As first mentioned here, there seem to be a high number of RPG fans who turn to MMOs to get their gaming fix, yet most MMOs do a rather poor job of getting those solo-minded players into what really makes MMOs great: massive AND multiplayer content.
The major flaw in games like WoW and its ilk is well known: for the entire leveling process, going solo is OPTIMAL, grouping hurts you most of the time, and then everything gets flipped on its head when you hit the cap and raid or die. In more sandbox titles, the entire game seems so arcane to RPG fans that they have a tough time just getting over the initial hurdle. EVE is famous for this, but games like Darkfall are also daunting mountains to climb.
For too long the solution to getting RPG fans to stick around was to try and mimic their games of choice by letting them be the solo hero and letting them be the focus of the entire world with stuff like phasing or instances. After all, in how many RPGs does the big bad get killed while you are not playing, or off finishing a side quest? In first-gen MMOs like UO/AC/EQ1, it happened all the time. Long-time MMO fans will know this is somewhat of a non-issue, as a good MMO will have lots (or in AC1’s case, monthly) epic events, so missing one is not the end of the world. Players unfamiliar with the genre will see this as lost content or being forced to play at certain times however. At the end of the day, this is more a PR issue than an actual in-game issue. Once fans see that being part of something special, while very cool, is not a one time or “must attend” event, they relax and participate in what they can, when they can (forums aside: on the forums you will ALWAYS have crybabies crying about missing an event, but forum opinions don’t count anyway).
The bigger issue however is creating content that naturally transitions someone use to playing solo into an MMO player. As already mentioned, stuff like phasing and solo instances do the exact opposite, but what content do you actually need to accomplish this?
For starters, solo content IS important. If you log in and no one is around, not having SOMETHING to do is not good. It won’t take long for most players to get bored staring at their character’s butt while they hope someone else logs on, and unless you are in a very active guild (the ultimate goal, but not something that newer fans all have), odds are decent that’s going to happen. If someone logs in for 5 minutes, has nothing to do, and logs off, guess how hard it gets to actually get anything done in a semi-active guild? It’s a really, really bad domino effect.
With that said, solo content should be the last resort. It should only be an attractive option when no one else is around, or for those times when you have only 30 minutes or so (note that if you only ever have 30 minute chunks, MMOs are not the genre for you). In all other situations, grouping with even just one other person should always be optimal, even if it’s just to continue working on something that could otherwise be done solo. Themeparks traditionally fail here for a few reasons. First, solo quest content is already silly-easy, so grouping up makes this even worse. Second, many quest goals are optimal when no one else is around (collecting for instance), so bringing more people actually hurts progress. It amazes me that such basic design flaws continue to get reproduced game after game, but that’s another rant.
Instead, farming should become easier and more enjoyable with others. Mobs should be tough but doable solo, but with a buddy they should go down fast enough to increase profits, while still having them respawn fast enough to not force downtime. Apply this to quests, actual gold farming, or collection materials for crafting. Whatever the objective, the system should be designed in such a way as to encourage bringing friends. First-gen MMOs got this (mostly) right, and it’s crazy that current-gen games get it so wrong.
Another key factor is establishing systems to encourage community and player interaction. Queue hubs and instances destroy server communities because they don’t allow for ‘random’ interaction. This is why heavily instances games (GW1 being a great example) are often called non-MMO titles, because they lack that very basic ‘run into someone random’ possibility and what it brings. Darkfall pre-alignment revamp is another good example of mistakes made. By actually encouraging everyone to attack everyone, randomly grouping for PvE never happened (or only happened when a vet was scamming a noob), which is terrible. Since the re-vamp, blue (good) players can be trusted, and you see more natural grouping as a result. This of course leads to guild recruitment, which fosters communities, and up and up we go.
Finally, and at the highest level, goals have to be group/community based rather than the traditional RPG goal of personal character growth. Current-day themepark raiding, while technically a group activity, is mostly about gearing up your own character rather than succeeding as a group. The side-effects of guild-hopping, selecting participation, personally being ‘done’, etc. are well documented. Larger, group-centric goals not only tend to motivate more people, but also keep everyone ‘busy’ until the goal is done, which alleviates some of the “you play more than me” issue, and then allows the entire group to transition together to the next goal. This keeps people together, and spreads the sense of accomplishment around, strengthening bonds and communities. Goals can be group-sized, for guilds, or even server-wide. Generally, the bigger the better.
The overall point is that MMOs have tried to become more ‘accessible’ by becoming more like solo RPGs, but in doing so have lost the key quality that makes an MMO work, and more importantly, makes that $15 a month seem worthwhile. It’s no surprise that we see so many ‘MMOs’ today start as sub games and quickly switch to F2P, jump-in jump-out titles. Simply put, they’re not really MMOs.