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Crafting a Massively Single-Player Online Experience

A thought experiment on how to better accommodate solo MMO(RPG) players. What would such a game look like, and how much different would it be from today's games? Sometimes, a little change can go a long way.

Craig Ellsworth, Blogger

February 14, 2012

7 Min Read

I don't like playing videogames with strangers.  Nothing ruins fun like a stranger getting in your face and calling you a n00b or a fagit (sic).  It's bad enough to see it on a screen, and all the worse when it's assaulting my ears.

Other times, like in MMORPGs, players are well-meaning and friendly, but are unintentionally harming the experience, either by role-playing just the wrong amount (too little breaks the mood, too much is hokey), or by harassing me with guild invites, party invites, requests to trade, etc.

So when I play MMOs, I either wish to personally know the player I am in a party with so we know we mesh well beforehand, or I just prefer to play alone.

When it comes to playing alone, it seems MMOs don't spend the time to craft great solo experiences.  True, playing solo in some ways defeats the purpose of MMOs, but I like think that if the option is available (and it usually is), time and care should be spent on it.

So this article is going to be a thought experiment in what an MMO with an ideal (or at least decent) solo experience might look like.  It won't change the game very much; it'll just take a couple of tweaks to go a long way.

For instance, let us suppose an MMO offers a standard layout of populated cities along with instanced dungeons/levels.  These dungeons would be instanced on an individual basis, so that one player does not see another while in a dungeon, but players see each other in cities, where trade and dialogue can occur.

This already happens in some MMOs, but in others this feature is surprisingly missing.

Of course, party play should certainly be allowed, but this should be an option that is opt-in.  This prevents players who want to play in parties from harassing those who don't, decreasing aggravation and wasted time on both sides.

All that the restriction feature would entail is:  players who want to play in a party cannot invite soloers to join their party.  Nothing would interrupt the soloer (in fact the soloer would have no idea the invitation was sent), and if the option were an icon, the partier would be unable to click the invite button.  If invitations were a hotkey, a message would pop up saying "This player is not accepting invites."

A simple checkbox in a menu to enable party play is all that is necessary, or perhaps a hotkey/combo that is not likely to be accidentally struck, like Shift + Scroll Lock or something.

I hesitate to say that soloers and partiers should have separate servers, because for some reason many MMOs do not allow players to switch a character's server, or do allow switching but charge a fee for it.  To me switching servers should be a free and automatic exchange, but if there is a technical restriction, I would not want a player who begins as a soloer and wants to join a guild later to be screwed.

So the option should always exist, but players enter the world as individuals and can enable guilds and parties at their will.

Beyond that, quests/missions and dungeons/levels should be designed with both solo and party play in mind.  If the designers want to create a level that requires a party, that level should be non-existent to a soloer.

A soloer should never feel left out of content because of their play choice, so party-only content should never come up.  It should seem to the solo player as though such content was never created, or solo-only content replaces the multiplayer content.

The same should occur in the reverse, so that partiers do not accidentally begin a solo quest or feel as though they are missing out on content because of their own play style choice.

This can be accomplished by that same simple checkbox/hotkey that enables party play.  Once the player enables party play, all solo quests disappear and are replaced by party quests.

Another solution, however, is to simply create levels that are designed for both, which has the added bonus of avoiding doubling the cost of development.

If a level is designed to require two players to stand on separate switches to open a door, for instance, the solo version could be identical but for an additional crate that the player can move onto one of the switches.

This is not always a feasible design, however, especially with party-designed levels that need to feel as though every member of the team is valuable, and can't just be replaced by a crate.

A possible, but terrible, solution to this is to have soloers be accompanied by an AI character that can fill the role of another party member.  This is an awful idea for two reasons:  1.) AI is not where we need it to be for a solid experience; and 2.) A soloer is not going to want an AI helper.

Any party member, whether an actual player or a bot, entirely defeats the purpose of solo play.  A soloer wants to feel as though they are a hero without a sidekick; someone who needs only himself.  Batman is so much cooler when Robin isn't tagging along.

So the best design strategy for players' enjoyment is to create levels specifically for solo or party play, and hide them when the player has disabled them; but for development costs, the best design strategy is to create levels that can do double duty.

Beyond level design, other aspects of an MMO go a long way to help a soloer get the flow:

Certainly, character customization becomes a high, high priority.  Soloers want to feel like individuals, not clones, so if a player sees a clone of his character in the game, it breaks the experience.

Along with that, if the game offers ways to further customize characters in-game, such as changing clothing, armor, weapons, and the like, then there should be a sufficient variety of models of the same kinds of equipment.

For instance, suppose completing a particular quest rewards a player with an armor item that adds +2 defense.  If that piece of armor were a single, invariable item with a specific name (Leather Jerkin of Defense), every soloer who completes the quest will receive the same item.  Then a soloer will spot another player in a town with that item, and the illusion of being the only one to go on that quest (and therefore a unique hero in the world) is lost.

To fix this, either offer visual swaps of the item (the player can choose between a black, brown, or red Leather Jerkin of Defense), or offer equal stat-ed items (the player can choose between a +2 Jerkin, +2 Pants, or +2 Boots).  Offering such visual variety prevents a city of clones, and helps with immersion.

For the best player experience, offer multiple types of equipment with the same stats; but for development costs, offer palette-swapped equipment.

These are only a couple of tweaks that would help solo playing and soloer immersion in an MMO.  Some of these are simple tweaks, although the best solutions require more development time.

Without features such as these, I often feel that soloers are given the backhand by MMO developers, as though they are not the ideal player, and therefore do not warrant such time and effort in developing for.

However, often players who are new to a game want to spend some time exploring on their own, or need a closed-off tutorial for a short time before entering the larger world, and there is no shortage of solo tutorial stages in MMOs.  While the hand-holding aspect of those tutorials can be eliminated, the same attention should be paid to crafting the single-player experience throughout the MMO.

Thought of any other minor tweaks (or huge overhauls) that could greatly improve the solo experience? Leave a comment.

To read this post with jokes and pictures, or other articles, reviews, and development logs, head over to http://scattergamed.blogspot.com/ 

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