Traveling the Multiverse

Aka Ironyca Stood in the Fire – gaming blog

How Social Are We in WoW After All – Solo Play pt. 1

Back in 2006 Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore published the study “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. They used quantitative longitudinal data extracted from the game itself about guilds and grouping patterns. What they found suggested that playing alone in WoW was a lot more common than we might suspect.

According to their result, players spent most of their time on average not being in a group, with independent classes such as hunters and warlocks being less likely to group up than the more complimentary classes, with priests being the most likely. Hunter and warlock were also the most popular choices of class.

Furthermore, as these players reached the end game, which was level 60 at the time, they spent increasingly more time in groups. Ducheneaut et al. summarize their data:

This data paints a more nuanced picture of the social nature of MMORPGs than was previously available. Grouping is apparently an inefficient way to level and many players are not observed to be in a group until they are past level 55. Players prefer “soloable” classes and it is only in the very late stages of the game, where dungeons are simply too difficult to enter alone, that the grouping rate rises. Therefore WoW seems like a game where the endgame is social, not the game as a whole. (p. 4)

It sounds really grim! Are we only tolerating each other because we have to, in order to reach the cookie jar on the highest shelf?

This data collection was conducted in 2005 and documented the period of playing practice shortly after launch. Now six years later, WoW is an old giant and countless changes has been made that could affect the patterns of playing alone. Particularly the role of guilds and the strong incentives to join one, but also a decline in available group quests throughout the leveling ladder and a general strengthening of the classes and their specializations, making the distinction of a “solo-class” and “support-class” more vague.  Looking at this history, solo play may well have changed significantly from back then.

Even though the data is from 2005, it is still highly relevant because it raises important questions of how social we are in MMO’s after all.

Massive multiplayer online games have by definition social play carefully crafted into their game design. In the case of WoW, the encounters that can yield the most powerful rewards are only in reach by the structured formation of a group of either 10 or 25 individual players – a raid. WoW is without doubt a social game with much potential for enhancing ones social capital with much research on these aspects. But besides the aforementioned study, little has been conducted on the single player experience within MMO’s, which can seem like a paradoxical preference of play in games with such great social potential.

Fast forward to around September 2010 this poll appeared on the old WoW forum:

"How social are you". Click to see the result of the poll (I can't make the image fit the format of this blog, sadly)

It’s not a scientific poll, so we can’t use it to say much, nevertheless the sheer size of the percentages still surprised me. The first (“I avoid interacting with others at all costs“) and second option (“I type to others but generally only when necessary“) add up to 41,85%. That’s almost half of the 2633 voters who have chosen an avoidance strategy with regards to chatting or interacting with other players.

Not long after I had settled with this topic for my project, this poll showed up on the new forum in March 2011 showing a similar pattern.

Solo play tops with 25%, but unlike the older poll, this one gives the impression that the large majority play WoW in a more social way.

The reason this poll and the old one aren’t that useful for more than a little gimmick, is the way they both conflate interacting, chatting and playing together. We all know you can play with others in an LFD group while not uttering a single word, likewise you can chat with people every time you log in, but prefer to never join a party or raid and play alongside them.

So far so good, we can now see there is something fluffy going on there, some players keep to themselves, whether it’s by not chatting or not playing with others, or both for that matter and I needed to know more about this.

So, to learn more about solo play, I did 9 interviews with random WoW-players across EU servers. The project was to be my exam paper for a course called Digital Game Theory I was taking during the spring of 2011 and this series is a rewritten version of my result. To complement the “Alone Together”- article, I chose to go qualitative (I suck at quantitative anyways) and talk to the players about it. The focus was put on experiences of playing alone, but also just being alone in the game in ways that doesn’t qualify as actual play, but is nonetheless still related to the MMO both as a game and as a community.

I wanted to know what players did while they were spending time alone and if they sometimes felt lonely while online. I wanted to know if being alone was a preference, a compromise or something third and I wanted to know how the online multiplayer atmosphere affected solo play.

If you want to know too, part 2 is up next: Clumsy Questing

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3 comments on “How Social Are We in WoW After All – Solo Play pt. 1

  1. Döra
    August 26, 2011

    This is going to be interesting. This is a fascinating subject and one that I strive to understand (on a personal level) myself – so you’ve got me glued to the screen awaiting part 2 :)

  2. Syl
    August 26, 2011

    A very interesting summary, Ironyca. I look forward to your interview results!
    Personally, I was not surprised at the high percentage of solo-players, even if this might just be a small poll. it’s the direction WoW has taken and funny enough features like the dungeon finder have only made it worse – many players will make such bad experiences in the anonymous and reward-focused method of LFG pugs, that it turns them off group-play permanently.
    I think the main issue roots even deeper though; if you look at society in the western world of today, where living standards are quite high, things like individualism and egoism hold sway. in fact, many people are isolated and community has little meaning compared to poorer countries where people have to rely on one another. so I believe for MMOs too, the sad truth is that players will only ever cooperate if you force them to. the minute the game becomes easily solo-able, people won’t group up nearly as much. it’s just a mirror of how we behave in the real world.

  3. tomeoftheancient
    August 26, 2011

    I remember the agony of trying to find a group for the quest in Dun Modr to kill elites. I never thought I’d miss those but I do. It was the way I met new people. Most of the people I knew and guilds I joined I met through group quests.

    Great read, looking forward to the next installment!

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2011 by in Opinion and Discussion and tagged , , , .

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