Solo Progression in MMOs - Why So Taboo?

By Chad Awkerman

May 6, 2011

When the idea of massively multiplayer online role playing games first came around, especially in the more aesthetically pleasing manner, the only players of said games were “hardcore” gamers. Of course, back then there really wasn’t a distinction between “hardcore” and “casual” of any sort within the industry. No, that didn’t come along until many years later.

The MMO world changed forever in the Fall of 2004 when Blizzard released World of Warcraft. At first, it didn’t seem like things were going to change much, but as the months and years rolled by, WoW changed from an above-average-selling MMO into an international, million-selling juggernaut of almost extreme proportions. With that success came more and more players, and with that came a wider variety of play styles. No longer were the majority of players looking for a group-oriented experience; the balance shifted.

It became most noticeable sometimes during The Burning Crusade expansion for WoW, and thereafter Blizzard focused heavily on meeting the demands of that more “casual” crowd, for better or for worse. Sure, there was still your group progressions, your raids and the new (at the time) heroic dungeons. But, they also provided for more of a sense of solo progression with the introduction of daily quests and quest hubs scattered about Outland.

Fast forward to today and we see a lot of MMOs catering extensively to that solo play style, World of Warcraft included. Except, there’s one thing that bothers me still, after all this time – we don’t truly see any real solo progression in WoW. The lack of that progression is more pronounced in WoW than in any other MMO I’ve played in recent times.

Lord of the Rings Online, while beginning four years ago with a heavy group requirement for progression, has morphed into a very solo-friendly affair, going so far as to make some of their initial group dungeons and quest chains completely soloable from start to finish. What does this allow, you ask? It allows the solo player to progress through the story, not having to stop at a certain point because the focus shifts from solo content to group content.

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I’ve also been playing a lot of Rift lately, and, aside from a few group quests here and there, the majority of content is soloable, and I haven’t seen the breaks in story continuation that I see all the time in World of Warcraft. Yes, Rift does have lore built around the dungeons, but it seems to be separate stories than those found in the solo questing areas, while still fitting in to what is going on in the world around you.

So, here’s my problem with WoW, which came, once again, to the forefront of my mind while I was going through the new quest chain in Stranglethorn Vale over the weekend. You have a smattering of quests that you can complete solo, but at a certain point the story is left hanging until you venture into Zul’Gurub, the newly revamped 5-man heroic-only dungeon. It just stops and you’re left hanging.

It’s bad enough they send you into a dungeon to continue the story, but they went above and beyond that, making it a heroic-only dungeon, so that you have to be extensively geared to even attempt to make it through. The thing that is wrong with this specific picture is echoed dozens of times in WoW, throughout the entire leveling experience.

Here’s another example: If you play through the Westfall quests as an alliance character, you’ll learn about Edwin VanCleef’s daughter Vanessa. At the end of the solo questing, you learn enough about her to want to find out the rest of the story, right? Yes, yes you do. Yet, the story and resolution of that story continues, not just in a dungeon, but in a heroic-only dungeon. As in, Vanessa VanCleef shows up as a boss in the level 85 heroic version of Deadmines only – not the level 20 version, not a regular level 85 version of the dungeon. No, it’s heroic only.

My question is – why limit what a solo player can experience when it comes to story, since story is, for the most part, a “casual” player feature in MMOs? Let’s be honest here, the “hardcore” raider, for the most part, cares about as much for the story as Microsoft does that the PSN has been down for the last two weeks. They are not the ones who really care about exploration and story, they care about gear, looking cool and being better than the schmuck standing next to them.

Some may say, “Well, Blizzard has issues balancing solo instances, so they all have to be group content!” Indeed, Blizzard has said in the past that solo-instancing would be rather difficult because of the amount of classes and specs. I can understand how balancing it would be a challenge in and of itself. However, are you aware that they’ve done it already, albeit through the use of phasing? That’s right – play through Stranglethorn Vale quests as a low-level character and by golly if you don’t go questing in Zul’Gurub!

With all the technology at Blizzard’s disposal now, I honestly see no reason why these stories have to be cut short for the more “casual” or solo player. Through the use of phasing technology and, pushing that even further, combined with instance dungeon technology they’ve had for years, the solo player should be able to continue these stories that would otherwise end abruptly for them.

Let me clear up a misconception that is bound to come up with talk of progression, though. I understand that there needs to be a risk versus reward element here, so those who would prefer to solo through these stories and dungeons would not be able to acquire as prominent of gear as those who choose to complete the quest lines through grouping in full-fledged 5-man dungeons or raids. That isn’t what I’m asking. What I’m asking for is simply a way to complete these stories, to see the lore involved and to not have that feeling like we’re missing out on something important in the worlds in which we play.

This, however, doesn’t rule out the possibility of solo gear progression, either, which should be easily implemented in more solo-friendly end-game content. Admittedly, Blizzard has improved much in this regard, especially with Cataclysm areas like Tol Barad and the upcoming daily quest hubs being added to the Mount Hyjal zone. However, I really think Blizzard (and even other MMO developers) should think seriously about solo story progression in the future. When you get to the point in a story line when you realize you can’t go any further because of your preferred play style, it’s sort of like getting involved in a TV show that ends its season on a cliffhanger…and then gets cancelled. You’re just left hanging, and it isn’t a good feeling.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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