I've played a handful of MMOG's recently: Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Age of Conan. And it's clear that for most of the game the solo players vastly outnumber people playing as a group. Anyone not playing in the end-game raids is most likely playing alone. Paradoxically - or perhaps oxymoronically - people are playing massively multiplayer games by themselves.
But why do this? Why not just go play a single-player game?
1) People want to share space.
I've compared MMOGs to building sandcastles on a beach: You're working alone, but there are other people around. You can socialize when you like. Other people can see your work, and you can see theirs. Having other people see your character makes it all the more "real" and your efforts seem all the more worthwhile. It's the difference between getting dressed up to go to a party and getting dressed up to hang around the house.
2) MMOG worlds are bigger than huge.
There really is no comparison. The biggest single-player game is still minuscule compared to the average MMOG. When you boil it down to races to play, places to explore, crafting to master, classes to try, and achievements to unlock, an MMOG has more gameplay than ten single player games. Instead of always buying, installing, and learning new games every week, the solo MMOG player can have a single game with months' worth of content. It might sound strange, but a lot of people have said they'd be willing (or perhaps even prefer) a single-player version of WoW. They don't care about the multiplayer thing. They just want a really big game.
3) Just because you're solo doesn't mean you're alone.
If you've ever joined a guild with a lot of die-hard solo players then you've probably found out what chatterbugs they are. They're all at different levels on opposite sides of the gameworld doing entirely different things, but they know each other and socialize via chat. For them, an MMOG is like IRC or instant messaging with a built-in game.
MMOG designers are still trying to wrap their heads around this "solo multiplayer" idea, and they can't seem to decide if soloing is an aberrant behavior that should be discouraged or a new demographic to be embraced. Gameplay often veers from giving you an incentive to play alone to punishing you for doing so, often in ways that just don't make sense.
Designers have finally begun to sort out the contradictions between PvP and PvE play, and now most games seem to let you do one or the other at will. I'm hoping we'll see a similar focus in future games so that soloists and co-op players can each do their thing without the designers imposing or denying multiplay according to their own whim. Specifically, solo quests that end in forced-teaming missions have no place in a modern MMOG. I'll talk more about this issue in next week's column.