Last night, for the first time, I spent a little while in a group. Not a large group — it was just me and one guy from work. (I’m still reluctant to quest with anonymous strangers, although I suppose my WoW experience won’t be complete until I’ve tried it at least once.) I was using a newer and less-experienced character, an Orc rogue named Crumbcake. I may wind up using Crumbcake exclusively for social play, because I don’t want her to level faster than my friends on that server, but she doesn’t really seem like an ideal sort of character for that sort of thing. The real social roles are healing and enhancement — abilities that become more effective when you have someone to share them with. Rogues are experts at sneaking, which seems like it would be more effective when you’re alone, because non-stealthy companions are liable to get into fights that you’ll have to either break stealth to participate in, or ignore and be a bad teammate. But even without force multipliers, playing with someone else will tend to increase both participants’ survival rate. Quests tend to become available when you’re at the experience level that can just barely pull them off without dying if you’re lucky. You can overcome this by only attempting quests that are a level or two below you, and indeed I think you’re likely to do this automatically after a while just because of all the quest XP there is lying around, but with a partner, it’s much less of a worry.
Nonetheless, there are some obvious and immediate downsides to adventuring with a group, and I don’t just mean the mechanical aspects, like splitting loot. It requires coordination, particularly schedule coordination. I remember a “test” in A Tale in the Desert that involved putting together a group of seven people for a time-consuming pilgrimage to a number of remote shrines. It was probably the most challenging thing I ever attempted in the game, even though there was no obstacle beyond keeping the group together. WoW groups are of course more flexible than that — if someone has to log off, everyone else involved can keep going. But even with just two people, we spent a substantial amount of time discussing what we were going to do, rather than just going out and doing stuff like a solo player. Coordination of this sort is necessary because grouping implicitly asks you to be attentive to other people’s needs. Not only is it experienced as a bad thing when you’re kept waiting, it’s also experienced as a bad thing when you know you’re keeping other people waiting. I kept my partner waiting for an embarrassingly long time at one point while I tried to find my way to the Windrider Master in Orgrimmar — it was my first visit there, and, like all the capital cities, it’s laid out in a confusingly three-dimensional way. (It turns out that the only way to get up there was by an elevator which I hadn’t recognized as an elevator.) That’s an extreme case, but it’s a symptom of the larger disadvantage that group play isn’t self-paced. When I’m soloing, I can stop in the middle of a quest to try out a fishing hole I noticed. When I’m not, I feel like I’m wasting other people’s time if I stop to read the quest descriptions thoroughly instead of just skimming them.