Darius sort-of asked me if I'd given any thought as to player vision and how it affects multi-player games. The answer is: of course I have. But not in a long-term way - all my MP thinking has revolved around level design and how to prevent players from acheiving TOO MUCH of an advantage via player vision. IE how to stop excessive sniping.
What he is thinking of is how to get multiple players to each feel like 'the hero' - which is an extremely valid way of looking at player vision. Player vision isn't just tactical combat stuff - it also involves other game loops, such as social, economic, and plotty game loops.
One of the problems in 'extended-grain' player vision like this is that players can and will share information (or even straight-up screenshots) outside of game. If no communication is possible outside the game, you could easily make a MMORPG in which the Dungeons of Throggart are interesting to every player who goes through. However, the first person that goes through immediately goes and shares all of the puzzles and plot points on-line. That's why so many MMORPGs focus entirely on combat - combat isn't really made 'duller' by knowing the exactly what is coming.
So, you can't expect a static plot to be anything other than open to all player vision simultaneously. But you CAN do more than just sit around whining. How? SOCIAL/ECONOMIC PLAYER VISION, or RELATIVE EXPOSURE.
By controlling who a given player can talk to and what in-game information he can gather, you significantly change the dynamic of the game. I'm not talking about "oh, he's on the other continent, so you can't IM him." I'm talking about "variable obscurity", exposing them only as much as you want to, depending on their choices and power level.
What you do is give the players an environment where you have to know a location exists before you can visit it. Then you allow players to 'stumble across' locations - both new and in use - at random. They can sell these locations to others, or hide there and build an army, or whatever. Essentially, you're giving your players the ability to change the world AND REMAIN HIDDEN (if they want). Imagine a space game where the 'hyperspace coordinates' of any given star are impossible to guess and have to be punched in exactly.
This restricted outside access allows a player to be a much or as little involved with the world as a whole as he wants. You could make it so that multiple players could network all their locations together and create their own 'separate game', isolated from everyone else. You could even make it so that people who 'had' the location could not 'sell' that location - only an original discoverer can 'spread the knowledge', thus preventing a sudden 'outing'.
The key is that this is NOT an invulnerable barrier. Sometimes, a location gets 'close' or 'thin', and explorers tend to find it on occasion (at which point they have - and can spread - the location). An owner can tell when his system is wearing 'thin' - he's probably given a week's notice - so he can prepare his systems to deal with the matter as he sees fit. This adds an inevitability to the system that will always end up 'mixing up' the isolationists to keep them striving and interested.
This game would feel like a strange kind of secret war, with players vying for locations that many players don't know exist.
The problem is the high data cost of these systems, since chances are high there will be more systems than players. However, if you take a page from Will Wright's book, a bit of algorithmic generation can go a long way towards making a system data-affordable.
There are other ways to do this, of course. What I speak of is a locational isolation system. There are a LOT of other ways to implement this fundamental idea. The point is that, in order for people to think they are important/powerful, they have to be able to change the universe. Changing the universe is NOT something that can happen in a normal MMORPG. Even if the universe is not static, there's simply too many people.
However, if you make the 'universe' scale to the person - grow as he grows - then you can easily make the MMORPG endlessly engaging.
Wheee! Feel free to comment.