Recap: Playing Alone Together

After a somewhat contrite tweet of mine asking why anyone wants to play MMOs only ever to run solo (although I did not specify this very well), my twitter started buzzing with different reactions ranging from introvert personality to time management issues and maybe most popularly “having other people around you for feeling”. One tongue-in-cheek reply suggested other people were the better NPC AI.

The question is obviously close to the dilemma many of us are feeling towards MMOs nowadays, and it spurred two excellent elaborations by Wolfy and Gracie who can identify with the soloing aspect. Naturally so can I and if you’ve been following this blog in more recent times, you will remember me rambling on about how, as aging players, we probably have to accept that many MMOs won’t accommodate our busy schedules and unpredictable game time. There is a younger voice inside of me who judges the slacker I have become; 12 years ago I would have hated being guilded with myself. Actually, I wouldn’t have accepted myself as an applicant. “You want community, people to be around with, learn from, progress with? Put in some goddamn effort!” That’s me. Even as a much more casual player these days, I will not expect MMOs to go all solo-friendly and it vexes me to hear others demand it should be so, as if that affected nothing.

The thing about community and cooperation is that it only thrives as much as people are willing to actively partake. That doesn’t mean you have to group up or socialize around the clock in MMOs, far from it, but it requires a degree of willingness to contribute more regularly. Playstyle variety is fine, pottering by yourself is too – MMOs would be horrid business if soloing was no option whatsoever. And yet when it comes down to it, the soul of the MMO experience has and always will lie in the cooperative aspects for me personally. It’s what sets the genre apart from so many others. I know a blogger or two like Bhagpuss who would vehemently disagree on this point with me. That spares them my particular torment.

To play MMOs only ever to see people run around you that aren’t quite as scripted as NPCs sounds like a dreadful reduction of social engagement to mere window dressing. Does this experience really offer so much more than big-world RPGs such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 would? Or is it maybe just a shadow of a memory now, a mere habit to log into MMO worlds to solo when you could be soloing anywhere? To turn your back completely on the MMO genre is tough for anyone who has loved it. Keeping at least half a foot in the door means you’re not quite gone, still a part.

I am not judging that and I am hardly innocent; I am however very torn about going against the very thing that defines MMOs for me by mostly soloing and not contributing to server culture and community much. One could take the unadorned and sober stance that as long as I’m the paying customer, I can do and demand whatever I want from my MMO time and of course I can. I can also open the goose’s belly to see if there’s more gold inside but alas, that’s when all the magic’s gone. As much as I love exploring my virtual settings, the music and character progress, MMOs come alive when that unscripted, genuine social magic is happening. I doubt that I can ever stop chasing that.

16 comments

  1. My favorite reason was always because single-player RPGs don’t tend to get the same kind of regular content updates and support for years after release.

  2. I was going to make an irreverent quip but on mature reflection I have a more considered response. The things I desire and deem important with regard to gaming have changed over the years. Therefore many of my aspirations from a decade ago are no longer relevant to me now. It happens in other areas of our lives. Musical tastes, fashion and hairstyles frequently change over time. Take a look through your old photos and consider if that’s the look you’d choose now :)

    So I have no reason to listen to that voice you referred to in your post. For me letting go of my former gaming notions was not difficult. I take a far less ideological approach to gaming now and my choices are driven by fun, time and cost. Gaming isn’t a social endeavour anymore. It’s a simple quid pro quo based around entertainment. If I was confronted by my former self in some sort of psychotic episode and berated for my alleged about turn in gaming principles, I would simply bellow “get off my lawn, Hippy”.

    1. Ah well that sort of impassionate convo with a hippie leads nowhere, as she would then reply that you’ve given up on principle and virtue for convenience, basically you’re a sell-out and she wouldn’t care. The funny thing is that it’s not even a hippie voice; it’s one with strongly meritocratic tendencies as most raiders have it.

      But then, we’re talking online games here, silly endeavors surely unworthy of such moral debate. You’re quite right of course that you should live your life, yet I suspect you’re not actually part of the above issue anyway. ;) You’re not playing MMOs and whining every other minute they should change to suit you better, you simply removed yourself knowing you’re unable to play them nowadays.

  3. It depends on the MMO, honestly.

    In WoW, while I have friends who play, I used to be on when they weren’t. But at the same time, WoW has some of the most toxic players out there, who like nothing better than to ruin other people’s fun.

    On SWTOR, the atmosphere (outside of the Fleet) isn’t that bad, and I don’t mind helping out from time to time, my play time permitting. Same with GW2.

    Wildstar, well… I’ve been too engrossed in the world and zone stories to pay much attention to other players, but most of the chat I see surrounds random raid grouping, not necessarily grouping for individual quests. I’ll still help someone out if I see they need it and I’m nearby, but Wildstar’s focus is on endgame (like WoW’s and Age of Conan’s are).

    LOTRO still has the most immersive and friendly group of players for an MMO, and if there’s a place I’d show up mainly for the immersion and the fun of regular players, that’s the MMO. It’s pretty dated these days as far as graphics go, however, but the background scenery is still magnificent.

    All that is just splitting hairs, as the real reason I play solo is that I’ve done grouping and guilds, and I’ve seen both at its best and its worst. The last thing I need is to have online drama follow me around when I’m supposed to be relaxing and having fun, so I pick and choose my multiplayer activities. Perhaps I’m not opening myself up to all the possibilities an MMO offers, but I also keep the drama away.

    1. Yeah that’s very true, there’s a strong been there done that feeling with guilds in MMOs and endgame progression etc. I have never felt this more strongly than in Wildstar where I did join a very dedicated guild for a time but I really wasn’t up for the politics and inside drama.
      Maybe it IS really as simple as only having so many groups and guilds in you until you know all the people in MMOs you ever wanted to know…..a bit sad for me personally, because these days me and my old WoW pals hardly ever manage to get together in the same game anymore.

      1. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve witnessed guild and chat drama and thought “You idiots, this is supposed to be fun! Can’t you see that?”

        It’s only when I decided to simply not engage that I was able to relax and enjoy myself.

        I suppose the entire point of guilds and multiplayer activity in MMOs becomes a “tempest in a teapot”, but one in which I don’t have to experience in order to enjoy the fruits of a game company’s labor.

  4. Honestly, some people are playing the RPG part and the MMO part is just a sort of “tax” for having the chance to play it. Other people are hell, maybe, but maybe there’s also something there i’d like to see, maybe?

    One reason I was so bitter about raiding in BC – it was hard enough getting 10 people together that I didn’t hate outright. 25 was more than our tiny guild could muster on a good day, and 15 of those being strangers? Bleh.

    (One reason I loved the 10/25 split of WotLK as well, despite the haters)

    So, in summary, some people aren’t playing an MMO. They just happen to be stuck in one.

    1. That’s a good way to put it. I feel your old raiding frustrations, we went through the same when raids went 10man and we meant to keep up a 25man raid guild (which had already endured the switch from 40man to 25man). Flexraiding may be a nice feature these days but it’s mostly a fix to a problem Blizzard themselves did create.

  5. I’m somewhere in the middle on this issue. The MMORPG games that I have played the longest have been those where I’ve played with friends in group content a lot. I have soloed at lot in games as well but that usually a shorter-term attachment.

    I would state that in my mind this isn’t solely a group vs solo issue. I believe grouping is a great strength of these games but too often for various reasons the devs attempt to shove PUG/random grouping down our throats either through laziness of design or to keep content populated. Sure I do help strangers with quests or tough open world fights on occasion and I have done plenty of PUG dungeons in the past but nowadays I want to always prioritise time with friends and some games do a much better job of enabling that than others.

    1. Game design is another important part for sure. WoW has had such an impact on other games and the way they’ve design so much soloable content that it seems at odds when they suddenly bring in mandatory grouping stuff.

  6. There are so many reasons why playing an MMO has nothing at all to do with “playing with other people” that if I listed them all here I wouldn’t have to time to play an MMO this evening! Honestly, to echo Jeromai’s query on another long-dead horse, why are we even arguing about this?

    Here’s my main reason:

    Playing an MMO solo is to playing an single-player RPG as seeing a movie at the cinema is to watching it at home on DVD. It’s a shared experience and as such has layers that significantly enrich the quality and complexity of the entire thing. You don’t need to know anyone in a cinema to become swept up in the emotions surrounding you as you laugh at the same joke and weep at the same tragedies. I get something of that experience almost every session in MMOs, regardless of whether I am soloing, duoing, grouping or zerging.

    Following on from that is what I said on Psychochild’s blog recently: MMOs are real in a way single-player games aren’t. It’s all about public, shared activity. You could argue that the more deeply and broadly you share, the deeper and broader the experience, hence grouping is more intense than soloing, but I don’t believe there’s any meaningful argument that demonstrates that soloing players are not also part of a collective, shared experience at all.

    Possibly you don’t feel part of the whole when you solo in MMOs, in which case that might explain why you feel puzzled, mystified, even alienated by the concept. If so, you’ll just have to take my word for it that other people get lovely, warm fuzzy “part of something” feelings from logging into an MMO and doing their own thing, feelings that are 100% absent from any solo RPG.

    1. I do believe that’s what you get out of it – in fact I speculated as much in the post. :) It’s parallel-play instead of coop but it can certainly be a collective feeling. I don’t say I’ve never felt that, especially in GW2 which makes that kind of play easier.

      To me it’s still sort of floating on the MMO’s surface if soloing is all I ever do, probably because I have a very formative guild history from few years back. That’s not to say that there’s never any great moments soloing that also involve other people, but they’re rare and it doesn’t feel like I am taking benefit of all the mechanics that the developers put in the game to make it a joint effort. /shrug …I didn’t say this was a completely rational turmoil, did I?! =P

  7. I’m mostly a solo MMO player. I don’t have friends who play online, and my schedule leaves too little time to make online friends (in my month of FFXIV I was able to get in just 11 hours.) When I play games like Skyrim (which I LOVED) one of the biggest things I miss is seeing other players in the world. I like seeing another player bouncing along a mountain ledge trying to get to somewhere new, or passing me by riding some crazy bird-whale mount I’ll never be able to attain. It sounds trite, but other players give the games I play life and expand the experiences of the game for me, and that is definitely worthwhile.

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