Massively has an article up about the trend in MMOs to allow for easier and easier solo play. This hearkens back to a post I made a while back on the same topic, but it still seems like most of the other arguments I'm seeing on the topic travel in the opposite direction of mine. The Massively question is: Given an MMO, why make it more single-player? For me the question is: Given a game concept, why make it an MMO?
I'm not uniformly against MMOs or anything - I actually believe that they have a huge amount of untapped potential. The keyword, though, is "untapped." The kind of gameplay we see in existing MMOs is, by and large, very similar to what you can get in a single-player game (or a merely-multiplayer game, like Neverwinter Nights, Halo, Mario-Kart, or anything that has less than 100 people in the server at once). However, in an MMO the content is more strictly gated, the space between levels is artificially extended, and you can't have any effect on the game world. So I guess what I mean is they're watered-down versions of single-player games.
So what I see isn't an evolution of MMOs, but rather a presumption that MMOs are the standard, causing them to open up to audiences that weren't originally interested. So again, if the game is trying to appeal to people who want to play solo, then why is it an MMO? The actual answer seems obvious when I'm in a cynical mood: because MMOs are trendy and offer high profitability. The profitability portion comes from the fact that you can make more money from each committed user in an online game than you could by selling them a traditional game for a set price - if addicted they'll keep shelling out. Also, online games are relatively immune to piracy, because in addition to a working, hacked version of the client software, you need an actual server to play on.
That said, MMOs are a very risky investment, for several reasons (ooh, time for a list, I love this part):
1) Since standard MMOs rely on being addictive, it's not enough to convince someone to play it - you have to convince them to live your MMO.
2) Since MMOs rely on being addictive, most players won't play more than one at a time. That means that most of your potential audience is already occupied playing WoW, so you need to give them a reason to play your game instead of another (whereas a player who bought Halo 3 can, and probably will, also buy Gears of War 2).
3) They're friggin multiplayer. Even though many of the developers at this point have a lot of experience making multiplayer online games, it's still no easy feat to make the game work properly, and this fact makes both programming and designing the game harder, which is final nail in the coffin of anyone who dreams of making a low-budget MMO.
And since they're so high-risk, clearly the publisher is going to try and minimize risk by insisting that the title is as similar to existing MMOs as possible.
So is the tradeoff worthwhile? It certainly is if you're Activision-Blizzard, but given the sheer number of MMOs in development, I can't help thinking that many of these developers would have been better off with a different strategy.