More than levels and more than lore, you know what divides players from other players most? The players. And nothing divides players faster than giving them exactly what they want.
People look back at EverQuest and they make fun of the difficulty of the game. In fact, they often laugh it off as not being difficult at all but instead as being imposing or broken or wasteful. They look back and remember (or just hear stories about if they never actually played in that era of MMOs themselves) dying to a rat and they belittle the experience. Killed by a rat? And why is my hero killing rats anyway? But you know what? They weren’t rats. They were large rats. They were giant rats. They were diseased rats. Even if the name of the monster was just “a rat” the thing was the size of a large dog. And those weren’t beetles you were killing, they were fire beetles. But people complained. It was too hard. Leveling was too slow. There weren’t enough quests. The spawn times were too long. The loot didn’t drop fast enough. Raids were too big and required too many people.
So, later generations of games have given players everything they asked for. Easier fights (I’ve actually played WoW characters up to level 30 without ever dying), faster levels (I have a level 39 character that was level 33 three days ago, and that was in just 3 or 4 hours of playtime, maybe 5) and quests… good gods are there quests. Dozens of them. You can’t swing a dead rat without hitting a score of floating exclamation points. I haven’t run into a spawn time greater than a couple of minutes, even for elites and bosses (raid instance locking doesn’t count). My bags are so full of good loot from mobs and quests that my only choice is to vendor most of it because it’s too common to be worth selling to other players. And I don’t need 65 or 100 people to kill a god anymore, I just need 9 people to go with me, maybe 19 or 24.
The one thing players don’t need so much anymore? Other players.
I’ve mentioned before that I recently returned to WoW to try to play with some friends. Haven’t actually played with them much, in part because of level disparities, but also because our schedules don’t seem to line up very often. Doesn’t matter though. I don’t actually need them to play. In fact, playing without them is faster. No problems of people being in different phases or on different sections of quest chains, no issues of level problems, and I can get fast and easy exp, gaining a couple of levels a night, fighting monsters that in no way actually have a chance in hell of beating me as long as I keep mashing my attack keys. Hell, I have a druid who’s gear is so out of whack (and this is all found and quested stuff, I haven’t bought anything from the auction house) that I play with no fear of ever running out of mana. Most of the time I play in cat or bear form, and between fights I pop out to normal and heal myself, then back to melee. The wife’s hunter is even more insane. The speed at which she kills means she rarely ever needs healing at all. When we play together, I don’t even bother staying in normal form.
I’ve tried to play with other people, but it’s actually hard. Grinding exp from monsters isn’t worth it, and finding people on the same quests is a losing battle. I could queue up for dungeon runs, but that’ll just put me in a random group with random people who I will likely never see again. Back before I quit the last time, I was in a guild, and we had guild chat and a vent server and it was very social… except for the fact that none of us were actually playing together. On the same server, sure. Sometimes even in the same zone, but grouping up always slowed somebody down.
At least in EQ, the only people slowed down by grouping were the quad kiting druids and wizards, fear kiting necros, and the occasional AE or charm kiting bard. Even that isn’t true anymore as I actually saw with my own eyes a cleric soloing even con mobs the last time I returned to game, and not kiting either, he was standing toe to toe.
Now, don’t take this as railing against solo players. While I personally don’t enjoy doing it, I do realize that it is what other people want. I mean, WoW has 12 million players not because that many people suddenly realized they wanted to play MMOs. It’s because that many more people were able to play the game because they didn’t need to actually have other people to play with. And there is nothing wrong with that… except that many of these people refuse to acknowledge the impact that their style of play has on people who do want to group and play with others. The impact is in server resources and population make up. In older games where the majority of people were wanting/needing to group up, finding groups was easy. These days, with the majority of people not wanting to be reliant on other players, finding groups is hard. So much so that Blizzard actually had to make cross server instances possible and a group finding tool just to alleviate the pressure. The issue now is that for many of the people who want from grouping what used to be an integral part of grouping (the social interaction and bonding), the LFG tool is an empty gesture. It solves the symptom of not being able to find a group while completely destroying the ability to bond with those players.
But how do you solve that? Again and again on this blog you’ll see me advocate the single server design for games because I whole-heartedly believe that the best way to solve player problems is to allow the players to solve their own problems. If finding better groups is as easy as travelling to another part of the game world that is a much better solution that trying to get different game worlds to be able to share a player pool for certain kinds of grouping. However, given that at this point Blizzard, and most game companies, can’t redesign their entire server structure to be a single server design, what then? Free server moves? That seems like the best possibility, and perhaps put a lockout so that a player only gets one free move every 90 days or something, and if they want additional moves they can pay for them. If I meet cool people in the dungeon finder, I might move to their server if it were periodically free, but I can’t see myself ever paying $25 to move a character based on the interaction of an hour or two. Nor would I pay $25 to blindly move to a random server in the hopes of finding more people to group with.
Once again, though, looking forward at new games, I’m less enthused about wanting to play them because of the divisions between players. Even in the Rift betas that I’ve been playing in, I’ve got friends playing on 5 or 6 different servers playing with subsets of their own friends, and none of us are playing with all our friends, or even have the capability of playing with all our friends without creating characters on a bunch of servers, on both factions, and maintaining characters at several different level tiers.