Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 01, 2011
Solo player endgame progression

In the current model of level-based MMORPGs, the game is stupidly divided into two very different parts: A leveling part which is mostly played solo, and an endgame part where progression is limited to group content like raiding. There is an increasing gap between the two, and developers are starting to think how to close it. Now I'd think it would be better to make the leveling game more group friendly, but given the extreme attitude against "forced grouping" some players have, the alternative would be to create an endgame progression for solo players. Thus while applying patch 4.1 to World of Warcraft, the developers already announced the Regrowth and Molten Front feature for patch 4.2.

This basically is a way for solo players to experience some sort of endgame progression which is completely their own. Unlike previous daily quest hubs, the progression this time isn't shared, but unique to every player. Players do daily quests for Marks of the World Tree, tokens which can not only be used to buy gear with, but also to unlock progression of the story.

The interesting part of that is that this personal progression is done without phasing. Thus while two players standing next to each other might see a different scene and different quest givers depending on how far they progressed, they will also see each other, and even be able to do quests together. While there probably isn't a perfect solution to the conflicting demands of people wanting to change virtual worlds, but them having to offer the same content for everybody, this is at least an interesting approach.

On the downside this sort of gameplay structure is still not very friendly to people with lots of alts. Not only will all your alts have to play through the Mount Hyjal regular quest chain, but the Molten Front progression will also be identical for each of them. 60 different daily quests is more than we used to get, but it still will involve a lot of repetition. And with patch 4.2 still being months away, this might well be a case of too little, too late. But then, lots of players might be back in WoW at the end of the year, if SWTOR is really such a dud as some previewers claim.
Negative reports on the SWTOR game preview are a bit worrying, especially as so many ex-WoW (or soon-to-be-ex-WoW) players had been hanging our hopes on it. But reading between the lines, it seems that the previewer fundamentally isn't that thrilled by WoW-style MMORPGs, and that that's what SWTOR is.

Which isn't surprising, given the dev info that's been released over the last few months; everything they've said about class design and game design makes it pretty clear that SWTOR definitely will be a WoW-style MMO. Disappointing for those who'd hoped BioWare would redefine the genre and come up with something really original, but I suspect it'll be perfectly fine for a whole lot of people.

The problem I see for SWTOR is that it's been selling itself to players of its single-player RPGs, whereas a mainstream MMO is (despite the RPG name) not much like that in terms of pacing or immersive storylines. You just can't get around the fact that there's a thousand other people on the server doing the same stuff you're doing; you're not the single player hero any more. And an MMO must necessarily be paced very differently from a game that's designed to have 2-3 weeks of primary gameplay on the first play-through; an MMO has to keep you rolling for months.

So, uh, wall of text aside, I don't think WoW's likely to get a huge wave of disappointed ex-SWTOR players returning to Azeroth, because the people who were OK with WoW long-term are likely to be just as OK with SWTOR. The disappointed fans are going to be the single-player RPG people, IMO, who were hoping SWTOR would be like a co-op KOTOR or ME2 - which I'm pretty sure it won't (and can't) be.
For me I'd like to see an MMO that focused on raiding, in that it skipped the entire solo levelling part. Leave XP in, but have that as the primary advancement component, replacing the role gear has in WoW.

Maybe a short "intro" leveling sequence, completed in 5 hours or so, to get you familiar with the mechanics and story of the game - after that it's into raids and 5-mans. Leave gear in, but don't let it have the huge impact gear has in WoW. The primary means of advancment is the XP you get for boss kills, with a big bonus for personal first kills.

The XP system would need to be worked at to avoid everybody just farming the first few bosses - not to make it impossible to level that way, but to make it a lot more inefficient than clearing all the raids.
I completely agree with you on the stupidity of current leveling game vs end game design, Tobold. What we have in most MMOs nowadays is two almost completely unrelated games frankensteined together.

I don't, however, agree that an ideal solution is to develop some kind of solo endgame. I'd admit it might be a slight improvement on what we have, but it's still divisive and awkward. It would also move the genre significantly further towards the "together alone" model.

Now, I don't dislike the concept of MMOs as thousands of people playing a solo RPG online together, but think there are probably more interesting solutions. The industry has been groping its way towards them for several years now, from WAR's PQs to Rift's rifts and the real test will come with Guild Wars 2.

After a couple of months in Rift, I'd say the big change I'd make to the overall design strategy would be to remove dungeons entirely. They had the opportunity to avoid the endgame split between solo leveling and end-game grouping/raiding that you describe, but they fluffed it, presumably because they didn't want to move that far from the WoW paradigm.

It should have been possible to keep all "end-game" content in the open world, uninstanced and smoothly contiguous with leveling content. That's apparent because such content does exist and Trion are adding more of it. But unfortunately, as long as the standard dungeon/heroic dungeon/raid dungeon model is also in place, there will be at best a first and second division of endgame.
But then, lots of players might be back in WoW at the end of the year, if SWTOR is really such a dud as some previewers claim.

Highly unlikely, lots of players have left WoW because the game no longer offers them an experience they want to be part of, and a new batch of daily quests is hardly likely to bring them back. Sound likes another weak attempt by Blizzard to save a dying game and with 1.2 around the corner they're set to lose even more players.
People complaining about Forced Grouping in an MMORPG to me is exactly like someone complaining about meat in their steak meal. Doesn't make any sense!!!!
This kind of creativity and innovation is why I believe WoW has yet to reach it's zenith in quality and popularity and why I believe it will still be going strong even 10 years from now.

I love the way they are progressing the story with each new major patch in Cataclysm, and the upcoming new quest mechanics where my choices will make a difference (at least personally) bring a whole new level of amazement.

I'm a non-raider in this expansion, but the raids look incredible, too, so I know if I ever am able to check them out, I won't be disappointed. For now, though, I'm glad I'll be kept busy with enjoyable content as a solo player or with one or two buddies -- not to mention all the new stellar 1-60 content for both Alliance and Horde, which I still have yet to fully enjoy.
Yeah, creativity and innovation is what WoW is most known for .. hehe

Of course, I agree with what Tobold says. The progression mechanic in MMORPGs has to be re-thought.
If Bioware pulled a Dragon Age 2 on SW:TOR i'd be worried too. While Dragon Age 2 is not initially a bad game, it's quite clear not only did they rush the game out, but they are asking money for a product that lacks the quality of their predecessors.

It's like EA is already infiltrating Bioware and you can see their decisions are based around getting the games out fast and regularly without the depth,quality and "hand crafting" seen in previous titles.

I'd be worried about Mass Effect 3 too...
It's like EA is already infiltrating Bioware

Why would you say that?
I was never planning to move to SWTOR when I left WoW. I doubt I'm even going to try it.
Sounds a little like a revised Path of the Titans but with less complicated progression
Well, at least SWTOR's trailers can't be faulted! A pity if the game can't live up to them.
Wow, I knew there were lots of SWTOR skeptics out there, but that was the most brutal preview I've read so far. Thanks for the link, Tobold.
The current end game always tries to imitate the army. Where you're with your squad and you have to blindly follow your leader and kill stuff.

I would love a game where the end game resolves around the journey of your character. That could still include group play but it should not require you to run your own tightly organised army to play a game.

Just imagine living in a fantasy world. It's very likely that you would gather your villige to beat an evil dragon who threatens your home. It's unlikely that you would organize guided pillage runs on Tuesday and Thursday to kill some living beings for loot. (Why again did we kill Hadronox? She was still a beast and fighting the scourge.)
I can't see this working.

The solo game will never be a sufficient substitute for raiding unless the rewards are equalized. If they are, raiding will end. Just as 25 player raiding has ended. And until rewards are equalized, the anti-group will still remain dissatisfied.

Rather its more likely that this will be yet another grind people will need to go through in order to get what gear the players require as minimum to raid or instance. Gear being a requirement that is already excessive in WoW because players would rather overgear to make things trivial than face a challenge that might require talking with other players about a strategy.
People complaining about Forced Grouping in an MMORPG to me is exactly like someone complaining about meat in their steak meal. Doesn't make any sense!!!!

The other people in an MMO aren't for grouping with, they're for showing off in front of. :/
I agree that leveling is wrong in Cata: IMHO it should either be instant or more significant. It seems like a lot of work for little benefit.

I like the removal of phasing for the new to 4.2 stuff

@ Laura: "People complaining about Forced Grouping in an MMORPG to me is exactly like someone complaining about meat in their steak meal. Doesn't make any sense!!!!"

There is clearly value in multiple opponents; people on your side is a mixed blessing.

My classic example is Poker. This is not enjoyable solo; but you certainly do not have other people on your side.

The problem with cooperation is the tradeoffs:

with real time (q.v. Tobold's turn based post) cooperation: the biggest is non-interruptibility. I have had friends and family get upset when told I can't talk now or I don't answer the phone. Nor am I that enamored of spending $15 a month in order to be forced to plan my bio and coffee breaks. This of course varies with what the grouping is a 15 minute VH LFD versus a four hour raid.

The best and worse times in MMOs are with people. More than many, I do not like to be around jerks. So if 15% of the times I do X, I encounter a jerk then I do not like X. The other extreme are jerks, who do not get any enjoyment if they are alone and so always want groups. It's just a personality trait that is different for everyone.

I leveled with someone in LK (got in Nax by day 9); but otherwise I have not be able to keep the schedules in sync; they just fall apart.

Regardless, I really do not want forced grouping. There is a considerable market for providing something for players to do at max level. The confusing part is that this need is so much greater in Cataclysm than LK; why would Blizzard not have addressed it? Did they really misjudge the customer base?
The randomising of the daily quests seems a good idea - the title above its description 'Variety is the spice of life' is apt.
Also on forced grouping, I think the issue that it encourages idiots to stay idiots. Why? Because your forced to group with them and they know that - why would they change when they can still have people to be idiots to? The solo option is basically a bargaining position 'Smarten up or we'll ditch you for solo'.
Yeah, that was a craptastic review on so many fronts. But regardless, it looks as if SWTOR is going to be more of the same. sigh.

I understand that different usually means harder, but it can also mean success. Stop trying to be WoW and start trying to innovate, I mean how about starting with the small stuff?

Yesterday I did the tortolla quests with an alt in Hyjal. Bad guys were destroying turtle eggs, had to kill 8 (? more or less) of them. So I did. But there were MANY more bad guys destroying eggs, but 8 got the quest done. I felt like the devs were rubbing my nose in their inability to make the game engaging. So Tortolla was all worked up about the eggs, but I got my quest reward for stopping 8 egg poachers and leaving the other 10? What? How can that be a successful quest?

How about "tortolla is pissed about the egg poachers, make it stop"

"Ok, well lets see, there are 20 egg poachers, I will kill them all and call it done. oh, look, someone else on the same quest line, cool, they killed 15, that only leaves 5 left, good deal."

"well, there are 20 eggs, let me collect the ones that are not actively being poached, kill the poachers at the others eggs, and turn them all in"

Either way, the quest objective is met "protect the eggs" But *I* get to choose which way to do it. AND I don't have that silly "but the eggs aren't REALLY safe" thing going on. AND its a form of public quest. Why does Tortolla care if I do it alone, or with others? Just save the eggs! make the quest reset 5 minutes after every completion. If you have the quest, and you do anything to help, and you stay within 100 yards of the quest area for the duration, you get credit.

Its like the devs said "hey, the collect 10 bear skins for a project is a good model, lets use it EVERYWHERE." But it doesn't work. Collect 10 things works because the quest giver needs them for a recipe/project, but that cant be ALL quests if you want an engaging game.

Its like I am playing a single player game and other players just happen to be there playing a single player game at the same time.
"Also on forced grouping, I think the issue that it encourages idiots to stay idiots. Why? Because your forced to group with them and they know that - why would they change when they can still have people to be idiots to?"

That was certainly not what happened in Everquest. It was quite the opposite, people who were idiots quickly found themselves without anyone to group with. And if someone in your guild wronged others, you booted them and you made restitution. Reputation was everything.
"The solo game will never be a sufficient substitute for raiding unless the rewards are equalized. If they are, raiding will end."

This points out the fundamental problem with raiding -- it isn't fun. If it were actually fun, then people wouldn't need gear rewards in raids at all. The best gear could be obtainable through solo questing, crafting, and pvp, and then could be used for raiding. Raiding would still be the end game, but you'd raid because it was a fun end game -- not in order to get even better gear.
I agree that leveling is wrong in Cata: IMHO it should either be instant or more significant. It seems like a lot of work for little benefit.

I get the feeling the questing in Cataclysm was to solve a developer problem, not a player problem: how to get more customers to actually see the story. If the quests aren't on rails, too many people may skip them.

Me, I'd suggest making the players want to see the story, not force them. Try to herd your customers too blatantly and they won't be happy.
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EverQuest had forced grouping and it worked, it worked so well it inspired Blizzard to make World of Warcraft.

You cannot have strong grouping content and strong solo content and hope that they live harmoniously. It’s a fallacy to think that the gamer can just “pick” the feature they wish to participate in. If you create strong solo content then players will flock to it because it is logistically easier to level up via solo questing than it is to form a group.

Unfortunately I think us old school EQ MMOers are no longer the target market. The vast majority of people playing WoW want a solo friendly MMO. To me that doesn’t feel like a MMO. It feels like a single player RPG with an interactive chat channel (capital cities). Forced grouping MMOs is now a niche market in the MMO community and unfortunately no one seems to be too keen on trying to tap it.
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Numtini: Really? Did you have some software that tracked the idiots and found out they didn't have anyone to group with? I mean, your kind of assuming the buck stopped with you, when perhaps you were just another notch on their idiot belt?

Epiny: I'm not sure why you have such an emphasis on the MMO part?

Your probably reeling at that comment 'How could you NOT!?'

Because just entirely by itself, multiplayer is boring. All it means is 'lots of players'. How is that interesting?

Maybe you can identify some sort of significance you find in it and I'll say okay, you find that. But right now your basically campaigning for what is zero content boring. There are lots of players <> interesting in itself.
Ulrik : I've wondered why a raids from the start mmorpg hasn't come out.

Sometimes I think raiding is only significant to some because they spent all this time getting to top level and now they just can't walk away from all that. It's like raiding is just there because of their inability to let go.

I'm not saying that's everyone - I'm sure plenty find it fun as an activity and want it from the start. I just wonder if the raid from the start mmorpg hasn't been made, because those who actually enjoy it are a smaller demographic?
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