The Ever-Changing Social Scene
My introduction to MMOs was through the Lord of the Rings Online in the summer of 2008. I remember those early days vividly - my fragile Dwarf Minstrel running around Ered Luin in motley low-level rags getting his ass kicked by just about everything. It was not only my first LotRO character, it was my first character in any MMO, and the learning curve was steep. But I had friends who played often, and joined a Kinship filled with smart, patient and helpful people, which made the introduction much less painful that it would have been otherwise. In nearly every MMO I have tried since, that support structure has been missing. But the learning curve hasn't been as steep. For one thing, I'm more genre-savvy now than I was when I started out those long years ago. But, more importantly, the games themselves are changing. The social construct is no longer really the central feature of the games.
I haven't been playing MMOs as long as some veterans - the ones who cut their teeth on EverQuest back in the 20th century, for example. Original EQ'ers will notice even more of a shift away from the core social aspects of the game. See, the younger players just getting started with recent titles may not realize this, but MMOs started out with a particular focus on that second "M" - the "multi-player" part. Grouping up wasn't just for the odd side-trip to an optional dungeon, quick instanced PvP matches or elder-game raids and dungeons. In some older games, you couldn't progress the main story without grouping up. You might be able to grind your way to level cap by tedious solo mob-farming, but if you wanted anything beyond that, you found a group for it.
That's how it used to be in LotRO. The epic books, which are the "main storyline" of LotRO, had several difficult instanced chapters requiring a full 6-person group. The group quests from Books 1 to 6 were quite challenging when attempted with an on-level group, but you could technically postpone them until you hit level 50 and just run through them solo if you wanted. When you hit Book 7, though, that was another matter. Book 7 took you to East Angmar, where things got real very quickly. The remaining books were all level 50, and most of them had at least one chapter requiring a full 6-man group.
Things began to change, though, around the time of the Siege of Mirkwood expansion and the introduction of the Skirmish system. Group content began to take a back seat to scalable instances. Open-world group content all but disappeared. Eventually, even the epic books that used to require full groups got converted so they would be soloable. Other players became less of a necessity and more of a loosely-tolerated inconvenience who would sometimes ninja your Dwarf-Iron deposits but could otherwise be largely ignored.
This isn't confined just to LotRO, either, but is happening across the board - other games began developing ways to allow players to run group content without all the social engineering. Developers started to really make changes to reflect how players realistically took part in their games. Most leveling-up content is done solo, and once the race to the level cap is finished, players start grouping up and running end-game content for gear. In newer games that I've played, I rarely encounter any low-level group content at all, except for a few optional side-trips, and what I do find can often be run in total radio-silence.
I noticed this specifically in Neverwinter during open beta. I would queue up for a skirmish or a dungeon, the group would form, we would blast through the place and collect our loot and only afterwards would I realized that nobody had typed anything in chat the entire time. If things started to go poorly, someone might complain until the situation was corrected (or ditch the group without bothering to explain why), but if things went decently, no one would bother saying a damned thing. At the end, everyone parts ways silently with not so much as a "TY" or "GJE1."
That's not specific to one game, or to one community. I've encountered it elsewhere as well, even in games with historically great communities. The multiplayer aspect of "massively multiplayer online games" is, quite simply, falling to the wayside. Players group up only begrudgingly, groups disperse immediately after the dungeon is finished and nobody seems interested in getting to know anyone else. Every game I've played in the past several years has shown this decline, and most have actively facilitated by introducing anti-social tools into the mix:
Dungeon Finders - These are the primary culprit in the decline of the social game. You queue up for a dungeon or raid or whatever and wait for others to do the same. No need to ask others for help or "interview" potential running-mates. You don't need to know anybody or belong to a club, or even talk at all. You click a few buttons, wait for the queue to fill up and you're off.
This sort of dehumanizing system turns other players into a kind of currency or ballast. You need X number of bodies, (n) each of types A, B and C, to run Dungeon D. It doesn't matter who they are as long as they fill a specific slot on the team roster. They're not people you are running with, they are sets of numbers.
And the cross-server group finders, like the one in World of Warcraft, are even more anti-social. If you run with groups slapped together via a same-server dungeon grouping tool, the chances are good that you will eventually run into those people again at some point. If you happen to get paired with someone amazing or particularly awful, you'll remember that and it can have consequences later on. If the group finder tool is pairing up people from several different servers, the odds that you will run into the same people again are much, much slimmer. Nobody can really stand out as particularly good or bad, because they are essentially forgotten and gone forever the moment the dungeon run ends. There's basically nothing worth remembering if you'll never see the player again, and no reason to communicate with anyone beyond basic combat commands.
Of course, you can still run group content the old-fashioned way, shouting out casting calls to build a pick-up group or running with a crew you know well, but it takes time to build that sort of relationship. Time that you could be spending running...
Scalable Content - This is used in LotRO and SWTOR a lot, and has had a profound impact on the way people run group content. Essentially, content originally designed to be run with a group can be scaled to the player's preference; if he wants to run it solo, there's an option to do so. It can also be run at lower levels for decreased difficulty.
In SWTOR's case, low-level content is recycled and upscaled for endgame. The instances are basically the same as they were 20 levels ago, but the monsters have been cranked-up and force-fed steroids and methamphetamines to make them a challenge for higher-level characters. Because these instances are familiar from previous runs, they can be tackled by pick-up groups with a reasonable expectation of success.
Because players can use dungeon finders to run scaled content...
Guilds Have A Lot Less To Offer - In a lot of current games, there's no real reason to join a guild. The real value of any guild in any game is created by the players themselves; the social network, the communication tools and the organization that are built and used by the best raiding guilds in any game all come from third-party sources. The buffs and occasional bonus quests in games like Tera and WoW offer new players a little bit more than the blank framework of, say, LotRO's kinships, but new players can get by just fine without one.
Players no longer really need guilds or social networks to get ahead in the game. Group-finding tools take care of all of that. If a player wants to run the most challenging endgame content regularly with a consistent group, then sure, join a guild and sign up for that guild's events. But there are usually enough people using dungeon or group finders, even for endgame content, that belonging to a guild is no longer really necessary. Queue on up and dig in like everyone else.
These changes over time are neither good nor bad. The market is changing and players are looking for a different kind of game now than they were five years ago. And when game genres grow out of small niche markets to become industry-leading titans, of course that's going to bring change with it. And none of this is to say that the social aspect of MMOs has evaporated entirely. Guilds, while less attractive now than they were a few years ago, are still a great way to connect with like-minded people, even if you do end up using random group-finding tools to run dungeons and such. And for newbie players, guilds are still the best way to get acquainted with a new game. You don't really need one, strictly speaking, but it's still the best way to find your place in a game world. I wouldn't trade my guilds for anything.