Soloing, going casual, and the tragedy of the commons

People talk about soloing in MMOs as if having the option to solo to the level cap was a recent innovation. Actually I remember playing MUDs mostly solo. As long as there have been virtual worlds, there have been both players who just wanted to quietly get on with their own thing and those who wanted to play with others.

However it’s the players who want to play with others who create the in game community.

MMOs are all about options. You can have soloers, raiders, hardcore, casual, explorers, achievers, et al all playing in the same virtual world. And that means you can play different sides of the game depending on how you feel.  I used to be in a guild with a Finnish guy who occasionally would /gquit for a couple of weeks to get away from the world (including guild chat). He referred to this as ‘going on holiday to his virtual log cabin’. He could have just not logged in but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be alone in the virtual world.

Sometimes you’ve had a rough day at work and don’t want to be hassled. Other times you really want to be around other people, and I love that the game provides these options.

But, aside from the regular flow of people who switch between soloing and grouping as their mood dictates, there are a lot of players who never have any intention of grouping with anyone they don’t know. I’ve always felt that they were a large but mostly invisible segment of the population. You don’t ‘see’ them because they don’t talk, they don’t join guilds. I remember being surprised when a guy joined our WAR guild and commented that although he’d played MMOs for years, this was the first time he had ever joined a guild. He’d just been playing with friends and never needed nor wanted the guild.

So who needs who, really?

A soloer, or a small group of RL friends who only ever group with each other, is a self contained unit. They don’t need anyone else to play in their preferred way. They don’t really need access to a guild bank or guild crafters because there are Auction Houses and trade channels.

Some may choose to join guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere, and to share information, loot, and skills. But it isn’t really clear what the guild gets from having soloers as members.

Players who like to group, on the other hand, need to be around other social players. You can’t run group content on your own, by definition. And so social players tend to cluster into guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere and to share information, loot, and skills, and also so that they can more easily find people to group with.

There are two types of successful guild, really. One is the very focussed one in which every member wants to do the same type of activity in game. These would be like raiding or endgame guilds. Over time they may ease the focus, let in more alts and social members, and evolve a more casual tier alongside the hardcore centre.

You can have a guild that is focussed on supporting casual members who are mostly soloers. But it’s very difficult to keep that kind of community together unless there’s a core of the guild who is a little less casual than the rest or unless you prearrange set times to play.

The other type is a larger social type of guild which is more of a broad umbrella under which members do what they like. And this kind of guild can carry a few soloers, maybe even a lot, but it absolutely must also have a critical mass of members who like to group because otherwise the guys who want to group won’t be able to find guild groups.

This isn’t just about grouping for instances or raids or PvP. I’ve been in RP guilds where we organised little RP events and were struggling to get people to come to them, while seeing half the guild online but off soloing somewhere else. Those are players who went to the effort of joining a RP guild but then when it actually tried to organise something that they could easily have joined in, they preferred to keep farming. They didn’t really want to be part of the guild or interact in any way beyond the chat channel.

And let me tell you, when you are trying to organise anything in guild and people flip you off for no real reason other than that they can’t be bothered, even though they are online and not busy, it will quickly put you off trying to organise anything else in future. This is why social guilds need to keep the number of soloers down and the number of social members up.

If the number of social members falls too low, then the rest MUST leave too for a guild with better grouping opportunities or else they’ll be very very miserable. And you can guarantee it’ll be the guys who mostly solo who will be tutting and complaining that people aren’t loyal to their guilds any more these days when they go.

The only guild that truly benefits from soloers is the solo-centric guild, made by and for other soloers. And ironically, most soloers who want to join a guild for the chat channel and crafters are not looking for that kind of guild.

Note: Yes, when I say soloers I mean people who have no intention of ever grouping with anything they don’t know iRL. I don’t have a problem with the playstyle. I still think it’s great that MMOs can cater to all sorts. And I do have friends in my guild who mostly solo because of RL issues, and we love having them around. But don’t join a guild just for its chat channel without telling them that’s all you want.

Just bear in mind that if I want to group, I need to have people around who want to do the same thing. If I want to solo (or play with a partner or fixed group), I don’t need anyone or anything. And a social player can provide all the same things as a soloer, but they’re also helping to build the community.

So why are you soloing in an MMO anyway?

Syp is tired of being asked why he would want to solo in a multi-player game. That’s a fair point, it’s no-one’s business what you do in the game as long as you aren’t harassing anyone (and by definition, soloers are very unlikely to be in this situation).

But he then goes on to explain that soloers may not really want to be alone, and thinks it’s reasonable to join a guild anyway. I beg to differ. It MAY be reasonable to join a guild, if you can find one that it copacetic with your playstyle.

He also comments that solo players may appreciate the support network that other players can provide. And they’ll provide you with this for no return why exactly? How is that not leeching? And why do you need a support network anyway if you are soloing?

But if you join a social guild, every time you are online when someone is trying to organise a guild activity and you could have taken part but you decided not to bother, you are breaking a piece of someone’s heart. But of course, you’re solo, so you’re not interested in being anyone else’s support network. Why should you care? Why should you help to support the guild, you’re only there for the chat channels? Maybe they’re the ones who  should  chill out and remember it’s just a game.

(I’m not convinced that MMOs offer more bang for your buck than single player games, though. I suppose it depends which single player games and which MMOs.)

Relying on the more hardcore

Actually, a lot of players do rely on more hardcore people to provide their player-generated entertainment. A guild leader or raid leader puts much more time and effort into the game than a rank or file member. Both types of player need each other, but one is definitely working harder.

So maybe a casual player wants to not be tied to a schedule, but still be able to log into a friendly guild and find competent groups whenever they want. In order for a guild to provide that, they need to have a core of more hardcore players who will be around more often, will play enough to become competent, and will want to group whenever the casual player logs in.

I don’t think people always see that side of things. In order for me to have my great casual friendly guild, officers and raid leaders need to want to put in a lot more work than I do. It isn’t that I’m not valuable, but I am relying on some people being more hardcore.

So … tragedy of the commons?

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?