Massively’s M J Guthrie has a post on mercenaries in Everquest 2, discussing if they’re a good or bad thing (or both). If you don’t know the game, mercenaries are a set of NPC hirelings that you can rent by the half hour using in-game currency. There are various types (tank, healer, dps etc) so they can make a big difference to your ability to solo content in this game that was, at least originally, designed with a mix of solo and group-only activities in the open world.
The conclusion of the article highlights the problem with enabling solo-play through these hired companions:
Overall, mercs are great news for those who never did like grouping or always had a really hard time finding a team, but they’re bad news for those still hoping to do things in the company of fellow players.
This really makes me think back to DDO and the debates on that games forums when they were planning to add a similar system (called hirelings). There was very real concern that having a pocket NPC cleric would destroy all demand for the (then only) healer class, at least for dungeons below raid-level difficulty.
The article also touches on that grey area of gaming, the idea that if you give players an easier way it will not only become common but practically the preferred way to do something. Solo leveling with a mercenary is so easy, so why would you bother grouping with anyone before the level cap? It’s been my experience that grouping at low levels is pretty much non-existent outside of guilds. Arguably that can happen without a mercenary system anyway, Turbine solo’ised the main story quest lines (the book quests) in LOTRO because players demanded it: as the bulk of the playerbase settled at the level cap there weren’t enough characters running these quests, so the occasional group-only quest in the chain became a road block not an enjoyable social challenge.
I’d rather be grouping and doing content with people personally, but you can’t force people to want to do old-hat stuff just to help out a newbie. If I ask a guildmate to bring mentored down characters to help me it’s worse overkill than the shadowknight mercenary that M J mentions – mentored characters are seriously overpowered for low level content (because of the alternate advancement system).
I think in the case of EQ2 the lack of groups is probably due to the usual issue of the mature playerbase not wanting to repeat the same old low-level stuff ad infinitum. Mercenaries may not have helped the issue but I doubt they caused it either; rather they’re a somewhat blunt developer solution. Keeping players grouping up well after the first main ‘zerg’ through the leveling content is pretty intractable problem in MMOs – every mature game I’ve joined after launch has had this very same lack of grouping below cap.