One of the big innovations that's come with radically increased memory has been big, detailed game worlds. There's always been a wish for them, ever since Zork or even before, but these days they're pretty commonplace.
I guess I like big worlds, but it feels really empty and wasteful. Most of the world is created using some kind of automation - fractal landscapes, NPC generators, building brushes - but these things do not add any real uniqueness to the world. Most of the uniqueness comes from the painstaking hand-scripting that the designers do.
For example, there are dozens of planets you can land on in Mass Effect. Leaving out the big plot planets, the rest of the planets do have interesting things on them. Unfortunately, 90% of those interesting things are TACOs that mean nothing (oh, look, ANOTHER downed space probe...) and the other 10% is some short little mission.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except for the fact that planets are big. I mean, really big.
I mean, look at Oblivion, which takes up only a relatively small piece of one continent. It's got at least as many unique (and non-unique) bits as Mass Effect. Of course, their cities are really tiny. Even their capital is basically the size of a small village. Cities are big. I mean, really big.
Look at Crackdown. It takes place in one city, and it has quite a lot of unique and not-so-unique content! Vastly more than any city in Oblivion, vastly more than any star cluster in Mass Effect...
Because it doesn't really matter how physically large your gameworld is. In truth, your universe will only have as much content as you manually program in. Whether your game takes place spanning thousands of galaxies or entirely on one small plate of pasta, the same amount of content can be crammed into both.
A lot of people think it's possible to generate content using an algorithm. They (we) spend an awful lot of time trying to find a tool that will let a designer use a "drama brush" or something, something that will create unique situations without being so carefully scripted. I suppose it's a fine goal, but, again, you only get out of it what you put into it.
Even that's kind of missing the point. A giant world full of little adventures is always going to feel... sparse. No matter how much content you cram in. Because in the end, there is no attachment to any of it.
I visit Homeburg, I fix their spider infestation, and I move on. Homeburg never matters ever again. Even if I let a Homeburgerian join my party, it's not like they are Homeburg. They're just a member of my party with no intrinsic connection to any given place.
Giving the player a lot of places to visit means that none of those places is going to be very important. Therefore, even if you generate awesome content for every single nook and cranny, players will still not care (or will never reach it because they're busy being interested with their starting city).
To me, the solution lies not in bigger worlds, and not even in more content, but in changing the things the game focuses on.
Right now, games are extremely avatar-centric. Your whole drive is to get better stuff for your avatar (and his buddies, who are basically extended avatars). In some games, there is a drive to make your avatar a certain kind of person - good, bad, ugly - but even in those cases, anything you encounter is a tool to express your avatar, not something that has value on its own. I can't tell you how many times I just selected "the right dialog" without even bothering to read it, because I knew which dialog makes my character more good or evil.
This is handy, I suppose, because it allows the designers to simplify things. The only changing factor is the tiny point of light we call the player. Everything else is laid down in linear script, nice and easy.
Don't you think we're past that?
Don't you think it would be okay to make a game which revolves around the places, rather than the avatar?
I don't mean something like The Sims or Dungeon Keeper or Dwarf Fortress. They revolve around places, yes, but their gameplay does not vary and they have no real plot.
I guess I'm looking for something kind of halfway between Dungeon Keeper and Mass Effect...