too in-touch with their less savory aspects, there's another possibility. The single-player bent of MMO gaming means fewer people to prey on, less attention, and consequently, less focus on you as a star. You can't be the person the “Hell is other people” is worried about if you're alone, I suppose.

Single-player friendliness, in one sense, also allows people to fulfill or maintain a fantasy of being in a world where they are the hero of the day, where their intrinsic awesomeness is amplified by the deeds they do in-game, and where they are treated in the way they want to be treated (with respect, adoration, or dignity, for the worst case scenario). This is a little narcissistic, but a little ego boost from casual MMO gaming isn't so bad.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for particular answers to a question, there are none to be found at the end of this piece.  The shift towards single-player friendliness might be disconcerting to some, but ultimately reflects something people want when they engage in MMORPG play.

Perhaps it may be better to ask yourself some questions now. Why did you play MMORPGs back when you first started? Did you play to indulge your inner greatness? What makes it worthwhile to keep playing? Where does your enjoyment lie in the game? Can you acknowledge the greatness of other people in the games you play regardless of their net worth in terms of items or skill?

Perhaps, if you have answer those questions, you'll have a better understanding of yourself, one that'll transcend the games you choose to play into your real-life actions and manner. At the very least, if you can see the good in other people regardless of their skill in-game, you'll be able to make strong friendships that will get you more enjoyment out of your MMO of choice. 

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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