What if we have our group and solo content the wrong way round?

I was pondering the other day why raids can be so stressful in WoW.

There’s pressure on players, and there can be crazy amounts of pressure on guild officers. You could say that there’s pressure because of the difficulty but sometimes it feels as though the whole raid guild social structure is on edge for all of the time. You cannot really grok this until you have been a guild officer in a failing progression guild and seen people leave because the progress wasn’t fast enough, and held your head in your hands (metaphorically speaking) wondering where the heck you’ll find another ‘class of choice’ so that you can keep the schedule going … so that more people won’t leave.

And I know I have played games where the whole raiding experience was just more fun. I mean, for the organisers as well as participants. So I don’t think it’s a given that raids need to be so hard that they cause stress fractures in guilds and it’s accepted by the player base as the cost of entry.

So I’m thinking, surely it’s possible to design fun raids that aren’t going to cause all this massive stress? Raids should be appealing to social players whether they’re hardcore achievers or not. Because they get to hang out with other players in a scheduled event. PvP raids, for example, are not so stressful.

Here’s the way things stand in WoW-type games at the moment with regards to challenge and difficulty.

Note: I’m leaving aside PvP, which generally sets its own level in terms of difficulty. So really it’s by far the most balanced way of introducing difficulty into a game. Also leaving aside the economic game which is a form of PvP.

Levelling

The levelling experience contains a mixture of solo and group content. It is generally easy.

The solo sections are particularly easy because they need to be accessible to a large cross-section of players and classes. Solo parts of the game are quest based and story based –- the stories may not be great but they’re supposed to be entertaining ways to get levels, not brick walls. Also some games have sufficiently poor class design that solo challenge varies strongly between classes. (Yes I went there.) In games like that, it’s very difficult to design solo content that’s challenging for the hunter but still accessible to the resto shaman. Or vice versa.

If a solo player wants more of a challenge then they can try higher level quests, or think of additional personal challenges (i.e.. solo a lower level instance, pull more mobs, etc).

Group content while levelling is reasonably easy. It is accessible to players who are still learning the game. So a lot of the implicit challenge is just learning to play your character in a group.

Endgame

Solo content is repetitive and easy. People can still think up their own personal challenges but there aren’t many new goals in terms of character progression for them.

Group/ raid content can vary from straightforward to bitching hard. The most stressful things you will ever do in game will be in groups or raids. You do have options to make things even harder by undermanning group content or attempting hard modes.

What if the raids were easy and the solo content hard?

So here is the thought experiment:

What if the raids were relatively straightforward? Make them into mass entertainment in terms of fun encounters, gorgeous scenery, cool vehicles, and so on. Let people ride on dragons, sink battleships, conduct orchestras, shoot each other out of cannons, blow up fortresses, play on ice slides and have a good time. Raids include some of the most entertaining content in the game, and the best stories. They should need tactics but let them be quite forgiving. Rewards can still be good, but few. So raiding becomes a fun night out with a small chance to win a good item.

Sure, it’s the gaming equivalent of going to the cinema to see a summer blockbuster but heck, why not?

And what if it was the small group and solo content that contained more of the challenge?  Give them the tricky puzzle-pulls that need to be worked out in advance. The smart bosses that adjust themselves to player tactics. The NPC group that uses PvP tactics to focus the healer first. The heart-thumping stealth instances where you get to do the Mission Impossible thang. The in game experiences that are actually more powerful when you are solo or with a small group and every single person makes a difference. And make rewards smaller but guaranteed – maybe badge based so that the solo player could eventually buy equivalents to raid loot.  So if you follow the solo or small group path, you’ll have a more difficult game but loot is not a lottery.

Would you play that game? I know that I would.

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15 thoughts on “What if we have our group and solo content the wrong way round?

  1. I’d like to see it too, but I’m wondering if it’s just impossible to build really difficult solo content, especially when that content needs to be balanced against multiple classes.

    It’s basically the organisation and coordination aspect that makes grouping and raiding more difficult than soloing. Without those elements, a designer’s options are limited.

    They can’t design content that requires specific class utility unless they give that utility to all classes. Do they just throw more and more mobs at a player until they find the difficulty sweet spot? Some classes will invariably find that easier than others.

    The only option would be to create content uniquely tailored to specific classes, a bit like LotRO’s class quest instances. That’s quite a lot of development work, especially when you consider that the finely tuned difficulty will have to be revisited every time they buff or nerf that class.

    I’d certainly like to see designers grappling with the challenge of difficult solo content, and I also think many would welcome raid content balanced more for fun than challenge, though this wouldn’t necessarily have to replace more traditional raid content.

  2. It’s all about creating challenges and unfortunately MMORPGs are far behind other game genres in this degree. The problem is that the gameplay mechancis in a MMO are pretty basic and easy to master. I think we saw more complex basic game play with more complicated aspects to get to grips with, we would be able to see more engaging raids.

    And yeah, raids can be stressful but I find it just depends on who I play with. It’s the whole issue of trying to organising large numbers of players and that’s when the friction occurs.

    I think performaing a raid in a MMO should be one of the challenges in The Apprentice :)

  3. Oh, hi, Everquest. Way back when, raid sizes could be any size up to 72 players. MOST guilds took way fewer people — you didn’t NEED 72 players for any raid — but you had that option. That meant there was room for the hardcore and the casual player in even the most challenging raids, and we always had both kinds of players in our guild — the core raiders with the skills needed for the content, and plenty of slots for warm bodies who had simpler jobs but were still very much required for a successful raid.

    EQ’s single group content was also pretty challenging, with less room for “warm bodies”…

    • Excellent point Tipa! Raiding in the old EQ was the ultimate form of community for a guild where *all* guild members around a certain level could participate and have fun. No artificial player caps, no limits. Everyone was welcome — it was the a very inclusive experience.

      Even the worst guild member could participate to the guild and make some form of contribution. Heck, they’d even learn how to raid. Contrast that with the high pressure military raiding of today where failure is not an option.

      Raiding is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just been perverted by you know who.

  4. Gevlon: Good point, I had forgotten that. But I think it’s a viable model. The only thing I gotta say is that not all social players are idiots. Some are, others are hardcore achievers who happen to like playing with other people. I strongly suspect that many of the best raid and guild leaders are also social players.

    Unwize: I think you’d have to assume a model where people could swap careers very easily (like Free Realms) so everyone had a shot at trying everything and then you could have very class specific solo content.

    WFS: I would pay good money to watch candidates on The Apprentice organise a WoW raid :)

    Tipa: I didn’t know that about EQ. But it sounds quite similar to what I remember loving in DaoC. I used to lead big public master level raids (ie. more than 100 people — there actually were no limits) and on the same server hardcore guilds did the same raids with a couple of groups (although it did take them a few hours longer).

  5. The essential problem I think is making a player or a small group of players responsible for the entertainment of many other players.

    That’s always going to be problematic. I think that as WoW has evolved the tension between what the players who end up as raid leaders officers want to do when they log on and what their consumer types expect of them has increased.

    I stopped playing WoW recently after being busy in real life and unable to find time to play. I realised I felt uncomfortable and a little stressed because I’d “let the guild down”. Not that anyone told me off or anything but it simply felt that there isn’t a possibility to be a casual raid leader.

    If we had had ten of thirty who were comfortable leading raids then it would have been possible. But the problem was a shortage of officer material. With only two of us willing to lead raids you end up feeling like you have to be there every night for the sake of the guild even though many players only show up once or twice a week and no one minds.

    It feels very uneven.

    I think WoW inherited a legacy of officer types when it launched from older MMO communities and that these have been dwindling while the general population has grown. I expect a lot of those old expectations and levels of commitment will disappear over the next couple of years and most players will simply not be willing to do the recruiting, raid leading, disciplining etc that people have been used to seeing in WoW.

    WotLK created a lot more raiding guilds without increasing the number of raid leader type players. This has tended to mean many guilds lack a sufficient proportion of officer types which is a vicious spiral because undermanning causes officer burnout leading to more undermanning.

    I think this will lead to a new direction in game design of more flexibility. Imagine if there were no 5 man limit to dungeons. You can do them with 5 sure, but if an extra Hunter wants to come it just makes the run faster. If you take 10 or 15 you don’t even need a tank or healer (just a resser!).

    Another possibility is that Blizzard might develop 10 man raids to match 25 mans. If they drop the same loot just about no one will bother with 25s any more and you will have tighter more effective teams.

    I certainly think something will change because I think 25 man raiding is not working well in WoW right now. There are isolated pockets of enthusiasm sure but for most players I know the general feeling is one of malaise.

  6. Seems to me the biggest difference here is between playing a game oriented around solo play versus one oriented around group play, fundamentally. Making soloing harder, you’re making a game that’s more like The Elder Scrolls – focused on individual challenge and puzzle-solving.

    The problem with that in WoW is the same problem a friend had with Elder Scrolls – he just looked up all the guides, and side-stepped the puzzles as soon as he got impatient (and I think a lot of us, even dedicated to the game, get impatient with leveling).

    The social coordination of WoW is part of the challenge, isn’t it? I mean, for me, that keeps me coming back to WoW, even when the actual fighting challenges get boring/tedious/unappealing. Then, later, I get into the raids again, and it gets a bit more balanced.

    That said, I kind of want to play your thought-experiment game at the moment. I’m loving my guild, but I also wish I could do some solo things that are more than just powering through them.

  7. Stabs: I know what you mean. I think you can assume that there are some players who will always enjoy organising … but the demands of raiding are crazy. Organising is one thing, committing to organising X raids per week for the next Y months is a huge huge commitment. Especially when they are mostly going to be in the same raid instance.

    But I agree that there’s something not right with raiding right now. You may well be right and it’s down to the lack of people who are willing to lead regularly. I know I don’t. Once a week is more than enough for me.

    Lantana: You’re right, it is part of the challenge. But whose challenge? As a regular player, your only challenge is to find a raid group. It’s only the raid leader who really gets to see that side of the game.

  8. I’m a major proponent of having a full range of easy to challenging content for both parties; soloers or groups. Anything that can allow players to tailor their experience, rather than a “golden path” through the game, makes me happy.

  9. Well, I definitely miss challenging solo content. The ease of leveling in Wrath really detracted from the epic atmosphere, in my opinion. I remember being so excited to fight the mighty Vrykul in Howling Fjord…they turned out to be flimsy pushovers.

    But I’m not sure that raiding as “mass entertainment” would succeed. Isn’t the Flame Leviathan encounter already an example of that? Sure, it’s fun, but if Ulduar had nothing else to offer, I think the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. For me, at least, the satisfaction of raiding comes from grouping up to overcome a challenge that couldn’t be done alone…and cooperating to execute a strategy.

    I’m in complete agreement with Stabs: the problem with raiding isn’t so much the difficulty of the encounters themselves, but the difficulty of recruiting and organizing enough competent and motivated people. I know my guild has a lot more fun in our 10-man runs…our attempts to get 25 people into Naxx have resulted in a lot of wasted weekends. And other guilds that I’ve run with seem to be in a similar position.

    So I wonder if we really will see more puggable raiding in 3.2. I’ve actually had a lot of fun pugging Emalon on 10 and 25-man…enough people on my server know the fight now, so we’re starting to down him reliably. And there’s something really fun about piling into VoA after we thrash the Alliance in Wintergrasp!

  10. I’m all for extra choices for all! But what I’m getting at here is that the social activities need extra help and support to make them extra-accessible /because/ people can’t do them alone. So if you make your social stuff really hard, you’re actually cutting out a lot of players — not just the ones that can’t do it but also the ones who can but just can’t find enough other good players to do it with.

  11. I think it would be awesome if there was both really challenging and accessible/relaxing content for all group sizes, including solo. WoW needs more class quests for example (and racial quests IMO), it’d help with replayability if a gnome warlock couldn’t do the same things as a night elf priest. Plus, class quests can have their difficulty tailored exactly to the class in question whereas other solo content can vary from piss-easy to impossible depending on your class and spec. I remember that many hunters and priests really enjoyed their special vanilla weapon questlines which unless I’m mistaken had to be done alone and was pretty tough. It’s a shame we don’t see anything like that in TBC or Wrath, for all classes.

    And I hear what some are saying about the demands of raiding being unfairly distributed. Raid leaders have it the worst, and tanks and healers get a lot of it too (and much less credit than the meter-bunny DPS). But that is a topic for another rant …

  12. Pingback: Declaring my independence « Stylish Corpse

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