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I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker, recently. In it, we discussed a few of the MMOs we played and what we liked and disliked about them. As you can imagine, this is a common topic of conversation, but what made this conversation was that it made me realize what it is I hate about the "forced grouping" mentality in MMOs and why I think they're bad for games, in general.
Or to put it another way: MMOs are not about grouping, no matter how social they are...
The game that sparked the realization was actually Everquest II. We were discussing how the worst zone you have to deal with in the mid-level range is Lavastorm. Actually, to be fair, we were talking about both Lavastorm and Everfrost as both zones suffer from the same problem: The entire zone is populated as if grouping is the only way to move through it.
Now, a little admission time here: Both myself and my colleague were specifically talking about soloing when this came up (I was relating my experiences from the night before). I fully admit I typically play in a duo or as a solo player.
Despite this, I have several characters in one of the largest clans on our server, which is actually part of the realization: I socialize all the time in MMOs, even though I typically fight alone.
Anyway, to get back to the mainline here, let me explain how Lavastorm is populated in EQ2. You enter the zone from a dock and walk onto a beach. On this beach is a group of low (level 40ish) level mobs which are "solo mobs." (In EQ2 mobs are either solo or "heroic" -- which means they are balanced so that it should take a group of 3 players of the same level as the mob, in order to defeat them). So far, so good, right? A solo player should be right at home. However, that quickly changes as you move deeper into the zone. You move through a tunnel full of more solo mobs and then come back out into an open plain that is a mix of solo and group mobs.
This is, essentially, the last place a solo player can go it alone. From here on out, even though more solo mobs do exist beyond this point, being outside of a group is certain death unless the solo player is well over-leveled for the zone.
The problem, and I have to apologize to the SOE folk for my being critical here, is that the population of the zone isn't particularly well thought out. There are several bottleneck areas in the zone such as canyons that grow very narrow or bridges that move over brilliant rivers of lava in the hot, shimmering air (it's actually a very pretty zone). In, as far as I can tell, every case these bottlenecks are guarded by groups of "heroic" mobs. In other words -- to get past the bottleneck you need the help of a group. Any player can see that just on the other side of this gating mechanism are swarms of solo-friendly mobs, but for the player that can only kill those mobs and not the heroic mobs, they might as well not exist, at all. Unless of course, that player alters the way he or she plays in order to recruit the help of a group.
There are several problems with this, and that's what I really want to talk about. Did you ever go to the dance when you were young? Like elementary school or middle school, young? How about a party at your new boss' house? For some people, these are nerve-wracking experiences. You want to have fun and "be cool," but you don't know anyone and you don't want to make a fool of yourself. Some get over it and have a great time, others plaster themselves to the wall or tie up to the punch bowl (or keg) and hope no one bothers them.
Depending on the party, that's where the host or hostess comes in. Back at the dance, the poor terrified kids are forced to dance, even if they don't know how... at the Boss' party, he finds you to introduce you to his or her spouse and their children... or, if you have my work history, to do keg stands in front of the engineers. Maybe you get through it and end up being cooler, like the nerdy kid with the Goodburger shirt in Can't Hardly Wait, or maybe your scarred for life or embarrassed in front of your new boss... It's an either/or proposition, but it's not 100% sure either way. Some people will come through and have fun, some will not.
And that's the point -- Each time you put someone up to something they don't want to do, you're going to end up with 2 results. Either A) the person will enjoy the experience you forced on them, or B) they will have a horrible time and come to resent you and the activity you forced on them. First you alienate some of the crowd by making them go to the party (to play your MMO), reducing the number of people who are having fun (or paying to continue to play). Then, you reduce that pool of happy party-goers even further by forcing them to dance or mingle (group) even when they don't want to.
Why do the hosts do this? Why would you deliberately seed your party with party-goers who are primed to have a miserable time? Why do MMOs force interaction with other players on a personal leveling by creating paradigms that force users to group?
Everyone I talk to laments how unsatisfying Pick Up Groups (PUGs) are in both EQ2 and World of Warcraft, so why do these games require them? Are there really no better ways to get players to interact? I refuse to believe that, and here's a thought for those of you that are thinking PUGs are necessary: Why does Second Life, or any of those social only MMOs, continue to exist if PUGs are necessary?
Could it be that PUGs -- and the group-only encounters that necessitate them -- only exist because someone, somewhere, arbitrarily decided that they needed to?
In this industry, we do a lot of "well this worked in that game, so let's try that" style decision making. "That's how they did it in WoW" is a very commonly heard phrase in the post-Warcraft world of MMO development. It's an obvious success and for many, it's easy to assume that they succeeded because they made every choice, wisely. But, what if they didn't? More importantly, what if the game that inspired them -- Everquest -- didn't make that choice wisely or correctly, either? Couldn't it be a case of a bad decision being carried on and becoming tradition?
Here's why I bring this up; remember earlier when I mentioned Lavastorm? Lavastorm is a zone for players in the 45-55 level range, roughly speaking. I have a level 46 Shadowknight in EQ2. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it's the first EQ2 character I made, 4 years ago, and I still haven't capped it. The problem is, and here's where forced grouping comes into things, I'm not entirely sure I'll be able to cap that character without help, because there are very few players my level, left in the world of Everquest II. While wandering Lavastorm last, I saw 2 other players in a 3 hour session. One of them was the friend I'd taken with me. The other was a random player who, it turned out, wasn't there to fight at all -- he was just harvesting materials for crafting. In other words, our little power-duo was the only game in town. We made a valiant go of it, but we just couldn't get far enough in to make the trip worthwhile. I ended the night only half a level closer to 50, where the night before I had gained not one, but two levels, while in a "real group."
How do you think I felt when I had to ask the guy harvesting if he would join us and he refused and demanded that we stop bothering him? Was the social interaction, forced on me by the game's mechanics, all that positive?
No, and honestly, I don't even think it was necessary. I think there are a few MMOs of the next generation - most of them non-traditional games in the vein of Habbo Hotel or Second Life - that already know this. Between you, me and the internet: I think they're the ones people are going to take notice of. I think the upcoming MMOs that do it the old way, with forced grouping and the moribund "grouping is the only way to socialize" mentality that goes with that, are going to fail or end up sinking into the background noise (death by obscurity)...
...and all because nothing kills a good party like forcing people to mingle.