One of those unwritten rules of MMO design seems to be that group content should always be the most challenging content, and that the most challenging content should always be group content. There’s even a progression where the larger the group, the harder the content becomes, with raids inevitably being the toughest challenge there is. To that, I have just one question:
That’s not a question I can recall ever seeing asked, let alone answered. It only occurred to me recently, and thinking about it, I’m not sure I can find any compelling reason why group content and the hardest content must be one and the same. But I can think of a lot of reasons why they shouldn’t be.
The wrong priorities:
Since I seem to be interrogating my readers today, let me ask you another question: What is the purpose of group content in an MMO?
I’d wager most people would answer something along the lines of supporting the multiplayer aspect of the game. Group content encourages people to work together, and supports socialization. That’s a good thing in a social genre like MMOs.
I don’t think many people would answer that question with, “To provide the hardest challenges.”
But yet, that seems to be the overriding priority for MMO developers. Not to provide opportunities for socializing, but to make players sweat as they struggle with content of the highest difficulty.
Not only does making group content and hard content synonymous not aid socialization, it actively harms it.
For one thing, difficult content immediately excludes players who lack the skills to complete it. You might say that they don’t deserve to complete it if their skills aren’t up to snuff, and arguably, you’re right, but that’s exactly my point: It divides players based on skill level, when the whole point of group content is to bring people together.
One of the reasons I tend to prefer soloing in MMOs is because I don’t enjoy putting social stress on top of content-induced stress. I’m perfectly okay with a challenge — I think the time I’ve spent in StarCraft II and The Secret World proves that — but when you also add that to the stress of potentially letting your friends down, or being let down by your friends, it’s just too much.
When people in a group are of differing skill levels — which is pretty much always going to the case to some extent — it invariable starts to feel awkward. Perhaps a friend is under-performing, causing wipes. You’re forced to choose between hurting their feelings or hobbling your own progression. If someone is far more skilled than their friends, they will inevitably become frustrated and may have to abandon their in-game social circle entirely. Or maybe you’re the weak link. Even if your friends are understanding, you still may feel ashamed for holding them back.
None of these situations are fun.
It’s also worth noting that playing as a group is innately more challenging than doing solo content, all other things being equal. Even putting aside issues of logistics and getting everyone to actually show up — which I do not consider to be true difficulty — it is a fact that the more moving parts there are, the more that can go wrong. The more people there are in your group, the more it becomes inevitable that at least one person will screw up. So why does group content need to be innately more challenging even on top of that?
Group content isn’t even a good measuring stick for skill because of the potential for being carried. There are people in WoW right now who are buying full gold challenge mode runs for massive amounts of gold. They’re earning rewards meant for the most skilled without displaying any skill at all.
The only rationale I can think of for why difficulty and group size should be equated is that developers wanted to encourage people to group by putting all the best rewards behind it, but felt that they then had to crank up the difficulty, because it doesn’t feel right to give the best rewards for easy content. But if that’s the case, it’s a pretty tortured logic.
Group content is for socializing:
Currently, most if not all MMOs put their effort into finding new and creative ways to make group content challenging. What they should instead be doing is finding new and creative ways to make group content a welcoming environment for groups of all sizes and skill levels.
Even Guild Wars 2, a game with incredibly laid-back and inclusive design philosophies, decided its only organized group content, dungeons, should be intensely difficult and require rigid party sizes.
I would much prefer it if group content was designed with the idea of being relatively low stress. I would rather see the greatest challenges come in the form of solo content, so each player is judged solely on their own merits, while group content is made for relaxing with friends.
Developers should instead put their effort into scaling technology that can accommodate any and all group sizes and other such tools to ensure everyone has a place. Group content should be a social feature first and foremost, not something that exists purely to test one’s skills and determine who the most uber-leet gamers are.
That’s not to say that group content can’t or shouldn’t ever be challenging. Indeed, I think a variety of difficulties to suit all skill levels — including the best of the best — is one of the things that would promote socialization.
But it shouldn’t be the overriding goal for group content, to the exclusion of all else.
The Secret World does a better job on this front than most games, though it’s still far from where it should be. The primary source of group content, nightmare dungeons, are brutally hard, and the lack of any decent tools for finding groups rather hobbles the game’s socialization potential.
But it has plenty of challenging solo content, so it’s not a stark divide between easy soloing and hard group content, and scenarios are a step in the right direction. They feature numerous difficulty settings and group sizes to suit the needs of most anyone, and interestingly, group sizes are not actually enforced on most difficulty settings. This means you can do a group scenario with less than five players, or do a solo scenario with all your friends.
In scenarios, it also tends to be true that doing them solo is more difficult than doing them as a group. This has been decried by many for being a departure from the norm, but if you ask me, it’s a welcome concession to what should be common sense.
I’m told that City of Heroes had a very flexible stance on grouping that put socialization first, but since I never played that game, I cannot comment on it further.
World of Warcraft has had an odd and inconsistent history on the matter. These days, it does offer a lot of easy group content that is good for socializing without stress, but it still tends to obey the logic that the larger the group, the harder things should be, and Blizzard has been systematically stripping any significant rewards from most everything but organized raiding so us casual scrubs never forget that we’re not real players.
For whatever reason, MMO developers have decided that if you want a challenge, you must group, and if you want to group, you must be ready for a challenge. I am left baffled as to why this is, as it seems to only hurt the social connections that should be the focus of group content, but it’s not a policy we’re likely to see changing any time soon.
I’m afraid I shall be left with my confusion and disappointment over the matter for a long time to come.