Player groupings should be separated by more than just numbers and organization. They can be designed for different types of encounters, different rewards, and different limitations. And by "different types", I don't mean different in the nominal way EQ2 has "Solo" and "Group" encounters.
SOLDIERS AND TREASURE-HUNTERS AIN'T THE SAME
Raiding in MMOs never seemed all that wonderful to me. I tried it a couple times and felt most of the time like I was being prodded through a guided tour.
In fact, that analogy works pretty well, because a raiding party in current MMOs is a group much more in the sense of a tour-group than of a militia. Sure, the individual players enjoy each other's company (ideally, anyway), but they're mostly concerned with individual goals (loot and/or xp). Guilds sometimes boast about having defeated a particularly tough enemy, and this represents a truly community-oriented goal (national honor -- i.e., patriotism); but they typically face that same enemy over and over for the sake of individual player progressions.
Goals in MMOs rarely lean more toward community benefits than individual benefits. If you dig deeply enough, of course, the line between self-serving acts and selfless acts is often hypothetical; one act serves both ways. But what concerns us here is the player's focus and intent.
I'm not arguing that traditional raiding should be abandoned entirely, but I am suggesting that the traditional reward system of "loot and xp always" is bland and primitive.
For years now, a common goal among MMO developers has been to make players feel more important to the gameworld. True militia gameplay is one means of accomplishing that. Instead of painting every player into a mercenary role, players may be allowed to join NPC causes and serve NPC factions in ways that position lore progression (story engagement) before all other goals. Star Wars: Galaxies seemed to prove the viability of this. In my SWG experience, players did take faction quests for the purpose of self-advancement, but it also was not uncommon for faction-bound players to engage faction enemies in combat for the sake of a cause or role-fulfillment. The game was certainly much more enjoyable for me because of my faction affiliation (Empire) and the call to eliminate any "Rebel scum" I might happen across or hear about.
A piece of the action
Many successful FPS games have cast the player as a soldier who will assuredly receive no rewards of loot, money, faction, or progression points. But the player doesn't mind, because he's in it for the action... and possibly (though I doubt it) for the story progression. If MMOs can't sell players on the idea that some encounters are rewarding enough through the action alone, then it seems that would make liars out of those who claim MMO combat is truly exhilirating. MMO veterans would have expectations that must be managed, of course, but those expectations may be changed.
Fame and glory
Does anyone really doubt that guilds (or other large groups of players) would still tackle ferociously tough monsters even without any promise of loot, wealth, or experience points? Bragging rights are a big deal. I remember an incredibly difficult cheat to unlock in Goldeneye N64 that required beating a level in a ridiculously short time. After players beat it, they didn't talk about how cool the unlocked cheat was; they talked about how hard it was to get and how skilled (and lucky) that made them.
Tie such communal victories in with the game's lore and dynamic events. Then, offer the group a lasting legacy. Legacies can be accomplished through a Hall of Heroes, library records, minstrel songs, and any number of other possibilities. If a legendary one-spawn creature is taken down, the developers can ask the guild for some visual figure that is representative of the group, then place a statue of that figure in a nearby village for the duration of the gameworld. In some cases, it may make sense to recognize the individuals within the group directly (like a list of names in a library record), but it's alright to reward the group as a whole instead.
See the previous blog.
SOLO GAMEPLAY = GROUP GAMEPLAY WATERED-DOWN?
There seems to be an implicit assumption in MMOs that the only significant differences between solo gaming and group gaming are complimentary skills and chatting. Not so.
Solo gaming involves a freedom from many social pressures which affect how the player engages the game.
Players in a group generally try to stay together, watching the others and adjusting their pace to a comfortable compromise. A solo player can follow impulses to rush ahead or sneak as slowly as he wants to.
One of my favorite MMO experiences was ever-so-slowly sneaking up to and down through a cave full of narglatches (like nasty-tempered lions covered in red scales and spikes). My character must have spent at least 20-30 minutes crawling on his belly, stopping completely whenever a narglatch might notice me. I was down in the thick of their lair before I was finally discovered. That's an experience I couldn't have had with a group.
Soloing means much tighter control over one's gameplay experience. Everyone probably knows what it's like being talked into some dungeon crawl, quest, or loot run that you really were not all that interested in. Sometimes that's good. Sometimes, we need someone to push us into new, enjoyable experiences. But sometimes, perhaps just as often, we look back and think, "yep, I knew this would suck."
Tactics and strategy
Some expressions of this difference are obvious, but there's a lot to be explored here. For example, solo players must often be more attentive to their surroundings and careful with positioning (relative to the enemy) than groups. They're more vulnerable to surprise attacks. Positioning is something MMOs haven't adequately incorporated into gameplay (with notable exceptions). But if they did, it is certainly something that is realized very differently in solo gameplay ("I bet he can't see me on this cliff above him") than in group gameplay ("You three circle behind him, and I'll drive him to you").
In the interest of getting this posted today, I'll leave it at that. But I hope the general idea is clear. Developers may just continue debating which loot to give solo gamers, which loot to give small groups, and which loot to give raiding parties. But it makes more sense to me that large groups, small groups, and solo experiences generally represent different goals and settings...and should often involve reward systems that are fundamentally different (not just different in quantity or quality). Mercenary armies are feasible, but armies marching off to protect an allied people (for free) or hunting a dragon for eternal glory (and nothing else)...those sort of scenarios make more sense to me when considering large group gameplay.