Why would anyone want to solo in a massively multiplayer game? That is a question often heard in the Solo vs. Group debate. Yet, with each new game, the question persists: Will we be allowed to solo?
There are players who maintain soloing will destroy any massively multiplayer game. If players are allowed to solo, there won’t be groups, and if there aren’t groups, there isn’t a community. There are other players who insist a character should be able to solo the entire time and have the same experience as anyone else. As is often the case, the truth is found somewhere in the middle.
The building of community is of paramount importance to a successful virtual world, and there is no better way to build community than to have groups of players working together to achieve some type of goal. But of equal importance is player retention. If players do not stay long in the game world, then the community created by grouping will not have a chance to gel and form.
Player retention is achieved, in part, by freedom: the freedom to play the game in many different ways. A massively multiplayer game aiming at a strong community must open different paths and must limit “forcing” the player on a single path. The fewer options there are, the more limited game play becomes. The more limited the game play, the quicker a player moves on to the next big thing, which in the end hurts the community.
What is often lost in these debates is that those who participate in them are often the minority, no matter which side they take. The extreme on either side make up the ‘vocal minority,’ while the majority rests somewhere in the middle. Most players find themselves either wanting or needing to solo from time to time, and very few of them want that time to be completely wasted.
There are many reasons to solo. It might be something to do while players have their looking-for-group flag turned on. Or, they might have a set of friends they group with every night, and they are just waiting for them to log on. Or, they might be waiting for a guild raid to start. It could even be something that doesn’t have anything to do with the game: Dinner is going to be ready in an hour so they can’t be stuck in the middle of a dungeon, but they feel like playing a little bit.
If soloing were unavailable, if the rate of advancement was so small that it was viewed as a complete waste of time, then these players are forced with the decision to either sit around in game doing nothing or logging out and perhaps checking back in later. Anytime a player contemplates logging out because there is nothing for them to do is bad for the game and thus bad for the community. Once a player begins deciding not to log in to the game, or to log out when they’d really rather play, the player inevitably begins thinking about leaving the game entirely.
This is where lack-of-soloing has a detrimental effect on grouping. A group of players that started together and adventured up through the game might begin losing friends due to this issue. Thus, even a player who spends their entire time grouping might feel the effect when one of their long-time grouping mates leaves the game.
Player retention is necessary for a healthy community. Yet, if soloing is on completely equal footing as grouping, the community also deteriorates. There will still be many who choose to group for the social interaction, but these players will find it more difficult to locate a group because there would be fewer groups to find. And, once formed, the group will have more difficulty finding someplace to adventure because content can be gobbled up much more quickly by people soloing than grouping. This cycle can build upon itself until soloing almost seems forced, and again, community deteriorates.
What is the solution?
Balance — that much-maligned, often misunderstood philosophy crucial to the success of any game. Many players mistake balance for equality, but it actually means harmonic proportion. In fact, equality can be as “out-of-balance” as anything else if it does not produce harmony.
How is harmony achieved? Therein lies the true question, and it is not one with an easy answer. Soloing must offer fast enough advancement so as to not be viewed as a waste of time (thus creating ‘forced grouping’), while grouping must remain attractive enough that most players want to do it.
One way to achieve this goal is to have split goals. For example, the rate of experience gain for a character could be relatively equal whether they are grouped or solo, but the best items could only be found through groups. This would seem to give each its place: A player could group throughout the game without feeling forced to solo, and a player could solo when they wanted while having an incentive to group.
But using this tactic for balance still makes true harmony very difficult to achieve. If, for example, the solo player can rake in a fair amount of gold while soloing, the incentive to group declines as they can simply purchase the items they covet. This could be countered by making the items non-tradable so that only the group finding the item may use them – but that is like using a sledgehammer to put out a fire. It might squash a few of the flames, but it is likely to spread embers throughout the field.
Perhaps the best way a developer can tackle the problem is to simplify it. The problem is simplified by looking solely at the rate of experience gained by a solo player compared to a full group and then asking the following question: At what percentage of group experience would a solo player feel that they are making significant advancement to their character while still providing a solid incentive to group?
Of course, the answer to this question is going to depend on the developer and the game, and will vary accordingly. Certainly, while one player might think one percentage is fair, another might think it too much, and a third may think it too little. For the sake of the article, though, we’ll pretend the answer is 50%. The ability to gain half the advancement rate while soloing isn’t so bad as to make it a complete waste of time, and the ability to virtually double your experience is a good incentive to group.
Once decided on this number, the next step is to carry it forward to reward. It is easy to apply it to ‘cash’ rewards: if half the experience was deemed a good percentage, then half the gold would also seem good. Where it becomes problematic is in item rewards. Should items drop at one-half the group rate, but be of equal value? Or, perhaps, have the same number of item drops, but half the value? Half the item drops and half the value?
The idea of having items drop that are half the value of group-oriented items might sound good on paper, but it is pointless in practice. These items would quickly become known as cash-items – items only good for selling at a merchant – and would only serve the gold-oriented area of the balancing. And yet, having items of equal value drop, even if at half the frequency, does not support the incentive to group.
The problems lies in figuring out what, exactly, is half the reward on item drops. This was easy to figure out on experience rewards because it deals with one single number, but items have many different factors that play into them. If the average weapon attainable by a group at a specific level range offers 10 dps (damage-per-second), a weapon that offers 5 dps may sound like it is half value, but in effect it has no value. The player would simply sell it to a merchant (no player would buy it) and use the gold to buy the better weapon. Thus, it becomes a cash-item, not an item-reward.
At this point, the 50% figure becomes liquid. The developers must determine at what point an item would achieve a real 50% value. It might be that the weapon offers 9.5 dps as opposed to 10 dps, or it might be that their damage rating is the same, but the stat increases offered by the group-oriented weapon are better than the one that can be found solo. It might be a mixture of both. In any case, the item reward must be good enough to be useful, while the equivalent item reward from grouping must be better. This same philosophy can then be applied to ‘rare’ items: A rare item on a solo encounter might be better than a common item on a group encounter, but pale compared to a rare item on a group encounter.
This is why balancing is as much an art as it is a science. Yet, it is important for the developers to find some type of balance between group play and solo play, for when they are not in balance, the game as a whole suffers – and this includes both players who prefer to group and players who prefer to solo.
Vanguard and Soloing
As with many issues, the developers of Vanguard have been very tight-lipped on the subject. They realize the importance of being able to solo in the game: Steve Burke, a senior developer at Sigil, has said:
“We recognize that sometimes players find themselves without an ideal group or with no friends online. Throughout all levels of the game, there will be content that allows players to meaningfully advance their characters during these periods.
That said, rewards will scale with risk. A player who plays alone will not be rewarded the same as the players who team up to overcome more challenging content. A player could choose to play through to the higher levels of the game without forming large groups or forging any meaningful relationships, but he/she wouldn’t be as powerful, or as skilled as one who had.”
It remains to be seen how good a job they have done of balancing these two play styles within the game. Few players wish to see an imbalance persist past the beta, as that usually leads to major changes after the game has gone live. Everquest II experienced this same problem: at release the game was extremely solo-unfriendly to the point where it hurt the community and the game, but often times when trying to fix such a problem after release, the pendulum of balance swings too far to the other side. The only thing worse than a game with a major balance issue is a game that constantly changes trying to fix that balance issue.