Having friends isn't the same as being socially engaged in the game. I don't know why you think this is some kind of issue about casual players somehow being second class in the eyes of less casual players. I'm sure that S-E or any one else would love to have a casual player's 15 bucks a month as much or even more than they would like to have a more dedicated player's money. The issue is that they've found that over the long run they don't keep the casual player as easily and as constantly as they keep the dedicated player. Keep in mind when I say "dedicated player" I don't mean some one who plays more hours per week or is smarter or more skilled; I mean some one who is willing and able to plan their time around an MMO as opposed to playing an MMO around their existing schedule.
Any dev that prioritizes trying to make the game someone's life over making the game an escape are doing it wrong. I know people like to mock XI's disclaimer to not forget your friends, family, work, and so on, but when you start planning your life around a video game, that's exactly what you're doing. Sure, you'll occasionally hear stories about how someone met their spouse in a game, but every one of those, there's likely innumerable more tales of people being exploited, ridiculed, and ultimately bullied by their online peers. Social interaction isn't all the warm and fuzzy feelings utopia that forced grouping might imply.
Define "viable." No one is saying there shouldn't be solo content available. Every MMO worth its salt these days has solo content throughout the leveling curve and beyond. But if "viable" means "as rewarding as group content" then people aren't incentivized to push past the friction of doing that content, and if they're not doing that content they generally don't play the game as long. If you have data that shows otherwise, I'm sure that S-E would love to have it.
Short answer? Speed. Group content should get you to the good stuff faster. That's it.
Now maybe you believe that's a Chicken and Egg situation and if some brave developer would just make this solo friendly end game utopia, they'd keep those players engaged and do just fine with it, but no one has managed to do it yet, and if you read Yoshi's comments he doesn't intend to be the first. And I would say, having just come from Guild Wars 2, that even developers who have committed to the "no pressure, no grind, solo all you like" mind set find themselves changing course quickly when they see their retention numbers after release. GW2 was almost universally praised, yet after the first few months the engagement level was dropping to an incredibly low level, so they reversed course and have been steadily playing up the role of large group play.
Want to know I dropped GW2 a couple months after launch? The bait and switch. Nevermind my disappointment about the hype of dynamic events. You spend all this time leveling to 80, exploring the world, collecting WPs, seeing Vistas, doing skill challenges, and generally improving your character only to hit a wall. Want better gear? You better like running dungeons (and eventually Fractals) until you're blue in the face or run around in the mindless WvW zergs until you get enough badges to buy some of that stuff. Being able to buy/craft a full T5 set the moment you hit 80 wasn't the problem, it was nothing for the individual to do after. The endgame zones sucked. The events required too many people that weren't participating because there were no meaningful rewards for participating. Legendary weapons were also thoroughly asinine. So much grinding for so little.
This isn't to say their large-man content didn't need help, either. Being in a guild didn't mean terribly much. A lot of times it was just a private chat channel. In following updates since, some people seem to like bounties. Some seem to hate them, if for any reason, their guild isn't "big enough" to actually make the most of it. Member poaching is also something I hate to see, as smaller groups of friends can wind up fragmented because in order to do something, they have to part ways with their smaller group that might not mesh as well with the bigger for reasons like schedule constraints or personalities. Some XI players may recognize this more simply as their friend joining an endgame shell and suddenly they're forever unable to help or turn into a giant douche because they finally have access to Real Ultimate Power(tm) within the game world.
You're imagining motivations that simply don't exist and then complaining about those phantom motivations.
I see, so terms like "welfare epics" and the long running feud between Casuals and Hardcores/Elitists has just been a figment of my imagination this past decade. I feel so much better now knowing that everyone out there on the internet is so nice and welcoming.
Confirmation bias. Before the conversation began you had already defined the motivation and arguments of any one who doesn't fall into line with you, so you see those motivations and arguments where they don't really exist.
Yet it's okay to insist the only way these games will thrive is if they follow the one true path of forced grouping. Call me a selfish, entitled mother@#%^er for wanting both to be viable if it makes you feel better, but I'd rather not keep players down just because time and luck doesn't favor them. They're gonna quit anyway.... right?
Following up on my earlier mentioning of the Magian system, I'd like to say some games have come close, but then dropped the ball. The Magian system was generally synonymous with Abyssea, a set of add-ons a lot would feel "saved" FFXI from swirling down the drain. You had rewards that weren't tied solely to mob loot pools. You had gear you could upgrade via quests, or more swiftly through grouping up and taking out NMs. The downfall, here, was that Abyssea was a level cap transition from 75 to 90. There was no upgrading Empyrean armor to +3 or beyond. The game stymied back into the raid content like Voidwatch and Legion where getting your gear was once more hoping for a 1% drop and hoping others don't out-lot you on it. Nowadays, if you're a new player trying to get into Adoulin without those things, you're not going to get far. Solo progression is simply integral for those who aren't there at the release of content and miss the rush.
Rift also had promise with currency like Infinity Stones found from endgame zone events and certain quests/dailies. Problem here is Trion deemed it wise to limit the final products of this gear to be two tiers behind raider stuff. The difference in performance is maddeningly huge, on the levels of 5k or more DPS in a game where top-end DPS values hover between 14-16k depending on role. Not only that, but acquiring a set solo would take far longer than the raid counterparts. It just struck me as terribly skewed in favor of grouping. From there, I saw the guild I was in fold because fielding 10 and 20-man content just couldn't happen reliably with everyone having their own lives/schedules, as well as people getting poached by other guilds. Eventually, I sat back and wondered if I wanted to subject myself to a guild run by (college) kids with little RL obligations, to endure all the player politics that comes with player-run point systems and who deserves what from random drops where I had no hope of competing with those who simply played more because said systems inevitably favor attendance, not so much performance. The answer was no. "Well, you chose not to participate! You don't deserve stuff!" I chose to value my time. I chose to not subject myself to headaches in my entertainment. Again, I'll flip the bird to anyone who insists that the wrong choice, because I could assure you I was still out there being social within the game. But since I didn't "need" stuff from X to do "stuff" from Y, it was A-OK to tell me my character was no longer allowed to grow. Why play? Why sub? Why should I reward a dev for holding me back? That lack of carrot is precisely why they lost me and people like me. People will come and go. That's inevitable. And really, those who feel they're opinion worth more because they've played a year instead over someone else's six months holds no guarantee they know more or what's right for the game.
Options aren't the enemy. Lack of content is.
Edit: And just to elucidate more on the "I've seen it all..." aspect of this, there might be a lingering question, "What about those who enjoy the coordination and difficulty of large group content? What do they get out of it?" If the satisfaction of completing such content isn't enough, then I pose it is about having an edge in gear, and in turn, ego. Because if it genuinely is about difficulty, better gear will actually make the current content easier. Though, this is also where I say things like difficulty modes are cool, not because hard mode gives item X+1, but rather hard mode should cough up item X more frequently with the added twist of making encounters more difficult with new moves/mobs/mechanics. Let distinction come from titles, achievements, pets, or even costume pieces. In turn, if the continued response is that, "That's not enough for me..." Well, now you know how I feel from my side of the fence. Edited, Jun 25th 2013 3:20am by Seriha