Two’s Company: Duoing in MMOs

Some of the most fun times I’ve had playing MMOs have been when I was playing with one other person who I knew from RL. I’ve levelled characters alongside my partner, I’ve levelled characters alongside my sister, and I’ve played a few sessions levelling alongside a friend or guildie who I came to know in game.

In some ways it’s the perfect blend of single player game and MMO. You’re on your own in a massive world filled with other people … but you’re not really alone. It’s you and your BFF against the world! Your group becomes your own private chat channel. You can almost treat the whole experience as a private game just for the two of you, which happens to have other people wandering around in it also. Although duoing does mean you need to coordinate your playing time with one other person, it’s much easier to do this if you know them (or live with them) in real life.

Having another person along means you can take out a lot of those irritating group quests (you know those questlines that start solo and end with a group quest?), especially if you picked a pair of characters that complement each other mechanically. Plus you can pick complementary trade skills to help each other even more.

So really you can have most of the advantages of soloing (ie. the convenience, not needing to rely on lots of people you don’t know), without the disadvantages of being cut out of so much content. Plus you won’t be feeling lonely. It never surprised me that a lot of people like to play in duos with friends or significant others. If you’re both gamers, duoing in an MMO can be a nice way to share your hobby and get some ‘alone time’ together.

I think most players probably underestimate how many other people play in duos. MMO devs don’t. All these games with special bring-a-friend offers cater to the duo, or specifically to the player who wants to encourage a friend or partner to come and duo with them. And it’s also not surprising that so many ‘group’ quests turn out to be duoable.

In fact, I’d be surprised if we don’t see more games experimenting with adding extra small group instancing or scalable content in future. It may well be the sweet spot for players who’d like a game to play with a partner but don’t want the hassle of MMO endgame, and don’t particularly want to meet new people and get ganked by them.

Problems with Duos

Duos can be terrifically antisocial. I know that when I’m happily levelling with a friend and we’re in ‘the zone’ it’s very unlikely that I’ll invite random people to join the group. Why would I? Part of the reason we are playing in a duo is to have some private time together.

Being in a pair also makes it more difficult to join an existing group. They need to have two spare places, and be agreeable to whichever two classes are being played. If a group needs a healer, will they be able or willing to take the rogue as well? And if you do find an existing group to join, will you bother to talk to them or just keep chatting privately while the group gets on with business?

This is going to be much less of an issue in a game like WAR when you can just rock up and join in a public quest without needing to fumble the various group disband and invite commands. But then again, very few people do talk to each other in WAR public quests. They don’t need to. So it’s sociable in the same way that getting on a packed train and only talking to your partner is sociable. Or working in a call centre. Lots of other people around you doing the same thing, but no real need to communicate with them, so no one does.

So I suspect that people in duos are less likely to act sociably than soloers. They don’t need the social contact, they may not need the assistance for group quests, and it’s more difficult for them to join groups unless they create the groups themselves.

The other big issue with duoing is being so reliant on one other person. What happens if you spend all your time in game duoing and your partner decides that they are bored and wants to quit? What if you have incompatible playing styles or one person is much slower than the other to learn how to play? What if they want to join a hardcore raiding guild and you don’t, or vice versa? What if they got bored with their character and want to reroll but you like your high level alt and want to keep going with it?

I find that the most duo friendly games are often the ones that also scale better in general. So if a third or fourth person does want to come along, it’s easy to switch up to appropriate content. City of Heroes is extremely duo friendly and if one person can’t play as much as the other or someone wants to start a new alt, it’s also very very easy for the duo to keep playing together.

(Shame the gameplay bores me rigid and I don’t find it a very exciting world to explore.)

What would be good duo content?

I’d love to see more small group content in games. We enjoyed the three-man instances in LOTRO, for example. But trouble is, it can’t come at the cost of less solo content or less larger group content. The solo content gives everyone more options – even the ones who don’t bring a friend with them – and the larger group content nudges players out to meet and interact with new people, which small group content doesn’t so much.

As long as MMOs are not shipped with the requirement ‘You will need a friend to play’ then the duo content has to be handled carefully. Because playing with one other person can be such a private experience, even a social player isn’t necessarily going to want to hook up with a stranger for hours of instancing. And forcing players artificially into duos is not really good for the social side of a game.

Really I’d rather see better scaling with numbers on non-progression instances. CoH can manage this and there’s no reason other games can’t also. It’s just that these kinds of instances would necessarily have to be fairly easy given how classes usually work. It just isn’t possible to have an instance not only scale with numbers but also give similar challenge to two players of any class unless the similar challenge is ‘it’s easy’ or ‘it’s impossible.’

Having said that, its easy to imagine crafted duo content. Imagine two switches that need to be pressed at the same time, a boat that takes two people working together to sail, and similar styles of encounter. I’m sure it’d be possible to figure out more interesting boss fights also where you know there will be two players involved.

So I’m torn. I’d enjoy more duo content but I can’t help feeling that a game based on that assumption would end up feeling like a virtual Sandals resort, or a restaurant on Valentine’s Day, or Hatton Garden at the weekends (it’s where half of London goes to check out engagement rings) … It’d be the Stepford Wives couples club. And so help me God, the thought makes me run fleeing to my random PUG where people might be annoying but at least they talk to you.

Save me PUG! I don’t want to be a stereotyped couple!!