I may be the last person qualified to talk about grouping, but as someone who doesn’t group a lot (whether it’s my decision or a decision that I have to make due to circumstances beyond my control), when I do get to group-up I feel particularly attuned to difficulties with grouping systems.
Last night in The Elder Scrolls Online I was joined by two others as I was dealing with a quest in Craglorn. I had to kill three atronachs, but at least one of them was in a delve, a non-instanced dungeon which usually holds a skyshard, which is a mechanic to earn free skill points. Even though my friends didn’t have the quest, the XP was good, the loot promised to be good, and there was a skyshard in it for them.
Now, the problem with themepark MMOs and grouping is that themeparks rely heavily on structured content, and that content is designed to move players through zones at a measured pace. For example, World of Warcraft is so micromanaged that you can set your watch by the guaranteed leveling schedule based on which quests you take. One benefit of this approach is that designers can chain quests together to create a much larger story arc and take a little sting out of the fact that they’re asking players to do the same tasks over and over (assuming you’re paying attention to the quest dialog, that is). It also allows devs to tune their zones to different levels, which is a nice way of saying “hey gogogo players, be sure you see all of the hard work that we did for you before you race off to that “end game” that we’re always telling you is the most important part of our product!”
Grouping upsets this pace by allowing players to group up with others who may be ahead or behind, but who can never be counted on to be at the exact same point in the content as anyone else at any given time. Many MMOs understand this limitation and allow for the sharing of quests with newcomers so that other party members don’t have to visit the NPC who grants the mission. Of course, this breaks down if the mission is a multi-part affair because first-step-plus quests cannot be shared, so if the group forms at any time other than during the initial quest then anyone who comes in at a later point is simply along for the ride and any accidental benefits.
This bit us in the ass last night in a way. Atronach hunting was a mission in progress, maybe the second or maybe fifth mission in the chain. The party could all see the targets and could participate in the battle, but once it was complete I had a step to talk to a mage who was then questioning the atronachs we had just defeated (and apparently captured). While I could listen in on this fully articulated interrogation, the rest of the party just saw me standing there, staring into space. They had no idea that anything was going on, although it was assumed, and they had to keep themselves busy while just one member of the group was reaping ongoing benefits. Worse, they got none of the quest-end loot even though they helped with a good 90% of the tasks that made up the complete mission arc.
On the one hand, I understand the reasons for this. First, spoilers, especially in “One Tamriel” in ESO where any player can go anywhere in the world for any reason now. My party wasn’t “homed” to Craglorn like I was, but if they ever made it to Craglorn themselves then seeing the mission through my eyes would have effectively ruined it for them later on. Second, there’s skipping content in a multi-part arc. While spoilers are one reason, not knowing what is going on, or not being able to receive the benefits of completing prior steps is certainly something that devs cannot code around. I’m sure that there are other reasons that are unique to each game (The Secret World is another game that “punishes” groups on account of “personal stories” and keeping content “pure” for self-discovery).
I’d be OK if party members could at least see scripted scenes when they are allowed to participate. One party member mentioned Star Wars: The Old Republic as a game that does group content right because every player gets to cast a vote during scripted conversations. I doubt that my party from last night would have gotten the full impact of the scripted scene were they able to witness it but having participated in the task that lead to the result without being able to at least see the result seems like an odd punishment for the player’s own good in a way. If this were a real-world situation, late-stage add-ons would certainly be able to witness a conversation even if they didn’t have the context that makes it meaningful, so it seems weird and counter productive when claiming group play is the way MMOs were meant to be enjoyed.