To play MMOs only ever to see people run around you that aren’t quite as scripted as NPCs sounds like a dreadful reduction of social engagement to mere window dressing. Does this experience really offer so much more than big-world RPGs such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 would?
It's been so very long since I last played a solo RPG that I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. After five or six hours playing the really excellent Ninelives it began to come back to me. It feels empty. It's not real.
|Sometimes you have to make your own friends.|
I don't believe I would ever have known that had I not played an MMO. Had I been fortunate enough to be able to play Ninelives twenty years ago, when I didn't even know online gaming existed, I would have been completely and utterly swept away. Much in the way people describe being overwhelmed by Skyrim.
People, that is, by and large, who have never played MMORPGs. When Skyrim was the big new thing I discovered that someone I worked with, who I had no idea was even a gamer, was so concerned about the power the game had over her that she had to ration her hours with it lest she lose herself down that rabbit hole and never find her way out.
For her, a big part of the draw appeared to be the isolation. Being the only focal point in an entire world was addictive. She had, as far as I'm aware, never played an MMO nor shared her gaming experiences with another person as she played. Gaming was a way to get free of other people, to get away into a purely imaginary world, not to share those experiences.
|Want to group?|
I don't believe that's ever really appealed to me. In the 80s, when I gamed on the Atari, Spectrum and Amiga, I shared the controller and the keyboard with my first wife and with friends. Much of my gaming was done with others in the room, watching, kibitzing, joining in.
When Mrs Bhagpuss and I got together at the beginning of the 90s neither of us was an active gamer. We'd been together for the best part of five years before I got a PC for entirely non-gaming purposes and, inevitably, ended up playing games on it instead of writing my novel or making music. Immediately, we began gaming together. We shared the keyboard, taking turns playing Might and Magic: The Mandate of Heaven or Return To Krondor, watching over each other's shoulders and making "helpful" suggestions.
Moving online to play the same kind of games in a wider social environment was a natural evolution; scary but exhilarating. In a strange way it was familiar. Just another way to share an experience that always felt hollow alone.
|Wonder if it speaks Goblin?|
Playing Ninelives, which I can't stress too strongly I think is a great game, clarifies for me exactly why I need to play my games with others around. I need this reminder every few years. Last time was the first Dragon Age, which I started out loving and then dropped cold half way through, never to play again. The key to that collapse of interest was not being able to share what was happening as it happened. That's why soloing in an MMO just works emotionally in a way playing a solo RPG doesn't.
That said, soloing in MMOs is only one way, albeit probably the easiest, to gain this sense of communal experience. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, streaming or just talking to friends the old-fashioned way, they all work to a degree. If I wasn't able to blog about Ninelives and post screenshots I don't know that I'd be bothering to carry on. The isolation would be oppressive.
With that possibility in mind, though, I can at least imagine sharing what I'm seeing and discovering at some future time, even though what I'd really like to be doing is sharing it with someone who was in that virtual space along with me. We might be sitting in front of screens on the opposite side of world; we might never have spoken to each other before and we might never speak to each other again; we might not even need to speak at all. Doesn't matter. Just being there, together, makes it all real.
|Some insights just deserve to be shared|
And what, anyway, is "soloing"? Does it even exist in an modern MMO? I play mostly GW2 so perhaps my view is colored by that experience but I can't say I'm ever really "soloing". This last weekend, for example, I played maybe sixteen or twenty hours altogether. I've been working on the new Shatterer meta, which I've now completed on two accounts. That put me in mind that I never finished either the Tequatl or Triple Trouble metas so I've been picking away at both.
All three of those are massive-scale events involving anything from twenty to a hundred people. There's organization, conversation, co-ordination, co-operation, carping, recrimination and chaos. During the course of these events I'm in and out of parties and squads, sometimes solo, sometimes not. It's seamless. It's the same experience. There is no "solo" in the sense we used to mean it.
When I wasn't working on metas I was wrecking around World vs World, which is furiously, gloriously alive again. Once more I was everything - solo, duo, group, squad, zerg. No-one asks you to group any more - you just hot join. If you run with a Tag the Commander or one of his lieutenants will spot you and squad you up. When you need to go make a coffee or swap maps you just go. No goodbyes, no concerns.
|Then again, there's sharing and there's over-sharing...|
All of the freedom of action that soloing used to bring is now incorporated in the larger content by design. The entire world is your group. Only in archaic throwbacks like instanced dungeons and raids can you truly say you are Grouped not Solo.
And it's not all about the fights. In doing so many large, scheduled events over these past few weeks I've realized that I really enjoy just hanging around waiting for stuff to happen. The banter, the bickering, the nonsense. The fireworks and the food and the bonfires.
At Shatterer a while back someone put down a Super Adventure Box o' Fun, a rarity that no longer drops in the game. The effect that had was astonishing. It was a true moment, unpredictable, unexpected, astonishing.
|Fireworks aren't much fun on your own.|
A new update dropped back in January that added a simple collection quest, the Brew of the Month Club. Map chat was buzzing. When I got to the Eldvin Monastery the place was hopping. I could barely even see Master Brewer Desch for the crowd. Involvement happens in an MMO, like it or don't.
Was I grouped for this stuff? Of course I wasn't. Was I chatting about it with Mrs Bhagpuss, with the guild, with strangers asking questions in map chat? Naturally, I was.
Even when I'm doing just about the most solo thing you can do in GW2, my Personal Story, I'm never really solo. I get the same calls to action when I'm there as I get anywhere. "Commander requesting all willing help YBBL Garri - 20+ JQ w/Omegas". Whether I respond is my choice - there's no comeback if I don't - but even if I shrug and click the next NPC for another cut-scene I'm still included, still part of the big, imaginary world we're sharing.
|Sometimes your news is just so exciting you just have to tell someone.|
In Ninelives, I'm filled with wonder and curiosity. I'm excited, involved and intrigued. But I'm alone. It's fine for a while but not for long. I managed nearly two hours this morning but after less than an hour I was aware that I was the only one there and it weighed on me.
I will carry on, but like my colleague at work I'll have to ration the time I spend there. Not because I might drift too deep but because, otherwise, I might begin to question whether I can afford to be there at all.
Soloing isn't something you should do alone.