Incentives for and against being a tourist
My central thesis for MMO incentive analysis is that incentives can be effective in changing player behavior but are highly ineffective in changing player preferences. What incentives are at play for and against a player's decision to depart a game after the hypothetical 90 days?
- (Real World) Money: Unless you fall into an edge case in the business model, the amount you pay will correlate with the amount you play. If the game has a monthly fee, that cost is obvious, with a financial incentive to quit the game as soon as possible in exchange for $15/month added back to your disposable income. In some cases non-subscription games have a high one-time start-up cost followed by no recurring expenses, but for the most part the studio has a strong incentive to continue to get something out of people who are signed onto their servers consuming their bandwidth.
- Diminishing Returns for Progression: Whether the game is rewarding you with the next chapter in its story, the next increase to your character's level, or especially the addition of new abilities that significantly alter how you play the game, most key rewards in MMO's are decidedly finite. The longer you play, the more likely that you end up on the "treadmill" of working to obtain slightly stronger gear to face slightly stronger mobs instead of more interesting rewards. By contrast, just as your time in your existing game is getting less and less rewarding, starting over in a new game means going back to the fun end of the incentive curve.
- Attachment: Even a solo player is going to feel some attachment to their character after dozens of hours /played spread over weeks or months. Here is where Psychochild has a point about "social fabric" - if you have real friends and attachment to the community, that may be an incentive not to leave a game that you would otherwise be done with.
One Unwilling Raider's Tale
To draw from my personal experience - I'm a dirty soloing MMO tourist so clearly it's all about me - I can say that the incentive system worked as intended for me in World of Warcraft circa 2005-2006. I had run out of levels to gain and quests to solo, but I had gotten to know the folks in my guild (which actually made the oft-attempted transition from relatively open recruitment of leveling players into a reasonably successful 40-man raid guild). My choices were to quit the game or start raiding, my personal incentives at the time favored the latter. So I changed my behavior, and off I went to kill Nefarian.
What did not change was my preferences. I would rather be spending my gaming time working on less difficult content - the kind that can be beaten in one evening by a PUG. Instead, I did something I fundamentally did not enjoy, that required reporting to play at fixed times and spending non-raid nights preparing - far too much like a job instead of a game for my tastes.
As soon as there was a second MMO where soloing to the level cap (well, almost) was viable, I canceled my WoW subscription and headed off to the newly launched LOTRO. I've returned to WoW repeatedly given the opportunity to do so on my terms - i.e. new expansion content I could solo or new easy group content that I can experience without a fixed schedule - but I've never gone back to the raiding game that I never liked and only played because that's where the incentives of that particular era lined up.
The Downside of Choice?
In addition to all the other things Blizzard did right, WoW had a key advantage - as the innovator who brought solo play to the MMO space, Blizzard had a few years in which a player like myself didn't really have meaningful alternatives, short of going back to single player console games. Blizzard did not need to worry about losing my money after 90 days and they were able to use that dependable stream of revenue to finance a better game for everyone. (Albeit with a disproportionate focus on new raid content.) New games today don't have this luxury. Instead, more than one game with solid potential has been gutted when its population fled early and its staff was trimmed to match.
Philosophical questions aside, I am not a player who has a preference for the type of gameplay that fosters strong "social fabric". Now that I have a family, I have time constraints that would prevent me from doing so even if I wanted to. The odds that you will find some incentive so strong that I will change my behavior to something that I don't want - and may no longer be able - to do in today's crowded marketplace are near zero.
And thus my advice to Psychochild is simple - it's not 2006 anymore. There are enough online solo-friendly options these days that it's a waste of your resources to offer a solo option and then undermine your efforts by trying to make it somehow less attractive than grouping. If you want a niche game that focuses on grouping, don't waste your developers' resources and your players' time by offering a less attractive solo option that will ultimately lose out to all of the many games that do solo content better.