Raph had a post that got me thinking.
All of my games feature some kind of information system.
That's a bit misleading, though. All games are entirely about information processing. You see what information is available, then you try to figure out how to combine it so you can react to it.
If you have to decide which weapon to take, you call on your experience with earlier levels and similar games, then you extrapolate by what you expect later challenges to contain. If you're playing a shmup, you analyze the trajectories of everything on the screen, taking into account your ship's size and speed as well as what the various things are likely to do (change direction, explode, fire shots...)
Obviously, you're working with partial information on a complex system. There's a lot of room for leeway: some people are very good at collecting and analyzing specific kinds of information. For example, when I'm playing a shmup, I'm really good at analyzing a few very complex trajectories, but I'm bad at analyzing lots of simple trajectories. Some people are just the opposite.
Every kind of play I've ever seen is about collecting fragments of information and piecing them together as effectively as possible. In situations with time limits, more, simpler information tends to be the watchword rather than fewer, complex information.
Now, when we think about quests, information is usually simple window dressing. It's an excuse for the designer to make the player run through various challenges. Often, the information is partial. For example, telling you who to go to, but not what they will give you; or telling you what to get, but not where you can find it. This can be done either for narrative effect (getting you deep into a plot before twisting it into something nasty) or for play effect (making you spend time searching for the missing information).
In a MMORPG, using "static information" is a problem if you use partial information, because any player that's figured out the missing piece can share it instantly with everyone. Obviously, this short-circuits the whole purpose of using partial information.
To me, it is without question that static information is not a good idea in such a game. However, saying "use varying info" is not quite as simple as Raph has suggested. There are a lot of methods. Here are a few I love.
You can get around the flaw with static info while still using static info if you make your game (or subsets of your game) have a definite end point. This is not always suitable in a MMORPG, but it is not unknown: Tale in the Desert is an example.
In this sort of situation the information is usually extremely fragmented, and the player(s) who assembles it first will have a big advantage. This is actually a fairly delicate system.
The problem with game chunks is fairly obvious: someone has to build them, and that can mean a huge amount of GM overhead. Fortunately, there are alternatives...
A lot of competitive games use player-affected data. For example, every time you play a level of Team Fortress, it's the same. Except that the other players radically affect how you play the game. Effectively, playing Team Fortress is less about the information from the designer, and more about the information from the other players.
This is really easy to design, but if you're aiming for persistence, extremely hard to balance. The core problem is that players participate at different levels, and the players who participate more (and are more skilled) will gain an advantage... and that advantage will continue to grow the more they play. If it doesn't, they'll get irritated and stop playing.
It's a very difficult challenge, but there are ways around it. One of the big ways around it is to partition levels apart from each other, and another is to add an outreach/mentor system where the powerful players are rewarded for helping weak players. For more information on this kind of thing, study WoW's level partitioning, City of Heroes' mentoring system, and Eve Online's corporation system. I can write more about those if I need to.
Fundamentally, player-generated content is simply a particularly feisty subset of this.
One type of information generation system is slowly growing more popular, and that's when you generate information specifically for each player. Because of the amount of shared space most MMORPGs have, adapted information is generally very shallow so as not to disrupt the game for other players. But it's not shallow in and of itself: it's just a design restriction.
Examples of this abound and overlap with player-affected systems. For example, in many games NPCs won't give you quests until you are a certain level or unless you are a certain class. This is a mechanism for weakly enabling player-affected information by partitioning certain quests for certain kinds of players.
Of course, it's certainly possible to have much deeper algorithms. These almost require you to have a very dispersed player base, though: if the player density is as high as in most games, then players changing the NPCs or terrain of the game will radically change other players' play experience, which is generally a poor idea.
Still, assigning each player a chunk of game for himself is not going to be as rare as you might think. As computation and memory get cheaper, it will be more and more feasible to give each player his own little piece of reality in which deeper adaptive algorithms can run. Think of it as instancing gone mad.
Another variation is to have marching information. This is a situation where the information in the game is continuously in flux as it is replaced - every day or week - by new information which is somewhat different.
As an easy example, this could be that a merchant changes locations to another part of the city, or the Swamp of Boggyness stops producing Jewel Toads and starts producing Psychic Crocs.
This can be done with any level of automation. It can be done entirely by hand, entirely automatically, or some combination of the two, depending on the ratio of writers to players you're willing to pay for.
Many designers shy away from this idea because it denotes what feels like a lack of control. They may claim balance problems, but the fundamental problem is that it is more erratic than most designers really like. For some reasons, designers like the idea that what they design will still be in the game a year from now.
I think that's kind of silly, but my games are always studies in controlled chaos. Ask anyone who has played one.
Fundamentally, static writing is not the wave of the future. Designers may want the Palace of Peace to stay exactly as they have built it forever, but that's simply a poor idea in a MMORPG.
As to balance issues, it's certainly the case that the new bits will be out of balance. However, as they change every week or so, the unbalance is only so much. You can spend your time polishing the balancing algorithm instead of releasing ten thousand content patches.
What do you think?