Last week I talked about how game designers can't seem to figure out how they feel about people playing solo in their MMOG. Sometimes they reward this behavior, and other times they punish it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in games like Champions Online and Lord of the Rings Online, where a solo player will reach the end of a series of quests and suddenly find themselves facing a forced-grouping mission. Maybe it's a mission that requires (say) four level ten players. There are just too many foes to take it on yourself. You can gain several levels until you're powerful enough to handle the crowds alone, but by then the XP will be meaningless, the items will be useless, and you'll long have forgotten the plot of the thing anyway.
Having fun playing solo? Tough. Go spam chat until you find someone to help you.
Let's keep in mind that there is always a cost to forming a team. You have to find a bunch of strangers who are at the right level and who are interested in the same quest. Then you have to travel to get to the same place. You have to make sure everyone understands how the team will work. Who will tank? Who will heal? Do we need to share quests? Wait, I don't have that one. Does this one share? How are we handling loot? Shouldn't we get someone for DPS?
You have to deal with idiots and morons. Sometimes you'll meet hardcore experts who never bother explaining what's going on or who will get impatient with you for not also being an expert. You'll meet people who don't know what they're doing and aren't interested in learning.
By the time you get a group together, figure out what quests to share, and everyone has traveled to the location, you've blown twenty minutes. And then suddenly someone will need to log off or go team with his guild and you'll have to start again.
Finding a stable team of like-minded players is an undertaking. It's rewarding when it works out but it's not something players should be forced to do at the whim of the game. The beauty of an MMOG is that you can seamlessly move from solo to group play on a whim. Ideally, you should always have access to the three major types of content:
1) Solo play
2) Cooperative play
This lets the player choose to do what they like based on what they think will be fun. Solo play is easy and immediate. Cooperative play takes a little investment of time and hassle to get going. And Player-versus-player is like cooperative play, plus it requires a larger commitment of time and risk on the part of the player. I fully support the idea that the game should give better rewards to the players who make the bigger commitments. PvP should be more rewarding than Co-op, which should be more rewarding than solo. But the game should never require you to go from one to the other in order to progress.
But getting back to the issue of a series of solo missions that culminate in a group mission: If you don't want to group or can't find anyone to join you, then you have to go somewhere else and level up until you can take on the group challenge by yourself. Since the end of one quest line usually ends by pointing you to the next questing area, skipping the final step can leave you unsure of where to go next for level-appropriate content. This can leave newcomers orphaned and frustrated. It also messes up any story progression the player might have been enjoying.
Designers fail to take into account that as the game ages the population will naturally thin out and the low-level areas will become deserted. Sure, it was easy to throw together a well-matched group of level ten players a week after launch, but two years later everyone is playing the end-game raid content and those forced-team quests are just making a mess of things for newcomers. Players can either spend ages trying to scrape together a team or they can run around leaving all of the plot threads unfinished.
But this is an MMOG! Players are supposed to play together!
No, the players are supposed to have fun. Remember?