Thursday, March 18, 2010
If you asked me for a textbook example of how not to mix group and solo content in the same questline, my stock answer is the Tomb of Elendil quest in LOTRO. Back in 2007, I spent half a dozen levels and more uneventful swims across Lake Evendim than I care to recall (today's whipper snappers have an instant boat travel shortcut) to finally get to the end of the epic questline.... only to be stopped dead by the requirement for a full group.
The extremely lengthy prerequisite line severely limits the pool of available/interested players. Players who like group content may not have even bothered with the prerequisites, and, at any rate, had zero incentive to ever repeat the loot-less story instance. Players who prefer to solo are suddenly hit with the requirement for a full group. Even if a solo player WANTED to make the jump to a group - with so much time invested, I actually did - the instance sits by design at the very end of the zone's level range. That makes sense from a narrative perspective, but it's a disaster for logistics - everyone who wants to complete the quest no longer has anything to do in the area while they look for a group.
In the end, I had to give up and delete the quest. Two and a half years later, I'm still waiting to see how the Tomb of Elendil questline ends.
The Epic Book Fail
The latest LOTRO patch revised all of the pre-expansion epic content (excluding the Tomb of Elendil, which technically is not an epic book quest) to allow players to solo it. I've been running through this level 50 content at level 65, and it's immediately obvious that the Tomb was only the tip of the iceberg.
While I was sitting around at high levels back in 2007 with nothing to do, there was solo content in the game that I could not access because I had not completed the prerequisites. Group players get the prestigious content all the time in MMORPG's, but this time they too got the short end of the stick - in between each juicy 10-20 minute small group quest is a Fed Ex assignment to travel halfway around the world and solo something. Many of these story quests can ONLY be completed solo, so even the most tolerant group is required to disband.
It's no wonder that this content was impossible to complete without a pre-made static group until the most recent revision.
Can Developers Really Change Players' Playstyle?
There is a certain subset of the playerbase whose playstyle is "will do whatever it takes to win". As Rohan points out, those players will feel obligated to do all the "optional" content that offers them any benefit, whether that means being dragged into solo, small groups, PVP, or traveling halfway across the world to pick up a buff before a key fight. Those players are a non-zero demographic and can be converted, if you will, to whatever game activity happens to be paying the best at the moment.
Unfortunately for developers in general, and the LOTRO epic quest design in particular, it doesn't work the other way around. The intent of sprinkling in group instances in the middle of solo chains was supposed to encourage solo players to convert into more grind tolerant group players. The reality is that there's no incentive that can suddenly allow a player who spends most of their time in unscheduled, often interrupted play sessions to spend an hour looking for a group to clear a two hour dungeon.
Both LOTRO and WoW have moved away from this particular bit of design in their most recent content. TBC-era dungeon questlines in WoW often had prerequisites, and sometimes followups. By contrast, almost all of Wrath's dungeon quests are located right outside the instance zoneline (or even INSIDE the dungeons in question). Meanwhile, the LOTRO Mirkwood epic storyline very obviously substitutes a scalable randomly generated skirmish for each of the steps in its story that would have called for a group instance under the old quest model.
To paraphrase Yoda, group or do not. Trying to mix the two just leaves everyone unhappy.