Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's Grouping, Jim...

The other day, Syl described me in a comment  as "a self-professed MMO soloer". It got me thinking: "solo", like "casual" and "hardcore", long ago lost most of its value as a way of sorting MMO players one from another. We all go on using these shorthand terms as if they still have the common currency and broad acceptance they did back when WoW was young but times have changed, along with the games and the players who play them.

When I played EverQuest around the turn of the century, the line between "solo" and "group" play was unequivocally understood by everyone. With "raiding" there was a de facto Holy Trinity of playstyles, at least in PvE. It was the status quo for quite a while and most players were happy to pin one of those three favors to their lance, even though in truth almost everyone did a bit of everything, here and there, now and again.

When I decided to brave the online waters I arrived in Norrath expecting to find myself fighting monsters shoulder to shoulder with other players. That's how I'd heard it was done. Somehow, instead, I found myself playing mostly alone.

A couple of early experiences in Blackburrow convinced me it was safer and a lot more productive to take direct responsibility for my own health and safety and I spent those first few months mainly soloing, with the odd group thrown for flavor. Still, it wasn't all that long before I found myself beginning many of my sessions  /ooc "20 Druid lfg" or  /tell "want a 20 Druid?".

When Dark Age of Camelot launched in October 2001, Mrs Bhagpuss and I upped sticks and moved there and for the next six months it was pretty much all group all the time. No-one in  their right mind would have wanted to solo in DAOC - it was the solo experience EverQuest was reputed to be but never was - and then some. Plus people - actual people - were always trying to kill you!

It was in DAOC that I got invested, at least to a degree, in Guild play. Guilds formed a central part of my MMO experience for the next five years and yet I never liked the guild concept. Back then I saw guilds as a necessary evil. Nowadays I just see them as an evil. Like them or loathe them, though, there I was in them, either guilds or quasi-guildlike structures built from scratch using custom chat channels.

Even when I swapped from game to game and back, much of my experience remained bounded by guilds and much of my gameplay took place in groups. Most of my long runs in EQ and EQ2 involved guilds, some that I founded or co-founded, some that I joined and then took over. My highest level EQ character, my Magician, the one I'm still leveling, is even now a member in good standing, a senior officer in fact, of the guild she joined almost a decade ago, a guild Mrs Bhagpuss was in before me. No-one else is ever on when I play these days but I'm still flying the flag.

In or out of guilds, over those years I thought myself as much a group player as a soloist. A raider I never was although I raided occasionally. Just enough to remember why I didn't raid.

It was, I think, Vanguard that broke the pattern. We went there intending to join a guild and engage fully in group content but the technical problems the game suffered in the early days seemed to get in the way. I remember trying to group but having so many problems just keeping everyone online that we were forced to gave up.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I were fortunate in that we had a lot less difficulty running Vanguard than most. We ended up duoing or soloing out of convenience as a result. We never joined a guild and never really did any group content in the game, even though we played for years, on and off.

For a good while after that, several years, I think it would be reasonable to say I was mostly a solo player. One who grouped sometimes, yes, but not every day and sometimes not every week.

Then, in March 2011, along came Rift. Rift was a genuine paradigm shift. A game-changer. After Rift MMOs would never be the same again.

Rift didn't invent the non-group group. That was probably Warhammer Online with its Public Quests. What Rift did was turn open grouping into a core game system and make it the default playstyle for the majority of its players. It also abraded beyond value the very concepts of "group" or "solo" play.

In the six years since Rift launched (and it seems much, much longer...) MMO gameplay has undergone a sea-change. Co-operation rather than competition has become both the ideal and the norm. Guild Wars 2 made a mission statement of the newly revealed truth: "You don’t have to join a party to join the fight. All you have to do is get out there and start helping."

Today any MMO that has ambitions beyond niche, ultra-niche or heritage needs to offer inclusivity. Players don't like to put themselves in the old boxes, much less find themselves boxed in. Group and Raid play do, absolutely, carry on, but neatly tucked away in instances where they won't frighten the casuals.

And even within those instances everything possible is done to reduce the social overhead of looking for, finding and making groups. There are automated group-finders and matchmakers to put the team together, smart UIs to handle the teamwork and neutral systems to divvy up the loot. "Grouping" no longer requires human communication let alone social conversation.

It's true that there are, even now, people who like to refer to themselves as "Group Players" just as there are people still running around professing their independent credentials as "Soloists". It's just words. The playstyles themselves and the concepts that underpinned them are long dead.

These days I don't consider myself to be much of an MMO soloer. I do solo in those MMOs that I don't play as much, the short-session, late night, keeping my hand in games. In those I'm usually not around long enough to do much more. They tend to be older games, whose systems have yet to adapt to the new realities or, as in Blade and Soul or Twin Saga, where the main attraction for me is a linear storyline that probably would work better in a single player game anyway.

Even in EQ2, though, these days I'm as likely to be in a raid doing a PQ as soloing. The reason I lasted a few weeks in WoW last year was entirely down to the open-group Invasion event. Last time I played The Secret World for a significant period was for one of the big, holiday-themed open raids. Open groups draw me in.

And in GW2, where I've spent more time than anywhere over the last four years, almost all play is group play. That's how the game was built. It's not just ad hoc proximity grouping either. At the moment I'm doing Tequatl two or three times a day and running in WvW for an hour or two most evenings and I'm usually in a Squad, often with a specific, assigned role or responsibility.

In gameplay terms all of this is group play, not solo. It may not be isolated, instanced, formalized group play, even the current bowdlerized version, but it's grouping just the same. It's the evolutionary development of the primitive form and it's superior in just about every respect. It's why the new has, by and large, pushed out the old.

All of which isn't to say that there's no case to be made for formal four, five, six or eight person closed groups (does any MMO use seven as a group size?). I'm very much hoping that Pantheon can make that case when and if it arrives. I'm looking forward to some old-school group fun there.

Much though I'd admire any developer who could successfully rekindle that flame, the last thing I'd want would be to turn the clock back. We don't need a return to the days when anyone thought it was a good idea to make players choose between solo and group play.

We didn't know any better then. Now we do.


  1. "Guild Wars 2 made a mission statement of the newly revealed truth: "You don’t have to join a party to join the fight. All you have to do is get out there and start helping.""

    That is why when there are complaints about GW2 not fulfilling its manifesto promises (and the written manifesto is the one that matters to me despite the video manifesto being the most publicized) I disagree.

    Because on what it matters, the playing together naturally, exists and it has been improved with time.

    Unfortunately there are people, both designers and players, that keep pushing for more guild/raid focused content.

    1. It's a bit of a cheap shot to keep referring back to what is now a more than five-year old design document. We all know how much MMOs change throughout their life. It's still useful, though, I think, to benchmark where the game is now against where its own developers thought it was going.

  2. If you like "open groups" you'll love this WoW addon:

    It uses WoW's manual "cross-server group" feature but automates it, taking the hassle out of system and creating basically a "dynamic questing" experience. IMHO it's the best WoW add-on I've ever installed apart from DBM.

    1. OMG! Thanks for that link. I'm already using the one that replicates GW2's UI. When I get around to trying Legion I'll definitely use both - which will pretty much turn WoW into GW2!

    2. No problem, thanks for the interesting blog :)

    3. WoW is definitely understanding the casual group dynamic. From weekly World Bosses to the World Quests mentioned here, plus the ever increasingly difficult Mythic+ dungeon system (like the Diablo 3 Greater Rift system) and using the Pre-Made Group interface to join Normal and Heroic scalable raids.

      Plus all of that content still is available to those who want to mostly do stuff with their guildies.

  3. As for addons which give a different feel I've been using Immersion Addon:

    to give the quest interface a look change that basically looks like the inteface Blizzard uses for World Quests, with the picture of the quest giver with a bite size bit of text at a time.

    1. I'm using that one (or I was last time I played). It makes a huge difference. I always found both the parchment background and the pseudo-fantasy font WoW uses as the default to be hard to read and distracting so this is a huge improvement.

      The interesting takeaway from all this seems to be that the less WoW looks and feels like WoW, the more I like it.


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