Now, obviously, group content is a great thing. Playing MMOs with friends, either those you met in-game or those you met out-of-game, is one of the best experiences you can have. I even extolled the virtues of games that require a party way back in the day, and I stand by that. The idea of outright excising group content from games is a pretty horrible one.
That having been said, there's a strong mantra that's persisted in MMO design for some time now: The endgame is all about grouping. Once you reach the level cap, you should be expecting to team up and take on the game's biggest challenges with other people. And this philosophy has some pretty firm adherents even outside of design, people who will point to the fact that it's more epic, that it's impossible to design challenges just for solo players, that it keeps you playing more regularly than if everything were designed to be completed alone.
Of all these, only the last one has a lot of merit. There's nothing preventing designers from coming up with interesting challenges for solo players, and the argument regarding how "epic" things are is basically circumvented by every story in which a lone hero faces down the big bad. It certainly does keep players going longer, in the same sense that randomly logging a player off every 20 minutes would force players to use the login screen more frequently.
So why do designers like the entire group content spin so much? For one thing, it does keep you playing, in no small part because it adds an extra layer of difficulty to the design. After all, not only do you have the challenges built in to the encounter, but you also get the added bonus of replaying the encounter until the one member of your group who can't stay out of the fire learns his lesson. It certainly extends the life cycle of the gameplay because players will keep chasing that carrot as long as needed.
The alternative, of course, is to design a game that players keep logging in to play even after reaching the level cap because they enjoy the gameplay, rather than one in which they are chasing after an increasingly evasive reward. But that's a cocktail of gameplay elements that can be really hard to get just right, and it's certainly not as reliable as keeping up an endgame roulette.
Even more so than extending the life cycle of the game, however, group content is one of the methods that designers have fallen in love with simply because it falls under the auspices of being uniquely MMO content. If you need a full group of other players to succeed at something, you're having an experience that would be outright impossible in any other sort of game. (Online shooters, all right, but it's not as if another player there will absolutely require a team to do any real damage.)
Unfortunately, that leads directly into the next issue. As it currently stands, it's hard to really point to any major regions of group content design that haven't already been thoroughly explored. There's a pretty strict group content template, for lack of a better term, and it's pretty much been taken about as far as it can go. Tank this, kill this, run away when this happens, kill these first, don't kill these, so on and so forth. Some small variants can be introduced, but we're long past the point when the idea of a boss with additional targets can be seen as revolutionary.
So we're stuck from both angles. Designers feel that they need to stay with the group content treadmill, and players have seen pretty much all of the variants on the model. So we wind up getting a stream of the same endgame content that will, yes, keep everyone working together in a group. It'll also result in a near-identical endgame from game to game because it's always the same endless stream of group content where all you can do while solo is farm money and possibly curbstomp low-level targets to feel better about yourself.
You can blame it on WoW if you want, but it's not as if EverQuest used a different model.
Mercifully, we're seeing the start of a change in the way these mechanics are implemented. Lately, the big recurring element is the idea of scaling difficulty, instances or quests that grow or shrink depending on the size of the group. And, of course, that prompts fears that the game is just catering to solo players and the removal of any interesting group experiences, turning the entire game into a single-player experience that just happens to be online.
But group content, as it currently exists, has some serious issues -- not just the fact that you're locked behind a slowing mechanism, but the fact that strongly group-focused content at the end means you can love the game until you reach the final few levels. Even WoW's developers finally got some of this message when the game started making changes to allow multiple sizes for raids, reasoning that not every group of dedicated players would want to go on the largest-scale raids.
We need options. If we're going to have an endgame, there need to be places for different playstyles, including playstyles that prefer solo play or ad hoc grouping. Choices are always better than a lack of choices.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!