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The Soapbox: Playing alone together


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Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect that of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

It's sitting there in my quest log, frustrating me with its presence and quite possibly calling me names when I'm not around. "It" is a fellowship (group) quest for Lord of the Rings Online that I need to complete to continue Volume 2 of the epic storyline. This particular quest has been moldering in my log for over two weeks now, and I'm starting to think I'll never get it done.

I hate it. Oh, sure, I know that there's plenty of other things to do, I know that if I'm diligent I'll find a group sooner or later, and I know that eventually enough of my kinship will need to do it and we'll throw together a "help each other out" posse. But I absolutely, completely hate being dependent on others for my gaming, and it always grates when I hit a wall that cannot be passed unless I gather a few friends -- or, more likely, a motley crew of puggers -- to get around it all.

Yup, that's right, I'm a solo MMO player. I'm the very oxymoron of what some consider to be the quintessential MMO experience, which is to play an online game together with thousands of others. I like to do my own thing, go my own way, and 95% of the time, chew through content as a one-man act. I don't mind being with other people for fun and adventures, but I don't want to need them to progress.

And I'm part of a growing majority of MMO gamers.

"Playing alone together"

In all the time I've been blogging, I've never seen a more divisive topic than the conflict between people who generally like to solo in MMOs and players who see grouping as a near-mandatory part of the experience. I can't quite understand why there needs to be conflict here, except that some of these groupers find MMO soloers to be blasphemous to the second "M" in MMORPGs and they hate the trend of MMOs that's been changing to accommodate for soloers over the past half-decade or so.

Let me back up a second and explain what I personally mean by being a "MMO soloer." It simply means that most of my time in MMOs is spent playing by myself. It means that I feel most comfortable with that arrangement, and I enjoy taking the game at my own pace instead of being dependent on others' schedules and needs (not to mention the many, many headaches that come with grouping). It does not mean that I hate people, nor that I secretly want to be playing a single-player RPG but I got lost along the way and subscribed to a MMO and haven't figured out an exit strategy yet.

In fact, the presence of all these other players is a huge reason why I play MMOs -- just not how I play them. I love being part of a guild, of connecting with friends through chat, and encouraging each other as we run toward our goals. In single-player RPGs I feel isolated and alone; in MMOs, the loneliness vanishes. I engage with others in many ways -- by participating in the economy, lending a helping hand if I spot someone in trouble, and enjoying the fruits of roleplayers and crazy goofballs. I like achieving something and then being able to show that off, whether it be a title, a suit of armor or a nicely-decorated house.

I see it akin to going to Starbucks or the library to read a book. Sure, you could do that in the privacy of your home, but there's a need that's fulfilled when you do it near to other people. Even the most introverted amongst us have a need for human connection, and MMOs can provide some measure of social fulfillment.

Soloing does not equal "being antisocial"

Back to the struggle between soloers and groupers. Groupers often claim that soloers are being antisocial and are contributing to what they see as the downfall of the MMO genre. Expect to hear a lot of "Back in the days of EverQuest, we..." or "Raids just ain't what they used to be" stories, as they recall a very short era where the handful of MMOs all but required grouping to progress, and folks either jumped on board or left because of it.

Now there is choice. Now we can group as much as we want to, and we can solo as much as we want to. MMO devs wised up to the fact that the more choices you give players in the way they can progress through and experience your game, the wider the net becomes for scooping up an audience. Most MMOs today offer various levels of solo and group activities, and generally (generally) hand out better rewards for those who tackle more difficult content with groups. Still, once the choice between soloing and grouping came into play, the two crowds have been butting heads ever since, especially over solo rewards that groupers may see as being too powerful or soloers view as too inadequate.

My attitude is more of a "game and let game" approach. First of all, cut out the elitism on both sides. It's off-putting, and people look ridiculous when they throw online tantrums about what really is -- yes, I'm going there -- a video game. It's as if in 1979, players would yell at each other because one guy liked playing Atari's Combat in one-player mode while the other guy insisted that two-player mode was the best and most pure way the game should be experienced. Decades later, who cares? So why care now?

Can't we both be right? Can't we accept that no two gamers have the same needs, approach the game in the same way, and have the same goals? Do soloers really have to get their panties in a bunch when the dev team spends time on raid content ("Only 0.001% of the playerbase will ever see this!" come the screams)? Do groupers really have to keep pulling out their old-timey entitlement cards whenever the devs make the game more accessible for the casual crowd ("Welfare epics!" comes the forehead-slapping mantra)?

Soloers in a strange land

I'd like to end this column by saying that there does need to be a balance. Like it or not, we're long past the era where forced grouping is the standard in MMOs, and if you can't move on with the times, well, there are niche MMOs out there that can serve that purpose. Similarly, we need to guard against games becoming complete solo acts with little to no interaction between players, because there's something wonderful and exciting with the multiplayer aspect.

As I said before, I'm not against partying up, as long as I don't feel pressured to do it. The problem is that often times grouping is a pain to get started, especially when you don't feel like leading a group. MMOs need better LFG tools, but beyond that, they need more ingenious and intuitive ways to help players form groups, and more incentives to encourage soloers to group without the annoyances that come with it.

I've seen a lot of dev teams address this specific issue in the past couple years, because they know that there's great fun to be had in grouping and that longer-lasting bonds to the community are formed through mutual adventures. The teams just need to create better ways for this to happen.

Happily, we're seeing it already. Open grouping and public quests, two features spearheaded by Warhammer Online and picked up by other titles, are low-stress, low-annoyance ways for soloers to group -- or at least test the waters of grouping. More and more, devs are focusing on the carrot instead of the stick by preaching that grouping should offer increased rewards.

But this doesn't mean that soloing should ever be phased out of MMOs, and I don't think it ever will be. I still want the choice to go my own way, do my own thing, and adventure alone in a world together with thousands of others. I want the choice to group if it strikes my fancy, but not because there's simply no other way to proceed if I don't.

Will these two crowds of gamers ever make peace? Maybe, maybe not. But I don't really care if either of them see the way I game as legitimate or weaksauce -- I game for my own pleasure, and it's a pleasure to solo.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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