Fixed Levelling Groups: Myths and Mythconceptions

There are big advantages to coming into a new MMO with a bunch of people you already know.

You have yourself a fixed social group. Instead of going out for a beer, you can just arrange one night as an online gaming night in the game of choice and pick up where you left off last time. Especially if you are playing with friends who don’t live in the same city (or even country) you get to hang out together without needing to actually be together.

You can  pick compatible classes/ specs/ starting areas to make yourselves a perfectly balanced team. All the group content as you level is easy for you to organise. You  never have to fret about finding a tank or healer (or dps) — because you have your fixed group of friends.

And of course, you’ll never have to run in a pickup group or use the looking for group tools. You can laugh at the trade channel/ barrens chat/ whatever and know that you’ll never need to hangout with anyone outside your fixed group.

So to sum this up, fixed groups offer:

  • Good, guaranteed social group – hopefully of people you want to spend more time hanging out with.
  • Good guaranteed mix of classes for tackling group content in game.
  • Good, guaranteed game times that you can arrange your week around in advance.
  • Less risk of having to rely on people outside your fixed group.

By playing in a fixed group, people are effectively saying that they’re less interested in the massively multiplayer side of MMOs, and instead they’re looking for a small multiplayer environment.

Some MMOs offer fantastic  rewards for people who can keep a tight core group of friends to play with. All the group content suddenly becomes easier because you’re removing the most difficult part; getting the group together in the first place. So in WoW, for example, there would never be any trouble organising groups for the 5 man achievements (assuming that your friends play at a similar skill level) or getting people together to boost one of the group’s alts through an instance.

And as with all rewards, hardcore players respond by changing the way that they play the game. Small group content is great, but it does encourage small cliques and actively nudge people away from mixing outside their regular social circle.

So what is the problem with fixed levelling groups?

I don’t know about you but I’ve never been in a fixed group which lasted more than a few months. That’s with playing one night a week. The group sessions also tended to become shorter and shorter, and we never got anywhere near the endgame.

So all those dreams of the perfect fixed group? It just turned out to be easier to level the regular way and then feel around for people to hang out with.

I am sure there must be people out there who have made it work. In my experience the fixed group is most stable when people share the same goals, and works best when those are casual goals. Otherwise people get frustrated when one player forgets a session, isn’t in the mood, or decides that they don’t like their class and want to reroll (this is also one of the problems with trying to premake the perfect group).

Problems I’ve seen with fixed groups:

  1. Some people know the game better than others, they either get frustrated, or the newer players get stressed out at being dragged through content faster than they had planned.
  2. One or more people isn’t so into the idea and often forgets sessions or has to leave early.
  3. One or more people really loves the game and their character, and sneaks on during the week to play it more often.
  4. People find that they don’t actually get on all that well.
  5. Progress is slow, and at least one person decides there is something else they’d rather do that night. I was in at least one group that was running instances in WoW, the first few weeks we ran a different instance every week. Then things slowed down, people didn’t want to run the Scarlet Monastery for three weeks running.
  6. People want to do different things on the set game night. Maybe one person wants to run a cool questchain that ends in a group quest, and another wants to do an instance, and another is just in the mood to craft quietly.
  7. Some quests just don’t work very well if you do them in groups.

So although MMOs often reward the fixed group, most aren’t really set up for levelling in one. If the levelling game is designed at all, from a social point of view  it’s with the idea that people will be doing some quests solo or in small groups (duo is popular), with occasional larger groups for specific group quests or instances.

It didn’t used to be like this. Before the onset of quests/directed content people usually formed into groups and hung out at prime farming spots. And if you went to one of the farming spots on your own, you could probably find a group to snap you up. If not, you hung around and waited until they had room.

It was definitely better for preformed groups, but not necessarily more fun in itself.

So these days it would probably be easier to sort out a schedule in advance of things to do on the game nights. And let people level on their own in the meantime. eg. start with any outstanding group quests that anyone had, go on to run an instance. And agree at the end of each session what sort of level people would try to be at for the next session.

But you can’t sort out a good schedule unless you know the game quite well, and that’s the rub. When you know the game, you will know what levels the instances are designed for, where they are, and what a good group mix might be. You’ll know which quests to avoid and which will be most fun.

Alternatively, if you’re all going in blind with the aim of learning the game together, you risk people learning at different rates, deciding they want to do different things, not understanding the mechanics well enough to pick a good balanced group at the start and so on. With friends, and people you want to hang out with, this won’t matter so much. Either you’ll handle the content with the group you have, or eventually get bored. But you’ll have had your social hangout which was one of the main goals.

I think CoH is the notable exception to the trend here.  I like my games massive and multiplayer but CoH have really nailed it when it comes to removing barriers that stop friends being able to play together. Missions and instances scale themselves to the group size, if one person wants to play more or less then they can be sidekicked/ exemplared, and there aren’t really that many different things to do that people would get distracted. So if I was looking for a fixed group, that might be my game of choice.

Has anyone had much luck with fixed levelling groups? And in which games?