So, I got carried away with a wall-of-text comment reply and I’m -still- not done mulling on the issues brought up. Best to post this on my own blog, no doubt.
Spinks over at Spinksville expresses frustration over facing solo quests in an MMO world. It’s a bit of a rant that covers a number of game design topics and I just keep feeling that they’re not being properly broken down into their component bits to be examined properly. “Solo quests” is too general and may end up going down to the old and stale solo vs group debate road all over again.
Spinks conflates a number of issues into one, I think.
There’s having problems with:
Badly Designed, Unfair Challenges
That do not clue you in on the correct solution or offer good feedback towards this.
Or that are unfairly skewed towards a particular aspect of combat – eg. if you can’t dps this down within a certain time, you’re screwed. Fuck healers. Fuck tanks.
Or if you can’t heal this squishy escort NPC, you’re done for. Sorry, all classes without a heal. DPS moar and pray. Taunt it a second time, maybe.
This is especially bad in MMOs that aren’t designed for character classes to be flexible or re-specs to happen easily. If one is say, in RIFT or some such, one at least has the option of completely changing up one’s character to tune it to solve the challenge (though some would still complain that this is “forcing” them to play in a way that contravenes their preference. One could argue though, that proper mastery of a class means knowing how to play all its aspects.)
On the other hand, if the correct solution can be arrived at by reading the quest text, or by taking some time out to readjust one’s skill build (eg, in TSW or GW), or if there are multiple solutions to overcome the challenge that all classes have some access to, then that’s a lot more reasonable design in that any one player on any one character might possibly be expected to manage this.
Then there’s the challenge that doesn’t really offer any learning opportunities for the player. It’s really a time-gate. Grind this much repeatedly so that you can earn this set of gear with incrementally higher numbers that will now allow you to pass the challenge that you couldn’t manage before because the punching bag’s hitpoints are really that high.
I’m prejudiced, yes, I find this boring. But I suppose if you’re playing a game where nearly all the challenges are set out this way, then that’s how that particular game works. If you play it, you’ve accepted its premises. The challenge has to be consistent for that particular game.
Which leads us to…
The Bait And Switch
Seriously, stop this one. It’s dumb as fuck.
Here’s a trail of breadcrumbs on how to steadily progress with my game…
Now whoops, here comes something completely different, involving a diferent playstyle which may not be to your preference, WHAP, do it and enjoy!
The player is left blinking, going, hey, where’s the game I was enjoying before this blindsided me? Am I going to find more of the stuff I liked after finishing this weird shit, or do I face a future of this? Maybe I should be re-evaluating my future with -your- suddenly new and different game.
Don’t plunk a solo quest in the middle of a whole bunch of group quests. Don’t plunk a group quest (haha, fooled you, go spam LFG now!) in the middle of a solo quest sequence.
The ‘real’ game is raids. Now let’s spend the next five years trying to fast-forward raiders through the leveling game that they don’t appreciate going through to begin with.
Oh, the leveling through quest experience that you enjoy? You can still do it, but you’ll never be as strong or powerful as those playing ‘the real game’ and be forever looked down upon.
I have no idea what they’re trying to pull here. Give me a game where the PvPers get to PvP in peace with their separate progression and arenas, and the PvErs do PvE stuff, and everyone progresses in their own way, any day. For those who enjoy both, well, hooray, lateral progression paths! Do both!
Solo or Group Preferences
Are just that. A preference. Stop blaming soloists or groupies (or content designed for them) for all the ills of the earth.
It’s a false dichotomy anyway. Lots of people both solo and group. They do both solo quests and group up for dungeons and raids.
They may like doing one or the other more. That’s preference.
What we more often hate are that we have no alternatives. No options. Backed into a corner because -somebody- decided it would be a good idea to have this solo quest or group raid be completion-required-for-overall-progress or the only content drop in an update with a game-changing, playing field-unleveling shiny attached.
Forcing Players Into a Playstyle They Dislike (or Face Progress Blocked For Good)
No contest here. This is highly unpopular.
Make an “I-only-PvP” player PvE for gear just to be on an even playing field with their opponents, and the howling will be just as loud as forcing an” I-only-PvE” player into a PvP zone in order to get a shiny.
Making it a requirement for people who prefer to solo to group up for the best rewards and to see new content yields a whole bunch of very surly, possibly bad-at-working-in-a-group loners joining PUGs and everyone having a miserable time.
Just as making it a requirement for people who prefer to group all the time to separate and wait for each other to pass a certain solo threshold, “be-this-good-by-yourself-or-your-path-together-is-blocked” yields a very frustrated person who will wield the “M” is for multiplayer stance like a bludgeon.
Devs may still do it, as they may be aiming to lay a trail of breadcrumbs to lead players into trying out a certain activity, or they simply have no time to create alternatives or options but I’m sure they brace themselves for the complaint storm ahead.
Y’see, part of why this is so complicated is the large group of in-betweens who might be willing to do both. If tempted a certain way. And getting them to do both gives them variety. But I do think this should be “soft” encouragement and temptation, rather than “hard” roadblocks and forcing.
A cosmetic item with the same stats, but looking very much special and prestigious and unavailable elsewhere, is one idea. No one is forcing you to get it – in the sense that your playing field will still be level with or without it. Or a reward that can be gotten in a few places, so that players have at least a choice of the least onerous they would prefer. Or extra helpings of a shiny obtainable elsewhere or through other means, so that it’s most optimal to go for one path over another. (As long as it’s not ridiculously hard or lengthy to go the other route.)
Not being able to advance to next level, or get the next quest in the questline, or having no other means to get a reward with incrementally higher stats? Forcing. Bad. Prepare for tons of player protest.
Adjustable Difficulty Levels and/or In-Game Tutorials
Finally, we have the problem that I touched on in the comments but failed to resolve there.
What can we do with players who are not up to the challenge? That, for whatever reasons (some may be good ones – have a handicap, legally blind, ill, etc.), are not performing as hoped?
It’s harsh to have just one benchmark and say, “You must be this tall to pass. The end.”
That leads to elitism. (Though one might argue that in some games, both devs and players don’t give a shit whether they create an elitist community or not. It may even seem like their goal is to glorify the hardcore at the expense of everyone else.)
That leads to people failing to make the grade being miserable, pissed, frustrated, angry, feeling hopeless and all in all, ready to dump your game and move on to a more reasonable one. (Did you want their money or did you not care?)
I think the solution is obvious, but no doubt, hard to implement. Adjustable or scaling difficulty. With commensurate rewards, if you like.
The easiest difficulty is baby mode. Handhold them. Make it easy. Tutorial mode your special gimmicks. Just let players see the nice graphic models your artists spent so much time and hard work on, and maybe the story if there is one. Let any blocking progress be unlocked. That’s reward enough.
(I know I personally appreciated Super Adventure Box’s Infantile Mode before I graduated to jumping the normal course that most just started out with. Whee! Rainbows catch clumsy charr from falling and splattering to horrible doom! Except when charr chooses to keep leaping for sneaky hidden secret room of his own accord! Charr took 7 hours but finally got comfortable with it!)
The idea is to just get shaky players familiar with their surroundings and either content to be “done with it” or comfortable enough to move on to practising a slightly harder challenge now that they’ve managed to grasp a few necessary concepts (rather than learn how to juggle, pull, kite, fight, use strange skills, heal stuff and not stand in fire all at the same time while getting beat on in completely unfamiliar surroundings that are a maze of twisty passages and getting yelled at by their supposed “teammates” or feeling pressured to succeed alone because someone else has finished and is waiting for them.)
Optional desirable shinies are to be attained at harder difficulty levels. Introduce the more advanced concepts. Bring in the more complex dance routines and gimmicks and so on. If they want them, then they must improve to the standards being demanded of them by the challenge.
But make the first progress-unblocker doable by all.
Because if you don’t, the player won’t have a reason to even play your game any longer.