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January 25, 2012

Dear Reader,

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)

25 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 1:30 pm

    Pretty much. More and more I realize that us socializers are no longer wanted in MMOs. It makes me crazy in so many ways because strong social bonds are the most inexpensive way for a game to improve retention, but the baying hounds insist on turning everything into a multiplayer lobby.

    I know I’ll quit SWTOR when a cross-server LFD is introduced. I have already been on that miserable road before.. I won’t do it again.

    • January 25, 2012 4:10 pm

      Since my main is part of a 3-person leveling team, I’ve never skipped a flashpoint on him. My alt, though, hasn’t done any flashpoints. I’m not sure that a LFD would make me stop immediately, but I do think it would erode the community that’s only now becoming something solid. Any game in its earliest stages is filled with friendly, helpful people. Only later does it corrode through erosion of good will, mechanics that create adversity, and tools that allow bad behavior.

  2. January 25, 2012 2:04 pm

    I’ve never encountered a problem with grouping with folks for common quests. In fact, on my server (Shien), it’s almost automatic. I think the problem may be your server. Try an RP one; folks are much more considerate and mature.

    • January 25, 2012 4:09 pm

      Actually, I’m on an RP server, Lord Adrass. For the most part, I don’t need to group on my main, since I play with a group of friends. On my alt, though, I’ve had a lot of those weird occurrences where people are standing around and could clearly use a group, but for some reason no one’s taking the initiative. I don’t so much consider this a “problem,” since I can stealth, heal myself, and use my companion. I just find it to be an odd behavior.

    • January 26, 2012 4:55 pm

      So far I’ve had no trouble getting people to group up, by and large. Oh, sometimes a person will insist on doing things alone and refuse an invitation, but most of the time if I say “hey, would you like to group up for this?” people seem to either invite me, or say “sure” and then I invite them. I’m only level 43, but it’s worked quite well so far.

      While there is the occasional butthead—unavoidable in any game with a population large enough to be worth calling an MMO—so far I’ve been quite pleased at how willing people are to group up. Someone does have to make it happen, though; if everybody waits quietly for someone else to do the inviting, it’ll never happen. 🙂

      While SWTOR has room for improvements to group-finding tools, I hope they never add any kind of automatic group-maker like WoW has done. The damage wrought by LFD and LFR on the general community is, I think, irreversible. There should always be an element of participation and commitment required to get a group.

    • January 27, 2012 10:39 am

      Yeah, when I’ve set the groups up, I’ve met few players who aren’t willing to. It just surprises me that it takes me to make others realize that grouping would make more sense. I think you’re quite right about the commitment to group, too. I’m working on a post about the death of the term “PuG” regarding the idea that we’re not “picking up” people any more. They’re simply being assigned. Less work to get the group started means less investment in the group’s success. More on that another day.

  3. January 25, 2012 3:36 pm

    Your last paragraph is the most astute summary of the current discussion that I’ve seen so far. Thank you for putting it into words so eloquently.

    I wouldn’t give up on SWTOR yet though, as the devs have shown great interest in supporting the social part of the game so far. Of course, if observing the MMO industry over the last couple of years has taught me anything, it’s that consistency is something at which many companies appear to be terrible, and that doing a 180 degree turn on any given subject isn’t unusual… but we can hope.

    • January 26, 2012 9:06 am

      Well, thank you! I don’t know that I ever have thought of my writing as eloquent, but I appreciate the comment.

      I’m not giving up on SWTOR for a while, a few months at least. I usually take “wow breaks” of about six months, so we’ll see where SW is heading then. I hope the devs do what’s right for the game, but as Rohan said, what’s good for the game is not always what’s good for our community. That’s a shame, because it means we’re playing games that we’re not really the target audience of any more, and no new genre as presented itself that would target us. We’ll see what the future holds, then.

  4. January 25, 2012 3:49 pm

    I’ve long been an critic of collective soloing. The problem when a system doesn’t ‘highly encourage’ grouping, or, as you’ve stated, “interaction”, the end result is that people simply become accessories in achieving an individual’s interests.

    • January 26, 2012 9:07 am

      Yeah, I don’t want to be a cog in someone else’s machine, nor do I want to feel like I could treat others as such. I want true cooperation, team building, and a necessity to group from time to time (even if the grouping is automatic). That, to me, is a diverse and fun play environment, rather than just running around by myself all the time without any great challenge at all.

  5. Windsoar permalink
    January 25, 2012 4:04 pm

    Just to provide a different perspective: consider FFXI. I loved the franchise, and really enjoyed my class. But after level X (depended on your class, but anywhere from 8-12?) it was nigh impossible to complete any task in a solo matter. I really loved this when I first started to play: lots of group time and easy chatter as everyone completed tasks.

    But after a few months? I was getting group fatigue. The only option when playing was to join a group, and sometimes I want to play my character, but not play with others. My subscription lapsed after ~6 months, one of my shortest stints in an MMO I bothered to pony up for.

    I’d still enjoy seeing group quests, and group activities highlighted more often in WoW’s questing environment, but I don’t disagree with them yanking those types of quests from earlier content. When leveling new characters, I’m usually one of three players in a zone, and more often that not, one of them is a max level player. Hard to do group activity then.

    This is a problem with an aging population (game-wise) rather than a desire to kill cooperative activities in my point of view (at least in WoW). I’m not sure why a new franchise would choose this option, and I am *not* a fan of companion systems because of just this reason. It’s fine for solo-player games, but I don’t enjoy it in my MMO’s.

    • January 26, 2012 9:04 am

      I agree that the aging gamer population is rife with new problems for game companies to solve. I’m not sure disposable group members are a problem with older gamers, though; I get the impression it’s younger gamers that are the problem in those cases. I didn’t really discuss my feelings on companions, but I agree with you; I don’t want some sidekick/slave running around with me. Nor do I think there’s a “desire” to kill group activities. I just think the game companies have realized it’s easier than solving social grouping problems, so they pursue that avenue instead of taking a harder path that would maintain the social aspect of games. I want cooperative play, not parallel play, and I feel I’m getting more and more of the 2nd. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. *vlad* permalink
    January 26, 2012 7:26 am

    Back in vanilla WoW, the LFG channel was world wide. That was how we formed groups. You could still do your own thing while you were waiting, and when someone asked for a group, you could join it without any disruption to your current activity. Once you had a whole team, you then travelled to your destination and met up there.

    Despite Blizz bringing the LFG channel back, it is not the same. As soon as you leave a city, it’s gone. So, if you want to join a pug, pretty much the only way is to join the LFG, and put up with all those players intent on getting their VPs in a group that they don’t particularly want to be in, and who have no desire to make friends with people they are never going to see again.

    I suspect that it was the introduction of Valor Points/Badges that created and continues to be the problem right now. People are not joining LFG for the fun of the experience, but rather for the grind. It’s a chore that they want over as soon as possible, and if anyone else prevents them from achieving that, by wiping or poor dps for example, then they get angry.

    Star Wars will face the same problems once the majority are past the level cap. Want to do flashpoints at low level? Too bad there aren’t any players on your server at the same level wanting to do that. Maybe it would be cool if you could join a group of people from other servers who are stuck just like you are! Cross-server flashpoints, wow, why hasn’t anyone thought of that!

    • January 26, 2012 9:11 am

      I think you’re dead on about the VP capping. I think that greatly hurt the community and solely in the name of giving casual players access to higher quality loot and lengthen the time before dungeons became obsolete. I don’t have any problem with this idea, but the quality of the loot was so high that it necessitated non-casual players to grind dungeons incessantly, which then followed the predictable path of what happens when worlds collide: animosity, short tempers, destructive criticism, etc. I feel it was really in Blizzard’s best interest, not the players, to have VP capping, and specific branches of players suffered as a result.
      Thanks for the comment!

  7. January 26, 2012 12:01 pm

    You bring up a very interesting topic here, but to go on a little tangent I think that what MMOs are now missing is the opportunities to teach people. When you “force” people to group and interact there are always opportunities to pass down knowledge. With LFD features that opportunity is missed because most of the time people go at the pace of the fastest or most annoying player. Once in a great while you get a group that is willing to wait for someone to get tips.

    Handing down knowledge and tips is what an LFD or other grouping tools to make the completion of tasks less organic therefore missing the knowledge sharing. While the argument can be made that you can read and research the information on your own; the best MMO relationships seem to be stronger when two people helped each other out. One to help accomplish the goal, the other one offering tips to become a better player.

    • January 27, 2012 10:35 am

      You’re quite right. The focus on speed over quality that’s suggested by the LFD tool makes the idea of teaching seem out of place. Why teach when you can just gogogo aoe every pull? Thanks for the comment!

  8. Fish permalink
    January 26, 2012 4:45 pm

    I’m a huge fan of the MSORPG. I basically play wow as a single player game. I wish Blizz would allow the ability to form one man raid groups. I don’t really want to raid, but I want to farm them at my leisure for transmog gear.
    Basically I want a single player game for fun and stress relief but really good single player games come out rarely and can get expensive, so $15 a month for wow is a good investment. I am sure I will get to star wars once they get it polished a little better.

    • January 27, 2012 10:37 am

      More power to you! I’m sure the MSOs will be very popular among a vast crowd (and already are, according to some of the recent research in parallel play). Still, some players still long for the challenge that cooperation, coordination, and collaboration provide. With an increase of single-player opportunities, many new players simply don’t see the reason to group to do things, leaving those who want to out in the cold. Any time an environment changes, it helps some creatures and hurts others. I just hope there’s something left for the socializers other than eventual extinction.

  9. January 26, 2012 6:35 pm

    Don’t forget though that socializers aren’t really an isolated group; there are hardly ‘pure socializers’ in MMOs. The aspect is more or less present and crucial to the playing experience and enjoyment of all archetypes. We all suffer from MMOs becoming less social and it wont just be main socializers who leave games over this.

    • January 27, 2012 10:41 am

      I agree with your initial premise, but I don’t know how “crucial” it is to the “playing experience and enjoyment of all archetypes.” I think what we’re seeing right now is the elimination of a need to be social for the other archetypes via tools that replace being social with button clicks. I fully agree that we all suffer, though, but it may be some time before the other archetypes realize it.

  10. January 26, 2012 6:42 pm

    I think if SWTOR copies WoWs LFD it won’t be for business reasons. All available evidence shows that the system *only* works because WoW has 10 million subscribers; in other words, a huge population to make even the crudest tool work for getting a group together.

    If SWTOR picks such a system, it won’t be for business reasons. WoW’s system is fraught with problems. With SWTORs comparatively low subscriber base, that system wouldn’t even begin to address grouping issues. It needs to steal a *good* system or come up with one of it’s own. If the designers actually care about adopting a system that works, WoW won’t even be on the list.

    • January 27, 2012 10:41 am

      I certainly hope they do come up with one of their own that focuses on commitment, dedication, teaching, and quality over gogogo mentality. Only time will tell, though.

  11. Thys permalink
    January 27, 2012 9:58 am

    Thanks for this post, it puts into words what I’ve tried to discuss with my friends. I’m an avid hater of the LFD tool, always have been. I initially became interested in doing PvE because I enjoyed the teamwork and meeting other people. You met good people and grouped up with them again. You said hello and maybe chatted. I made alot of friends that way.
    I can’t even remember the last conversation I had with an instance group that didn’t involve the insulting of my mom.
    I started doing PvE because of the people. Now the people is just an unfortunate downside.

    • January 27, 2012 10:46 am

      Your last two sentences there strike home a feeling that I think a lot of us have. We played an MMO because we wanted to share the experience with others, to experience the sharing of a new world filled with nooks and crannies and baddies and loot. After LFD, though, things moved to the a gogogo speed instead of a casual, friendly pace that let everyone feel comfortable.

      I don’t blame just LFD. I think VP capping was a part of it, too, forcing players to want to speed through dungeons for a currency reward. The combination, though, was deadly.

      Thanks for the comment!


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