(Editor’s Note: Originally, I would just have written a hype train that describes this stuff, and then written a post about soloing, but given that this is the biggest thing I wanted to discuss this week, well, I figured it would be better to merge them and so in place of the Hype Train, this is what I’ve got!)
Something I’ve often talked about in this space without really directly saying it is this: I love MMOs the most when they offer me a good chat room to talk to people I already know while giving me fun stuff I can do alone.
That’s perhaps weird for an MMO player, but yet for both WoW and FFXIV, it largely holds true for me – most of my play time in both games is solo gameplay and when I most sink my teeth into content is when it is available for me to tackle by myself.
Knowing this, now, my love of Horrific Visions in WoW patch 8.3 and my excitement for Torghast in Shadowlands probably makes a lot of sense.
Why is this? Well, I think a few things about MMO gameplay and systems really makes solo gameplay appealing to someone like me. Solo play allows me to take on interesting challenges without waiting on other people or around other people’s schedules – useful for when, say, I’m out of work and playing at 4 in the morning when no one is on a North American datacenter. It also allows me to take my own pace – do I want a snack break or a bathroom break? – then I can just take one without rushing so as to not inconvenience someone else.
But something I find holds me more than just convenience and ability to enjoy the content. In most MMOs, difficult content is defined by punishing mechanics. In group content, this often means that your individual skill means little. A well-designed encounter, puzzle, or other piece of content, will work around this by making individual skill checks a part of the gameplay along with these group-level fail checks, but it always leaves a question – am I really good enough for the top tier of content? I don’t raid Mythic in WoW because frankly, I don’t want to make that time commitment – I like my 4 hour a week guild and our steady Ahead of the Curve pacing. I like having a guild that can supply basic consumables without worrying about min-maxing. I enjoy not having an outgrown infrastructure that makes a WoW player an HR person who has to handle a series of sexual assault allegations against someone, does so poorly, and ends up losing sponsors. You know, all those things that Mythic guilds have to deal with.
But I’d like to believe that I’m good enough to play at that level, you know? I think that for many semi-competitive people, there’s at least that urge to know that you could do it if invited.
Solo challenges indulge that on at least some level, because in the end, it comes down to you and your execution.
Both WoW and FFXIV offer some degree of solo content support, although in this regard, WoW is far in the lead. WoW has modes that scale to offer challenge to groups of multiple sizes, features like the Legion Mage Tower, which can only be done solo, and active balancing of classes and legacy raid content so that if a solo player runs into a two-expansion old Mythic raid, they can receive a shower of rewards if they play modestly well. FFXIV, on the other hand, allows you to some group-focused content alone if you so desire, like Eureka and in all likelihood the upcoming Save the Queen content for the Resistance Weapons of Shadowbringers. It has a toggle in the Duty Finder interface that allows you to run prior expansion content unsynced – your level doesn’t go down to match, your gear remains as powerful as it is in the open world, and you can bring in undersized parties, including just your lonesome self. Class balancing in FFXIV is focused on current endgame and that means that most jobs lack a large amount of self-healing, meaning that even tank jobs, the ones you’d most expect capable of soloing old content, can’t for the most part (Paladin gets a targetable, decent potency heal spell, so they are the ultimate soloing winner in FFXIV).
In both games, what soloing offers you is different as well. In WoW, soloing can be a viable path to gold farming through vendoring of drops and the actual gold dropped, it can be a fun challenge on certain bosses and raids, it is one of the best ways to ensure your transmog ensemble stays packed with fun options, and when current content kinda just sucks, it can be a way to still enjoy the game. In FFXIV, soloing is much the same – less viable for gil farming, good for building up your Glamour Dresser although the game’s anemic drop rates for loot in trials can make this more of a challenge, a fun time-waster, a good skills test, and a way to get familiar with jobs and push the limits of your less-commonly played ones.
WoW’s newer emphasis on flexibility and solo challenges has made me happier as a player for their inclusion, at times (like, say, 8.3 BfA!) being the only thing keeping me tethered to the game. What I grew to appreciate about them, starting with the Mage Tower, is that they allow me to answer my doubts about my abilities as a player in many ways. I won’t claim that the Mage Tower scenarios were perfectly 100% ideally balanced, or that they offered flawless execution checks, but they test most things I would look for in a higher-level raiding player – quick response to changing situations, attentiveness to mechanics and the environment around the player, smart utilization of class and spec abilities, and raw throughput on top of all of that. Even with guides, my experience doing all 36 of them is that no matter the spec, I needed at least a handful of calibration attempts to feel out the parameters of the fight. Even when the fight was one I had previously bested on another spec, there were just enough changes to keep things fluid and interesting.
Horrific Visions had less of this, but I remain on the side of the HV design. They were more accessible and more granular in their difficulty controls and that is what I really liked about them. I’d love to see better targeting for class and spec abilities in Torghast, but Horrific Visions, no joke, extended my active play time in WoW during BfA by a couple of months, and made it so that during those few months, I played more of the game than I had on average during BfA. Now, some of that was poorly designed and excessively gate-keeping currency mechanics, so I wouldn’t use that to argue that all of the time spent in-game was enjoyable, but in the end, the destination was worth the ride to me – until I reached the point of mastery.
In FFXIV, I’ve found myself soloing more because it fills that role for me – this week, I took down Nidhogg EX as a paladin solo just to be able to say I did it, and then I did it again since the scales that he sometimes drop sell on the market board for a good chunk of change and I am still trying to save up for a house when the Firmament opens!
The odd thing is that my gameplay in WoW and slowly in FFXIV become more defined in a cycle of playing intense group content and then dropping to do intense solo content. In WoW, my time was pretty evenly split between raiding with around 20 people and then 5 days of the week just doing my own thing, pushing solo achievements in old Mythic raids or whatever sounded like fun, and in FFXIV, outside of Tomestone capping the current high-tier currency, I spend most of my time finding solo stuff to do, farming dungeons for gear to give my retainers as they level, spending 30 minutes a stretch getting the execution just right to solo Nidhogg EX, and trying to push other trials and boundaries to fill my time and give me things to write about and talk about.
Perhaps, this isn’t what an MMORPG should be. I guess it is more of an ORPG, which sounds like a weird acronym. I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that perhaps I’m in a sort of weird subgroup who enjoys MMOs but has an allergy to doing a ton of group content and has to create the parameters around it such that it uniquely appeals to me.
But what I love most about this weird, ill-fitting genre is that there are all kinds of spaces like the one I just described where people can carve out a niche that fits them and be in an environment where things aren’t so lonely even as they find their own way into the fiction of the world, alone.
(Also: I finally got the Mythic Hellfire Citadel mount today, so hooray!)