It took me a very long time to work out how to play MMOs, to work out what they were actually for. It is entirely possible I still have it wrong, but am certainly enjoying them more now than I have in the decade or so that I've been playing. It was very much a thing of phases.
A brand new player, coming to the MMO genre, perhaps from single player gaming, will not really know quite what to expect, and faced with a new game, a new world and a new system, is likely to be mostly concerned with learning the basics, how to move, fight, travel, craft and all the rest. In these situations, it is understandable if they don't want to be doing this early learning under the impassive gaze of five complete strangers in a group.
This was certainly how things went for me and the soloing life can be habit forming, becoming a kind of default way to play for quite some time. Sooner or later though, even the most entrenched hermit will give grouping a go; either having encountered quests and monsters that cannot be dealt with alone, or simply worrying about the whole 'multiplayer' angle they may have been missing out on.
Early experiences with the Pick Up Group can make or break the MMO genre here. Obviously, an unlucky run of bad groups here can severely put players off of grouping in general, but even good PUG experiences can have a detrimental effect, but of a more long term and curious nature. Having done well as a team, our players all add each other to friends lists and for a few weeks, all is excellent. Soon though, the differing rates of play will cause troubles, and ultimately, such a group of players, and perhaps now friends, will be pulled apart by the scourge of levels. With the best will in the world, repeated dissolutions of viable hunting teams can put players of grouping as well, but for entirely different reasons.
I was on the receiving end of both of these types of disappointment. The first was easy; I'd just pass those specific people off as idiots and move on, trying again another day. Those days did become further and further apart though, it must be said. The second was harder to bear; watching people who had become friends, as equals, get further ahead or behind. First the teamwork of peers would change, becoming less about pulling together and more about one person pulling ahead, using their prodigious powers to shepherd the rest about; a well-meaning kind of patronisation. And then the break, as game mechanics forced us apart entirely, and the friendships became things of polite tells and whispers, with no common gaming experience to hold it together any more. When that happened enough times, I began to see futility in the positive outcome of a PUG as well as the negative, and largely kept to myself from there on. Guilds can help, providing at the least a common chat channel for many soloers to solo together in, but are not a guarantee of playable compatibility in themselves.
The astute will have already seen the obvious solution, but I didn't until much later; the Static Group. Some fortunate gamers come to the genre with ready-made friends, and move directly into this phase from the outset, but for the rest of us it is harder. Perhaps through exterior resources; forums, websites and so on, perhaps through winning personality in game or simply through real life acquaintances getting involved, the very fortunate find themselves in a group of friends, all starting on the same MMO journey at the same time. An arrangement might be reached, to play similar hours, to set a specific night of the week, to take specific pains to defy the tyranny of levels and ensure that a given group is always compatible and always viable, all the way from character creation to end-game. The Static Group is born.
These days, I find myself a member of three such groups, playing Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars and City of Heroes, and really do wonder if this wasn't always the way it was supposed to be done, how these games were meant to be played. Not as a floating migratory mass of 3000 or so players, all indiscriminately questing and slaying on an ad hoc basis in some grand nebulous fight against some imagined evil, but as a group of six to eight friends, merely using the facilities as a place to meet up and hang out, chatting and joking and coincidentally also playing a monster bashing computer game as a team too.
Guild Wars in particular illustrates a curious point for me. It is often queried as an MMO and its heavy reliance on instancing disqualifies it in many peoples eyes from being an MMO at all. But I wonder. Guild Wars is mostly played in a series of instances capable of holding only eight players, making the rest of the playing population more or less irrelevant. But then I realised that essentially, this is exactly the case in Lord of the Rings Online and City of Heroes for me. While playing those, in our regular groups, none of the other players actually matter, or affect our gameplay, making the difference between Guild Wars and a 'Proper MMO' an almost negligible thing.
Certainly PvP MMO gaming is a different case, but further thinking along these lines, and I returned to my cohost's original question; "Why are there no co-op RPGs?" Effectively, I am already playing three, and the fact that thousands of other people are also playing it at the same time seems to have become as relevant to me as everyone else who is playing Oblivion as the same time as I do. MMOs are the co-op RPGs he seeks, I think. Perhaps the Pick Up Grouping and the Soloing were never meant to happen at all, and MMOs are in fact offered as virtual venues; collaborative games which do not demand so much intensity that it is impossible to chat and joke and gossip during play, a kind of online pub or bowling allley, offering a place for people from all over the world to just hang out and share interests, and also presenting a little something to do while they're there.
Mind you, I do worry that in reaching this point of personal enjoyment and release, I may have lost something incisive and important along the way. I talk up Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars and City of Heroes all the time, giving them all glowing praise, when perhaps it is the people I am reviewing, and no longer the games themselves. Perhaps it is simply the case that if the companions are good enough, the quality of the venue itself is easily overlooked. Maybe I cut these games more slack than they deserve because I am having a great time in them, but not for any reason they are responsible for. If it is the people and not the specifics of the game, well, we could just as well be in any game at all...