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For as long as I played World of Warcraft – the thousand-plus hours in my main and the hundreds poured into alts – I always preferred to take the solo route when possible. Allot of people do, if only because it can be a hassle getting a cooperative group together right when you need one. For me, it was more a matter of personal choice. While leveling my way from 1 to 85, I was asked time and again: If I wanted to play alone, why was I playing an MMO?

Me and my Mechanostrider

My stock answer was that if they could find a single player game that offered what World of Warcraft offered, in terms of the world, the mechanics and the gameplay, I’d go play that instead. Why, though, is such a game so hard to find? That got me wondering if the fissure between social MMO players and their less-social counterparts lies not with MMOs and their developers, but rather with the lack of offline options.

Simply put, there’s no offline game I’ve played that would hold my attention as long as WoW did. After some analysis, I came up with a few reasons why.

  1. The game world involved was something that begged for exploring. Going from the jungles of Stranglethorn through the mountains of, Redridge, or coming out of the tranquil Ashenvale Forest into the wide-open Barrens was just something that was really fun to experience. The open-ended element was great too.

  2. All of the gameplay mechanics, from the levels to progress through bestowing their new abilities and talent points that made leveling fun, to the actual combat and questing were fun. In WoW’s case in particular, it was almost hypnotic at times as I would get into a zone that made the quests – and time – fly by.

  3. Playing the different races and classes made for different experiences. Playing one class – like a paladin, in my case – was thoroughly different from playing say a rogue.

    Each of the above points can be found in  part in various single player role playing games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the Dragon Age series, but there’s an element missing. On one dead-quiet morning in Azeroth, I found the answer.

    It was late in Wrath of the Lich King’s lifespan, and I was going back through the Outlands looking for minerals for my engineering skill. The total quiet was haunting, to be honest. The mobs roamed idly, general chat was silent, and it was like there had been some catastrophe (or Cataclysm) and everyone was gone but me. When I was killing a random baddie to liven things up I was caught off guard when – lo and behold – there was life. I saw another player for the first time in over an hour, and you’d think I’d just seen a rescue plane on a deserted island.

    The thing is, for all of Warcraft’s good points, it wouldn’t cut it as a solo experience. It would need some kind of tight and driven storyline to keep you going because without any social interaction it’s ultimately a pretty stiff game.

    So where does this leave single player RPG developers? In a lurch. Aside from Bethesda, few have produced open world games that can pull a player in for more then 20 hours. Personally I’ve played Oblivion for well over a hundred hours, and the constant buzz of activity in towns and cities is part of the reason why. In Warcraft, when I’d start to get stir crazy from the isolation I’d head to Dalaran or Ironforge to unwind. Similarly, in Oblivion I’d go to Chorral or the Imperial City when the quiet started to wear on me. It takes a certain level of skill to make cities full of NPCs that are active but not overbearing.

    Games like Guild Wars are better for the solo player because they have central hubs for players to gather but once you’re out of town you (and anyone partied up with you) are split off into your own instanced world. Unfortunately for me I never got into Guild Wars so I can’t give it a full accounting here.

    The final big hook is new content. If you buy an MMO these days, you assume content patches will be coming with something new here and there to keep the experience changing. Single player rpgs usually only offer something – or anything – new if you’ll pay for it. DLC is better for quick new content then waiting on sometimes lack-luster expansion packs I guess, though I still have a soft spot for expansions like Bloodmoon for Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which when you think about it would probably be released as DLC these days.

    So our list of things that soloists want from a single player RPG that they get in an MMO includes a large, open, varied world; mechanics that make playing worth while for a protracted length of time; some form of social interaction with either believable NPCs or other players; and new content to keep players checking back. Right now the closest I’ve played recently include Dragon Age 2, Two Worlds 2 and (again) Oblivion.

    Someone once suggested a button to turn off other players in MMOs, turning them into a single player experience as their solution but it wouldn’t really solve anything. The developers would still have to make content for both groups and soloists, which can hurt both sides. The answer may lie in the Guild Wars formula, or it may require a new genre entirely. Until there’s a concrete answer, social and anti-social will have to learn to get along long enough to play the same games. And is it really that hard? Think about it; the non-social don’t want to talk. Don’t talk to them, and they won’t talk to you. Maybe there needs to be a flag for that, like DND but one that people will respect (I got so many more people chatting with me when I was flagged DND then anytime when I wasn’t, it’s like a glowing ‘talk to me’ sign in WoW). How about,’Normally Obliging, Presently Engaged’? Maybe that will work. Alphasim out – NOPE.