Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The future of grouping
There is an interesting discussion going on between Rob from MMOCrunch and Cameron from Random Battle on how soloable a MMORPG should be. And as happy as I am that Cameron is concentrating on his personal blog again, on this issue I'm on the other team, the pro playing together one. Or as Raph Koster says, "the single player game is an aberration".
That is not to say that I am against soloability. There are certainly times when I am not feeling sociable, or where I just don't have the time to play together with other people, and would prefer just to do something on my own. I do think that every MMORPG should offer the possibility to do things on your own, including gaining xp and advancing your character. But what I am strictly against is the system most prominently displayed in WoW where soloing is the *fastest* way to advance your character.
I do believe that there is a small group of players who absolutely want to solo all the time, and a small group of players who absolutely want to group all the time. Between them is a huge majority of players who have no strong opinion on the matter, and are mostly moved by the incentives. Most common argument in World of Warcraft against grouping for levelling is "it's not worth the hassle". Yes, but what if it was? WoW is simply badly designed in that aspect. The LFG tool is awful. The group xp bonus is so tiny that in most situation a group makes less xp per hour than a single player. And there is a huge gap in difficulty between the content designed for solo play and the content designed for group play. Solo content is trivially easy most of the time, group content is often designed in a way that one player making a mistake will wipe the whole group. "Pickup group" is an derogatory term in WoW, evoking fears of you being killed by somebody else's faults; but that comes not from people inherently being anti-group, but from WoW teaching them that a group is only useful for specific group content, and that one is so hard that a pickup group is likely to fail. In World of Warcraft before the level cap you only need a group to get better loot from dungeons; but as you can level up soloing so fast, spending that extra group time to gather that better loot simply isn't worth the effort. WoW distorts the picture, because developers see everyone soloing and think that is what players prefer, when in reality the players just followed the incentives more than their preferences.
Soloing by definition is the default mode of a MMORPG. You log on and you are alone. Getting a group together or getting into a group requires some effort. Effort in time, effort in social skills, effort in trust. But in the history of mankind people have always banded together against threats, because in the real world a group nearly always has a higher chance of success than an individual. The Neanderthal went hunting in groups, not solo. Any half logical virtual world should make adventuring in a group easier than alone; but instead they are now often perversely designed to discourage grouping. You kill a mob in WoW in a full group, and only get 28% of the xp you'd get if you had soloed it. Half of the quests are designed in a way that if you would need 10 monsters to kill solo, you'd need to kill 50 of them in a group of 5; and then there aren't 50 mobs around, the respawn time is slow, and doing that quest with a full group takes twice as long as soloing it. No wonder nobody groups any more before the level cap!
The Everquest approach of forced grouping is certainly the wrong one, but I still have fond memories of EQ pickup groups. Banding together with strangers to face dangers, building strong communities, making new friends. And I think that you can have all the advantages of this in a system that encourages grouping instead of enforcing it. Leave half of every zone as it is now, soloable and everything. Fill the other half with challenges that a single player of that level would be unable to overcome, but which would be no risk for a group of 5. Make it easy to find pickup groups around you, and make the group xp bonus high enough that playing in a group always gets you more xp per hour, and finishes your quests faster, than if you soloed. And suddenly you get a game where most people are grouping most of the time, and liking it!
People playing together has huge advantages for a MMORPG. Once the initial effort to work together with strangers is overcome, players enjoy playing together more than playing alone. There is lots of evidence that people play games in which they have strong social ties to other players longer than if they play alone. Developers should encourage people playing together for their own benefit, because players staying longer in a game means added income. If someone absolutely wants to play alone, a single-player RPG is nearly always the better option: No monthly fee, and the single-player nature of the game allows the player to be the hero who saves the world instead of one of 10,000 heroes killing monsters that respawn 5 minutes later.
And maybe a game where people group more than solo out of their own free will isn't so far away. Mark Jacobs announced at E3 that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will have a feature called "open grouping". That means that unless you flag your group as private, anyone in the vicinity can join the group if it isn't full. So an adventurer goes to some corner of the game world because he has a quest to kill 20 foozles, opens his looking for group interface, and sees that there is already a small group of people killing foozles quite close. He joins them with a single mouse click, doesn't have to run far to meet them, and kills the foozles together with them faster than if he did it alone. People leave the group when they finished the quest, but then new players join it, and create in effect a perpetual foozle-killing group for this one particular corner and quest. Now I can only pray that the designers of WAR made it so that being in a group gives you more xp per hour than soloing, and finishes your quests faster, not slower. But already the announcement that the LFG tool of WAR will be so much better than WoW's got me quite excited.
And then of course WAR has the public quests, where anyone entering a specific area is automatically at the same step of a quest chain, which can be repeated several times with a mix of rewards, some of which you get just by continued participation, and some extra loot you can earn in what Mythic calls a Vegas loot system. It should be blindingly obvious to most players that forming an open group in a public quest is pure unadulterated advantage. Groups always will be more efficient than the sum of their parts, and the unique incentive system of public quests actually gives you more rewards for more efficiency. A group of one tank, one healer, and one damage dealer will get more influence points per minute than the sum of influence points of an ungrouped tank, healer, and damage dealer of the same level and gear. More influence points per minute means faster access to the influence loot, and a better bonus on your roll for the Vegas loot. So finally we have a realistic system where a group is rewarded for being stronger than a bunch of loners.
Finally, while everyone knows I'm normally not a big fan of open-world PvP, the fact that the bigger team nearly always wins that sort of PvP is a big incentive for grouping in WAR. This is a game where you earn some sort of PvP xp for killing other players in open-world PvP areas of zones. And it is a game where you are polymorphed into a chicken if you enter such a PvP zone which is too low for your level, so solo ganking of lower level characters is out. Does anyone think that this is a system where you wouldn't advance faster if you just clicked on the open group button? If you refuse to group, your opponents won't, and they'll kick sense into you pretty fast.
So for me Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is the big hope, the future of grouping, the MMORPG which brings the genre back from the abyss of the massively single-player online game. This is why I don't care whether the graphics are superficially similar to WoW, or the feature list doesn't look much different. Because if WAR manages to be a game where you can solo, but the better option will often be to group, the actual play experience of the game will be dramatically different from World of Warcraft. It will require a certain amount of re-education of people having been lead astray by WoW, but if WAR pulls that off it might well beat WoW if not in subscription numbers but then at least in longevity. At the core most players want to play together rather than alone, and nudging them over the barrier can only be good for a massively multiplayer online game.