At first I thought it was just a “me” thing, this need to solo in games which are chiefly designed as a group experience. It was my preferred playing style from the first time I appeared into the virtual world’s landscape. I didn’t think much of it. I was so mesmerized by the ability to simply exist in a fantasy universe. I didn’t care at all about anyone else who might be occupying the same adventure. I was of course awed by seeing other people running around the game and knowing that they were real people on the other side too, but that interest was fleeting.
I remember when selecting my first character in my first MMO which was AC1, I made a conscious choice to select a class that I felt could solo. I didn't use the jargon “solo” but my intention was very much to be self reliant. It was a natural choice and reflected how I lived my life – be kind, have friends but ultimately rely on yourself. This immediately put me at odds with my desire to play a magic based class – fantasy and magic, I was about to experience a personal Holy Grail but wanted a self sufficient character. Luckily, AC is a skill based game and although I started as a Ranger so that I could solo, I eventually learned that I could combine the two into an Archanter – Ranger/Enchanter. I explained all of this to illustrate that going in, without knowing anything at about playing MMOs or RPGs, my first inclination was to solo. This means the desire was there before I had any experiences with the downside of grouping with others. This is an important point for later so hold this thought.
I did eventually join a guild, one that would become my family across three games in 3.5 years. Initially, I joined kicking and screaming. A female that I’d run into in the game was SO damn persistent, and she and her husband so very kind to me, I felt compelled to join. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in a game. In the beginning I didn’t do anything more than chat with them while I quested alone. I talked on the phone with a group of women who rotated conference call duty pre the Voice Over IP options we have now. And still, I was mostly playing alone. I did the guild quests, runs and social activities but by and large, I leveled alone. This was clearly a “me” thing and I was fine with it and even though some members of the guild joked about it in the early days where we were small enough for it to be noticed, they were cool with it too. It became, “Oh well, that’s just how Saylah is, she plays solo”
World of Warcraft enters the picture and over time, millions of people are playing this MMO. Obviously the wider your audience the more diversity you encounter in playing styles. However, I find it very interesting to see just how many people actually want to solo in these MMOs. It’s rather astounding to me to be in such a large portion of the player base that desires – prefers to play in this fashion. I don’t know the numbers to support my claim that it must be a rather large segment of the population. I’m basing it on the fact that enough people are voicing it as a necessity that game developers are addressing it and even stressing that it’s possible in their game – so clearly, it’s not just me and Joe Schmoe who want to solo.
The reasons people give for needing to solo are many of the ones I’ve spouted over the years. I need to play on “my schedule”, need to be able to take breaks to tend to real life, I don’t have time to waste looking for groups when I have a limited amount of time to play, pick-up groups (PUGs) suck, ad nauseam. I’m sure these are all valid reasons but I’m inclined to believe that more often than not, they are given as a defendable stance to avoid being flamed for wanting to solo in an MMORPG. Yes, I’ve used all of the reasons and none of them are a lie but even in a perfect PUG world, I’d still solo.
When I was little I daydreamed quite a bit. I made up fantastical tales born out of the fantasy books I read. I could have loads of fun by myself for hours on end. From my parent’s point of view, this made me pretty perfect and LOW maintenance child. I had friends – plenty of them and played with them a lot. Yet there were an equal amount of times when I didn’t want to play with anyone else. I was so engrossed in the story that I had going on inside my own head that integrating others would be a distraction – a break in immersion. It got to the point where some times, I’d have my parents lie when kids rang the door bell and say that I wasn’t home. It was easier to get on with my story without them. *Smile*
My friends might not see that the washing machine with the towel draped over it was really the top most tower of my castle where I slept. Or that the two rusty and cracked lawn-chairs sitting side by side behind the tattered box, was my horse drawn carriage. I was certain that dragging around in my grandmother’s old nightgown with a ribbon tied around my waist, wouldn’t be recognized as my regal robes of state. It was too much suspended disbelief to invite other into that world. I believe that people who are very adamant solo players are doing the same thing that I was back then. I think it’s much more about being in the story inside your own head than the excuses we find for not wanting to group with others.
Often times, especially on the nth character, there isn’t a story running in my mind while I’m playing but there is a definite rhythm. And it’s my rhythm - my pacing, my approach, my style, my level of challenge and diversity – go here or there, do quests or not, jump around in circles while I move from zone to zone, stop to harvest for long spurts, gank or avoid being ganked, run into town and watch chat while cruising the auction house. The options when you don’t have to consider the wants of others are much more boundless than when you do, even under the best of circumstances. Now add strangers, many of them young and lacking in the social graces into the mix and grouping with others brings far too many distractions for the freedom lost, by players who prefer to go it alone anyway. Unless you’re hell-bent on seeing the group content the disadvantages out weigh the advantages in many cases.
So why don’t we just go off and play solo RPGs??? I’ve certainly seen that blasted across the forums in response to someone expressing a desire to see group content in a solo or duo fashion. Speaking for me, the attraction of MMO is the introduction of the non static behavior of other players, for one. No matter how many times I’ve flown into Ironforge in WOW in the 3+ years, it’s NEVER the same exact scenario or experience because of the other players in the game. The buildings are the same, the same NPCs standing still as are the ones roaming the walkways. However, the players themselves are a part of the landscape and that always changes. That is why I play MMOs now and can’t play any RPG.
I can go and grind in the same location but the experience will be different because someone else might be there (or many someones) so my own farming pattern is changed by their presence – minute to minute by what they elect to attack versus me. I level on PVP servers for the most part so having hostiles in the same area dramatically impacts my game play. In areas I’ve been in a hundreds of times, things can change simply because of other players. I like that constant possibility of change. And more importantly, MMOs change the content and game mechanics. Some of the changes we like others we don’t, but the point is that it’s not static which lends to the suspended disbelief of existing in a fantasy world.
My last argument for why I think so many people solo is we are just the “me generation” still, who want to do it all and on our own terms. This thought came to me while watching TV the other evening. I saw that another celebrity is coming out with a fragrance. *Hurl* Actors want to be singers. Singers want to be actors. Everyone is a now a clothing designer, needs a fragrance or is a mogul. Comedians are our new game show hosts – when did that trend start?? Thank goodness I don’t watch any game shows. We must have it ALL! *Smile*
Whoa, this is a really long post so I’ll stop now. Solo gamers in MMOs are here to stay. There are enough logistical reasons to justify it, let alone emotional and personal considerations on top of those which aren't going away. So to all you MMO players who call us noob-sauce and caps lock forum posts for us get out of your games if we need to solo content, sorry the answer is, “NO!”