In which we complain about solo quests in an MMO world

I realised last week that the most frustrating moments for me in MMOs are not losing in PvP, nor being yelled at in a PUG, or having a wipe night in a raid, or being beaten to a mob (in old school games in which that still is a thing). Nope. It is being forced to do a solo quest that I can’t do.

In all of those other situations you can take a break and come back and things will have changed – maybe you’ll get a better random group, or raid makeup, or find a quieter time. Maybe you could grab some friends/ willing strangers to help. But the solo quest is potentially going to block your progress forever. Plus just as it’s frustrating to be asked to find a group if you had been happily soloing, it is annoying to be forced to solo if you’d been duoing or playing with friends.

Mirkwood in LOTRO has issues with this design. It’s still one of my favourite zones, but the epic quest there does love its solo elements. Which can be fun and all when you can do them, and crazy frustrating when you are struggling. Especially if you had been duoing (or playing in a group) and now feel that everyone is waiting for you but no one can help. Arb and I have been enjoying playing our alts through Mirkwood lately, but some of those solo quests are pretty non obvious (yes I’m talking about the one where you have to help a dwarf escape from a prison via using barrels of poison to send some of the other inmates to sleep) – not hard once you know the trick, but non obvious in a frustrating way.  I’m not sure either of us were prepared for how failing a solo quest just makes you want to log off and never play the game again. (At least for awhile).

This is partly the specific quest design – a well designed piece of game will at least give you some clues as to why you failed one attempt and how you can improve next time. But it’s also because an MMO is not the same as an offline game. Most MMOs don’t optimise solo quests for specific classes (SWTOR is the exception) so the difficulty is probably not only fixed but also likely to feel unfair if it doesn’t favour your class strengths. Which is especially frustrating if you had been duoing with someone for whom that isn’t the case. It can make a huge difference if your character has strong AE, or heals, or a pet.

The legendary WoW quest

Speaking of frustrating, I’ve tried to complete the solo stage of the legendary WoW questline (Celestial Blessings) several times on my shadow priest, for both the healing and ranged dps versions. I can’t do it at all. I’ve read tactics. I’m not really interested in trying any more.

So what does this mean really? Aside from killing my enthusiasm (admittedly waning anyway) for this expansion, I guess I’m just not good enough.

I can live with this. I don’t like PvP and I’m not big on trying impressive soloing adventures. I’m a decent healer and dps on my priest but I’m not a great or talented soloer so maybe I don’t deserve cool epic things. What I find more frustrating is  feeling trailed along by this stupid questline all expansion to the point where I will have to give up. When they put in a PvP section to the legendary, people complained but it was actually very non-PvPer tolerant  (just had to win a couple of battlegrounds, which you can pretty much do by queueing repeatedly until random chance gives you a good set of team mates). So how come the solo section can’t be non-soloer tolerant too? Why is this the point where the game decides to get elitist?

I don’t know the answer to that because there is no reason. It makes me feel stupid (for assuming that the quest was aimed at the same level of player it had been from the start), as well as wanting to quit.

How do you feel about solo (I mean forced solo) quests in MMOs? Does anyone else get as frustrated as I do?

Being alone in a MMO

336295941_00e23f305fAlejandra Mavroski@Flickr

So the rumours are increasing that patch 3.3.5 is due to drop imminently in WoW, and with it the RealID integration that could potentially make privacy  a thing of the past. One of my reservations about the new scheme is that if you swap RealIDs with a friend, they can see who all of your alts are.

But sometimes, I just want to log on and not be bothered by anyone. Just to pretend I am alone to explore peacefully in a big virtual world, with no social obligations at all.

I used to game with a Finnish friend who would periodically gquit and spend a week or two guildless. Then he’d rejoin. He said it was ‘his log cabin’ time and he’d go hang out in some unpopular zone where he’d never see another player. Now that’s a little extreme, but I wonder how many people enjoy the anonymity of being able to make a new low level alt, tell no one who you are, and just melt into the virtual world.

I used to notice this a lot when my boyfriend (now husband) first moved in with me. We were living in a small one-bedroom flat and whilst there was room for us both, there wasn’t much ‘solo room’ for anyone. And sometimes, being logged into the computer and playing a single player game almost felt as though it genuinely did add some virtual space to the house. For a lot of players, living in cities or far away from open land, being able to explore a virtual world is more virtual space than they might actually see in a year.

As well as an alt or two to just chill out, my bank alts are usually guildless. There’s no special reason for it, but I quite enjoy being able to drop online to quickly check auctions without being drawn into conversations or pestered to play my ((insert group specced character of choice)). I suspect that a lot of healers in particular lean on anonymous alts for some quality solo time in game.

The other bonus of an anonymous alt is that you can easily avoid players you don’t like. I’m sure we all are far too mature to harbour grudges against guildies or other players BUT if one was so inclined, one could log in an alt and check the /who list to make sure the object of derision was not online. Maybe it’s kiddie and immature but we’ve all done it!

So understand my concern about RealID. Even with close personal friends and family, we may sometimes want anonymous alts. This is entirely the type of behaviour that Facebook and, it now appears, Blizzard would like to wipe out. They find it deceptive. They find it unfriendly. But I know my anonymous alts are neither of those things. They’re just an attempt to find some extra me-time online when I can’t do it in any other way. If they didn’t exist, I’d probably go for a long walk or hide in my bedroom with a book.

Do you have anonymous alts? Would you be happy to share that information with your friends list?

Sociopaths r us! Is a social game a polite game?

I read a great article this week (courtesy of RPS), and it was by a gaming journalist who was explaining how playing Halo tipped him over the edge. He’s describing here how he got ganked by a random stranger, became mindbogglingly furious, and spent the entire rest of the evening tracking and corpse camping the guy to get revenge.

Not unusual behaviour for someone in a shooter, you might think. It also shows signs of classical sociopathy (A pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others) and I think he was right to recognise that the game was bad for him and quit.  Here’s an example:

Who was he to take my stuff? He respawned, this time I was off to the side of the base and tossed a ‘nade. It was beautiful, curved delicately and landed right between his shoulder blades. Pow!
I wrote: “2-1″.
In truth, I was sort of hoping for an apology. He could have just given me what I wanted.

The italics above are mine.

I’d spent time tracking this guy down, I was /right/. I killed him and he quit. I tracked him down again and again and again. An evening lost to bloodying up some jerk, feeling like a vigilante.

So when someone ganked him, he felt owed an apology, but no notion of apologising to the guy whose entire evening he had ruined. FPS shooter players just don’t do that. PvP has a similar dynamic. Why would you ever apologise or expect an apology for killing someone in a PvP game? They chose to play, they knew the rules. They can log off and do something else any time they like.

By comparison, look at an article that Matticus penned this week on his blog. It’s called How to Apologize. This is about a very different type of online game, and very different types of relationships between players. He’s talking with respect to running a raiding guild, although it could just as easily apply to any player in a guild or online community.

Still, the contrast between how the writers expect other players to behave is very marked indeed. FPS online chat is known to be vicious, hostile, sexist, homophobic, racist – in fact you can name the unpleasant behaviour of your choice and it’s probably rife on Xbox Live. Trade chat on WoW isn’t all that much better, depending on your server. But guild chat is usually more polite (or at least everyone is equally accepting of the level of rudeness.)

So why do players act like sociopaths online?

Freedom to unleash your inner sociopath!

If people are acting like sociopaths, it is because they enjoy it. A lot of players have stressful factors in their jobs, relationships, study. or just generally in their lives. Logging on and being randomly horrible to a random player may be a source of stress relief. Obviously, it’s not so fun to be on the receiving end of the insults. But the sociopath player is able to ignore that; they’re either a sociopath, or roleplaying it well online, or else it’s the local game culture that everyone is randomly horrible to each other equally. Griefers even find it fun.

So people who find it great stress relief to gank people and vent at randoms enjoy the general xbox live and trade chat atmosphere. It’s perfect for them. Just as long as everyone else plays the same way too. And if anyone dares to get upset or doesn’t want to play the sociopath game then it’s their fault for being different and not trying to fit in.

I am reminded of a guild officer in my old DaoC guild (which was, in retrospect, home to some of the worst officers I’ve ever encountered.) He saw himself as an in game sergeant major and regularly used to bitch people out in public if they annoyed him.

One day, he did this to a player who became very upset. They hated being yelled at, felt insulted and belittled, and made sure he understood exactly how upset they were. At the time, his reponse to this puzzled me greatly. The officer became furious with the upset player. How dare they ruin his good shouting session by bringing stupid emotions into this? Didn’t they know that when he yelled at them, they should accept it politely and change their behaviour to exactly what he demanded?

I don’t think he was really a sociopath, just an idiot who wanted the virtual world to reflect his self image. I think he knew that he’d gone too far, but what he actually did was to yell more at the upset player for being such a delicate flower. Unsurprisingly, this did not help and resulted in a gquit. i.e. the person who did not fit into the sociopath’s guild left.

Because you can!

The internet is anarchy. And without anyone to moderate the chat channels, bboards, or live chat then sociopaths roam widely, free to force the other web denizens to conform to their mould. And if we can’t boot or report the perpetrators, then everyone else is stuck with them.

So where do people go if they hate sociopaths online? Well, not to xbox live or open FPS chatrooms, that’s for sure. They have to collect in communities which will allow them to moderate other people’s behaviour. So guilds, private servers, social networks, moderated forums/ newsgroups and anywhere else where they can keep the riff-raff out to let their frustrations out on each other somewhere in the internet back of beyond.

And then people wonder why women don’t feature much in online gaming.

Social games force people to be more polite

So if a social game is one that forces players to communicate with each other, and to cooperate, then there is a limit to how sociopathic a successful player can be. If you want to win, then you have to work with others. That’s the bottom line in this type of game. A whole guild of sociopath players can be functional, as long as no one expects anyone else to care about what they think ( if you are the type who expects apologies when someone else insults your mother, then it’s obviously not the guild for you.)

But if a player who might be a sociopath in FPS is also an achiever, they’ll probably have to modify their behaviour in a social game. So social games will tend to be more friendly — whether they’re raid based like WoW or gift based like Farmville. Their communities will tend to be more supportive and functional.

We see this even more on roleplaying servers, because RP is all about socialising (you cannot RP on your own). So these servers hold a special attraction to the most social players.

More solo friendly games will breed more sociopathic gamers

As matticus’ post shows, players who make long term commitments to their online communities do need to foster and care about their relationships with other players. You don’t need to become best friends, but you also can’t treat them as abusively as a perfect stranger who you will never meet again.

And I wonder what this means with the ongoing trend to solo-friendliness in MMOs. Although the majority of players in the random dungeon finder are fine, it’s easy enough for the sociopathic ones to sneak in these days. And the less players need to communicate and cooperate with each other in game, the easier it is to treat the others as random objects of abuse.

But MMO culture isn’t the same as FPS culture. Many more women and older players play MMOs, for a start (and yes it does make a difference.) They won’t all suddenly become randomly abusive just because they can. But other people will. And especially if game companies keep chasing the hardcore male 18-30 year old player and putting out more solo friendly games, the prospects for better communities online are poor.

So driving away from that hardcore market and more towards the mainstream is a good trend, in my opinion. Casual gamers who won’t accept that they need to put up with all that shit as the price of entry may yet keep us all honest.

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?