Tobold is kicking around another ideological tin can, prompting a few responses here and there.
Larisa weighs in on morons and NPCs (Gevlon variant impending, I’m sure)
Bottom line, I don’t want to need other people, but I want the option of playing with others if I feel like it.
Beyond the bottom line, Henchmen open up a game, as evidenced by Guild Wars and its NPC flunkies. For challenging content, yes, people are still better (though maybe it’s nice to challenge one’s self by managing a party, as another sort of challenge). NPCs are better than a PUG sometimes, though, especially if the kids might wake up at any moment and need a hug.
I would love WoW if I could play group content with NPC henchmen. (OK, and if they would ditch the subscription model.) I would still go play with other people sometimes because I enjoy doing so. (And incidentally, it seems to me that Dungeon Finder runs would be better if they were formed with people who want to play with others, rather than those who must play with others to get the shinies. Henchmen NPCs would help that in my eyes, by letting the mercenary players just go do their own thing and letting sociable players get together with less static in the system.)
Ultimately, it’s up to the players and if they want to socialize at all. Sometimes I’ll fire up Puzzle Pirates just to go talk to some old friends. Sometimes I just want to go Shipwright alone or take out my sloop with some NPCs (effectively soloing small scale group content, with a nice variety of challenge levels that vary by scaling somewhat to my interest and ability). It’s nice to have several options and not be hobbled because I don’t have others to play with or the inclination to do so. And yes, I do invite others to my humble little ship to play as a group sometimes, but it’s when I want to, not something I have to do to play the game.
Why do we play with each other in WoW at all? What if the loot and leveling were removed? What if it really was just all about the play and socializing? Is pure multiplayer gameplay without loot bribery a viable community building tool? Even WoW had to incentivize guild membership via yet another rep grind with silly boosts (Gasp! XP accelerators! Minipets! Shinies!) to get people together.
If the question is “what happened to people playing together?”, I suggest it has far less to do with soloability and far more to do with the actual play. If something isn’t fun to do with other people, making the payoff bigger or forcing players to play together isn’t actually solving the problem.
As Raph notes, retention is sometimes strongly rooted in social ties (though Gordon rightly disagrees, pointing to the Skinner Box mechanics), and as I’ve noted before, the people really are the best part of these things… but they are also the worst part. It’s wise to let players participate in your game world (indirectly socializing, and still playing/paying) while they sift out the sympathetic players from the unfriendly ones. That means strong solo options to keep people invested in the world while they are sorting, and good mechanics that don’t punish those players who want to play together.
And maybe, just maybe… a good game to play, instead of just more numbers (jump ahead to 4:21 for the numbers bit).