GDC 2011: BioWare's Damion Schubert on designing for loners

Nothing stirs up a good MMO debate like the age-old question of whether or not the genre should cater to solo players. BioWare's Damion Schubert, lead systems designer on the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, recently added a bit of fuel to that particular fire during a presentation at last week's GDC in San Francisco.

Schubert's talk focused on loners in the massively multiplayer space, and while it's no surprise to anyone that TOR is being built with the solo player in mind, it may come as a bit of a revelation that BioWare isn't aiming to "dumb down" the MMORPG as some fans have suggested.

On the contrary, Schubert states that MMOs feature "hardcore stuff. This is hardcore gameplay, and we have to figure out how to get the solo player in a position where they want to take part in this, where they feel comfortable with the social circles, where they feel like they can be contributors."
Schubert touches on the often rabid discourse surrounding MMO solo play, humorously uttering several of the familiar refrains espoused by long-time group-centric gamers. The perception of "you're doing it wrong" if you play solo definitely exists, Schubert says, but it's not especially accurate because it doesn't take into account the various classes of loner and the various reasons some gamers choose (or are forced to adopt) an isolated playstyle.

The evolution of the genre from games that required grouping (he cites EverQuest and Shadowbane) to newer, more solo-friendly games like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes is "a full revolution of game design mechanics. It was something where we all collectively changed our mind and said we were wrong before."

Schubert postulates that loners are actually a heroic archetype, and there's nothing weird, creepy, or otherwise unsavory about the playstyle. "People don't imagine being a serial killer, but they certainly imagine being Batman. If you really think about it, being a loner is an inherently social thing. You can't be a loner in a single-player game because you're not setting yourself apart from somebody," he says. How do loners set themselves apart then, and what can game designers do to influence this behavior for the good of the entire community? Schubert doesn't go into design specifics, nor does he offer examples of how TOR will deal with these factors, but he does outline what he sees as the 10 types of loners and offers a bit of insight into the unique design challenges that each presents.

He begins by drawing parallels between MMORPGs and the urban sprawl of New York City. The city is the original MMO environment, he says, and even though it bustles with people and activity, it is also the domain of the loner. Manhattan has the largest population of single-centric dwellings in the world, and sociologists have long since debunked the myth that rural Americans are more social and civic-minded than their big-city counterparts. Loners are prevalent in the city, just as they are in MMOs, and they generally fall into one of 10 categories.

The new kid in town

This is the new MMO player, and Schubert says that the first instinct of a designer is to jam the new kid together with all the other newbs. This is not necessarily the best approach, because many gamers (particularly women according to some studies) do not like to learn in a public environment, and they don't want to be around people until achieving a certain comfort level.

The social pressure inherent in mechanics like Asheron's Call's fealty system -- wherein high-level players would camp newbie town and bombard people with sales pitches in order to get XP for helping out -- can end up driving players away rather than having the desired effect.

Schubert also touches on the phenomenon of late-comers who can't find people to group with in newbie zones even if they want to, as most players have moved on to newer content. This is a problem inherent with all level-based games, he says.

The Daria

The second loner archetype takes its name from the MTV animated character, and these are the folks who "see other people as a tragedy; they see them as a joke. They don't want to group with anyone in the Barrens, but they think they're good fun anyway. These are the people who like to slow down for car crashes." Schubert notes that he himself falls into this category.

Darias see other players as content, and they absorb the content that other people create, which in turn puts the onus on the designer to have a social critical mass. Schubert illustrates his point by mentioning traditional casino designs and likening the resulting social spaces to what could possibly be achieved in MMOs if players weren't spread across huge game worlds.

Interestingly, he refers to the slot machine experience as "a grind. It is a lonely, soul-sucking experience" that, if done in a room shared with other people, becomes somehow more palatable because there's always the sound of winning, fighting, drunkenness, and various forms of content and stimulation.

The sociopath

The third type of loner is the sociopath, and Schubert punctuated this portion of the presentation with a slide of Heath Ledger's memorable turn as the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight. All babies are sociopaths, Schubert says, and it's only through learning behaviors and norms from parents, friends, teachers, and the like that they are able to become productive members of society instead of scarred career criminals with a penchant for purple suits. The same phenomenon happens in MMORPGs in terms of indoctrination and social training, but the massive genre also provides little to no incentive for players to rein in sociopathic impulses, and dealing with this is one of a game designer's more difficult challenges.

He briefly mentions Raph Koster's theory of empathy instead of punishment and the necessity of getting the sociopathic player to realize that there is a real person on the other end of the avatar he's griefing.

Mr. Lunch at his desk

These are the people playing MMOs under unique and constrained conditions -- they're on a lunch break, they're bound by family duties, or for whatever reason, they cannot fully invest themselves in the game at a particular moment even though they might want to. They might even want to participate in group content, but due to various external factors, are resigned to soloing and therefore require some sort of solo content available around the clock.

The introvert

MMOs are going mass market, Schubert says, and studies show that upwards of 25% of the mass market is introverted. These are the guys who find chatting up a girl at the local bar to be a terrifying proposition, and these individuals also may look to MMOs to give them the "social food" they need for their diet. MMOs can serve as a surrogate for social interactions and can also bring introverts into contact with extroverts, thereby enriching the gaming experience for both parties.

Successful design will give the extroverts the tools to build groups, lead dungeon runs, and generally bring people together. The extroverts will love this additional gameplay dimension, and the introverts will be relieved that they don't have to do it.

The adrift

Schubert spends a bit of time talking about weak and strong social ties, relegating guild relationships to the former category and illustrating how the distintegration of a guild unit can have a profound effect on a player's desire to continue playing a particular MMORPG. The break-up of a social group is the equivalent of being dumped, Schubert says, and due to the fact that most MMO guilds are insular and cut off from the larger population, the likelihood of player retention following a drama-fueled implosion is relatively low.

The unworthy

Still another loner category has to do with proficiency, player skill, and the increasing difficulty of MMO content as you approach the endgame. Glory is the reason many people play MMOs, Schubert says, but this ultra-competitive playing field usually results in a few elite individuals and a ton of relatively low-skill players who are self-conscious about their abilities and thus unlikely to seek out high-level group opportunities.

As an example, Schubert laments the lack of great player tanks in many MMORPGs, attributing it to the demanding skillset as well as the necessity of finding a group of three or four buddies who are willing to continually wipe while the tank figures out what he's doing. Schubert says that designers must find ways to get people who don't want to be loners (but are nonetheless ostracized by perceived skill deficiencies) into a social circle despite the considerable gameplay obstacles that are often in the way.

Vacationers

Many solo players fall into the vacationer demographic, a group that Schubert says simply wants to get away from it all for whatever time they may have to play. Whether they're in search of the temporary avoidance of real-life responsibilities or even in-game responsibilities (he shares an amusing anecdote regarding the constant demand for his services as a master crafter in Star Wars Galaxies here), some people choose the loner playstyle simply for the peace and quiet.

The commitment-phobic

The ninth type of MMO loner is usually afraid of commitment. Whether it's because he lacks the time necessary to participate in many MMO activities or he's leery of drama or signing up with a guild of strangers that may not be a good fit in terms of personality and goals, the commitment-phobic player is one of the more difficult MMO loners to appease.

The Garbo

Finally, Schubert says that some people, and by extension some MMO players, just want to be left alone. There's nothing inherently wrong with such a preference, either, he states, though he does draw a distinction between choosing to be alone and being lonely.

Ultimately, while MMOs have necessarily evolved to become more solo-friendly, they are still community-centric games. Everyone starts off as a casual player, Schubert explains, but MMO progression becomes more and more about grouping as the game unfolds. MMO design therefore becomes more about coaxing people out of their loner shell and getting them into high-level game experiences.

"One of the things we have to acknowledge as MMO designers is that our magic -- our secret sauce, this stuff, the raids -- this is hardcore stuff. This is hardcore gameplay. Even a basic raid is incredibly hard for players to grasp and get comfortable with. This is hardcore gameplay, and we have to figure out how to get the solo player in a position where they want to take part in this, where they feel comfortable with the social circles, where they feel like they can be contributors," he says.

Schubert intimates that the intent isn't to simplify MMOs but rather to convince loners to take the next step and become suitably engaged enough to experience the meat of MMO gameplay and community building. The ultimate challenge for the designer seems to be getting players to make that leap while not alienating the people who have already made it.
This article was originally published on Massively.