We’ve noticed a growing trend in MMOs recently to support and even encourage what is known as parallel play. Parallel play, unlike true MMO play, means that we have millions of people playing side by side but not really together. MMOs have been developing in this direction for quite some time, but I do believe it was mostly WoW that started the shift, though it’s certainly spread. More on that later.
Some games actively try to counter this shift in playstyle. Rift tried with its automatic quest grouping and world raid goals. Simply being near a quest objective with another player automatically grouped you so that you would cooperate instead of simply play alone and do twice as much. I applauded Rift for that design, but strangely it’s absent in Star Wars, the only huge, new MMO to debut since Rift.
Star Wars, instead, chose a companion system. Since Bioware’s previous games were all single player, they were used to providing this system. They figured it would allow people to play alone if they chose, but not get in the way if players wanted to play together. However, the human brain is far too simple for such a mechanic. We’re creatures of habit; if we solve a problem a particular way the first time, we’re much more likely to solve a similar problem the same way the next time. In other words, if you can level and do almost every quest with just your companion, why bother doing the “work” to find a group and cooperate.
In Star Wars, I have never been invited into a person’s group who I was questing near. I have invited others when there was a line waiting for a particular mob to spawn. In one case early on, there were four people waiting – INDIVIDUALLY – to kill the same mob. No one had suggested grouping up. I got the group together, we downed the mob easily, and then we went our separate ways. Let that sink in a moment. Those three other people would rather compete or simply wait between 5 and 10 minutes to kill a single quest mob than put a group together. No such foolishness could occur in Rift.
Earlier, I blamed WoW for this shift, which may seem unfair with so many other designs out there. However, I do believe it was WoW that started the trend. Its popularity afforded certain privileges – and certain responsibilities – to the community, and it tried to meet them with innovation. Innovation’s what we got, too, but also a shift towards MSOs.
In the beginning, EQ was, by all accounts, un-soloable. This caused a great amount of community development, but also some consternation. Then World of Warcraft made leveling mostly soloable, with a few group quests and dungeons that were mostly voluntary until endgame. The people who were tired of being “forced” to play with others in EQ liked WoW’s design, and WoW became more and more popular. Time passed. Classes became more and more powerful in WoW so that some classes could in fact solo group content. Eventually, Blizzard stopped making group content and retuned old group content to be soloable.
Parallel play has benefits over solo or group play. It provides the social aspect of group play largely without the burden of having to cooperate. In EQ , you had to cooperate. You had to put your personal desires to the side and work in a group. Since this was “the major MMO,” that expectation was considered normal and most people were okay with it. WoW changed that standard, though, and since then MMO players have become more and more interested in their own personal desires and goals than in working towards team goals.
To further this, WoW introduced the LFD system. Now, you had a ready made party to see to your personal goals. You didn’t have to work to form it at all, and there’d be no major penalty for leaving or behaving badly, so players were distanced from the idea of cooperation. Even doing your job poorly meant you’d still likely accomplish your goal. This led to bitterness towards LFD and PuGs, which began to crash the community that cooperation had built.
Now there’s a great debate about a LFD in Star Wars. Arguments fly about ease of getting groups, maintaining community, and access to flashpoints. The solution, I think is, simple. Not having any grouping system is clearly a problem since WoW, King of MMOs, has one (King in numbers, certainly, and perhaps in its lethal and unforgiving personality towards other MMOs). Having a cross-server LFD has shown to be a problem, though. So why not have a single server LFD? It would take longer, of course. Tanks and healers would probably be at a premium. Still, it’s better than shouting in general like a stranger with candy trying to lure unsuspecting players into your windowless van.
I’m not sure what solution Star Wars will use, but my guess will be that it will be the WoW solution, which will begin training players to treat others like expendable resources. As Rohan pointed out in his recent post, no amount of screaming is likely to change that, either. Bioware is likely to do what was successful with WoW. That’s business.
So in the end, dear reader, we find ourselves playing alongside others in Massively Single-Player Online environments. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, either. It’s not worse; it’s just different, but it means that players who joined for social reasons will be pushed further and further out into the “abnormal” nether, because Killers can always kill alone, and explorers can explore alone, and achievers can achieve alone… but socializers cannot socialize alone. Part of the ingenuity of MMOs is that they hit all four of those groups. Taking away one of the quadrants has hurt the genre.
Stubborn (who could never be a businessman for lack of the appropriate skillset)