Old Republic dev discusses massively multiplayer loners

GDC Austin 2009: Not everyone who plays MMO games plays well with others; BioWare designer Damion Schubert explains why developers need to cater to solo players as well.

Who Was There: Damion Schubert, BioWare's lead systems designer on the upcoming massively multiplayer online game Star Wars The Old Republic.

What They Talked About: Schubert's talk, titled "The Loner," looked at the various reasons players would want to play alone in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Schubert said it's a question that has been asked increasingly in the MMO community of late, with the conventional wisdom being that MMORPGs were only for those willing to group with others.

Ironically, some MMORPG players just want to be left alone.

Schubert said the philosophy was so ingrained that when he worked on Shadowbane, players who reached level 25 would have a big gray shield appear over their heads that told everyone else in the world, "Yes, please come and kill me. I have no friends that will come to my aid." That has shifted in the last five years, Schubert said, pointing to World of Warcraft and Free Realms as two games that have fostered solo play in the MMO field.

There are still multiplayer evangelists, Schubert said, who look at those who want to play alone as weird scary types, "like serial killers or that No Country for Old Men guy." Instead, he said developers should look at the solo players as using a more compelling archetype, like the Lone Ranger, at which point someone in the audience pointed out that the Lone Ranger had Tonto.

"Shut the hell up," Schubert good-naturedly retorted.

Schubert stressed that there is still a magic to massively multiplayer experiences, and all MMO games need them at some point since it's the genre's differentiating quality. Also, without that multiplayer feature, MMO games are competing on an unlevel playing field against traditional single-player games. MMO designers can work on combat, but they'll never match the God of Wars or Batman: Arkham Asylums of the world, Schubert said.

That said, Schubert specified that it is "unacceptable" to make an MMO game today that doesn't have a "significant chunk of gameplay" accessible to the solo player. He didn't suggest that everything be accessible to those playing alone, just that there needs to be something for all the different types of solitary gamers.

One type of loner Schubert talked about is "the new kid in town." Those players are a blank slate, he said, with no connections, no friends in the game, no clue. There's a unique social pressure to getting up to speed in any game Schubert said, and it's something a lot of people don't want to do with an audience there to mock them for every misstep. People instead need to be acclimated to the gameworld, he said.

He also talked about "the Hollow Earth problem," where the later in a game's life span you start it, the more likely you are to enter a long-since-abandoned area intended for lower-level players. In such places, it's easy for a solo player to get stuck when quests expect a number of lower-level players to team up to take on more-powerful enemies.

Schubert drew a parallel to casinos, describing them as a massively multiplayer environment where 70 percent of the revenue comes from the single-player options, like slot machines. And even in that single-player environment, Schubert said casinos have been designed to feel smaller and more social, a lesson MMO games should take to heart.

Not Han Solo, just plain solo.

Then there are the sociopaths, people who don't understand or care about the social conventions of the space. Schubert said all new players start as sociopaths, and designers need to take them into account and bring them up to speed. For those who understand the conventions but don't care, Schubert said developers need to address them, whether it's by changing their behavior or simply removing them from the game.

Schubert said there were elements of roadway traffic that are parallels to MMORPGs, specifically in the way everyone else is depersonalized. Traffic engineers have found that drivers are less likely to cut people off if they make eye contact with them. Reducing anonymity like that makes it harder for people to treat each other with disrespect.

Some players want to play alone just because they can't group with others. People on a strict timetable, playing at unusual hours, or on a business computer may want to group but can't for practical reasons. It's important for those kinds of players to progress in hour or half-hour chunks of playtime where they can squeeze it in, Schubert said.

The introverted crowd is also huge for MMO games, Schubert said. The majority of adult gamers are introverts, he said, and forcing them to group is something they could find uncomfortable. The way around that is to put some sort of pressure on extroverts to make first contact or to allow introverts to advertise passively, such as posting their stats online and saying they're available rather than having to seek out groups and pitch themselves to them.

Another group of solo players that Shadowbane had a problem with were adrift gamers, those whose guilds had disintegrated or who are alone unwillingly. They want to be part of a guild, raid group, corporation, or whatever, but they're in a sort of limbo and in danger of abandoning the game entirely. Schubert said the answer is better tools to help people find the right group for them and to consider allowing multiple affiliations. Regardless of how designers address the issue, Schubert said they need to give players things to do while they are between groups.

Even Shadowbane had its lone wovles...

Designers also need to take into account the casual people on the fence, those who want to be "part of the club" but are afraid they don't have the chops. Schubert said people want to be the key role in a big team effort but are terrified of being the weak link (the Bill Buckner of the raid, as he put it). To address that issue, Schubert said developers can ensure that casual players can compete with and get into the same recruiting pool as the hardcore players. The gap between the best of the best players and the casual ones should be "not nothing, but reasonable," Schubert said. Newbie-accessible roles (like cannon fodder, basically) that still provide value for the team are another way around the problem, he said.

Vacationers are another group Schubert said need to be considered with solo play. Sometimes gamers who are part of guilds and other groups want to explore the same gameworld, but on their own with a different character. Schubert cited studies that show the ideal commute to work to be about 20 minutes. For a number of people, that time alone in the car is the only time they get to be alone, to unwind between the pressures of home and the pressures of work.

There are also a number of commitment-phobic gamers who could benefit from solo play, people who don't want to make a long-term commitment or get sucked into guild drama. The emphasis some MMO games have on using voice chat is another barrier for the commitment-phobic.

Finally, Schubert said some people just want to be alone, and developers need to respect that. He brought up Habbo Hotel, a purely social massively multiplayer online environment, and mentioned that the developers classify a full 19 percent of users in that environment as loners.

Quote: "The irony of being alone in an MMO is inescapable. Being a loner is OK, but feeling lonely is not."--Schubert, on why even solo players care about a well-populated world.

Takeaway: People play massively multiplayer online games on their own for a slew of reasons. Developers can't cater exclusively to those people, but they should take them into consideration more. Forcing players to group is akin to a corner bar forcing people to watch sports, play trivia games, speed-date, or whatever other activities it offers, Schubert said. It's great if developers can get players to take part in those activities, but it can take time to convince them, and they need to be kept flying solo in the meantime.

Written By

Want the latest news about Shadowbane?

Shadowbane

Shadowbane

Discussion

217 comments
SG_Jedi
SG_Jedi

It's good to see that developers are starting to understand how most gamers are in the MMO scene. It's not that we're anti-social, human beings as a whole are social creatures, but imposing the idea that we must socialise is a huge turn-off, and it doesn't help when during the times you actually try to socialise with strangers, they start mocking and scolding you for screwing up when you honestly are new and have no clue what to do. This is especially so when you end up doing high-level end game raid contents, where most of the groups have probably ran the raid like a dozen times and know every single nook and cranny within the quest and you're the only black sheep left out of the loop. I have no idea how many other gamers have the same feeling as I do, but I really have a phobia of joining high-end raids just because of the fact that everyone expects you to know everything about it and will tear you apart for making even the tiniest of mistakes. How I miss the older games like Diablo, where I can just play with a small group of friends. It really is heartening to see that they are limiting this MMO to have a party maximum of 4 players.

Franczyk
Franczyk

I loved the original Kotor games cause they had, you know, a plot. If bioware can manage to somehow pull that out of their ass without it just being diluted into a vague sense of war i would be very pleased to play this. And you know since they canceled Kotor 3 those mutherfrakers better put in some decent solo content. This game owes its existence to 2 very good titles. Unlike WoW it doesn't only have to live up to the character standards and emotional depth of a fantasy RTS game.

Strike079
Strike079

Maybe they could balance it out by including some game play available ONLY to solo players...

flip_flop_
flip_flop_

I know I often feel out of my depth learning a new game and I hate bothering people too much. Just getting a handle of terms in a new game is bad enough, more so being laughed at for not know what some string of letters mean or what a butchered English sentence is.

dg3215
dg3215

@sKaREO no it is because some mmo games are great but players dont wanna deal with people such as yourself..

SKaREO
SKaREO

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

TLM16
TLM16

Jeggen wins the award for best comment of the year.

ReysonBH
ReysonBH

This makes me very happy! It is frustrating when you can't get a good group together in an MMO to progress... Bounty hunters should fly solo anyways :P

bob_oso
bob_oso

@ elwapo2004 While you were correct on the fact that both solo and group players are paying customers, the fact still remains that you are a customer by choice. You can't reasonably expect an entire genre to redefine itself because people want to have their cake and eat it too. I myself am a solo player more often than not and would never expect to experience the same content that a larger and more powerful group could. The entire basis of RPGs is character progression or to water that down even more, to make your character stronger(in mmo's this includes alliances, guilds and companions). Allowing everyone access to all content, regardless of their strength, completely obliterates the whole reason for playing an rpg. The genre is already branching into niche markets that will include virtual worlds based on exploration, puzzles, or pure socializing. I guess, the point being, not all games are for everyone. I'd never expect Eve Online to add a sports car racing component to their game, just because I'm not that big on spaceships. I accept that it's just not the game for me.

TrueIori
TrueIori

@ Rottenwood Dude stfu already , solo play should not be a rare experience in an MMO it should be part of the experience. People like to do stuff alone sometimes not wanting five other idiots dragging them down. I am not saying that everyone should be able to solo everything an MMO but at least a good amount so they can feel they accomplish something. Just because people like to solo things does not make them casual or noobish, it just they don't want to deal with 5 more nerds who can't grasp the concept that the "Raid or Die" mentally is long gone.

MattyVonP
MattyVonP

hmm, maybe I will buy this game after all.

mmidnigh
mmidnigh

Finally an MMO that caters to those who don't want to play with others, but who want to enjoy the game nonetheless. Maybe this will show that it doesn't require a solo campaign to satisfy solo gamers.

brazenwight
brazenwight

MMO's seem very archetype dependant in general. I am mostly a solo player but I enjoy teaming up with people when there is an advantage, not when I *have* to. Having less archetypes with more (viable) customizability would be better for the casual gamer and even the power gamer who's role is currently obsolete or unwanted. And there should always be more conflict. In games that supposedly have an all out war going on its always too hard for a group of people do anything significant. There is something to be said for mindless, drunken questing (WoW), but you can have an area for that too. Guild Wars has the best system to date in my opinion, but it doesn't do much for the RPG side of the game. Even so, its the funnest game I've ever played.

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

While catering to your audience is generally a good idea, I'm not 100% certain in this case. Solo play should be a rare occurrence in an MMORPG; side activities like item-smithing, for example. Encouraging 'loner' play eventually damages the player community, which is one of the main reasons I left WOW. Everyone expects everything to be 'soloable' for their own convenience, making content too simplistic and creating a player base that hasn't properly learned how to function in a dungeon or group-quest setting. Players get locked into a style of play that's optimal for running around the map and killing everything single-handedly, and then are completely out to sea when they finally decide to run a dungeon because they want a drop. The gaming world has 10,000 solo RPGs. The niche is more than filled.

mgs16925
mgs16925

Isn't tailoring the missions you get based on earlier actions, along with the story-based game play they keep insisting they can actually do, a bit counter-productive to encouraging players to embrace the social aspects? There's a reason MMOs generally have little story and story-heavy games tend to be single player. How can a studio that specializes in single-player, story-heavy games not a least acknowledge that? Their biggest challenge will be getting over the fact that those games attract different types of gamer. Age of Conan fell into the exact same trap, we know nothing we do has any lasting impact so we just want to skip past the dialog. The only wa for things to have a real impact would be if story quests could only be completed once per server, which is ludicrous. This game seems custom-made to CAUSE a lot of solo play.

SteveTwo
SteveTwo

"The irony of being alone in an MMO is inescapable. Being a loner is OK, but feeling lonely is not." GENIUS! I loved playing on a super populated server in WoW but I soloed pretty much my entire WoW playtime. Feeling like I was in a world that was "full" and "dynamic" because real life people are "crazy" was what made it special. Did I group up? No. Did I feel lonely? Nope. Did I feel alone, yep. I get enough social drama in real-life, wow is my escape from that.

Yokuz1166
Yokuz1166

I'll tell you what. One of the biggest problems I had with a MMORPG was WoW. Endgame raiding, guild broke up, couldn't find another guild to join. "We don't need your class." "We have enough people to raid." Blah blah blah. So I quit in about a month. What's the point? Only thing to do at the top and now I couldn't do it. I hope this never occurs to anyone, ever. And I hope Bioware makes it so it doesn't.

Kirtai
Kirtai

I have often thought that the ideal MMO would have an offline component for leveling and learning to play your class. In WOW, you feel like you aren't a real player until you hit whatever the level cap is. Just look at the population of most of the bigger guilds- it is a high percentage of 80's and then a scattered handful of other levels trying to "catch up". It feels like you really should just start out at 80!

Bane_v2
Bane_v2

Thanks for this article. I'm a single player gamer, but this game really has me intrigued and I was wondering how they might handle solo gamers. I'll definitely be "a new kid in town" that will eventually want to be "part of the club". I've never played any kind of MMO before and there is definitely an intimidation factor involved in stepping into the MMO realm for the first time. It sounds kind of silly I guess, but it's true (for me anyway).

Valen_Ca
Valen_Ca

Well MooncalfReviews , if they did that then they couldn't justify charging you rent every month. To be honest though I would love an option like that, the only reason I am even remotely interested in The Old Republic is because I loved the KOTOR games and if I want to continue on those games stories then I have no choice but to shell out the $15 per month for the MMO, at least until someone hacks an offline mode into it.

RamNexus
RamNexus

For the last 3 years I have played WoW solo for the most part. I have friends on the server, mostly RL friends, who I talked to and occasionally linked up with. However, recently we formed a guild and began playing regularly together; churning through instances that i had never done playing solo. Solo and group play are two very different (yet equally enjoyable - for me) play styles within the one game Sometimes it does feel good knowing that there are real people in your gaming enviornment, even if you're not interacting with them constantly. For me this came into stark focus when i began playing Oblivion. Boy did i feel lonely. With no multiplayer option of any kind part of me was thinking "why am I doing all this if no one will see it?".

Jakeamalake
Jakeamalake

I love MMO's and there are a few out there I would love to play, but they have been around for so long that I am afraid I will run into "the Hollow Earth Problem". This issue is the only thing thats keeping me from getting back into my old time favorit mmo FFXI. It is extreamly anoying right now to try and start a new class for level 1 because you will spend hours waiting for people to level with. Solo play is FF XI's weakest element I hope they fix it when they come out with FF XIV.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

Erm, maybe I'm gonna sound insane in saying this, but why not just have the OPTION of playing it offline, for us loners? I mean, if we enjoy playing MMOs alone, why MAKE us play them online to experience them? *slaps forehead* Spluh!

Lazyimperial
Lazyimperial

I'm kind of in the same boat as Valinoros. I used to have more time, but things have changed over the years. I'm working, going to night classes to finish my Master's degree, am in a serious relationship, and so on. When I play, it is in sporadic bursts during my free time, and finding groups during such occasions is oftentimes a nightmare. Also, it leaves raiding as a non-option. I don't have the time to devote 2 to three hours, five nights a week, every week to a raiding guild, and I definitely don't have such a predictable schedule either. 7 to 10 every Mon/Weds/Friday/Saturday and 9 to 12 every Sunday? Are you out of your mind? I'm not devoting myself like that to a VIDEOGAME! No way. So, I solo play. It's actually more fun too, since I still have the guild chat to keep me company, can play whenever the heck I feel like it without an angry guildmaster yelling at me for not being punctual, and it's me killing the beasts, not me and 24 other bloody players. What's so epic about needing 24 other people to best your foe? How terrifying you are, Dreadlord McFart! So long as 24 soldiers come with you, you are a god! Otherwise, eh, you hide from the gold labeled fellows. Come on paragraph breaks. Last time I'm going to try and edit them in.

elwapo2004
elwapo2004

Regardless of what classification you want to put on a mmo player, solo or social or a mix of the two, they are all paying customers. Everyone is paying the same amount to access the same content. What I really want is freedom to my paid for content any way I want. If I want to play solo at 3 am I should not have to miss out on anything that I'm paying for.

Trogeton
Trogeton

I wonder what game will win out of Starwars and Lord of the Rings they are both making alot of titles

zaphod_b
zaphod_b

I remember playing everquest for the first time, and I didn't understand how my class was supposed to "behave" in a group. I wanted to attack the mobs but was booted for it because I was supposed to be a healer. For new players, having a better understanding of what will be expected of you based on your class may give you more confidence to join a group. I'd also like the ability to group with people who are around my age and maturity level. It would be nice to be in a group of other working adults where we only had big raids on the same night every week, but be able to join up in smaller groups casually at other times, and for there to be a system for coordinating it all in-game.

leoleez
leoleez

I do not see this whole multiplayer fanatics thing. If you think about it the root of gaming is the individual experience. If you truly wanted to be social why not go outside and talk to your neighbor or friend, not party with them in WoW and kill Drathor or something. SP and Multiplayer both need to be catered, but its because of multiplayer options that games need extra care in the realms of simplification and updates, SP games have much less of updates and usually end up being better quality games. I hope KOTOR has taken a turn for something innovative in a bloated genre, prone to clones and generic game play. And I hope it sticks to its roots by allowing a quality SP experience

Hvac0120
Hvac0120

[quote="Damion Schubert"]People on a strict timetable, playing at unusual hours, or on a business computer may want to group but can't for practical reasons.[/quote] That's me. This also plays into my dislike of the current payment system. Because of my strict timelines for playing, I do not get enough play time to justify the current costs of playing an MMO (anywhere from $10-15 US). If they offered some sort of pay-per-play time plan that would come out no greater than the cost of a full month subscription, then I may be more likely to play. This is the same problem I have with Xbox Live subscriptions, but is worse because I can't even play MMO's without being online and paying the fees. The model that Free-Realms and others have used also has not worked well for me. _

TLM16
TLM16

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

jeggen
jeggen

What if I'm a solo player because KOTOR 1 and 2 are two of my favorite games of all time and you gave me this instead of KOTOR 3?

Tallera257
Tallera257

I'm also a solo MMO'er (my main game being Guild Wars). A major reason why I enjoy that particular game so much is that NEARLY all (not 100%, but a vast majority) of the game content is equally accessible to a single player or a group. I don't hate people, and I do sometimes enjoy the feeling of a good PUG gelling well, but the game is old enough that a lot of the content that is new to me is "same old" to most of the player base. I dislike the pressure to speed through "same old" content when it may only be the first or second time I've seen it. And yes, there's probably an element of not wanting to be the weak link. But I would add one additional reason for wanting to solo in MMO's....there has been a significant shift in the type and number of games being developed in recent years. I am an RPG player, first, last and always. And yes, there are still some awesome single-player RPG's being developed (Fallout 3 and Mass Effect come to mind), but not nearly as many as in the past (I'm thinking of the heyday of Black Isle and other developers). Sometimes, if I'm bored with my other games, the only place to turn for exciting new content in an RPG-style setting is an MMO. I do rather resent being "forced" into MMO's when what I really want is an exceptional single-player experience, but the industry is what it is. It's simply my preference to be the "star" of my own dramatic story. Egotistical? Perhaps. To each their own! :)

Midgetskydiver
Midgetskydiver

It's ridiculous that MMO players are catering to these players. When was the last time someone complained that a single player RPG couldn't host 2,000 of his friends? Every child out there just wants to be 'left alone' so they can level up or whatever but then what? It's community that makes an MMO last. There's a reason DAoC still has servers running, and it's not because there are enough solo quests to do. Catering to a vibrant, close-knit community is what makes economic sense if long-term viability is one of the goals of the game. If making a bunch of anti-social 'loners' happy for 2 months until they run out of content is really what this game is going for, I wish them godspeed and will be there laughing when all of the 'loners' move on to the next game.

Valinoros
Valinoros

This is best sociological MMO player classification I saw. I used to group and find good guild in every MMO game I played. 10 years later with two kids I have to solo pve and pvp in very limited time I have. I can hardly go to instance if its longer then half an hour. I suggest we can add mature retired hardcore MMO player category.

TLM16
TLM16

I know it's a cliche, but my main problem with MMOs are the monthly fees. I take it for granted that there will be some quests that can be completed alone and some that can't. My only experience of MMOs has been SWG, and a lot of the content on there was heavily geared towards needing a group and not being able to solo. But as someone posted before, SWG was enjoyable even if you were alone! The option to avoid groups and guilds was at least there. Take away the inevitable monthly fees and I'll play it regardless of how co-operative the community is.

Draker696
Draker696

I'm a solo MMO player too, i like to improve my character alone without the help of others. I don't care about daily group quests or raids. I want to play my own way.

Varny
Varny

I want to solo because I want my character to be the best and I don't want to feel weak by needing a group. I don't like group PVP I only like 1 V 1 duels so I can test my skills out against other players and prove I'm better. If I need a group of people in PVP then I just feel like everyone else. It's like Jedi In SWG back when they were rare and the Alpha class I was able to solo like 5 people are once in PVP and I felt badass and if I don't have that feeling in an MMO then I wont play it. Warhammer Online made it so the Zerg wins and you just felt like one of the crowd and it sucked. You couldn't take 3 vs 1 like you could in WoW cause if you were out numbered the combat system wasn't built for you to be able to counter that.

zaku101
zaku101

Whatever bioware, there is a game called guildwars where you can be a loner too and oh? The old republic is like guildwars clone with a subscription fee you say? Uh huh sure sounds great, I'm really excited.

BDK-Soft
BDK-Soft

I'm a solo mmo player. I only group when its necessary.

satan_89
satan_89

The solo experience is what made Star Wards Galaxies so great. Say what you will, but for a like time I played SWG until my eyes bled (not literally), but it was a great experience for me. I did do some group things, but just running around by myself was the best part of it. The worlds were massive and the universe was entrancing. What else could an MMO gamer want out of an MMO? I miss SWG a lot, and it hurts me to think of the sh*t they've turned it into lol. I hope that the Old Republic developers just look at SWG. I'm not saying to remake it, but it would be nice to see that they appeal to every.

Sagacious_Tien
Sagacious_Tien

The guy speaks the truth. If Old Republic can cater to all types, and get all players to have ease of access to all content, than Old Republic will do wonders for the future of MMO titles.

ChaoticAtwa
ChaoticAtwa

I have to agree with a lot of the points made in this topic concerning loners, I often do things alone in WoW because I want to do things at my own speed. Sometimes I want to get through with things quickly and sometimes I want to take my time and enjoy it, Which is what I think is common amongst a lot of solo MMO'ers.

supercrazyhorse
supercrazyhorse

I wish I could play this game offline without any subscription fees. They should seriously consider doing that. I'm loving how this game looks, but those subscription fees really add up after a while.

Nosferatu2894
Nosferatu2894

I think that there's some point that every gamer just wants to play alone. Off topic, has any monthly fee been confirmed?

bodylotion
bodylotion

When playing a MMORPG you don't want to play with other people all the time but i don't think there are people that only want to solo. I wonder what the difference would be if you would finish a 'dungeon' alone.

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

@Gezquester - You speak the truth. When I played WoW, I would always end up having to solo stuff as friends or strangers were just not able/willing to help. I would've killed for 1-2 player instances. Oh well, Borderlands will give me what I want.

JWRask
JWRask

One point that I think was overlooked in the article is this: For all the fans of the original Knights of the Old Republic and KOTOR2, for those who were expecting, anticipating, desiring a third installment, there are many who will pick up The Old Republic and many who will not. For those that do, however, you have to understand that they may not be big MMO players but are big RPGers and fans of the series. I'm not sure how Bioware has to take these players into account, but know that they exist. I haven't played any MMOs, but I have been gaming online for some time. Still, when I'm playing an RPG, it's traditionally been a solo act. I've played Diablo and Baldur's Gate online with friends, but that was after I'd completed the game on my own. I guess you could say I play primarily for the story, and it's hard to fully appreciate the story when you're grouped with a bunch of other people who have agendas all their own. The Old Republic will be my first foray into MMOs, not because the genre appeals to me but rather I want to see the next chapters in a series that sucked me in and was never brought to a fulfilling conclusion.

khariss
khariss

well im glad he sees it like that cos i want to wander the universe on my own becoming the most powerful sith in the galaxy

Gezquester
Gezquester

I find that the issue is not that people want to solo but that they often have to solo, they can’t find a group so it’s either struggle to play alone or don’t play at all, so the usually end up soloing anyway and so they become labelled a loner or what have you. It sucks, I wish that developers would tailor MMOs so that you can actually solo effectively, in some games I can never find a group and people never stay to return the favour.