Keen is talking about why people choose to solo instead of group, and all of his points are spot-on. Some are design mistakes (solo being more efficient/rewarding than grouping), others are social (people are mean), and for some the time needed for group content just doesn’t fit into their gaming time often enough to bother. I think all of this is true, and an area where MMO design has to evolve, but not devolve into sRPG games with global chat.
One thing an MMO needs to do is encourage grouping naturally. If I’m out in the world killing stuff, another player coming along should always be a bonus. This not only means that you form groups with random players and potentially make new friends, but it also means that when a guild mate logs on and joins you, that’s always a good thing.
Far too many MMOs today fail with the above. Back in the day quests were simple, one-off “kill a bunch of X” tasks. This simplicity meant that “I’m questing” didn’t instantly result in “I’m playing solo, you aren’t on that chain”. So yes, we got fancier, more involved sRPG-style questing with phasing and whatnot, but we lost the social aspects that got us interested in an MMO in the first place.
A lot of times you don’t even need official questing IMO; just give me a natural reason to kill a bunch of mobs (wealth progression), make killing them better/faster with more people, and allow me to determine how many people I want to bring and how long we want to keep killing. Again modern MMOs over-focus on holding your hand and always making sure you have a directed list of tasks, and all of that creates major barriers to playing with others, which is insane to think about in the MMO genre.
That said, it’s also important to acknowledge that times HAVE changed. People have more choices now, and not only that, but it feels like most people play more games at the same time than in days past. If we want to go way back, I remember having to play every Sega Genesis game to death because I only got one every few months, where now I can pay a few bucks and get half a dozen in a Humble Bundle. Factor in F2P titles, Steam sales, mobile gaming, and everything else, and suddenly expecting the average player to sit down and hammer away at your MMO for 3-5 hour blocks 3-5 times per week is simply asking too much. Even those of us who have that much gaming time aren’t likely to dedicate it to just one game for long periods of time.
Just because someone only has an hour to play, shouldn’t mean they can’t spend that hour in a group doing something fun in an MMO. Developers need to look at all of the barrier they have created of late and ask if it’s all worthwhile. Is everyone playing an sRPG really better for your game, or would enabling players to form social hooks in your title keep people playing/paying longer/more?