Give players separate goals
"Giving players the ability to make friends and have fun together is a lot more empowering than forcing players to gather up because it's the only way to accomplish something."
The obvious way to ensure that players still have meaningful things to go through together while still having things to do alone is to offer more than one path for players to follow. It's so obvious that it's almost insulting, but it's still the truth. Players who want to group can do so, and players who would rather solo can continue in that path.
Of course, even that can be implemented in a few different ways. Some games give players a single end point with multiple potential routes at the endgame, usually making the solo path the slowest one by virtue of balance. This works well enough, but it also gives the sense that playing solo still isn't the "right" way to play. You can get rewards, but they're often tediously slow, and that's not really fun.
A better option is to have a progression path specifically made for solo players, one with rewards and content tailored for just one person to enjoy. There are issues that need to be addressed in terms of challenge (something I talk about further down), but it means that you can keep each player working toward individual goals. It also means that players who want to see more content have extra options available -- if you want to see some oif the solo content, you can't just jump in partway through by virtue of group progression.
Offer alternative social interactions
I don't think that anyone disagrees that MMOs need some elements of social interaction; that's pretty much the definition of the genre in the first place. The problem is that in a lot of games, "social interaction" winds up boiling down to "you need a bunch of people to kill this thing."
is one of the few games that really provide players with a better set of options for playing together without necessarily simply pooling firepower. Players are interacting constantly via the market and the control systems, even if they're not necessarily in the same area. TERA
's political system similarly keeps players interacting on a macro level through large-scale policy changes and a rolling election.
Both of those options just give players a way of interacting at a distance without necessarily being in the same area, but there are good ways to keep players interactive while in the same place as well. Roleplaying is a classic solution to the problem of giving players a way to interact without necessarily going out to kill things as a group. Some other games give you other interesting ways of working together or playing together, including at least one free-to-play game that lets players design custom dances together. And games like Free Realms
offer an insane number of different multiplayer minigames.
The key is that there are ways for games to be social without necessarily having a huge number of players killing the same thing. Even Guild Wars 2
is adopting traces of this via its dynamic events. Yeah, you're all working together, but you aren't getting together into a party; you're just trying to clear something as a loose coalition.
Make equivalent challenges
I don't doubt there are some solo players who really prefer solo play because they're not very good at group play. I'm also fairly sure, however, that those players are in the minority. Most dedicated solo players like to be challenged just like anyone else, and they like feeling as if they're being rewarded for clearing challenging gameplay.
The issue is that creating challenging solo content is actually a fair bit more difficult than challenging group content. When you're designing something challenging for a solo player, you need to know what an individual player is capable of doing and design the challenge accordingly. In a group, basing a boss fight around interrupting a cast bar makes sense, since someone will definitely have the ability to interrupt things. In a solo fight, it's possible that you won't have that particular skill, and then the whole thing falls apart.
At the same time, it's also very possible to do. One of the things I liked the most about Star Wars: The Old Republic
's personal story was that it repeatedly put me in difficult fights that I was expected to face solo. Clearing them often took a lot of effort, but half of the fun was the fact that the fights were challenging and doable if I was on my toes and knew how to play. Tailoring fights to player abilities is more difficult, but the result is a fight that feels like an epic duel.
There's a world to know
Playing solo doesn't have to mean that you're playing alone; it just means that you don't have a team at your back for content. It means that what you're doing is all by yourself. But if you slide too far in the solo direction, the game can feel like a thousand parallel games, never crossing but always present.
The key is options. Giving players the ability to make friends and have fun together is a lot more empowering than forcing players to gather up because it's the only way to accomplish something.
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