I am what I think of as a lone wolf gamer in MMOs, I am much older than the majority of players and I play exclusively versus the game environment (AKA PVE), on my own, almost all of the time.
I find that 99% of the time parties, guilds, and other player organizations are either a terrible waste of time or full of awful people. Even though I may spend many hours playing the game each week I think of myself as a casual player, simply because I do not take it as seriously as many players.
So what is there in the current crop of MMOs to appeal to players like me? Well, not a lot most of the time; as far as I can tell most MMOs seem to be designed with the idea that teaming up with other players is mandatory for many aspects of the game. Many MMOs make it very difficult to progress beyond certain points or achieve significant goals if you are a lone wolf.
It would seem that MMOs are the wrong choice of game for the solitary player as many excellent single player games exist, such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Half Life, etc, etc. So why would someone who has played all those games decide to try out MMOs? Most importantly, why would they pay a monthly fee to play?
I’m speaking from my mindset here and I play MMOs because they provide a challenge that does not exist in single player games, no matter how good they are. Having other players to compete against is much more exhilarating and exciting than playing against a computer program, regardless of how well made it is.
There are facets of MMOs that are drawing: exploration of a new world, collection of rare and exotic items, a non-linear plot, and completion of the game (where possible) are all satisfying for the solitary player in an MMO.
Even if all you do is measure yourself against other players to see how well you are doing or what is capable you are still benefiting from the multiplayer aspect of MMOs. If you decide to dig deeper then PVP in all its aspects is a great game within a game. In addition you have a whole world to explore, I would imagine that many ‘lone wolves’ are keen to see all the sights of the online worlds or collect all the exotic goodies that are available. Lastly, the chance of possibly making a friend, even if it is remote, is still a driving factor. Lone wolves are still people and people are keen to socialize, regardless of the limiting factors.
Lastly there is the influence of story; most fiction that inspires MMOs and their players consists of lone heroes defeating incredible odds to come through at the last minute. This theme is then projected by the player onto the game experience, making the appeal of a lone wolf play style much more in line with the game play than would otherwise be deduced by a review of the game features.
Thus I think that there are many good reasons why a solitary player would want to play an MMO.
World of Warcraft (WoW)
World of Warcraft is actually very good for lone wolves most of the time, you can get all the way to level 70 (the highest level) without joining in with other players. You will have had to miss out certain quests and areas that are designed for group play, but those are not essential to get to the end. Even PVP battlegrounds in WoW can be fun as they are fast and furious without being forced into working with other players.
However the top end of the game is not lone wolf territory, you will rapidly accumulate a large number of quests and dungeons that can only be done in groups. In order to get decent kit you will need to be running the dungeons regularly and without a guild or regular group of players that will be impossible. It is just about possible to get a fair amount of decent kit but it will take you a very great length of time, much longer than getting it by any other means.
EVE Online on the other hand looks like a game that is ideal for the lone wolf at first glance. You can venture off into deep space to do your thing and it has a reputation as a ‘sandbox’ game that supports different playing styles. Sadly this is a misconception, EVE is heavily focused on PVP and group PVP is the only way to progress for the less than veteran player. The solo play is mind numbingly tedious, you can either grind the mission (there is only one, it just comes in various disguises) or sit in an asteroid belt waiting for your mining lasers to fill your cargo hold.
City of Heroes (CoH)
City of Heroes (and it’s dark half, City of Villains) is good for lone wolf play, like WoW you can run all the way to the end just doing missions on your own. However the missions do get a bit samey after a while, once you’ve beaten your way through the tenth warehouse full of goons in a row you may get a bit bored, but nothing like as tedious as EVE. CoH has added PVP aspects, badge collecting, and new mission types in the several years it has been in existence.
The lone wolf player is drawn to certain elements of the games as mentioned before. The design of the game can either support or discourage those elements of play. As these elements are important to both lone wolves and regular team players we should have a look at them in closer detail.
Quests or missions are a large aspect of most MMOs with the better games using the quests to drive the player forward and even follow a story. Other games treat the missions as reusable components that can be supplied to players who have nothing else to do.
Satisfaction for the lone wolf can be found in the sort of missions that tell a story or are set within a context. On the other hand missions that seem to be randomly generated from a limited template are highly unsatisfactory for the lone wolf as they are likely to be spending a great deal of time on missions in order to ‘complete’ the game.
The three games discussed above give good examples of the different mission styles, all three have quests available from start to finish, and all three can be played by just doing missions and ignoring almost all other aspects of the game.
WoW is a game with a multitude of quests, each one tailored to the area and the quest giver, admittedly many quests are derived from the basic templates (kill monsters, fetch materials, or take stuff somewhere) but somehow they seem to fit well within the milieu of the game. Many of the quests on WoW are distinct and scripted with internal events and multiple steps in a storyline. Suffice it to say that the questing in WoW is both highly satisfying and highly rewarding, although it can be overwhelming in the sheer number of quests available at any time.
EVE is a game that randomly selects a mission from a fixed set each time you ask an agent for one, moreover all the missions are pretty much either ‘go here, kill this’ or ‘take this to here’ missions. The fact that they are painfully obviously randomly allocated is highly unsatisfying, especially as you have to do an awful lot of them in order to get anywhere. There are a few linked missions and the starter missions are well woven together but other than that they are very routine with seemingly very little actual effort placed into their creation.
CoH falls between the two extremes of WoW and EVE, while it has many missions that are simple ‘go here, defeat bad guys’ they are not randomly allocated as they are in EVE and many build towards a story. CoH also gives the player a choice of random missions to be followed when desired and the ability to pick and choose makes the game more enjoyable.
CoH also has a few mission features not found in other MMOs: in certain missions, if you are defeated, you are sent to a ‘prison’ within the mission from which you will have to escape in order to continue. There are also timed ‘bank job’ missions that allow you to wreak havoc (villains)/foil the bad guys (heroes) within an area in order to extend the available time for the mission.
‘I wouldn’t mind taking weeks to get an item as long as the time spent is not doing the same thing over and over again’
MMOs have one feature in common: grinding. The endless repetition of a set task to ultimately gain something of value. Most MMOs feature a lot of grinding and grinding is not fun. Grinding shows a lack of design in an MMO; it is used as filler for areas of the game that are lacking in original content. The typical MMO player seems to be capable of grinding endlessly but for the lone wolf player this is the antithesis of what is enjoyable.
It is the grinding that leads to all kinds of other problems: because grinding is predictable and boring some people have developed bots to do it for them, effectively cheating at the game.
‘I’ve learned that trying to involve random dorks is a hassle that I’m not up for’
‘I’d like to play with people and group up if only it weren’t such an awful chore to deal with the online eejits’
One thing that drives lone wolves to their play style is the problem of other players. The majority of MMO players seem to be young male teenagers with tiny attention spans and limited vocabulary, whereas the lone wolf tends to be more mature and thoughtful. Naturally these two types of players will not get on well and the continual judging and grading of everyone around by the immature player will rapidly drive away the mature player who just wants to meet some people. After all you wouldn’t hang around with someone in other social settings if they continually put people down.
‘Since a lone wolf can’t/won’t complete instances, they will be limited to quest items at maximum, and even then only quests that can be soloed, so they will lose out on the ability to raid and get the T6 type gear’
What do lone wolf gamers miss out on when playing MMOs? Most obviously things that require a group to complete, in WoW this would be the dungeons that give better rewards than the solo quests. At the high end of WoW the game is full of players dedicated to raiding the big dungeons that require large numbers of skilled and well equipped players.
What are the characteristics of a person that is willing to sacrifice the hardcore elements of an MMO? Generally they are not at all like the typical hardcore player, they do not enjoy trading boring time for ultimate advancement, they do not enjoy being bossed around by self important raid and guild leaders, and they do not have the long hours to dedicate to a big raid or dungeon.
Lone wolf gamers also miss out on many of the role-playing aspects of MMOs. The lack of social contact will lead lone wolves interested in role playing to internalize their role playing, imagining themselves as lone heroes, or solitary wanderers.
What advantages do lone wolf gamers have in MMOs? The most obvious advantage would be one of scheduling, a lone wolf can take smaller bite size portions of a game when convenient, allowing them to play when they have time for themselves without other more important commitments such as family, children, work, etc.
Multiboxing refers to playing several instances of a game at once, either on multiple PCs, which is where the name derives from, or on a single powerful PC. Multiboxing is well suited to the lone wolf gamer as it allows them to complete parts of the game only open to groups. However, multiboxing does require a large commitment in resources, from paying for multiple accounts, multiple computers, and the time to gain the expertise to get everything working together. Resources that the more mature player is likely to have or be able to afford.
Numerous MMOs exist each with their own balance of missions, group play, and PVP. However finding a good one can be very difficult. Game designers, like politicians, promise much and deliver little, while the fanbois, like party supporters, will say how wonderful their game is and how awful all the other games are while simultaneously claiming to be quite neutral. There is very little reasonable discussion of the merits of games compared to each other. Perhaps much of the trouble is that most game journalism appears to be funded by game companies or written by fanbois.
Suffice it to say that MMOs do not really support lone wolf gamers yet. The better games have decent options for the solo player but many games resort to the eternal grind option and don’t put any real effort into making those missions different, interesting, or involved.
Games with a PVP slant are typically the worst for lone wolf players, MMO PVP tends to consist of 90% ganking and 10% running away, the mythical fair fight being notoriously absent. Oddly enough games where PVP is designed to be fair, like City of Heroes, have almost no PVP players involved. It seems that the majority of PVPers would much rather be grief ganking the newbs than testing their ‘leet’ skills.
The problem may be that there are simply not enough lone wolf gamers out there to make it worthwhile supporting them in MMOs, they are certainly not a vocal group and do not spend their time in game forums whining about problems. Perhaps there is a silent majority out there, slowly grinding away on their own in the MMO cyberspace, if so, we may never know.