Playing alone was something all the players I interviewed were familiar with, but the way solo play was utilized and with what purpose was not the same across the line. Some players stated early in the interview that if no one was online, this includes other media than WoW (such as external voice communication e.g. Ventrilo and Mumble), they logged off again. It is here important to make a distinction between playing alone without engaging in remote socializing (guild chat, voice chat, whispers etc.) and actively being part of a conversation while not having your characters grouped in the game. When looking at how often players join groups and how much time they spend in them, these two cases will look identical but not reflect the same in terms of sociability.
In this part we shall look at questing in particular, an activity the players I spoke to often chose to do alone, though frequently while chatting with others at the same time. I’m sure the following will sound very familiar to a lot of WoW-players.
Completing quests, which is usually done with the purpose of leveling, is often chosen with the aim in mind to pass through this part of the game as fast as possible. I’m sure a lot of us have been there, we’ve seen the content already, some don’t care and we just want the raw xp. At this point leveling is just a matter of executing one quest after another.
In the study I also mentioned in part 1 “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (2006), Ducheneaut et al. showed that leveling with someone makes the process slower, something I’m sure is common knowledge now at this stage in WoW’s history. But even though it may be more fun for some players to level with someone, this is eventually sacrificed in the name of efficiency, as one of the players I spoke to testified:
Eitrik: Ah, I’d love to [quest with others] but that is exp cut in half so it takes long.
Some types of players, described as “power gamers” by T.L. Tailor in Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (2006), put strong emphasis on the quantitative orientation of the game and are “particularly attuned to making the best of their time in the game and so undertake actions to produce efficient reward paths.” (I believe the popular titles nowadays for these players are “hardcore players”, “theorycrafters” and “minmaxers”). While power gamers may suffer under the stigma of being an isolated player who’s only interested in advancing, they are often actively engaged with their social network, guilds, boards and forums and may be amongst the most social according to T.L. Taylor’s research, which was based on Everquest players.
I’m curious about this negative stereotyping of power gamers as asocial loners that was around in Everquest anno 2006. Does it still exist amongst today’s WoW players? Or is this something we’ve moved beyond after realizing that power gamers and hardcore raiders indeed are heavily networked? I’d love to hear your views in the comments!
Regardless, my interviews support T.L. Taylor’s social description of power gamers, as the loss in efficiency was considered a serious detriment, but otherwise this player would happily play with others.
Ironyca: What if the xp wasn’t cut in half?
Eitrik: then I’d tell my friends to all start some alts and play together!
Playing with others while questing seemingly comes at a cost besides the sheer loss in experience. Despite the fact leveling is an activity that can cater for group play, especially a duo much better than f. ex farming, coordination can be a hassle and waiting or making others wait was even described as stressful:
Ironyca: How come you prefer leveling alone mostly?
Skyfire: so I can explore for myself, read quest text if I would want etc
Skyfire: so others don’t stress me or I don’t stress others while questing
Besides speed, autonomy is also a common factor that players enjoy about solo play. A few players noted that leveling alone is especially relaxing, the choice to read the quest texts, the option to choose one’s own path and the occasional exploration derail are all qualities players appreciate about solo play.
In relation to leveling with someone, the game has an in built mechanic that allows players to accumulate an amount of “rested experience”, letting them gain the double amount of experience in relation to how long they logged off or otherwise spent time in a capital city. Besides just being an incentive to take breaks, it’s also meant to give a leeway of catching up if one player is not online equally as much as the quest-partner. Even with this feature in place, it does not alleviate the burden of questing with others. My findings support what Ducheneaut et al. (2006) presumed based on their study:
WoW’s “rest” feature attempts to mitigate this but loses effectiveness as the leveling gap between players increases. Therefore, and by their fundamental design, MMORPGs might not support casual-social-play very well, and this could be another reason why we see so much “solo play” in WoW. (p. 9)
Furthermore quests are nested in such a way, that questing within a particular zone is often a matter of completing one quest to unlock the next, something the designers has since chosen to expand upon when Azeroth got a make-over. It’s of course a feature that enhances the storytelling aspects, but evidently also complicates playing with others, unless the implied players follow the same quest line at the same pace. Gaining a boost in experience does not make up for the disconnection between the respective players with regards to this linear structure. Basically this made duo or trio questing even more difficult, especially when phasing splits up the group.
As it is right now, I suspect solo questing to be even more common now than it was in vanilla. I also believe that the leveling/questing experience offer a good example of when solo play is not necessarily considered the ideal circumstances for some players, but turn out that way due to game design. So when it looks on paper as though players are making “anti-social” choices, we have to consider the possible elements in the system that could be pushing otherwise social players in that direction and this seems to be a factor here – questing becomes clumsy when done with others.