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MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 2 Fishing For Grouper Or Sole?

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Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz

groupervssole.png

Blog #2: Fishing For Grouper Or Sole?
(Designing For Group Play Or Solo Play)

In the previous blog I talked about solo adventurers, adventuring parties where each character is controlled by one player, and adventuring parties (or sports teams or armies) where all the characters or units are controlled by one player. These differences in gameplay structure result in differences in gameplay experience, and most MMO players have a strong preference for what type of gameplay experience they want from an MMO. In this case, the specific issue is whether they want to play as a team with other players or play by themselves with only occasional casual interactions with other players. One of the major factors underlying this preference is the fact that some people are extroverts and some people are introverts.

Extroversion and introversion are naturally occurring personality types, which are at least influenced by genetics, if not completely determined by them, and it's visible from toddlerhood whether someone is inclined to be one or the other. What are these personality types? What's so different between the two of them? Extroverts are people who like people - socializing makes them feel energized, while being alone makes them feel depressed. Introverts are people who find it draining and stressful to interact too closely with other people; they find being alone restful and great for being able to hear themselves think or work contentedly on a project. Very few people want to socialize all the time or none of the time though - it's more about whether you are more often in the mood to socialize or more often in the mood to be by yourself. Neither extroversion nor introversion is better than the other, and neither is capable of changing into the other; it's quite damaging to pressure someone to act counter to their personality type. (If you want to learn more about introversion, extroversion, and other personality types, I recommend taking the Keirsey Temperament Test, of which there are several versions available online. Or if you want an actual book, I recommend Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey.)

In general, humans are approximately 60% extroverts and 40% introverts. But, extroverts tend to be less interested in anything computery than introverts, so computer and video gamers have a reversed ratio, more like 40% extroverts and 60% introverts. On the other hand, extroverted gamers gravitate more toward multiplayer games than single-player games, so MMO players are somewhere around 50% extroverts. This even divide has actually proved problematic, especially for AAA MMOs. 50% is not a big enough piece of the audience for an AAA situation where the company does not want to make a niche game. In real life introverts and extroverts are often friends with each other. Most workplaces employ both types of people because they are good at different types of jobs, and most business need both types of job done. But introverts and extroverts tend to have different hobbies and interests.

MMOs can only afford to provide a narrow selection of interactive experiences for players, and few possible experiences appeal strongly to both introverts and extroverts. A game that is aimed only at one personality type can provide the widest range of options for that type of player, but will not retain players of the other type. Designing for both types is like trying to walk in two directions at the same time - you don't have enough bodies to go both directions, so you're going to fall on your face. Any game development project that tries to do too much with too little ends up with a shallow game that has a limited number of hours of gameplay any given player will like. (Spore, while not an MMO, is a really clear example of this type of error in going for a broad but shallow game.) When an MMO's design fails to take personality type into account, content that one type of gamer would like may be gated behind content that this type of gamer doesn't like. So either they are unhappy while playing through the mis-targeted content, or they quit before the get to the content they would have liked. Meanwhile players that liked the first type of content will not be interested in the second kind, and won't consider it a good reward or replacement for finishing the first kind.


What if you want both types of players?

In an ideal situation where an MMO had an infinitely large budget, would it be the best choice to have content for group players and solo players in the same game. Well... maybe not. Games are a form of fiction. According to one of my favorite fiction theorists, Simon Lesser, one of the purposes of fiction is to present to the audience "a world free of distracting irrelevancies" and the purpose of play a game or reading a novel is "to learn about ourselves" by "testing ourselves against the contents of this fictional world, which have meaning in direct proportion to their relevance to our own concerns". If a virtual world contains elements "relevant to the concerns" of a solo player, are they "distracing irrelevancies" to a group player, and vice-versa? Yes, at least some of the time they are. (I'll talk about this further when I get to the topic of crafting in MMOs in a future blog entry.)

Moreover, even in an enormous high-budget MMO you wouldn't see parallel group-focused and solo-focused methods for doing the same activity; redundant gameplay is just never going to be a priority for any developer. Which means that any activity developed as solo gameplay is an activity that won't be available as group gameplay, and vice-versa. So in any compromize game intended to have activites for both group and solo players, opportunities are going to be lost from both groups' points of view. For an AA or indie MMO with a limited budget the answer becomes even clearer: pick group players or solo players to design for. Experienced MMO gamers of all kinds are tired of playing games that aren't really aimed at them, and desperate for a game that will allow them to be who they want to be and act how they want to act in a virtual world that caters to their niche. Playing a game that feels like a badly-fitting piece of clothing is one of those irritations that builds up until the prospect of facting that annoyance one more time outweighs your desire to go back and play for another day, and is a reason why many otherwise-loyal players leave games even though they have a fairly high level character in that game. May the next decade be the era of niche games, where every player can find a truly comfortable fit!

However, perhaps there are some of you whose dream is to make a game for everyone. Maybe you will even make one that proves me wrong, because both group and solo players will prefer it to more nice games; maybe the introverts and extroverts who are friends or relatives in real live will be really happy they can play your game together, while being free to not really play 'together'. So, for those determined to make a game for both solo players and group players, here are my recommendations:

Scalable Dungeons! The number one way that any average themepark MMO could be more solo-friendly is by giving each dungeon a solo mode.

Gathering, Crafting and sim-activities like growing crops. If killing monsters in the main game world is the solo player's "meat", gathering and crafting are the potatoes. Don't undercut your solo players by making gear droppable; have crafting mats for that gear or enhancement consumables for that gear drop instead! In any game which has a serious crafting system, the best gear for every level should be craftable, though it may require drops from dungeon bosses to craft, or high faction reputations to get the recipes. Also, standard gathering, where you stand at a node and wait, just plain sucks. It is inarguably crappy gameplay. If you want gathering to be one of your main types of solo gameplay, make it actual gameplay, where the player has to play some kind of minigame, which must be an actual fun way to spend time, to gather their materials.

Low-level dungeons! Going the other direction, players who prefer grouping tend to hate games where the first dungeon, the first place that really requires a group, doesn't appear until level 20. Non-combat group tasks, like giving your newbie level and NPC fortress where two players must stand on tiles at the same time to open the gate for 30 seconds, could also add some easy group content that even people who haven't really mastered combat yet can do. Ideally, you could also place and NPC there who will come stand on one of the tiles if asked to by a player. Then it's more friendly to soloers and people who happen to be playing when the game is underpopulated.

Low-level PvP! Group PvP is the other favorite activity of players that prefer grouping; yet some games have either no PvP or 1v1 dueling only for low-level players. Games which have multiplayer mount racing, a CCG, or other multiplayer 'PvP minigames' also tend to have ridiculously high level or money requirements to be able to participate and not be utterly left in the dust by higher level players. Handicap systems where players are automatically up-leveled, down-leveled, or allowed to use a game-provided mount/card deck/whatever are essential for getting low level players into grouping activities and enabling group play between players of diverse levels. If you are particularly interested in focusing on PvP, a leveless game might even be the answer, because level disparities are so disruptive and limiting to PvP.

Raids tend be considered PvE endgame content. While raids are undoubtedly the form of PvE which requires the most experience at playing the game, and they are easier to balance for a group of max-level players than for a group of players with more diverse levels, like all group play they will generally be avoided by solo players, and if they are the only PvE endgame content an MMO has, and solo players who made it to the top level are going to feel pretty neglected and abandoned by the designers at this point. If raids are an important part of your game, make sure you have alternate high-level solo PvE content.

Collecting is a hobby that both introverts and extroverts like, but it tends to be somewhat more popular with introverts. Extroverts are more interested in collecting if it is supported by a system for showing off your collection to other players, though. Very few MMOs have done much with collecting ad using galleries or mannequins and weapon stands to display collections, which is sad because it's a relatively easy thing to implement, especially if you already have player housing or an ability for players to look at each others' equipped gear.

NPC interactability - this is something that could improve an MMO experience for group players and solo players alike. NPCs which can be interacted with more like a real person would be more pleasing to extroverts who don't like wasting time not interacting with other players, and introverts would have a guaranteed positive experience interacting with NPCs, as opposed to other players who might feel like handing out insults, criticism, and harrassment to anyone they happen to meet. Also, collectible NPCs are an idea whose time has come - I want that harem of NPCs to go with my houseful of pets PLZKTHX.


Focusing On Soloers

Before I get into the meat of this section, I think I need to soapbox a bit. YES, it is a completely valid idea to design an MMO focused on solo players. I have occassionally run into some extroverts who don't understand why introverts might enjoy solo MMO play and find it uniquely different and/or better than playing a single-player game. Or worse, occassionally I encounter someone who feels that MMOs as a genre are the collective property of extroverts, and introverts should GTFO becuase they're bringing down the property values in the neighborhood. That is nothing but bigotry. A genre of games is huge. The realm of MMOs is big enough to contain several games for every type of player. Players who prefer to solo in MMOs, as opposed to either grouping in MMOs or playing a single-player game, have real and valid reasons for this preference. All gamers deserve games that cater to their preferred type of play. Solo players don't deserve to be treated like second class citizens, either by other gamers or by games that try to draw in both group and solo players, but quietly give preferential treatment to group players. They don't deserve games that drop group play requirements unexpectedly on players' heads several levels into the game, or games that forget about solo content about halfway through the game, trying to force solo players into grouped high-level and endgame content. Group players also deserve games that focus on and support grouping; I'll get to that a few paragraphs further down. Meanwhile, that's enough ranting from me.

For people who are genuinely confused about why someone would enjoy soloing in an MMO, let's look at what a solo player actually does in a game. Whether you prefer to group or solo, the presence of other players in an MMO's world is one of the things that makes an MMO's world feel real in a way that a single-player game world, even one with great story and graphics, can't manage. Forums and public chat channels are great for introverts and people with social anxiety because they allow users to communicate at their own pace, communicate without committing to guild or faction membership, and provide opportunities to see what existing communitiy members are saying before trying to join the discussion. (On the other hand, verbal-only chat systems are pretty horrible for introverts, though extroverts generally like them.)

An auctionhouse or marketplace is another great way that MMOs allow players to interact with each other with a bit of a safety buffer in between them. Economic gameplay with other players is much more interesting than simulated economic play in a single-player game because interacting with other people is more unpredictable, and not in a way that's uselessly random, but in a fascinating way where you can see one pattern emerging here, a different pattern emerging there, and the patterns change each week or month.

As mentioned above, gathering, crafting, and sim gameplay such as growing crops or breeding animals are a staple of solo gameplay. Unfortunately a lot of games tend to 'sabotage' these types of gameplay by inserting group requirements, even when the game as a whole isn't heavily group focused. A Tale In The Desert has some types of gathering that require 4 or more people, and due to the lack of an auctionhouse it is impractical to aboid that type of gathering by trading for the material instead. (Though on the other hand, the fact that A Tale In The Desert expects every single player to craft their own house and generally has a focus on crafting items for oneself rather than to sell or to grind crafting XP, is really great for soloers. In fact, restrictions on selling or trading craftable items and breedable pets could be a really good thing for a solo-focused game, because you want each player to have the pleasure of climbing the tech tree on their own, you don't want them to get leapfrogged over interesting content due to the accomplishments of earlier players.) Wizard 101 has a system where breeding pets requires two players who each have a pet; a player cannot breed two pets they own. Breeding dragoturkey mounts in Dofus requires ownership of a paddock, and property ownership is restricted to guilds and in limited supply per server; additionally it's extremely difficult to capture wild dragoturkeys in solo combat; for some classes it's merely hard, but for others it's all but impossible.

Finally, minigames are popular content among solo players. Introverts tend to be more interested than extroverts in puzzles and beating their own previous high scores or score requirements for a special prize from the game, both common elements of minigames. Minigames which are based on breeding pets or mounts, or collecting cards, tie in well with other solo-player interests. Even multiplayer minigames are fairly good for solo players because players are often too busy to interact much during the game, and it is easy to leave between rounds if one feels oversocialized or discovers that a player one dislikes is already playing the minigame.

In general, if you are designing for solo players, beware of mechanics you are copying from other MMOs, as those other MMOs were probably not solo-focused and might contain elements that, while interesting designwork, might undermine your game's solo focus.


Focusing On Groupers

Group players too deserve to have MMOs which support group play and community interaction. There doesn't seem to be a lot of prejudice against group play in MMOs, so I don't feel the need to repeat my rant in reverse for this section. Group interaction in MMOs tends to take a few common forms: Dungeons, Raids, Team PvP, and Large Scale PvP. More innovative forms include inducements to group during monster-hunting in the main world, group property ownership, and group puzzles.

Dungeon runs usually feature a group of 3 to 8 players entering an instanced dungeon where they first have to avoid aggroing too many lower level mobs at once, then must cooperate with coordinated timing to kill one or more bosses. This is the type of play where the triad of combat roles - tank, healer, and DPS (damage per second) - has gained most of its fame. Vindictus is an example of an MMO that has chosen to focus on dungeon runs to the extreme of not really having a virtual world outside the dungeons.

A larger version of a dungeon run, raids feature large groups of 20 to 100 players, usually fighting a world boss, though in some cases they are fighting an invasion of a whole army, which may culminate in a boss. Within a raid players are often divided into multiple dungeon-style groups using the tank-healer-DPS system. Raids are found in WoW and most WoW-alike MMOs, mainly at higher levels of the game. "Endgame progression", if that term isn't paradoxical, tends to involve farming gear from either raids or by earning PvP tokens to spend in a PvP shop. Though farming reputation is also a notable endgame activity in WoW-alikes.

Team PvP pits one group of 3 to 8 players against another, either in an arena system or in a guild territory system or faction territory system. Territory systems are pvp systems in which the victorious side on a battlefield temporarily gains control of some territory within the game; generally the faction members or guild members of the faction or guild controlling the territory get some kind of bonuses or buffs as long as they keep control. In some games PvP has an entirely different set of gear than PvE, which means that people who want to take part in both of these activities are kept busy farming 2 different sets of gear. MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) are a recent experiment in online games intended to focus entirely on group play. In my personal opinion MOBAs aren't technically MMOs, but they are still worthwhile for MMO designers to look at, along with other not-quite-MMOs like virtual pet sites and online casinos and arcades. MOBAs evolved from a hybridization of team PvP in MMOs and offline multiplayer battle arenas descended from the Bomberman series, various racing games including Mario Kart, and FPS games with a multiplayer mode like GoldenEye 007.

Large-scale PvP features large groups of players fighting each other; in some cases there are NPC characters mixed in among the players to provide story context for the battle or explain strategic objectives that are different from one battle to another. In a battleground system the two sides are generally factions on the same server. In an RvR (realm vs. realm) system the two sides are generally players from two different servers. Some games have large-scale guild vs. guild combat, but the percentage of guilds per server which can field more than 10 fighters at any given time isn't very high, so this version of large-scale PvP has somewhat fallen out of favor among designers.

Many MMOs treat battling normal monsters in the game's main world as a solo activity or one where people can group in pairs or trios, but might be fighting in separate neighboring battles rather than actually fighting in the same battle. Some games will even automatically group any two players fighting nearby, unless they have set some options to prevent this. Other MMOs try to bribe or force players to group in the main world. Even players who prefer grouping don't necessarily like being subjected to these lures and pushes, so if you are a designer who wants to encourage players to group, please keep in mind that methods should be tested to see how off-putting they are to players, or how much unpleasant drama they create. Various techniques for promoting grouping in main-world monster hunting include: Monsters marked as appropriate for a certain level of player are either difficult enough to require a few players of that level to successfully fight them or tend to come in groups of monsters which require a few players of that level to successfully fight them. Final Fantasy XI is an example of a game where soloing in a level-appropriate area was discouraged through difficulty, as the mobs were scaled to be fought by groups. Some games give an XP or loot bonus to monster kills made while in-group with other players (who are physically in the same area and not idle). Maplestory is an example of a game that gives an XP bonus to anyone in a group.

Some games, for example Dofus, have instanced battles so it is very easy for that kind of game to tell how many players of what levels are actually involved in the battle. Dofus has certain rare drops which will simply not be dropped at all if there are too few players in a battle. Wizard 101 is another game with instanced battles where the game can tell how many players are in a battle - in this case the game will call nearby monsters to join a battle where a group of players have aggroed a smaller group of monsters.

Several games require property to be owned by a guild rather than an individual, or require several players to sign on as initial members before a new guild can be created. Collectively-owned property and collectively-stored assets are a big source of drama and accusations of various crimes between players; if you want to avoid this kind of drama, even in a group-focued game, you may want to avoid group ownership of property and assets, or implement a system that publicly tracks what individuals give to a group property and what they are permitted to take from it or change within it.

Maplestory and Dofus both contain examples of group puzzles: generally 3 or more players need to either stand in the correct spots at the same time or activate levers in the correct order.

One problem that group-focused games face is conveying story. For a player who wants to play in a group as much as possible, they are afraid of seeming slow and annoying other group members if they take the time to read text while in a dungeon or talking to an NPC, and will 'spoil' dungeons for themselves by reading about them online beforehand so they don't annoy other group members by being oncompetent. They also get blocked in their attempts to group if they have a quest where only other players who are on the same step of the quest can group with them - FFXIV A Realm Reborn has had a lot of players expressing frustration with the interleaving of quest chains and boss fights. I don't know of a clear solution to this problem. Putting text into a journal or library of lore books where the player can read it later can help a little, but it's not anywhere near enough to really solve this problem. Having NPCs in dungeons deliver spoken dialogue in a timed gap before a battle such that players can't do anything else while listening is another possibility, but would surely get annoying for people running the dungeon for a 3rd or 4th time. And dungeon replayability is more important for group-focused games than single-player games. Some MMOs, particularly sandbox MMOs, don't really need a lot of story, but it's too important to RPGs to consider leaving the story out to be a solution. (Plus, as a writer, saying that would be practically a crime; they might even revoke my poetic license. ^_~ ) Sorry I don't have a more useful suggestion for this one.

As I said above for solo-focused games, if you want to design a group-focused game, beware of copying mechanics from other games which may not have been group-focused, as you could accidentally undermine the group-focus of your game.


No matter whether you want to design an MMO focused on grouping, soloing, or both, I hope this blog entry has given you some ideas for what kind of features will support your design goal, and what kind might be counter-productive. Last but not least, questions for all of you! Do you prefer to be in an MMO that has both group and solo players, or do you prefer to be in a game which focuses on the type of player you are? Want to give an example of an MMO you think does the best job at pleasing both kind of player? And MMO that does the best job focusing on group play? An MMO that does the best job focusing on solo play? I hesitate to ask this last question, but do you think I did a fair job describing both solo play and group play? I know a lot more about the one I prefer than the one I don't like, but I tried hard to do a good job for both. ^_^;

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