At Stubborn's reqest I'm participating in his latest project to get bloggers talking about collectivism in MMOs, focusing on TOR because that's what I play.
Right from the start it occurred to me that this is a pretty difficult subject. What do we think of when we hear the word collectivism? Groups. So a game where you solo a lot is individualist and one that forces grouping is collectivist? There is definitely some truth to that, but at the same time it's not quite that straightforward. Take automated group finders for example: you'd think that something that creates more groups would automatically encourage collectivism, right? That's not the case though, and most current iterations of group finders are heavily focused on catering to and benefitting the individual, by keeping queue times as short as possible and dishing out rewards for simply using the tool, while caring little whether the group that is put together that way actually has any kind of cohesion.
In a similar vein, collectivist is not automatically the same as social, and being an individualist doesn't mean that you avoid other people. I've talked a lot about how I feel that SWTOR is a very social game, so I won't elaborate on that again - just click on the grouping tag and you'll see plenty more posts on the subject. However, I do think that it leans quite heavily towards individualism.
The main reason for this are the stories, specifically the class stories. They accomodate play with other people very well, but always emphasise what an awesome individual you are, making all the difference in saving the galaxy or whatever it is you're doing at the time. You always stand out as being more capable and powerful than everyone else, and other people are at best helpful assets to your cause.
In terms of game mechanics, things are a bit... wishy-washy on this front to be honest. There are definitely some leanings towards collectivism: the emphasis on server communities by keeping group-finding tools for all content same server only (so far), the fact that damage meters only exist as an outside application for the hardcore (which means that most groups succeed or fail as a team with little room for finger pointing), or the oodles of available group content and the many incentives for teaming up.
However, on the other hand it's quite obvious that the developers shied away from making grouping too important. Almost every single group quest and flashpoint is completely self-contained and doesn't tie in with anything else in the world, to make sure that nobody feels that they are missing out by not doing them. It doesn't matter what light or dark side choices other players make in your group, you get points based on what you would have wanted to do. The best content in the game focuses on the player as an individual. And guilds are nothing but some green text and a name over your head.
The only area where I feel that the game really does promote collectivism without the shadow of a doubt is the overall lore. The conflict between the Empire and the Republic is perfectly believable as they represent two very different cultures and philosophies that are directly at odds with each other and great threats to each other. These aren't just two factions that are at war because their leaders have a bee in their bonnet and for the sake of game mechanics. I've never felt faction pride in even remotely the same way in any other game, and this has certainly influenced how I view other players around me.
Even though I really like playing with other people, I've never felt that the individualist nature of the game has hurt my experience in that respect. Playing nicely with others still makes the game better in pretty much every possible way. I do however think that people who wouldn't naturally seek out the company of other players probably don't feel heavily encouraged to do so either. I think that development heavily leaning towards individualism will probably remain a trend in MMOs in general though. If nothing else because it's hard to argue with the customer who feels that having to rely too much on other people's time and goodwill hurts his experience these days.