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Playing alone in a multi-player world

Amid the holiday preparations, I read the recent comments from EA's Frank Gibreau about multi-player games being the future, and warning of a limited time left for single-player titles, with interest. It stirred up thoughts on a favorite subject of mine. It's just ripe for a little exploration of the very blurry lines between the single-player and the multi-player experience and how it impacts MMOs.

Why does it interest me?

Ok, let's start with the slightly contentious sound-bite that I'll spend the rest of this post dissecting, qualifying and explaining. (so if you read the paragraph, promise me you'll keep reading through to the end!)

Modern MMOs have become more successful as they have gotten better at learning the lessons of single-player games. Their success is often not because of their online elements, but in how well they manage to mitigate the necessity for interacting with others as an essential part of game-play.

It is important to say out front though I don't believe in the slightest that is a bad thing. Neither do I think it is 'dumbing down' the genre in any way. It is important to see this discussion as being about the rational middle-ground, about finding the best ways to mix the strengths of the single player experience with the all the benefits that come from the shared experience of a online experience, and not dismiss it.

Neither, as I am going to elaborate on, do I think MMO's shouldn't be about community and social interaction, this discussion is all about what we force and what we don't.

This shouldn't be a polarized debate about the proverbial 'us' and 'them', what I am going to be talking about here is how the MMO genre has been improved by this approach. In fact when you take a look at things with a critical eye, you can easily argue that modern MMOs are already adapting to this more than you would think...

The way back machine...

Ok, not all that 'way back', but let me take you back to the late part of 2003 and early 2004. Why is that time important? World of Warcraft hadn't launched yet, neither had Everquest 2 for that matter. In fact there were many tipping SOE's sequel to eclipse the MMO upstarts at Blizzard. I was working on Vaultnetwork and writing for IGN at the time, and one of the perks was being in the beta for both titles.

The 'which will be a bigger game?' question generated a lot of discussion, debate and arguments in the, then much smaller, MMO community. Blizzard had a strong license, but little experience, and the early mutterings from the self professed experts were of a 'dumbed down' game. Everquest 2 had an experienced team, was better looking (if you could find a machine to run it ) and was going to address the time investment inherent in it's predecessor but keep, and improve upon the great team dynamics found on occasion in the original.

Many believed that was the future of the MMO. You had to focus on the team mechanics...

They were wrong.

I remember chatting with some of my fellow Vaulters at E3 in 2004 and explaining why I thought World of Warcraft would end up 'winning out' over EQ2 (...but I have to stress that no-one, least of all me, predicted just how successful it would be! Not claiming that!)...because it let me play alone successfully. Now that sounded to many to be a bit strange for an MMO, and for many it was just counter-intuitive to what the genre was supposed to be about.

Personally I still believe, as I did back then, that those were the steps the genre needed to be taking. The games needed to be just as much fun to play alone as they were to play with friends or guildmates. That was something you couldn't really say about Everquest or the other early games in the genre. Technically you might be able to progress alone, but it was akin to pulling your own teeth compared to the benefits of grouping up with others. It was all but forced teaming by design. In fact it is pretty safe to say that usually it was by design.

Early discussion of this exciting new genre waxed lyrical about the enhanced experience offered by playing together and the excitement of team play...and on one hand it was true...these games offered something we had never experienced before, and in some ways it was cool to play with other people online, and it did offer something very different. It brought us into communities, it allowed us to make friends, enemies and compete with each other. It was something new, and it had so much potential...

The common thought was that the team-play and gameplay reliance on each other was one of the defining strengths of the genre. Personally I had always thought that the way that those early games forced the team aspect upon me was one of their more obvious flaws. It was fantastic to be able to team up and play with others, when I wanted to, but it was frustrating and annoying not to be able to achieve some things alone.

(and as an aside, lets not go down the well worn, 'if you want to solo go play a single player game', line. Those who roll that classic out every time this discussion comes up, are kind of missing the point. Many people love the social and community elements of an MMO, without wanting to play with others, all the time. There is a difference people...but I digress...)

For every memorable hour I spent in a great team in EQ, I spent two hours in bad teams, three hours waiting for a team at the gates of Karnor, or the entrance to Lower Guk before that, and four hours on painful corpse runs. I could see the parts that were fun, and those that were not.

So in World of Warcraft I saw an approach to MMO design that was at least a start in a better direction, and I felt it was why they would be successful...

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. The World of Warcraft you play today has also evolved even further along those lines. Their success has allowed them the license and the scope for improving and refining on these elements over the years. Others have too...

It's not just Azeroth...

Yes, many other titles have then tried to emulate the success of World of Warcraft. Aion, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings online, Warhammer Online, all the way up to the incoming Rift, and pretty much any other mainstream MMO you care to mention over the last few years have all placed accessibility pretty high up the priority of goals. There have been steps forward (like the public quests in WAR which have been evolved further into the Rift mechanics in Trion's upcoming effort) and more and more we are moving slowly away from the concept that in order to succeed as an MMO we must force group interplay. We are starting to realise that it can be an optional part of the game, and still retain all the social appeal of the MMO worlds.

Those that deviate and stray too close to the 'ways of old' and too much forced grouping, or where the designers try and force things upon players, have a much harder time of it, as you saw with the release of Final Fantasy XIV.

So where could we be taking it? That for me is the more interesting question.

On one hand I am saying that I firmly believe that you have to let players play alone, at the same time as being on record as saying that what makes the genre special is the social elements and the community aspect.

I have said this before, I dislike the terms 'Sandbox' and 'theme park' because by trying to make them effective sub-classifications of the genre, we are implying a game cant be both. It is true that we don;t yet have a game that could truly seek to satisfy fans of both types of game, but the influence of the single player drivers I mention above, don't have to live in isolation. Effort and accomplishment can also be exaggerated and amplified in an MMO setting. can also though be found in places you least expect...

...like in CCPs notoriously harsh, open universe, of EVE online...

I can see some of you raising your eyebrows...

EVE? Really?

Yes, EVE is possibly the most open of the games on the market, and ye, there are certainly many people who only survive due to their corp buddies, friends and contacts. Achieving anything in the brutal and dangerous world of 0.0 space in EVE definitely takes a lot of people to organize, sustain and enjoy. (for those who don't play EVE that is the parts of their universe where territory is player controlled and the only protection of any kind you have from other players is your friends and allies) So on the surface, EVE is a game that is known more for the player driven economy, diplomacy, battles, espionage and occasional scams. From the outside looking in, all the parts of the game that get spoken about a lot, are very much truly co-operative or confrontational multiplayer elements.

That isn't though how many EVE players actually approach the game. There are indeed thousands of players involved in the complexities of EVE politics and 0.0 space, but the game has hundreds of thousands of players. a good percentage, even a majority, never, ever, leave high sec space (the area of the games universe that offers some protection from other players). The part you hear all the stories about is driven by the dedicated minority that every MMO has. Then the rest of the players are taking part in other types of game-play.

Then within this larger group of players, some will be in player corporations, some will not, some will spend some of their time playing in gangs with friends or allies, but they will also spend a lot of their time playing on their own. Whether it is mining, running missions, new players learning the ropes, players playing the markets, couriers running materials from here to here, a game like EVE has a pretty large list of the things the player can do alone. CCP have carefully tweaked and poked their creation over the years to lower the learning curve and make the game more accessible, and more enjoyable for a lighter user, without really harming the appeal of the game for their dedicated hardcore audience in any way.

So while a minority of the players enjoy the massively complex political intrigues of 0.0 space, the majority are up to much more day to day tasks, and many, dare I suggest a majority of them, are doing it alone.

So in essence the activities in and off themselves are often mundane, but the context of the game-world makes them have a different appeal completely. The tasks themselves are often perfectly fitting solo player experiences, that offer different motivations or rewards because they are taking place in a community setting, often precisely because you can make progress on your own, but still feel part of something bigger (something EVE excels at) ...for me, that is the true beauty of what MMOs are capable of.

MMO design is best when the designers don't force me to involve myself with others as my only means of progression. Yes, some things require help, but if I want to be the reclusive type I can, and I can still enjoy the game, and feel part of something much bigger. This brings me neatly to the next important clarification...

You can't solo everything...sorry...

I am not for one second, not even a nano-second, suggesting that there should not be content in MMOs that requires you to group up, join a guild, or engage in the larger community in some way. You simply can't expect to want to solo 'everything'. Yes, we understand that some of you are busy, have kids, other commitments, and don't want to dedicate time to but we also have to provide some things to people that like to team up and engage in a social experience.

Wait a minute though, I hear you ask, doesn't that contradict what you just said about not forcing players to team in order to progress?

Not at all, but the question does bring up one of the challenges. The important part of what I said above was that I don't like to see designers force me to involve myself with others as my only means of progression.

The problem for more content driven games is that there comes a point when, due the way the current generation have been designed, players do get to a point where they find that the only progression left is that which requires multiplayer game-play.

Again it is not a 'Black and White' answer. Too often the debate gets over simplified into 'I want to solo everything' or 'All rewards should be available to solo players', which is as ridiculous as the debates those subjects end up devolving into. We should be seeking the balance. It is ok to acknowledge that some things need to, and should, be exclusive to team effort while at the same time acknowledging that we should be seeking to make the solo experience better and more involved as well. the idea is that we reach the point where the rewards for both make sense and satisfy people in the scope of the game world.

...which leads me to the last of the important clarifications...

We aren't there yet...

We are probably still some way off this. EVE does a decent job of making things meaningful, but the experience isn't as rich alone. Likewise the content driven games haven't quite figured out yet how to make their games more open. Most are definitely trying, and some succeeding better than others, but here is where we still have the challenge, where many players run into the proverbial 'road block' of not being able to enjoy an MMO.

Quest based content is often too linear to allow for a truly open world experience. Something enforced by the structure of the games to date (and their associated budgets) and by the original design thoughts that dictated to us that we should want to force the players to play together.

We haven't found the best balance for solo and group content yet, let alone taken it to the next level and figured out how to make them both work together in the context of an open and equal world, where both paths are productive, and more importantly, fun.

...wrapping up

The social aspects of the MMO experience are vitally important...but probably not in the way that early MMO designers thought they might be.

I completely believe in the power of the community, and the way in which the positive motivations for achievement in games is successfully amplified when it is part of a shared experience. You simply don't have to force social interactions on people in order for them to enjoy themselves in a social setting...so rather than expending our design energy trying to shoehorn players into certain co-operative behaviors as the norm, we are hopefully starting to realize that players might just enjoy their MMO experience even more if we give them something fun and interesting to do alone, as well as together, but also try to make sure it has more meaning and context in the wider world.

See, this is why I really dislike the terms 'sandbox' and 'theme-park'. While I'll happily admit that there will be lots of room for very good games that focus on just one of those styles, I can't help but think that the true potential of the genre might just lie in finding the right balance between them both...and when we find the potential, maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to sample it either alone, or as part of a group, as and when we choose...a man can dream...


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