I Think I’m Alone Now

Posted: June 20, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts

The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.

-Esther Dyson,
Interview in Time Magazine, October 2005 

I grew up teaching friends how to play multiplayer board games like Risk, Supremecy, and Monopoly.  When my family picked up a Nintendo Entertainment System, I become obssessed with KOEI historical strategy games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition. I’d have sleepovers where 6-7 guys would try to stay up all night long watching with drooping eyelids as we each took our 20 minute turn. 

As I hit my teen years, I expanded my menu to include pen and paper RPG’s and strategy games like Battletech, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and of course, D & D.  Rounding into my college years, I fired up Gopher and Telnet to access ZombieMUD, BatMUD, ShadowrunMUSH, and games like LegendMUD.  Eventually, I found myself involved in the world of online text based strategy games like Monarchy, Utopia, Earth2525, and Archmage.

I spent quite a bit of time at a friend’s house playing on his 4 Mac LAN with games like Descent, Warcraft II, and eventually Starcraft.  When I couldn’t make it to his place, I was at home, cranking up the AOL to log onto Battle.net to see how much I could get done in Diablo 2.

Most of my life, I’ve spent playing with friends in large, involved, multiplayer games.  I’ve micromanaged populations, military training, and oil surpluses.  I’ve tracked power ratings, ladder rankings, and who was allied with whom.

Yet, from time to time, I find myself…alone.

We all do.  Maybe it’s Sunday afternoon, and you’re feeling up for a quick group but no one’s online.  It could be Tuesday night and your wife took the kids over to her mother’s, and none of the guys can come over.  Maybe it’s some random Friday that you have off work, but none of your friends do.

So, you’re alone.  It happens.  Now what?

Most MMOG’s are built quite a bit around the MMO part of the equation and not so much around the G.  Newer games are reversing the trend a bit, but there’s still plenty of releases to look at where the solo game is something you do when there’s no other real choice.

In some games, like World of Warcraft, take the other apporach, seeing soloing as the almost preferred method of play till you hit higher levels.  This isn’t quite the answer I’m looking for either, and I find myself as bored soloing in WoW as I do in pretty much every other MMO.

Now, this is where you chime in, dear reader, and remind me of the opening paragraphs here, and point out how I’ve spent “most of my life … playing with friends in large, involved, multiplayer games.”

What I don’t mention is how much time I spend in Dawn of War maximizing each race in campaign mode.  I don’t point out how many ways I’ve topped out in Civilization IV (or Civ III or II or Call to War or that awful Alpha Centauri game).  I don’t mention the hours I’ve spent in Masters of Orion II (or whisper shamefully about my time in MOO III).

No, it wasn’t all about multiplayer games.  It still isn’t.  What I often grapple with is how difficult it can be in many MMO’s to just enjoy the game as a solo player.

It’s a tough balance to strike, to be certain.  Make the solo game too strong, and it’s harder to find groups (ala World of Warcraft).  Make the solo game too weak and groups become practically required (Vanguard).  Or, make the game where some classes solo very well, where others do not (Everquest is pretty stereotypical for this).

I think a large part of the balance these days comes from too many choices.  Games ship now with dozens of races and classes, leading to literally hundreds if not thousands of individual combinations.  I can’t imagine the mind a mechanics designer must have to keep those types of figures under control when introducing new loot or abilities.  I can only assume that it could lead to dangerous temptations to have the game based suddenly around numbers, as opposed to gameplay.

Certainly bean counting players such as myself don’t make this much easier.  We run parses and spend time playing the “design” metagame from the sidelines so much that we often times feel we are owed better responses from developers.  We spend hours playing the game behind the game, running the numbers that are only supposed to be representative of the game’s actual play.  In short, we pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

At the end of it all, we’re left with games that are either designed primarily around one type or play or the other, but which rarely accomplish both well.  Either you start out in one type of play and shift to the other, or you evolve from one type of play into the other as your advance, or you simply choose one class over another depending on your goals for that play session.

What if there were other options?

Funcom has pointed out in past discussions how they’d like to have the first levels of your character’s life in Age of Conan play as a single player game.  If done right, you could even run the game offline for those first levels, and only sync up after the fact.

Though I’m not terribly interested in Age of Conan overall, that one idea fascinates me.  How great would it be to log in (or not log in, actually) to your favorite MMO and play some solo adventures, perhaps designed specifically with your character’s class in mind.

What if, instead of reserving this for only the earliest levels, you set it up for out of game experiences which synced up after the fact.  For security or logistical reasons, you still might require access to the game’s servers (cut down on duping, etc.), but you’d be essentially on your own – a version of instancing used to essentially create single player games within the larger MMO environments.

Friends of mine in EVE talk about utilizing cell phones to set and check training.  Imagine checking the broker from your cell phone, or your PSP, or through email or the web? 

In a way, I see it as The Construct from The Matrix.  You’re not quite fullly in-server yet, but you do have access to an emulation of it.  For all intents and purposes, this type of system could be used to let players effectively play “offline” (even if still connected to studio servers) away from other players, but yet still advance – perhaps in 20 minute chunks.

Use it for something as small as mini-games or as involved as advancing a military campaign.  The concept has some pretty impressive implications once you start really letting your mind run free with it.


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