It should be obvious by this point that I'm a big fan of MMOGs; I have had subscriptions to almost all the big launches since Ultima Online and at any given month I'm juggling three or four games at varying frequencies. Last week Gordon at We Fly Spitfires brought up a subject I've always been interested in myself: the endgame. While MMOGs originally started out as huge social experiences over time they were refined further and further into single player escapades that had multiplayer components thrown in here and there liberally, to the point that now the preferred method of progression is to just play the game alone. Most games these days heavily cater to that, requiring very little in the way of group activity as you level– you can get through the entirety of World of Warcraft, for example, solo, and any group quests or instance runs are completely optional. However, once you hit the level cap, the expectations of the game shift radically from solo-friendly to heavily dependent on raiding. For the solo player it's a startling change of perspective as the rug is pulled out underneath you, and for those players who don't want to raid the only content they have left comes down to recycling daily quests over and over, PvP arenas/battlegrounds, or chasing after vanity achievements.
There's a lot of reasons why the leveling experience is usually a solitary one, but I suspect the biggest cause is probably due to the fact that playing online with strangers is generally not the most satisfactory experience. Big egos and bad attitudes drive most people to wanting to be by themselves or with friends, and game designers have facilitated that as the genre has grown in popularity and subscription numbers. In fact, when a new MMOG launches these days one of the most common questions you'll see developers answering beforehand is whether or not a game will require grouping.
However, I don't want to focus on why the social aspect of MMOGs don't seem to work well in practice, but ruminate on what can be done to provide for the solo player that doesn't want to raid either.
Raiding, if you're unfamiliar with the lingo, is the predominant activity when you reach your game's max level. You and a group of others (the specific amount varies from game to game, WoW utilizes 10 or 25-man raids these days, but originally it had 40-man dungeons) go into an instanced dungeon where you have significantly harder enemies to fight as well as bosses to down. The rewards tend to be the best gear in the game, the most amount of gold, and other special items benefiting the increase in difficulty. It's a new activity grind to replace the leveling experience, and requires a significantly higher commitment of time to accomplish. Given that so many MMOGs make playing by yourself in your own time very easy, when you get to the endgame content raiding almost becomes a second job to take responsibility over. That was the hardest thing for me to get used to, personally, when I recently got my priest in WoW to 80; the game went from being something I could sign in and poke around on whenever I wanted to something nine other people were depending on me to be there for. Depending on your feelings, this is either awesome or terrifying.
So what should game developers be doing if they want to stick with allowing the leveling portion to be done alone? Right now if a player hits the end and wants to avoid group raids, they don't really have a lot of options. I mentioned the big ones: daily quests, reputation grinds for various faction gear, PvP over and over or collecting achievements. You can also level your trade and crafting skills or metagame the server's auction house but for a player who wants to continue playing by themselves there's an obvious lack of attention paid to what they can do.
My perfect fantasy would be, obviously, solo raids! A long single player (or with a friend if you want to invite them along) dungeon that can be accomplished by yourself would be an awesome addition to any current MMOG. Something harder and more interesting than killing ten of X enemy, requiring a bit more finesse than the non-instance quests, with comparatively better gear as a result. In the game's hierarchy it could be stuck underneath the first tier of group raids, but still above the regular dungeons you do before level cap. Champions Online probably comes the closest to what I'm envisioning here between their Nemesis quests and Monster Island, but in practice so far my experience with that has been entering an instanced building with three rooms that have harder-than-normal enemies and a boss-like mob at the end. How awesome would it be to play through a long dungeon half the size of Ulduar and downing a monster at the end of it, befitting your stature as a hero? I get goosebumpy thinking about it (and am happily sticking the significant increase in stress on game servers out of my 'happy imagination place' place) already.
It stands to reason that cajoling players into wanting to play with each other isn't going to happen for most of the level grind, and really most gamers are likely to even resent the concept. From my own anecdotal experience the majority of people want to play a MMOG alone, with any player interaction entirely voluntary outside of capital cities or conversation. In response, fleshing out the solo experience would be an improvement over squishing players into a weird disconnect from the campaign they experienced for the majority of their characters' lives. Especially from a story perspective, it's weird constantly having affirmation by the NPCs of all the amazing things you've accomplished well beyond what anyone else has done, but– wait– to go any further you need to join up with nine other super people just like you. It really deflates the sparkle on my special quest drop pants.