The curse and blessing of group-heavy game design

I think that most of you expect to read proper diary entries here, about the fun places to go and fun things to do in Shards of Dalaya, but please forgive me if I feel the urge to post a blurb about (MMO) game design from time to time.

Recently, we toured Kaladim, King’s Pass and Warpstone Caverns. We found groups in those places, some smaller, some more complete, but always groups. If you’ve ever played EQ, you know how important a group is. In EQ live, you wouldn’t even be safe in your own home zone if you walked around alone, and many newbies were so scared they wouldn’t even leave town after a few unhappy incidents of “rat gnawed my head off” or “fell into five hundred meter deep hole next to newbie gear vendor”.

That’s clearly not a great experience for a new player, but it also establishes a fact: It’s a dangerous world out there. Don’t go alone.

Modern MMORPGs don’t really believe in this anymore. You can cheerfully solo all the way to max level by just grinding and doing repetitive quests, all on your own. There isn’t really any sense of danger as long as you don’t venture too far from the path the series of quest hubs has prepared for you. Even if there is a bit of a dangerous situation here and there, usually nothing you couldn’t survive on your own. This turns many MMORPGs into n levels of single player boredom followed by some potentially exciting raids. With your guild and/or friends, of course, not with strangers you’ve met while your character grew up. Who’d be sick enough to group with out-of-guild people?

I miss this aspect of danger in modern games, yet it means that Shards of Dalaya faces the reverse problem; you can’t do anything on your own, but the world feels dangerous and exciting. The advantage over old EQ is of course that SoD players are usually much more experienced or better players than random strangers you used to meet in EQ, so some of the risk of trying to find a group is removed. You won’t die because your groupmates don’t know their game. Everyone I’ve met so far knows the game much better than I do. Any time spent in a group is very well invested.

It’s all a bit sad. There’s this dangerous and exciting world out there, with hand-crafted dungeons and juicy loot, but you won’t be able to see it on your own, because seeing it on your own would make it less dangerous and unexciting.

Tougher single-player gameplay without actually forcing the grouping element of the game could be an answer, but I think that can’t be accomplished within the game mechanics of an MMORPG, where numbers count more than any single player’s reflexes. That leaves me with nothing to add to the discussion, despite venting my disappointment 😦

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7 thoughts on “The curse and blessing of group-heavy game design”

  1. I think it might be possible to make solo play challenging enough to allow for the dangerous world feel – just not with the class system that most major MMOs (including SoD and EQ) employ. Specialization balanced towards grouping and niche power elements create imbalances in the soloability of characters. Newer MMOs have attempted to fix this by dividing mobs into solo and group ones but I do not think this keeps the dangerous world feel like they had hoped it would.

  2. I think some newer MMOs (EQ2 in this case) also help with this by giving most classes some healing or at least self-healing skills.

    I’m not sure if that’s a good approach either.

    SoD’s groups are so much fun precisely because specialization is so high. I wanted to make a small post about all the classes and what each specializes in, to contrast it to the more dumbed-down trinity system (tank/DPS/healer) that newer MMOs use. I think I’ll do that.

    Once you see how the classes and responsibilities interconnect in SoD, it becomes clear why you can’t have a hi-there-let-me-solo-that-for-you hero class that heals, nukes and tanks. The specializiations run so deep that adding even one or two “class-opposed” skills to one class would make it severely unbalanced.

    I’ll ponder this a little more. It already makes me want to play SoD again and find a classic heal/tank/nuke/melee DPS/crowd control group 😀

  3. Even if many people do not like Aion for various reasons, I really like how the game allows soloing but rewards grouping.

    Mobs take some time to kill – having a buddy help you reduces your downtime and makes stuff die faster. You are also more save from “adds” and surprise attacks the the other player faction.

    All classes can solo. Some are still better for this than other classes, but in general this is a good thing! The key difference to WoW is that mobs are not pathetically easy slaughter. You do not need a group if you can wipe out a mob by yourself with 2-3 casts/swings.

  4. Longasc: Careful there, if you make me (re)try Aion, I might make you try DDO 🙂

    It sounds like a concept that might work, but does the Aion world feel dangerous? I only got to about level 12 or so, to that big round snowy quest-hub-slash-city-fortress. Up until then, I felt safe and protected wherever I went. In SoD, I pee my pants when I have to run to the zone next door.

  5. Interesting. *chalks up another MMO to try in his spare time* Thanks for the tip.

    I’m soloist playstyle by preference, mostly because I hate being unable to do anything worthwhile without waiting for a group to form. I’d have to agree with Longasc, Aion allows for soloing, but pushes to encourage grouping the higher you go.

    Once you get to lvl 20+, danger starts lurking in Aion in the form of rifters (players from the other faction who come in sporadically through portals that appear every hour or two) in the PvP zone you’re bound to spend some time in from 20-40. Keeping to the roads = safety, as many other players from your faction are around to swamp any invaders unless they are organised rifters who are more challenging to dislodge.

    From 25+, the Abyss becomes even more high risk. PvP zone where both factions can enter at any time they like, with PvE resources to contest over.

  6. @Jeromai: Well, find a few EverQuest CDs somewhere (the Titanium release is good, and usually in bargain bins for under USD 10), get the Shards of Dalaya patcher and give it a try 🙂

    There are installation instructions at shardsofdalaya.com, both on the site itself and in the wiki.

    I’m not sure if it would suit your playstyle, most people that prefer solo play simply dual-box in SoD (that’s perfectly legal by the way). But I still get a huge thrill from getting into a group that knows its stuff, with the diverse roles etc.

    I’ll blog about that separately, how the group mechanics work, because that’s the part of the game I like the most.

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