Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soloable Core Story, Group-Based Epilogue/Finale

Over the past few days, I spent some time in LOTRO completing the newly soloable Volume 2 Epic quests. With this set of changes, LOTRO has completed a shift in its storytelling style in which the game's core story is open to all players via soloing, while group content is presented in optional epilogues or side-quests. 

Revamping the content...
In more traditional MMO fashion, the story quests of Volumes 1 and 2 were designed with the intent of luring solo players into group content in order to see the unfolding story.  Unfortunately, for reasons I've decried at length, this approach didn't really work because the solo and group player demographics just don't match up. 

Starting with the Mirkwood expansion and the final Book of Volume 2, Turbine presented the epic storyline as soloable content, with a group epilogue that allows players to go back and tackle foes that the solo players could not conquer alone.  They also announced a change, implemented a few months later, which would revise the Volume 1 content from the launch game to allow players to complete the content without the need for groups of players that simply could no longer be found.  At the time, I wrote that it looked like Turbine was going to be using this approach going forward. 

It took over a year after that to finish the job, but last month's patch finally gave the non-soloable portions of Volume 2 (Books 4-6 and Book 8) the solo treatment.  The new Volume 3 quests that have been released since then have also been solo content, with a new optional side storyline leading players into the newly introduced group dungeons from the latest patch.

...to fit the audience?
Lord of the Rings Online is not a game that has had an overabundance of development resources; their decision to spend that limited time on removing the need to group for the game's core story strongly implies what those of us without access to the internal numbers can only assume from anecdotal evidence - that the audience for the game was simply not using the most crucial content because they were unwilling or unable to group to do so.  Moreover, the decision to continue this process book by book for over a year until the work could be completed implies that they liked the results they saw with the earliest changes. 

The MMO market in general, and LOTRO in particular now that it offers a non-monthly-fee option, is not what it used to be. Like it or not, the majority of paying customers are not interested in committing to raiding schedules that more closely resemble a job than a game.  The longer this goes on, the less willing the market is going to be to tolerate being told that they don't get to see the central story of the game they're paying for. 

This trend hit LOTRO first and hardest because it has always been a slower paced game that is more likely to appeal to a laid back solo player than a highly dedicated group player (who would quickly run out of content).  That said, the competition is starting to respond in a similar, albeit less drastic, way to the same problem.  If you look at the quests in the new zones of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion, or in the newly-launched Rift, you will see an increasing push for exactly the same kind of storytelling - self-sufficient soloable zone storylines with the option to return for group content later. 

In some ways, it feels like MMO storytelling is shifting to be less like chapters of a book and more like episodes of a TV show - the new storylines appear meant to stand on their own merits, rather than merely setting up the real story for the few who beat the toughest dungeons.  Time will tell whether this compromise will prove satisfactory. 


Yeebo said...

Back when it first came out, one of the major things that WoW did differently from most other MMOs out at the time was allow any class to solo well. Most of the MMOs I remember from back then, EQ, EQOA, EQ II, AO, DAoC, even COH all had classes that were at the very least painfully slow soloers past a certain level. I'm actually really glad for the impact that WoW had on the industry in that respect.

A little more on topic, more and more designers are seeing that content which requires groups to function is useless content to a big part of their playerbase. Rift seems to be doing well now, but I can't help but wonder if the entire Rift mechanic will be more annoying than engaging a year from now when the low level areas are empty. I just had to spend a solid hour in a raid party clearing out a big invasion to be able to turn in my quests at a hub. I really doubt I could have stopped that invasion solo. So far rifts that I've stumbled onto by myself don't really seem to scale all the way down to solo, unless you can handle three+ mobs at once.

Roq said...

Really good summary of the dilemma that the devs are facing in all MMOs - They must address the fact that many players don't want to be forced down dungeons that can take hours to set up and complete; and often one is stuck with a bunch of uncouth or immature strangers that are going to ninja the loot, rush, rambo, quit early etc. Joining a guild doesn't help much, because the relatively small cadre of players in the guild is always dispersed over a large number of levels and even stages within a level - so unless one can coordinate levelling and play times with other guild members there is rarely anything that the guild can help with. That's hopeless for casual players who don't want to be constrained to play at regular fixed times.

Although I've played most recent releases (WoW, Conan, Lotro, Warhammer, Rift) I've spent much longer playing Guild Wars than any other title. There are several reasons for that, but on the PvE side (PvP is also a major attraction in GW I think) the main one must be the heroes/henchman system whereby one can do most of the content without player grouping, by substituting AI members into the group.

ANet for a long time tried to fight the tendency of players to solo everything with heroes and henchmen by giving henchmen poor builds, not allowing them in some areas etc. But it didn't work in the slightest. Only recently have they relented and allowed full parties of heroes, where players can fix the builds for a whole party of heroes...

I wonder if developers will eventually have to bite the bullet and make all content soloable? Personally, I prefer the Guild Wars 1 approach where NPCs can substitute for other players (I think in LOTRO now u can also have a single companion in some content), although they appear to have dropped that for group content such as 5 man dungeons in GW2. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. My feeling is that it's a bit of a cop out - after designing the majority of the game around scalable events that encourage, but don't require groups, it seems to me that making content that can only be done by some fixed group size is a backward step and perhaps an admission that they haven't found a way to make events sufficiently challenging for end game content.