Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Way We Play Now

A couple of Blaugustians have been riffing on the ever-popular topic of soloing in MMOs. It's a question that's as old as the genre itself. I very clearly remember it being a hot-button issue even when I started playing EverQuest almost twenty years ago and I'm willing to believe it goes back longer than that.

It's also not a subject that's amenable to rational discussion. Views tend to polarize harshly. On the one hand you have the "it says Multiple right there on the box" crowd, who believe the entire meaning and purpose of the genre is collaborative and social and anything else is a betrayal of trust. On the other there's the "my time, my dime" crew, who feel it's their right to play the game any damn way they please.

Inbetween comes a vast mass of hybrid opinions, all truly held and passionately expressed. And everyone wants validation for the way they play, even if they don't think the way other people play is valid at all.

Fine, so far as it goes, I guess. It's always good to have something reliable to argue about. But then I got to wondering... is there really any meaning  left in the terms solo and group anyway? Haven't we moved into new modes altogether now?

Oh, of course I understand you can still group and raid and so on. The games support it and there are contexts in which it's even necessary. Communication and organization still matter. No-one's saying the gameplay differences no longer exist at all. But was the gameplay ever what people were really arguing about?

The split between solo and group players (and then again between everyone else and raiders) was always a matter of policy, not of practice. The issue wasn't whether you could solo but whether you should.

Committed groupers always felt there was something suspicious about soloists: something louche, untrustworthy, not quite proper. Meanwhile, dedicated soloists regarded group players as a herd: helpless alone, lost without their self-appointed leaders, a state of being to be pitied, not envied.

Fragmented hints of those sentiments still surface occasionally but such a sense of elitism is much harder to maintain when the structures of the games themselves so self-evidently deny it. It's difficult to pin down exactly when things began to change, but change they most certainly have.

Vanilla WoW, now often cited as a golden age of mutual reliance and group-friendly gaming, was seen by many at the time as the not-so-thin end of the wedge where solo content was concerned. Compared to what went before it was solo-friendly in the extreme.

As Blizzard doubled down on solo play then doubled down again, introducing automated group-making and Looking For Raid, Warhammer brought in the concept of the Public Quest. You didn't need an invite any more to play with the people around you.

Rift took that idea and spun an entire game out of it. Finally, Guild Wars 2 did away with almost every concept of group play to create a world in which all content was shared content and everyone was de facto soloing together.

Ah, yes. Soloing together. It seemed such a revolutionary concept at the time. I remember Gordon, in what was possibly his last-ever post for his much-missed We Fly Spitfires blog, describing with bemusement his experience of completing events alongside another player in Guild Wars 2.

He was concerned that they never spoke but of course they had no need to. Modern MMOs don't require you to talk to each other even if you do choose to group. As Sandrian says, "Most of the chatter in random dungeons... is virtually non-existant. People don’t really talk and if they do it’s often only a “hello” or “goodbye”.

These days, even content that is undeniably not soloable is still played solo. I spent much of yesterday in World vs World. Sometimes I ran alongside the zerg, outside the squad. Sometimes I was squadded. It made little difference either way.

Other times I stood around in keeps and camps, scouting, guarding, skirmishing. I herded yaks and fired cannons. I spent a glorious couple of hours helping in a surreal attempt to upgrade Dreadfall Bay by filling North West Camp with omegas. The whole time I was with people, but on my own; talking, but talking in map or team chat - to people standing not ten yards away.

In this 21st Century life, the boundaries between public and private, social and solipsistic are blurred if not broken.  Families, friends and co-workers sit in the same rooms and communicate by text or email or Twitter and Facebook. Watching television with friends means lying in your bedroom alone, tweeting smart remarks to your followers.

Gaming used to set cultural leads although lately the trends have been all the other way. "Gamer" is fast becoming shorthand for "conservative". Perhaps that's why the murmurings about the value and purity of group play have grown a little louder of late.

Nascent conservatism aside, it seems unlikely the wheel will turn full circle. The new asymetric social systems we all use and most of us enjoy are too convenient to give up. It seems peculiar to think of the early noughties as "a simpler time" but perhaps they were. Maybe we did all have more time then and more patience.

Or more likely we had less choice. If we'd been able to click a button back then to get a group how many of us would still have stood by the bank spamming "Rogue lfg" hour after hour? When Pantheon (and that other would-be hardcore, old school title I won't name, for fear of calling up one of its hyper-vigilant developers like He Who Must Not Be Named) finally arrives, will there be a deluge of defections from solo-friendly games like WoW and GW2?

I doubt it. We don't do a lot of things in the same, semi-formal group-friendly way we once did and not just in our gaming. The generations following on will see both socializing and friendship in a different way, not just to their parents and grandparents, but to every generation going back to the caves.

What it means to be human is changing. In this way, perhaps MMORPGs simply got there first.


  1. It's hard to share a fresh perspective on the argument but I really enjoyed how you wrote this.

    Wow is very much solo alone and as an old schooler I fondly remember playing on the EQ progression servers which was far more active in grouping. Outside of server rule decisions I might still be playing it.

    Which is why I look forwardd to trying Pantheon and other games that might make grouping more important.

    No one else will, purposely, anyway.

    1. Thanks! There is one other company banking on veteran nostalgia and old school angst but, as I said, I am not going to name them. Last time I did one of them turned up here and gave me a sound thrashing...

  2. We as MMORPG players could be one of the largest participant groups in history for a long-term study of the effects of this evolution in socialisation through technology and new communication mediums - a study that isn't being done yet AFAIK, but should be if anyone from the psychology and sociology branches of academia are paying any attention to the apparent issues in adjusting to this new online/connected world...

    1. This is very true. So far I've been unimpressed with the research I've seen on MMOs. I do all the surveys and questionnaires I happen to see - did one on Avatars recently - but I haven't seen much in the way of results.


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