Why do players choose to solo?

The idea of grouping crossed my mind this morning. I was recalling all of the great memories I’ve had over the years forming groups in MMORPGs. I have loved (and still do) grouping over the years for many reasons: Social dynamics, access to more dangerous areas, often the increased rewards of tackling more and harder enemies, and the ways in which classes interact with each other in group settings. Groups feel like the core of a MMORPG to me.

Grouping is definitely not the core of MMORPGs for most people. I say most people because I have observed the rather obvious trend toward solo play from both what the bulk of players want and what the bulk of developers deliver — there is no coincidence that the two align.

Why is solo play preferred over grouping? I feel that if this can be identified, and the reasons for players choosing to solo either alleviated or incorporated into a grouping experience, then we can maybe get more people to want to group up in MMORPGs. Here are a few of the reasons I can think of for why players choose to fly solo and how I think we can begin to start addressing them. I would like you to comment with yours.

Finding and Forming a Group Takes Time

Forming a group is the most time consuming part.  Finding players, getting everyone together, and organizing can often tap into play time. If someone has an hour to play, the formation process may take up half of that. LFG tools helped, but were never given a true chance to develop once the tools came out that built groups for you. These very tools became a means of making group play just another version of solo play. I think if the older format of a LFG tool — a more robust version — we can get back to the group creation process. Creating that group is crucial to the process.

We can not cheat time. There will never be a way to properly remove the wait while maintaining the integrity of a great MMO group. But maybe we can reward players for time spent looking. For every 5 minutes without gaining experience while tagged as LFG, your experience gained during that play sessions will be boosted. That way once you find a group you can catch up and gain experience as though you were gaining the whole time.

Gaining Experience is Faster Solo

Many believe that playing solo allows you to gain experience faster. That is often true in modern MMOs — in fact it is very true. In older MMOs some classes were designed to solo, and they did quite well. I played a Necromancer and I could solo much faster than most groups, and most groups didn’t want me until I had certain abilities anyway. Grouping up should always give more experience. It should give a boost.

If killing 1 monster solo in 1 minute gives 100 exp, and killing 1 monster grouped takes 20 seconds and gives 100 exp — the rate of gain is triple that of a solo player.  That’s how it should work, or something similar. However, in most of today’s games the experience is divided up and the monsters do not take that much longer to kill solo. A solo player can see gains much quicker. I believe in group EXP bonuses. I strongly believe in them. Do not punish a player for soloing. Reward a player for grouping. There -is- a difference.

Solo Players Can Do It All

This is definitely a product of the times. Modern MMOs have all but done away with having to group while leveling up. Solo players can go anywhere and do anything. This is only the slightest generalization. Soloing in older MMOs pretty much meant finding the places few and far between where you could gain experience, and grouping meant the world was your oyster.

Grouping needs to unlock more areas with the benefits from above. More areas = more cool stuff to see, better experience, and faster exp. These areas can not be instances. They can not be “additional.” People should want to go where groups can go.

Classes that Have to Group are Boring

I think this is a real thing. Classes made for grouping these days are boring. Players who can solo perceive their bag of tricks to be more dynamic and interesting. A player who solos in today’s MMOs does indeed feel like he or she can do everything. Back in older MMOs, groupers had the bag of tricks and solo players were one-trick ponies. Cast 1 nuke until it does or dot, fear, sick pet, sit. Give people more cool and exciting ways to harmonize with other players and they will seek out these opportunities.


Reward grouping without punishing a player for soloing, and make the transition from solo to group an easier one. Create the true richest experience of the game in a group while still providing the means to solo. Never punish a player for soloing — some choose to do so because they find that more fun, and I understand that. At the same time, these are massively multiplayer online role-playing games meant to be enjoyed to their fullest in a group experience with other players.

  • All of those are solid reasons why people like to solo but I think you may have missed the most obvious one of all: control.

    Soloing puts you 100% in control of 100% of your play-session. You get to choose where you go, what you do and what pace you do it at. You can take a break whenever you like, for as long as you like, with no need to give a warning or wait for a replacement or a convenient break in play. You can change your mind at any time about anything.

    Solo play in MMOs offers a freedom for the player that traditional group play simply cannot match. Yes, the in-game character is more restricted in what it can do but the out-of-game player has total and complete freedom of action. During the lengthy period (several years) when I grouped at least as much as I soloed, lack of freedom to make ad hoc choices without first running them past groupmates and agreeing on a process was the main – indeed pretty much the only – reason I got tired of grouping.

    If you see MMOs as social environments, which I do, then the advent of global chat channels, not to mention integrated voice chat, has removed any need for fighting monsters alone to be a lonely business. All the time I’ve been soloing in MMOs I’ve been carrying on lively conversations in zone/map/general/ooc/guild/private channel/whisper. Many nights I spend more time typing than I do killing even though I’m off on my own in the wilds somewhere.

    Soloing nowadays offers all the benefits of the social experience with none of the drawbacks. When you add in the “solo together” ethos of Public Quests/Rifts/Dynamic Events you really do get the best of both worlds in my opinion. Much though I enjoyed formal grouping back in the day I don’t hanker after going back to those restrictive, awkward mechanics. I much prefer the way things are now, with the baseline being solo and communal play and formal group play as a more niche, optional extra.

  • I had a section called “Soloing is Safer” but it was based entirely around the idea that MMOs USED TO be dangerous. They simply aren’t that way anymore. I had discussed much of the control factor in that section. Controlling your destiny, controlling your fate, etc.

    Control is woven throughout all of these points.

  • “and most groups didn’t want me until I had certain abilities anyway. ” this is a big factor too. I remember playing DAOC as my minstrel, for a certain level range I was highly desirable for my single target mez and mana regen song. After a certain point the pulls required AE mez, which meant that Sorcerers were in high demand, to the point that I often got kicked from the group if a Sorc was available, and if not I was relegated to mana drums and loot collection duty. The group wouldn’t allow me to play my class and take part in the fight because it was less efficient. Basically people can be jerks and tend to strive for most optimal efficiency which can take a lot of the fun away. This is a big reason I prefer solo play unless I have a core group of friends that I know are laid back to play with.

  • Now imagine if group roles were still defined in such a way that you had certain abilities a group wanted, but the downsides weren’t there. Being the guy with AE Mez is awesome because the group literally can not survive without you. Being the guy to provide the buffs and the mana songs is awesome because the group can not possibly kill at an acceptable rate without you.

    I like the dynamic of needing people and feeling needed. It has its downsides, but I’m determined to eliminate them.

  • I think you missed the “other people are mean” or “I am uncertain how to play my class in a group so I’m better of soloing than screwing up and ruining it for multiple people (at which point they will be mean)” aspects of things.

    Other people are the reason we don’t like to group with other people. You can get lots of good groups, and I have found that most people are nice and helpful, but there are just enough people out there that will rage at you for any mistake to sour the whole thing. I can have a dozen dungeon finder groups in a week, and 11 will be great and people will chat and be helpful, but the one that will stick out will be the one where the guy raged at me for not healing him after he ran ahead without warning and broke line of sight. That is the group that will make me want to avoid groups.

  • I think the only reasonable way to do it is to bonus groups for XP, that will encourage people to do try it out at least. Players will *always* pick the path of least resistance. As Bhagpuss says, playing solo is often just as social (you have more time to type) than in a group (harder to pause in the action if others are busy fighting to chat).

    So bonus them out and maybe people will have more fun. You can’t gate early level content anymore, because most times there just aren’t players of the same level existing to help. That happens all the time – hard mob? Can’t do it unless you are at launch time when everyone is the same level. People level up and move on fast (and faster) in games these days.

    So I can agree with the bonus for groups as a good baseline, but I think that is the only carrot. The rest feel like sticks =)

  • I play solo because I don’t like dealing with jerks and random sperg. I don’t want to devote ANY of my play time to dealing with nonsense.

    LFG tools are used pretty regularly in either a discriminatory way (no thieves in this group; experienced medi guards only; etc) or a griefing way (let’s leave these people here to die; let’s kick this guy and get a bigger loot share).

    I shouldn’t be punished for playing solo. Why should groups get big boosts in addition to the other benefits of grouping?

    I game to game. It’s primary purpose is not socialization. To me, there is something of a disturbing trend in talk about MMO’s — this idea that somehow everything ought to be groups, socialization, etc. Maybe it has something to do with age groups as well. If you grow up gaming with your school friends, I imagine it seems a lot like the game is a social structure. On the back side of 40, with a wife and kids, my social group is not gamers and I’m not interested in dealing with anything that includes the phrase “can’t you take a joke” or “HTFU” or variations on that theme. Game time is zone out and relax time. It shouldn’t be full of forced interaction.

    I like the Guild Wars concept of open world. You work together when you want to, but you don’t have to be “grouped” except for dungeons.

  • Funny enough I read this article while mining in EVE… a game in which I have never ‘grouped’ yet have enjoyed for countless ages. I solo because I like to do things at my own pace and when I choose to do them, and also to not be beholden to the herd mentality which in most MMOs is to consume content fast. On the plus side I feel I get so much value and enjoyment out of most MMOs I play but on the down side I very seldom get to ‘endgame’.

  • I wouldn’t treat soloing as if were a disease that we need to find a cure for.

    I generally solo because not surprisingly it mirrors my approach to rl activities. I prefer to not have to depend on others to achieve my goals, my focus is my own, I find it time efficient, and I don’t have give concessions to others.

    In my experience grouping leads to mediocrity as my individual standards of achievement are higher than average.

    By analogy when I have attended conferences in the past I would thoroughly research the city, find the local subculture magazines, and list out the most acclaimed bars, restaurants, and events going on each evening. Then would come the hard part; while individually people might think that one choice or the other was cool, when the time came, the priority was on socialization (i.e. grouping), and as such the least common denominator would invariably be chosen, that is everybody spends the night drinking at the closest sports bar.

    The times when I tend to group are those where either I need to, or I want to help out my guildies, the latter being borne out of a feeling of social responsibility; rarely would I enjoy these experiences as they felt like a chore. Plus I despise setting a specific time to meet, only to end up waiting on all the little ducks to stand in a row.

    Additionally I enjoy the challenge of pushing the limits of my character and the effort has always yielded a higher reward/time result.

    This also bleeds over into PvP where I am that guy who likes to push the perimeters, picking off stragglers, and daring people to follow back into my faction’s main group.

    Plus I actually like PUG’s if we are also fighting PUG’s. The chaos, need for optimization of your character, and excitement is greatest in these situations as you cannot be assured that anyone will have your back; by comparison face-rolling an opposing PUG in a pre-made group has always been a bore to me, though I do appreciate the logistical aspects of well run groups.

    So personality type cannot be left out of the equation; an ex-girlfriend once described me as an outgoing antisocial personality, so while I like to talk on blogs and on vent, I much rather prefer to set off on my own and see what I can accomplish.

  • …also keep in mind I almost always play high dps AoE glass cannon types, kind of like who draws first is likely to win, so a hard hitting approach, but a weasley bastard with multiple escape contingencies planned out, usually exploiting terrain advantages and other tactical factors.

    As such seeing a group member hang in a combat situation for too long means that I have to also, as I don’t leave any toons behind, but this seriously throws a wrench into my survivability options and more often than not will leave me frustrated and unnecessarily paying to repair my stuff.

  • As an aside, I don’t think the idea of “rewarding grouping without punishing a player for soloing” is actually possibly in today’s gamer climate.

    Any “reward” for grouping will be interpreted as a punishment for soloing, and as a mechanism “forcing” people to group.

    The idea of ensuring a higher XP rate for groups – you describe that as a reward for grouping, but trust me, it WILL be interpreted as a punishment for soloing.

  • Bhagpuss hit the nail on the head.

    For me, control of my time is the most important reason why I solo. Sometimes I’ll be in a long group session and think “Eh, I’m bored of this, I’d like to do something else now”. But instead of stopping I end up playing longer to fulfill the social contract of a group. That’s when my leisure time becomes a chore and I instantly resent it.

    Life also just gets in the way. If my wife needs me to help her with something, I do not want to negotiate the social obligations towards my family and fellow players. I want to start, pause, and stop on demand.

    GW2 is great because I can play “with” others in events out in the open world without any commitment. For other stuff, if your group activity takes more than 20-30 minutes I simply don’t participate at all.

  • It’s fear of the unknown. I think a lot of people have bad experiences and then get turned off by the idea. As you said, it is a time consuming process. You are basically gambling with your good time. Finding possibly five plus individuals to fill roles only to see that they are incompetent, annoying or even complete asshats (Oh sweet baby Tom Cruise, the ragers there are in the world of MMOs these days) or possibly all of the above is arduous and some times flat out upsetting.

  • Carson
    “Any “reward” for grouping will be interpreted as a punishment for soloing, and as a mechanism “forcing” people to group.”

    I agree. Rewarding group play in any way is indirectly placing a penalty on solo players.
    Why not have content both can enjoy? They can co exist.

    I find the solution of a group finder in games such as WoW a nice solution.
    Play solo if you want to and if you need others to clear an objective, task or dungeon it is only a click away.

    off topic:
    If it was up to me I would take group finders out and any general chat as well.
    No trade channel. No auction house. No teleportation.

    Go out and explore, talk to strangers you meet along the way.
    (make the world dangerous and people will group or die trying.. still with perseverance you could go a long way alone just not everything)
    Basically the way I used to play Ultima online in the old days… “strokes gray beard”

  • “The idea of ensuring a higher XP rate for groups – you describe that as a reward for grouping, but trust me, it WILL be interpreted as a punishment for soloing.”

    …and rightly so.

    Game mechanics that provide an advantage for one play style over another are by definition putting one at a relative disadvantage.

    If one worker is getting $25/hour and another $20/hour for similar jobs, a boss could try to console the lower paid employee by saying you aren’t getting $5 less, it’s just that the other is getting $5 more, but I am sure it would still come across as unfair.

    This being said I think devs have to decide what type of community they want to foster and not worry about pleasing every player, as no one will be fully satisfied in that case; in my opinion a large community of disgruntled players does not offer a better gameplay experience compared to a smaller group of contented like-minded ones.

  • To add to the points raised on “players are mean” and the control aspect of playing solo. One issue is that grouping tools are biased towards finding people to do specific content but rarely with any option to specify the playstyle you want while doing said content. In many MMORPGs (especially SWTOR, GW2, FFXIV and Tera) I have been very reluctant to pug anything since almost the default behaviour is to skip any videos or in-game animations.

    Why aren’t there ways to either specify as free text or a few categories of tick-boxes to at least state up front what you want? It’s all very well saying at the start of a run “I want to watch the videos” but if the matching system doesn’t build a group around that then you’re just as likely to be the one left in the dust watching said videos while everyone else charges on and leaves you.

    This isn’t necessarily about “players being mean”, well one person probably is being impatient but so many players are very well trained to follow the herd and nobody really wants to miss out on encounters. You could easily say it’s selfish to want to watch such videos or animations, but then we come back to a reason why we might want to solo…

  • […] in MMORPGs seemed to be the hot topic yesterday. Massively was looking for the best Solo MMORPG, Keen looked into reasons for playing solo and offered some suggestions to encourage grouping via gam… and Syncaine also chimed in. So i’d like to visit that topic, too, because i feel every […]

  • Telwyn nailed exactly what I meant when I alluded to the LFG tools never having a chance to develop properly. There should be ways to form the groups you want to play in. If I want to play in a hardcore nose to the grindstone group I can specifically search out those types of players. If I want a more relaxed “family” type group then I can either tick those boxes are describe that in my LFG message.

    Give Both a Bonus!
    The perception of a punishment due to a lack of reward can be nullified with similar bonuses for solo play. Maybe if you haven’t grouped during a play session you can receive some other form of bonus. That way both soloing AND grouping have an opportunity cost. Oh I like that… I think that’ll be a post for Thursday (today is a Q/A with Mark Jacobs).

  • Socialising costs energy, even if it’s not in real life. Some players don’t want to waste their precious gaming time having to communicate with other people they’re not familiar with.

    I prefer to play multiplayer games with people/friends I know on my team (and I play only PvE so there is seldom an opposing team).

    I dislike pugging and only do it if I have no choice. Also, if you’re a non-guild member, you will seldom get to pug with players from good guilds/teams (because they will mostly play with their guildmates) who can maybe teach you something extra for the content you are trying to do, or how to coordinate well in a team for the content we’re trying to clear.

    If my friends don’t happen to play the current multiplayer game I’m playing, then I’ll just have to solo. I feel it is actually more efficient to clear content with a group of friends working together, but if they aren’t around then I won’t spend the extra effort/time/energy needed to make new friends online.