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Crafting a Massively Single-Player Online Experience
by Craig Ellsworth on 02/14/12 01:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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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Comments


Bart Stewart
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In fairness, and as I think even you acknowledge by the end of your thoughts, what you're describing here isn't really a massively single-player online game. It's a MMOG with some enhancements for soloers.



If that's your intention, then your specific suggestions seem very reasonable. If you really were thinking what a true MSOG might look like, then I think there are some other ways you might go.

Craig Ellsworth
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Absolutely; calling it an MSOG was more of a catchy title than anything; it really was more simply ways to offer solo-friendly content and options, which in turn should improve the experience for everyone.

Robert Boyd
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We already have a Massively Single Player Online Game. It's called Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon's Souls).

Alex Leighton
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Problem with the different content for soloers and partiers is that people WILL feel that they're missing out because of their play style choice. Even if it's doesn't exist in game, people will go online/talk to friends and find out that the best quest in the game requires you to group up with a bunch of 12 year olds.



The better way to go would be to offer the same basic content to everyone, but alter the difficulty based on party size. Nobody gets locked out of content, and everyone can enjoy the game the way they want to.

E Zachary Knight
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Yeah, scalable difficulty is the way to go if you go this route. There are ways to design the game to scale for when there is a group and when there is a solo player.

Dan Porter
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I'd have to double check, but I'm pretty sure SWTOR now offers an option to stop receiving invites from the social menu. If they don't they should :)



I think as MMOs grow as a genre, we will see more options for shutting out unwanted attention without necessitating the use of an "ignore" command.



As for unique armor options, this will always be a problem until stat blocks are no longer tied to an armor's appearance. There will always be a limited number of art assets and armor options, so to have the best stats you must look like all the other people with the best stats. Not to mention the fact that player armor has a tendency to make everyone look like an epic hero. I've played WoW, Age of Conan, and SWTOR... all of them run into the same problem: the players at the top all look the same. As Syndrome from "The Incredibles" put it: "If everyone's super, no one is."



I still can't for the life of me figure out why most mainstream MMOs don't let players alter armor appearance. Changing which model the game loads seems not much more difficult than adding glow effects for enchantments or tracking which player crafted the armor. Imagine how different WoW would be if top tier raiders were running around in bikinis and banana-yellow jump suits. A better place? Maybe not, but at least players would feel different from one another.

Glen Cooney
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I imagine the armor thing is more an issue of balance for PVP. If everyone could have any kind of wacky appearance they want, then that would make it very hard for players to figure out what kind of gear another player had and thus how to tackle them.



Perhaps the solution is to have separate PVE or PVP gear, or at least appearances, to make things a little easier to sort out.


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