"So the less players are driven by the motivation to see new content, the more you need to motivate them by something else: Rewards."
- Tobold, writing on reward distribution in WoW today.
Underlying yesterday's discussion of PUG's is a bit of a philsophical divide.
In one camp, perhaps spear-headed by Larisa, are players for whom the experience of doing the content is its own reward - as she put it in the comments, there are precious moments that make you forget all about the past failed runs.
In the other, we have players for whom the content would NOT be worth doing more than once on its own merits. Players like, well, myself, who size up the incentives for doing the content, weigh them against the cost (in time, frustration, effort, whatever), and make a cost-benefit decision on whether the content is worth doing.
Developers target players in the incentive-driven camp with the (hopefully) careful balance of reward structures that I refer to as the Player Vs Developer game. This time around, I'd argue that Blizzard has done an excellent job in crafting incentives that encourage players to use the content.
Solo vs group?
Let's say that I have 90 minutes or so to play this evening. I can:
A) Solo daily quests and walk away with 2-3K in various relevant daily quest reputations (spread out over various factions based on what quests are available), maybe 6-7 Stone Keeper Shards and 5K honor points if Wintergrasp happens during the window, and something like 200 gold.
B) Do a PUG heroic. If the group is a success, this will yield 1500-2000 rep in the championed faction of my choice, 3-5 Emblems of Heroism, 12+ Stone Keeper Shards if the Alliance owns Wintergrasp, and possibly a shot at immediate loot that I would use right away if it dropped. (Unless it's a flawless run, there will probably be some net cost in gold for repair bills etc, but that's relatively trivial from where I sit.) A failure of a heroic group, which happens in my experience maybe 10-20% of the time, can still often down at least one boss, walking away with a few hundred rep and an Emblem (+4 shards w/Wintergrasp), albeit at a higher price in repair cash.
This spread of rewards is no accident. The 5-man content offers substantially greater rewards over the same window of time, even after deducting time spent looking for groups (during which you can be doing the solo dailies if you want to) and a reasonable rate of groups failing. If the rewards had been the other way around, I might still have done all the dungeons once each for the Dungeonmaster achievement, but I would probably never set foot in another Wrath 5-man again. With the rewards, the 5-man content is typically going to be my first choice when my schedule permits.
Shifting the community
I'm not alone - many players, who might not have felt the rewards were worth the effort in TBC, are hitting the LFG channel and joining PUG's, precisely because the rewards for 5-man content have never been better. We're doing content - and, for me at least, having fun doing that content 90% of the time - that we would not otherwise be doing. It's a textbook case of a Player Vs Developer encounter where both sides come out with a win.
The catch is a shift in player attitudes - Klep has a discussion on this topic today - that is driving to the great PUG divide. If you're doing group content for incentives, it's much more important that the group be able to complete the content. An unsuccessful group actually does ruin your day if you're planning your time investment around the expectation of success.
Ultimately, the devs have to reward success over failure if they expect players to attempt to succeed. Much of intentional bad behaviour on the part of players, such as AFK'ing, ninja looting, etc, happens because the incentives reward players for doing it, rather than because they're actively out to grief their teammates. It is much better to reward players for good behaviour, which should, if the game is designed properly, lead to success in instances.
The real question is whether the learning curve is set in the right place. As Klep points out, everyone had to learn how to play at some point. There needs to be room in the system for enough leeway to let players learn from their mistakes, rather than brutally wiping the floor with them; the latter leads players to be insular and distrustful of anyone who might slow them down. Time will tell whether that part of the learning curve is in the right place.
At the end of the day, am I on the wrong side of this argument? Valuing camraderie and overcoming adversity certainly sounds like the "good" side, while striving for loot (which exists only as abstract and arbitrary pixels and bits on a server) seems like the materialistic perspective of the "bad" guys.
For myself personally, though, I view gearing up as an intellectual exercise. I know that I'm neither willing nor able to clock the hours raiding, farming, studying strats, etc needed to beat the top encounters in the game. The challenge, for me, is finding the sweet spot on that cost benefit curve, where I can get ever so much closer to where the more dedicated players are on my own terms. From that perspective, things have never been better than they are in Wrath.