On Grouping (a diatribe in B minor)
Posted by Voyages in Eternity [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on Sat, 15 Sep 2007 13:50:28 +0000

There are many topics that that migrate through the MMO blogosphere and similar environs (forums, interest groups) time and time again… collective murmurs of discontent, distillates of remembered experiences and hopeful conjecture.  One of the more common ones of late centers on the concept of “grouping”.

Now, I am sympathetic to the feelings and desires that drive the selection of that topic of conversation.  I have fond memories of groups in games past (and present), and I can understand the desire to recreate that experience.  However, I must admit to some frustration as well, because to me, much of the commentary blames the wrong “suspects”.

In short: your fellow players are neither the problem nor the enemy, whether they choose to entertain you or not.

Bad Reactions

Every time I see a comment to the effect of “I don’t see why people even bother playing an MMO if they’re not going to group…”, I have to fight down several basically unfair and counterproductive reactions.  First, I have to fight off the temptation to add “…with me, to perform for me and keep me entertained” to the end of that statement.  That’s what it typically sounds like (tho not always)… I know that’s not the intent.

As someone who does not often group (and who gets to actually play only slightly more often), I then have to fight off the temptation to post an offer to discontinue paying some $60-80 per month (plus box prices, of course) for various subscriptions to various MMOs, since I’m obviously not worthy to grace the same forms of entertainment by their standards.  How dare I, right?

Then I have to fight off a nasty reaction to give them exactly what they are asking for… literally “stalk” them with all my various characters on the games I do subscribe to and group up, then just let events run their course… be the lone healer that logs off in the middle of a combat because my emergency pager went off, go afk outside a mission for 15-20 minutes to deal with an after-hours customer request.  In short, just let all the reasons why I don’t regularly group out of consideration for others drive the situation, instead.  Not exactly a strategy that would lead to an after-life of heavenly grace, I expect…

And then, after all that, I finally get to the heart of the matter: that this is a somewhat misdirected, but sincerely heart-felt yearning for all those great experiences that groups can provide… and that seem to become less and less common as time goes by.

Allow me to present a few random thoughts in hope of redirecting the collective musings to other lines of attack?

Point #1: Are you sure it’s not you?

Now, I used to group quite a bit more often than I do now.  In various MUDs, The Realm, UO, and EQ, I spent hours at time, days in a row, playing in groups of all types, RL friends, guildies, PUGs, etc.

Already I can see part of my problem… can you?  “Hours at a time, days in a row”.  Boy howdy, I wish I still had that much free time.  There are days I can’t find 10 minutes in a row to respond to comments on the old blog here, let alone “hours and days”.

Grouping in MMOs, at least at the level implied by the type of commentary I note above, requires a certain base level of time commitment to be respectful to the other players in that group.  It is as simple as that.  If you can’t pretty much guarantee that amount of time… grouping as it exists today isn’t a comfortable option if you have any concern for your fellow players, IMO.  Personally, I feel like I’m pushing the limits of imposing on others if I can’t dedicate 45 minutes to an hour… and given all the various people with varying levels of expectations or demands on my time, that often feels impossible to offer.

Now, if I gave up some of my other interests and pastimes, I probably could.  Blogging, for example.  My exercise routine.  Technology research.  The occasional movie.  The even more occasional date.  Sleep… I never liked that one anyway, but my doctor says I have to.  I already usually eat while doing one or more of the above, so no time savings there.  Work… hmm, now there’s an idea…

Point #2: Convenience is key

I posted on this a while back, but I’ll rehash it here a bit.  Grouping in most of the games is also a royal pain in the keister.  I can count on the fingers of 1 finger the number of times it’s taken less than 15 minutes to form a “decent” group…

“What about a healer?” ”We need a tank, too.” “Jeez, does anyone even play healers any more?” “Need some crowd-control.” ”I have a cleric I could switch to, I suppose.  He’s a bit high level for the group…” “Damn, someone got to that warrior before I did.” ”Is that druid over there in a group?”

Sound familiar?

Allow people to see basic LFG information before they even log in.  Allow them to chat via /guild and /talk channels before they select a character to play.  Present LFG information constantly, and make it convenient to opt-in at a moment’s notice.  Also, make it easy to opt-out, so as not to waste other people’s time.

I have yet to see an interface or design flow that truly stresses the importance of groups by making them obvious or convenient.  In essence, I have yet to see a game that seems to agree at the level of it’s design that directly interacts with the player that the second M in “MMO” has real meaning in the gameplay.  I’d like to see that change.

Point #3: There Can Be Only One (Guild)

The above has been assumed by nearly every game I can think of.  Why?

I can kind of see a point in ”hardcore” PvP settings… yet, Shadowbane, one of the most hardcore PvP games ever created, allowed subguilds.  AC with it’s patron concept had a gameplay reason, of course.

I can only have one set of acquaintances?  It might be confusing to chat with more than one guild at once?  I need to dedicate my entire virtual existence to a single entity, or I’m not worthy to play? (great, we’re back to that again…)

As a player, I’d like to have multiple allegiences/guilds to tap into to find people to play with, especially at 3 in the morning (which is the time I’m most likely to be able to group without fear of interruption.)  Whether it would actually make finding a group any easier at that time, that I don’t know… but it couldn’t hurt.

I’m genuinely curious on this one, actually.  Is it crucial to have one and only one guild per player on the social level?  I’ve only lead guilds twice, once in EQ and once in Shadowbane, and I didn’t see any need to be draconian, but they weren’t exactly “dominant” guilds, either.  Any guild leaders around to offer insight?

Conclusion

I could go on…

  • the promise of solo-accessible play gets people to log in that otherwise wouldn’t, and some of those do end up grouping, so that’s not your enemy either;
  • even players that _never_ group add to the vibrancy of the world simply by moving around in it, auctioning items, crafting and repairing equipment, etc.;
  • D+D style levels are signs of the Apocalypse and cause everything from strokes to tooth decay (oops, that’s a different rant… now how did that get in there ;-) )

… but I suspect I’ve already made the point to those I didn’t drive off with my little diatribe at the beginning.  Solo players are not your enemies.  Allowing solo forms of play in an MMO is not one of the 7 signs (levels, OTOH…).  Grouping has a draw and a power of it’s own that is not at all threatened by “allowing” people to play the game without it… it just needs to be a bit less ignored as far as how it’s implemented, IMO.

My two cents.




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