To the chagrin of many of the old school, whatever games we see inclusive of the MMO genre now have soloability as a necessity to gameplay. Many of the millions are playing their own little game where a bit of social contact is never more than a Party-With click away, should they choose. Even those that crave group challenges as the epitome of their MMO gameplay will find themselves crafting, leveling alts, or advancing rep until the event group starts gathering. Raids have become some paramount achievement because they are easily made difficult requiring a herding of cat-minded guild members to a number of dance steps. Yet, solo content is often just considered going through the grind. “Exalted rep with all the factions,” you say to your guild mate of leisure, “glad you had the time to do that.” The connotation that skill was not required for the achievement would not be missed between the lines of congratulations.
I personally believe that the answer is scalability, which Dungeons and Dragons Online, City of Heroes/Villians, and Wizard 101 all possess. I am most familiar with the latter, but thoughts on the first two are more than welcome in comments. In Wizard 101, most content is soloable, but it definitely is not an easy chore. In most fights, solo players are outnumbered two-to-one. The razor’s edge decision to mitigate, heal or nuke is present in every solo boss battle. Once another player joins the battle, the uneven playing field drops to three-to-two, and healing and nuking can occur in the same turn with a little communication. It’s a balance between perfect communication (with oneself) and greater enemy difficulty, or imperfect communication (with another player) and lesser enemy difficulty. Then it becomes an easier choice to give soloers some of the best loot as well instead of always just passing it on to the raid-level content.
I have to note Guild Wars with it’s AI-controlled party members. In the days before Heroes, Guild Wars followed the aforementioned solo/grouping tradeoff. With 8 players, the enemies were easier to handle, but then the 8 players had to maintain a cohesive-focused group. With 7 henchmen, the solo player had be extremely careful because the henchmens’ skills were not the most efficient and the AI could do dumb things, but the solo player had near-perfect control. When customizable Heroes came about, the tradeoff nearly disappeared. Heroes with perfect interrupt ability and skills for each challenge, were more better controlled, and their AI was raised to be closer to that of a skilled player. Now, grouping up with other players in Guild Wars to do such things as vanquish a zone or farm some rep is seen as being nothing more than a social exercise. Efficiency belongs to the soloer now.
And, that’s the danger. It’s so much easier just to give challenging content to groups and time-consuming content to soloers. It keeps players wanting to group up for the tastier carrots. It keeps the efficiency of hardcore soloers down as much as possible. I do think that some MMO developers are on the right track for creating a good balance of soloer difficulty vs. soloer reward. They are making games about stories or events or soloer scalability where the division between a group and a solo player is one of playstyle, not consequence.
on a steel horse I ride