Saturday, May 13, 2023

LFG? That's So Old School!

In a post about how he prefers playing ARPGs over MMORPGs these days, Belghast gave as one of the reasons the advent of "an era of progressively forcing you more and more into group gameplay". That surprised me somewhat. I'd have said the genre was still moving relentlessly in the opposite direction.

It's certainly true that there's been a proliferation of projects claiming to represent  a return to a lost golden age, a time when clearing even the smallest camp of Kobolds required a party of six, but all of those games are coming from independents, often with very small teams and limited resources. Most haven't even reached beta after years of development behind closed doors.

The last AAA MMORPG from a major games company that I can remember would be Amazon Games' New World, which I would say was very heavily focused on solo play. It has group play, of course, for both PvP and PvE, and at launch the main storyline included a fair amount of required group content, but changes patched in since have aimed to remove many of those roadblocks to soloing and open up more of the game to those with no taste for group play.

This, I would say, has been the trend for many years now and I can't say I've seen much sign of it slowing down, far less going into reverse. As Tipa reported recently, Final Fantasy XIV, or example, either the biggest or the second-biggest MMORPG in Western markets, depending who you believe, has been following a stated policy of  converting what was originally a group-required game into a group-optional MMORPG by re-working the entire core storyline to be playable with NPC henchmen instead of other players.

I rarely play Elder Scrolls Online, another of the more successful games in the West, but as I understand it from those who do, most of the content is readily soloable. Guild Wars 2's gameplay is based almost entirely on a kind of all-pile-on form of auto-grouping that effectively turns every encounter into solo-with-friends. Granted, ArenaNet did their best to retrofit a form of closed-group, instanced content into the model in the form first of Fractals, then Raids but both remain niche activities within the wider game.

About the only major mmorpg in Western markets that seems bent on forcing people into formal groups these days is World of Warcraft, a highly ironic trajectory for the game that was once seen as having opened the genre up for solo play. Given the extent to which WoW's playerbase appears to have contracted over the years, it's hard to imagine that choice being widely copied in the way the game's earlier, more accessible approach very much was.

As for the never-ending stream of imported games from China and South Korea, are there many - or any - that "force" players to group? There might be. I find it hard to say because although I regularly try these games out, I very rarely stick with them long enough to reach the level cap. What I can say with some authority is that if grouping is required there, it's not during the levelling process itself, which is pretty much universally a solo affair.

Of course, this is where my definition of soloing and Bel's may well differ. From everything I read on his blog, he consumes content orders of magnitude more quickly than I do and reaches the endgame far sooner, whereupon he runs into roadblocks to solo play I will never see. Playstyle heavily affects one's perception of how soloable an MMORPG feels.

As I've said many times, I always found EverQuest to be an excellent solo game, even back at the turn of the millennium. I'd been playing for a couple of years, very happily, before I ever really began to group as my main playstyle. I always found it very easy to set myself goals I could achieve without anyone else's help and I managed to keep myself very well-entertained for upwards of thirty hours a week just pottering around Norrath on my own.

That's not to say I never joined a group in those days. I often did but it was always my choice. I never felt the game forced me to group or even pushed me heavily in that direction. Grouping, even in EQ in 2000, was just another on a long list of interesting things you could do with your time, if and when you felt like it.

Thinking of the other immediately post-WoW mmorpgs I've played, from Star Wars: the Old Republic to Lord of the Rings Online to Rift to Wildstar, I get the feeling that the more grimly they hung on to the old concept of forced grouping, the worse they fared. What I remember from all of them is a perpetual retrenchment towards ever more accessiible content, requiring less and less commitment to any kind of formal group structure.

Even a game like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, which modeled itself heavily on the original EverQuest, quickly shifted from a must-group policy to something far more lenient, although not soon enough to save itself. It remains to be seen how that game's spiritual successor, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen (Whose very name mirrors it's immediate ancestor.) will negotiate a path between the stated desire of players for group content and a commercial reality in which that often turns out to be the self-same thing that drives potential customers into the arms of less socially-demanding titles.

I'm wondering now if any of the numerous retro-revivalist mmorpgs we've seen Kickstarter campaigns or heard reports of funding rounds and capital investments for have actually launched. It's hard to be sure. I can't remember the names of many and anyway "launch" is such a flexible concept these days.

It's also quite a difficult topic to research. There's no widely-accepted term for these kinds of projects and searching for "new old-school mmorpgs" or "new retro-mmorpgs" mostly brings up lists of actual old games that are still running, of which there are many. I could comb through's exhaustive list of titles or scan the Steam charts or page back through a couple of years of MassivelyOP news reports but life's too short for all that. We have AI now!

I asked the three big players, Bard, ChatGPT and Bing:

"Can you list all the in-development, early access, alpha, beta or just recently launched MMORPGS that claim to offer an "old school" or "retro" or "golden age" experience?"

The results were not particularly helpful but, at least in the first two cases, they were extensive.

Bard came up with a list of eighteen titles, conveniently alphebetized and bullet-pointed:

  • Ashes of Creation
  • Aura Kingdom 2
  • Classic EverQuest
  • Classic World of Warcraft
  • Dofus Retro
  • EverQuest II: Project 1999
  • Lost Ark
  • Mabinogi
  • Old School RuneScape
  • Peria Chronicles
  • Project Gorgon
  • RuneScape
  • Ultima Online
  • Valheim
  • Vindictus
  • Wakfu
  • WoW Classic
  • Zenith: The Last City

It then went on to offer a brief description of each of them, along with some of its usual, chatty commentary, signing off with "I hope this list helps you find the perfect MMORPG to scratch that old school itch." Bard really does want to be your AI pal.

Of the eighteen, I'd say only Project Gorgon really counts. It meets all the criteria in the prompt, being both an original mmorpg modelled on old-school gameplay and still being in Early Access. Old School Runescape, WoW Classic and Dofus Retro also sort of count but only because I didn't frame the prompt quite specifically enough to exclude actual revivals of older games.

The rest are either just old mmorpgs that are still running or don't seem to meet any of the criteria at all. The only one I've never heard of before is Zenith: The Last City, which isn't surprising because it's a VR game. It looks to be a standard mmorpg, not particularly retro. I'm kind of surprised we haven't heard more about it.  

ChatGPT offered me ten titles in a numbered list with brief descriptions of every game:

  1. Ashes of Creation - This game is currently in development and claims to offer a unique and immersive MMORPG experience with a focus on player choice and agency.

  2. Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen - This game is currently in development and aims to provide a classic MMORPG experience with a heavy focus on group play, challenging content, and a strong sense of community.

  3. Crowfall - This game is currently in beta and offers a hybrid of MMORPG and strategy gameplay with a focus on player-driven worlds and intense PvP combat.

  4. New World - This game was recently launched and offers a survival-focused MMORPG experience with a heavy emphasis on exploration, crafting, and player vs. player combat.

  5. Legends of Aria - This game is currently in early access and provides a sandbox MMORPG experience with a heavy focus on player freedom and customization.

  6. Gloria Victis - This game is currently in early access and offers a medieval MMORPG experience with a strong emphasis on realistic combat, crafting, and open-world exploration.

  7. Fractured - This game is currently in alpha and offers a unique blend of traditional MMORPG mechanics and sandbox gameplay with a focus on player-driven content and exploration.

  8. Camelot Unchained - This game is currently in development and aims to provide a traditional MMORPG experience with a heavy focus on large-scale PvP battles, player-driven economies, and deep crafting systems.

  9. Starbase - This game is currently in early access and offers a sci-fi MMORPG experience with a heavy emphasis on player-driven economies, spaceship building, and exploration.

  10. Project Gorgon - This game is currently in early access and offers a classic MMORPG experience with a focus on exploration, discovery, and deep crafting systems.

Crowfall is not in beta. It launched and then closed. It's in some form of undefined limbo right now. Legends of Aria was de-listed from Steam and is currently unavailable. Fractured was in Early Access but has now returned to closed development for technical reasons.

The rest seem like reasonable responses to the prompt, although I'd question whether Ashes of Creation or New World really count as "old school" or "retro". 

And finally, good old Bing. Bing really doesn't like to work up much of a sweat. Where Bard gave me eighteen possibilities and ChatGPT managed ten, Bing stopped trying after just three - but at least they weren't the most obvious three!

  1. Ravendawn
  2. Old School Runescape 
  3. Aether Story 

Well, okay, Old School Runescape was obvious. I think literally having the words "Old School" in the name may have biased the results, so all credit to ChatGPT for not being drawn in to the easy option there.

I'd never heard of either Ravendawn or Aether Story, which turns out to be because they're both 2D, overhead perspective games and I pay no attention to those whatsoever. They do seem to match the general profile, though, and you can't get much more old school or retro than 2D top down gameplay.

All of which proves nothing much except that the current crop of AIs really don't make very good research assistants. In the absence of further evidence, I'm going to stick to my assertion that we aren't currently going through an era, or even a moment, where forced grouping is either the norm or a growing trend.

If anyone would care to offer the necessary evidence to refute that assertion, I'd be very interested to consider it.


  1. I find it funny that Bard lists "Classic World of Warcraft" and "WoW Classic" as separate entries. Unless Bard is trying to separate private servers from the official one or Wrath Classic from Classic Era, it just feels like it was confused by the two different names for the same phenomena. As someone who hasn't used any of the chat clients, from the outside Bard gives the impression of being the weakest of the three when it comes to giving an answer.

    Kickstarter MMOs that focus on grouping in a major way feel like Kickstarter MMOs that focused on PvP in a major way: the developer's vision was at complete odds with the reality of the player base who would actually play these games. I have a feeling most of these games (group-focused and PvP) will likely not survive long and those that do will only reach the 'heights' of a Shroud of the Avatar for a player base.

    1. The two WoWs confused me, too. I thought it might just be calling regular WoW "Classic World of Warcraft" because there's also no game officially called "Classic EverQuest" as far as I know. It might well be referring to the different flavors of WoW Classic available, though. Who knows?

      As for all the indie retro games, I'd say there's room in the market for precisely one of them to be significantly popular, with all the others having to settle for whatever niche-within-a-niche they can scrape out. And by "popular" I mean maybe something of the order of LotRO or EQII, which means a population that would look like a rounding error on one of the genuinely popular titles like FFXIV.

  2. Doesn't ChatGPT give you its warning about not knowing anything that has happened since Sept. 2021?

    1. Ah, good point. I'd forgotten about that! Although what it actually says, now I check, is "Limited knowledge of world and events after 2021" so it's not quite a complete get-out-of-jail-free card for when it gets things wrong.

      Now I need to go check if the other two are being continually updated or if they have cut-offs and whether ChatGPT is going to remain locked in the past, thereby becoming more useless by the second, or whether there are plans to bring (and keep) it up to date...

    2. I was just about to Google to find out but then I thought why not just ask the AIs themselves? So I did.

      I might end up posting on it but the short version is Bard continually updates itself in real time using Google search, Bing updates "regularly but not in real-time", by which it seems to mean periodically,depending on the specific function, but at least daily. It also crawls the web continually for updated pages. ChatGPT, however, neither updates in real time nor continuously. Its responses are "generated dynamically" based on input from users. Its "underlying training data" remains static but its responses "are always tailored to the specific context of the conversation and the most up-to-date information available at the time of the interaction."

      So far I've seen no clear pattern in which is the more reliable. It seems to swing wildly from prompt to prompt. I don't think any of them is, or is intended to be, a substitute for a straightforward search engine but they do so much of the tedious sorting and precising, it's too tempting to resist. I'm betting that's what they're being used for more than anything. Which is very worrying.

    3. WoW and FF14 are great examples of the dichotomy of this topic. WoW has gated nearly all its content behind a forced group, where you are either in a guild, or need to be this tall to take the ride. FF14 went the other way, where only a tiny fraction of content requires conscious grouping.

      The retro systems were predicated on zero progress without other people, and waiting lists. Coordinated group play was the only way. Early WoW at 40 player raids pulled my hair out to organize.

      Perhaps the topic is more about casual group content vs focused? Aside from rift pushing in D3, or even deep map runs in PoE, everything else is casual pace.

      We're getting old. Waiting for organized group play is a recipe for me to avoid the game. Time is worth much more now.

  3. My 2ç is that MMORPGs where a thing when computer networking was minoritary and since everyone and their uncle has got more daily online interactions they can deal with literally in their pocket, the appeal to meet strangers online in something as sensitive as your leisure/ daily "me time" has waned a lot. If MOBAs with random team making teach us, something, it is that strangers are more often a liability than an asset to enjoy your gaming.

    1. I think that's why the market for all these retro mmorpgs is mainly those people who played whent things were as you describe and who, eithe consciously or unconsciously, resent the way the rest of the world quickly caught up and overtook them. Like all attempts to go back to the past, it's never going to feel the way it did the first time around.

  4. I prefer games that give me a lot to do solo, but also add some group options for when I'm in the mood for it. To my tastes FFXIV had the balance about right the last time I played it. If you followed the main story, you would solo for about two hours for every 10-20 minutes you spent doing something in a group. The grouping was relatively painless because of the fantastic matchmaking and the fact that if it was your first time clearing a dungeon, everyone got a huge bonus for having your newb butt along. Vets were actually happy when a player learning the ropes showed up in their group.

    Contrast that with retail WoW, where there is a lot of group only content but heaven forbid you don't know the dungeon well enough to run it at top speed. Players will get really ticked if you slow their run too much. They are there to zerg and grind, don't you dare interfere with that.

    If I have to pick between 100% solo and "zerg or die, the MMO" I definitely prefer to solo. However, I wish more MMOs did the admixture approach as well as FFXIV did about two years ago. Launch era LoTRO and SWTOR also did things very well to my tastes, and like FFIXIV they eventually also backed off of that and made grouping something you don't generally bother with until you hit the cap.

    1. I find FFXIV to be a very informative example. When ARR launched, Mrs Bhagpuss and I were playing Guild Wars 2 and enjoying it a lot but we took a break to try FFXIV. We were as-yet uncommitted to a specific mmorpg, having left EQII for first TSW and then GW2 and FFXIV was a very tempting option.

      We played for the first month as included in the box price and got our characters into the mid-30s. We both liked the game and played for 20+ hours a week the whole time. but, when it came to the moment where we had to choose whether to subscribe and keep playing, we had a chat about it and decided against it in favor of going back to GW2.

      There was one reason for that and one reason only: forced grouping. Yes, it was a relatively small part of the game and there was plenty you could do solo or as a duo, but the entire game at that point was built around the MSQ, behind which many other progression mechanics were locked, so it absolutely did not feel optional. This removed our sense of agency and made it feel as though the game was a) a set of specific tasks to be completed in a specific order, not a virtual world to explore and b) involved making new relationships continually, which we both found stressful and intimidating.

      Had grouping been optional and had there been alternate ways to progress the MSQ, or had the mechanics of character progression been separate from the storyline, there's every chance we would have stayed with FFXIV and not returned to GW2, which we both went on to play continuously for almost a decade. I suspect that similar stories lie behind SE's decision to revamp the game to remove all vestiges of forced grouping outside of endgame and hardcore gameplay.

      It's not how often you have to group that matters; it's whether you feel you have a choice.

    2. To be fair, in SWTOR and LoTRO during the "golden eras" when they got the balance right to my tastes, grouping was entirely optional. You could get some slightly better gear for your level if you did the group content, but it was never required.

      For me it really is about the balance. I want to solo 90% of the time I play, but have some reason to consider grouping when I'm in the mood for it. However, based on where the market is going I must be a rarity.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide