Wings Over Atreia: Solo vs. group

OK, now get your collective minds all out of the gutter! There we go. Of course, the title speaks to gaming styles and preferences in Aion. Lately, I've had the topic of grouping crop up in different discussions, from the trend of decreasing group sizes (Star Wars Galaxies had groups of 20, then Lineage II had groups of nine, followed by other games with a maximum group size of six) to questioning the need to group at all. To group, or not to group: Is that really the question?

I touched on this topic a bit a few weeks ago, but an adventure this past week brought my attention back to it; I discovered that you no longer need a full group for one of the more frustrating quests in the game (once you factor in trying to get a group when the rift is up and not have it camped on the other side by the enemy!). Instead, you can complete the quest with just two or three Daevas, a feat unheard of previously due to the difficult dungeon in enemy territory.

Granted, we completed our quest, which would have been impossible otherwise given the circumstances. But on a broader scale, what's with the trend of phasing out group content in MMOs and catering to the solo crowd? This phenomenon puzzles me. When a game is an MMO (read "massively multiplayer"), why discourage grouping by making almost all content accessible to the solo crowd -- especially in Aion (where learning good group dynamics can be crucial in large scale warfare)? In a time when social skills seem to be struggling to survive, why open yet another opportunity for people to avoid interaction?

Type /Invite and join me past the cut to examine this phenomenon and weigh in with your preferred gaming style in our comments.

It all started innocently enough. There I was, enjoying a foray into the snowy lands of Beluslan recently when I decided to see if I could help some Daevas complete their dreaded xeno weapon quest. Although I didn't even need the weapon myself, I certainly wouldn't turn my nose up at the XP. Call me masochistic -- gathering and running a PUG is still often like herding cats, but I enjoy helping others and prefer the interactions of groups. I managed to find a couple of decent folks (and one we will just avoid mentioning), and we set out to get through as much of the chain as possible.

When we reached the point where we had to venture into that library to obtain the research diary, we still lacked a full group. Not to be discouraged, we decided to storm the keep and just see how far we could get when... what's this? From the whisperings of LFG chat we discover that the bane of level 40s everywhere was effectively nulled -- you no longer have to enter the instance to obtain the research diary. Instead, it is laying there on the ground right outside the door (to the right and half-way to the steps if you are looking for it). Click and complete. We were stunned but elated. (Don't worry -- if you want to do the instance, you can still get the book inside as well!)

However, at the edge of the excitement of actually completing that part of the quest, my concern about the death of groups grew. See, I am one of those who prefers to group; I enjoy being with others, even in virtual worlds. I admit to times when I want to just relax a bit on my own, but wasn't the whole purpose of MMOs to interact with a larger community? That is certainly the aspect that drew me in and hooked me. If someone really wanted solo gameplay, why not go to a game that caters to that?

Now I'll be the first to admit that, as a whole, both group and solo content are important aspects of successful games; a good mix can satisfy a larger playerbase. What I don't get is why Aion seems to be doing away with almost any reason to group. With the exceptions of final campaign quests (excluding Verton's) and some dungeons, you really don't need to group in Atreia to accomplish most anything anymore. Even then, Udas Temple, Beshmundir Temple, and fort instances can largely be soloed by certain classes and easily run by groups of two or three people. For the solo player, grouping in these cases is only a technicality as they cannot enter these instances without being grouped. Often, a friend will be doing something else -- or be AFK -- while just holding the instance open. Once mandatory group encounters (such as for advanced stigma slots) now have a solo aspect that bypasses the need to group for an instance.

Getting your group on

To be perfectly honest, I started my journey into MMORPGs not for the game but for the community. I was entranced by the interactions of the crowd. Even when things in a game world themselves seem static, the variables brought in by others make it more interesting. No day could ever be the same. Even the dynamics of how to best play your class changes with each different group mix. I personally loved meeting new people, learning different strategies, and being a part of evolving stories (remember, folks, I am a roleplayer). One of the features I was most excited about for Aion was sieging. And to siege, you really need a group!

While there are some who run rogue during sieges (hoping for a larger AP haul), most Daevas band into alliances -- for good reason! Waging a war and fighting battles is all about working together, cooperating, building off of strengths, and compensating for weaknesses. And everyone can admit that how you play solo and how you play in a group are very different. This brings me back to my concern from before -- if players have not grouped and know nothing of how to coordinate their skills with others, how effective will they and their groups be? When push comes to shove and you have to group, who wants to group with someone who seems to be clueless of how to do so? Those are the groups that give PUGs such a bad rap.

Even beyond that, to me a true test of a gamer's skill is how well s/he can adapt to changing situations. Although I also feel the pull of a static group where you already know and can anticipate the moves of all your companions, I think such statics are actually detrimental in the long run. True, your run is usually smoother and more successful, but it also becomes boring and dull. The "same old, same old" makes people lose interest.

One is the loneliest number...

Or is it? I can readily admit there are some shiny perks to soloing. Solo, you don't have to wait on the schedules of anyone else. You can do what you want when the mood strikes you. Another benefit? Your healer/tank/cc can't lose power due to a massive storm and leave you in a really bad predicament! I also freely admit that going solo is really advantageous when it comes to loot; the RNG gods cursed me early on, so trips to Taloc's Hollow and Kromede's Trial are my only options that end in loot for me... and only me. Loot drama is something I have seen a lot of lately, and going solo allows you to circumvent that. Avoiding any kind of drama is a personal goal of mine.

But even with these benefits of soloing, the movement away from groups overall is -- in my opinion -- detrimental to Aion. Think about it: How well will the solo player stand up to a wild pack of enemies? Repeated slaughter frustrates and turns people off from the game. How will you take control of a fort by yourself? Here, you miss one of the core aspects of the game. How many ways can you choose to do something before you have "beaten the game" and move on? Unlike single-player games that have satisfying endings, the MMO has a different ending altogether: the loss of subscriptions. Now why would a company want that? And how many citizens of Atreia want to see NCsoft lose more customers? Even worse -- if all the Clerics are off soloing everything, who is going to help us DPSers get anything done?! Stormwing bites!

Certainly some people are just wary of groups thanks to horrible experiences that scarred their psyches, but technology is already distancing us from others -- let's not add to that. We need to admit that, for some, grouping is one of the last social interactions. And if you are in an MMO, doesn't that just demonstrate that you want interaction (even if you aren't admitting it to yourself?). So preserve groups! Retain what social mannerisms we can! Vote yes for... oh wait, there is no election. But you can help combat the death of groups: /invite someone today!

Save the world; do it in a group!

Soaring through the Aionosphere, MJ Guthrie touches down weekly to bring you Wings Over Atreia. Featuring tips, guides, and general snippets of life in Aion, the column is better than Tutty-on-a-stick, ackackackackackack! Have a suggestion to share? No need to bribe a Shugo -- just send mail to mj@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.