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The term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” is quite a mouthful, and it’s becoming increasingly erroneous. The “Online” part still holds true, but the amount of instance-based gameplay is making them more intimate and less “Massive”. The “Role-Playing” part has always been a hard sell, since in most cases the role-playing ends when you exit the character creation screen. And even the “Multiplayer” part of MMORPG is a bit misleading, since such a huge portion of the player base ends up playing alone.

The early games were specifically built around working in groups. (And by “early games” I’m talking about Everquest and the like. I’m not even going to get into the MUDs that came before.) You hooked up with strangers, you went into a dungeon, and you farmed monsters until your mouse button wore out and your spouse left you.

But some people wanted to play alone. They wanted to play alone so much that they would forego joining a group and chip away at low-level mobs all by their lonesome, even though they could make far better progress with the help of others.

Developers and group-minded players were confused by this. Here was a portion of the player base that ignored the central conceit of the game (multiplayer) and at the same time accepted less reward for their efforts. Why are you playing an MMOG if you want to be alone? Why don’t you just play a single player game? But whatever the reason, the demand was clearly there for games where grouping was optional and games have been gradually becoming more solo-friendly since then. This raises two questions:

1) But who are these people who play alone?
2) Why?

Well, the condescending answer to the first question is that these people are the “casuals”. (It’s common for old timers to say the word “casual” with a twist of the lip, the way you might say “sewage” or “plague rat”.) They’re supposedly bored lonely housewives who want something to do while watching their soap operas or reality-TV catfight shows. I don’t know how much truth there is in this, and I think most people are overlooking a huge demographic: People who are playing from the office. If the traffic at my website is any indication, people spend a lot of business hours doing stuff they have no business doing.

But whoever they are, they clearly want a low-key game that requires only moderate levels of attention. (The fact that hunters in World of Warcraft – a class that is the definition of “casual gameplay” – was the most popular class before the Death Knight came along, is proof of this.) It’s nice to have a little something running in the background while you watch TV, work on spreadsheets, or write term papers. The gentle solo gameplay is perfect for people who want something more satisfying and engaging than Minesweeper but don’t have the time or attention to play a full-on single player game.

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I’ve played a handful of MMOG’s recently: Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Age of Conan. And it’s clear that for most of the game the solo players vastly outnumber people playing as a group. Anyone not playing in the end-game raids is most likely playing alone. Paradoxically – or perhaps oxymoronically – people are playing massively multiplayer games by themselves.

But why do this? Why not just go play a single-player game?

1) People want to share space.

I’ve compared MMOGs to building sandcastles on a beach: You’re working alone, but there are other people around. You can socialize when you like. Other people can see your work, and you can see theirs. Having other people see your character makes it all the more “real” and your efforts seem all the more worthwhile. It’s the difference between getting dressed up to go to a party and getting dressed up to hang around the house.

2) MMOG worlds are bigger than huge.

There really is no comparison. The biggest single-player game is still minuscule compared to the average MMOG. When you boil it down to races to play, places to explore, crafting to master, classes to try, and achievements to unlock, an MMOG has more gameplay than ten single player games. Instead of always buying, installing, and learning new games every week, the solo MMOG player can have a single game with months’ worth of content. It might sound strange, but a lot of people have said they’d be willing (or perhaps even prefer) a single-player version of WoW. They don’t care about the multiplayer thing. They just want a really big game.

3) Just because you’re solo doesn’t mean you’re alone.

If you’ve ever joined a guild with a lot of die-hard solo players then you’ve probably found out what chatterbugs they are. They’re all at different levels on opposite sides of the gameworld doing entirely different things, but they know each other and socialize via chat. For them, an MMOG is like IRC or instant messaging with a built-in game.

MMOG designers are still trying to wrap their heads around this “solo multiplayer” idea, and they can’t seem to decide if soloing is an aberrant behavior that should be discouraged or a new demographic to be embraced. Gameplay often veers from giving you an incentive to play alone to punishing you for doing so, often in ways that just don’t make sense.

Designers have finally begun to sort out the contradictions between PvP and PvE play, and now most games seem to let you do one or the other at will. I’m hoping we’ll see a similar focus in future games so that soloists and co-op players can each do their thing without the designers imposing or denying multiplay according to their own whim. Specifically, solo quests that end in forced-teaming missions have no place in a modern MMOG. I’ll talk more about this issue in next week’s column.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this website, these three webcomics, and this program.

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