(Edit: I’d fire my proof reader but I need the work)
Strictly speaking, an MMO is a “Massively Multiplayer Online thinymajig“.
There aren’t any games out today, though, that from a player’s perspective are really “massively”. WWII Online people will want to say “the map!” and Eve players will want to say “one server!”. But those are sleights of hand – in neither case is the game running on one single server computer – they use clusters of servers to create a single world and Eve’s hefty player count means one hell of a lot of computers.
A lot of effort gets invested into making today’s MMO compartmentalized; keeping people apart. Sort of the opposite of “massively multiplayer”, more “slightly multiplayer”. The “massively” scale only applies to the back-end systems. Players just don’t want to be in a room with 7 million other WoW players trying to get at the auctioneer.
In the effort to sell their progressive-advancement, MMOs seem to have become locked into a strict one-way flow of storyline that goes against the trends in other sectors of the gaming market. I find the linearity of most games today tedious to frustrating to nauseous.
These issues have arisen from generation X+1 MMOs mostly just solving problems that existed in generation X games. The result: an escallation of the wrong solutions. Today’s MMO design is based on a sweep of flawed premises about what’s necessary to solve yesterday’s problems. Look at the amount of effort that goes into making these “massively multiplayer” games play like a single player product or a shoebox game or the variety of systems that have gone into place to “deal with” camping or mob stealing rather than finding a way to avoid creating the problem that causes those problems.
So for a moment lets throw away all the trappings of a modern MMO:
1. No, or very few, levels. MMO levelling is pretty stupid because at the end of the day the equi-level fights are the same or harder when you level up, not easier, but the scaling effectively disqualifies you from re-consuming the earlier level content.
2. No “servers”; one world, many instances. Let players choose a home town or a middle name from a list for their character so that there can be 100s of “gandalf”s. If I want a separate character to play with different people, that should be my choice.
3. Avoid linearity. Without levels, I should be able to try and particular piece of content I want. Perhaps as my character evolves, I can come back and encounter a different telling of the story of any given piece of content. Many MMOs have distinct raid, group and solo versions of dungeons: plan the content for replayability through variation.
4. Let me play. If a player asks “can I play with my buddies” the wrong answers are “No, you’re not high enough” and “Yes, but they’ll have to carry you”. If your buddies have played for 3 years and you are just starting, you might get your butt kicked, but there should be no reason I can’t spawn in a new character and go adventuring with my friends, if not immediately, within a very short amount of play.
5. Let me play. If a player turns up late for the dungeon, why can’t he join his buddies? If the general philosophy is an open one you could give the players a choice between closing the doors and having a “full” story experience in an encounter, area, dungeon or zone; or they could keep the doors open and go around or somewhere else or maybe experience a dumbed-down version. But tackled situation by situation.
6. Let people who want to explore a big massive world go play Second Life. Seriously: don’t waste your time building europe at half scale or mile after mile of rolling hills. Less is more. There’s no reason your zones shouldn’t be big, especially any you intend to be communal, but offer me TiVo service. Let the guys who love world exploration and travel go play Second Life or Asheron’s Call. You need large enough areas to satisfy the explorer in the rest of us and so individuals can have a little “prestigious” territorial knowledge to show off now and again. But forcing me to spend 5, 10 or 15 minutes travelling as part of my regular play session violates 3, 4 and 5.
7. I am not your content. If you make another “vast” PvE game, full of hills and valleys and fields and deserts, that is so big that you wind up having to force me to go out and gather materials by travelling from zone A to B to C to D so that the world doesn’t look empty, I am going to pay someone to give you a rhesus enema.
What do people take away from playing an MMO? Some scale of accomplishment in an environment where they canlink up with friends and get a good, beefy dose of what amounts to multiplayer coop. Unreal Tournament 3 can boast up to 128 players on a mapthese days, which is significantly above the average zone population that most MMOs try to aim for.
Of course, those of you who I appear to have just consigned to Second Life and Asheron’s Call (neither of which I consider to somehow be a terrible or even bad fate), are probably thinking “but those are just your particular opinions on what is fun”. I make no claim to have spent countless aeons researching this post. I’ve spent a modest amount of time working on this theory, but more than a little of what I propose here goes against my own niche interests: I’m an explorer type.
I’ll spend hours in an empty zone learning it like the back of my hand, making up my own story line for this hill or that bit of ruin. One MMO developer took me on a tour of one of his zones and it was explorer paradise for me when my mentioning one area in particular as my favorite lead to him explaining it was hand-modelled after the real world beach-front on which he’d met, engaged and finally married his wife after having met her in a previous MMO where he’d happened to comment to a random passer by that it reminded him of a nearby beach and discovered they lived a few streets apart…
But if an MO is going to be MMO, the developers need to start with the mentality of dropping folks like us. Our inclusion will have to be a luxury. The same for those people who hate instancing because “it splits the world up”. The sharding already does that, dummies. If you do away with shards and let instances free-float, then it will actually make it easier for you guys to see a contiguous seeming world.
If you start with the premise of an entirely instanced system, you can re-create virtual sharding over the top of it. For example, you might allow a guild of people to have their own guild-exclusive experiences so that they might never see anyone who isn’t in their clique. Or they might, from time to time, invite in friends or perhaps even rivals. Two competing guilds might decide to share a single world so that they only instances they ever see are common to players in the two guilds.
You can add the option for a player to say “this is my role play character” at creation and have it assigned a permanent shard ID so that his experience is exactly like playing on a sharded game. Or you could call that “strict role play” with a lesser variant that has different shard IDs and prefers them but will happily use a “public” shard when things are busy.
The first challenge for such a game design is going to be that 10+ years of bedding players down to MMO has trained them to weigh up any solution against their existing experiences. I don’t think yet-another-orcs-and-elves fantasy MMO would be the right place to start.