Every once in a while I like to dip my joystick into something massively multiplayer to see whether my distaste holds up. I decided to re-visit Conan and also play some Perfect World, which I'd never seen before.
I have the same problems I always have. I hate gated content: the idea that I can't wear a particular hat until I'm level 941,513,015,059,104,000 is kind of... painfully stupid. But it's easy to program.
There are many ways of gating content that aren't quite so egregious, but they don't fit easily into the rubber mold asian MMORPGs use, so they don't get implemented.
I also hate... well, actually, it would be easier to list the things I like. But, anyhow, you get the idea.
One of the things I always notice in these games is the utter stupid stupid stupid stupidity of the static game world. There's a conceit that monsters should spawn in every two minutes ten feet from the city wall... and the city folk don't care. There are at least a hundred other heroes within easy shouting distance of me, and they are all useless, pointless, might as well be filler NPCs despite the fact that they're all five times stronger than me. There's this deep resentment in me that all these powerful heroes never bothered to get together and just clean up the countryside.
It's not just that they can't due to respawns. Respawns aren't really in the world's fiction. Every time a hero kills of Ogorth the Demon Kitten, it's played up as if this is the first and last time he's been defeated.
The idea of integrating respawn into the world's fiction is appealing to me, because it could be extremely interesting. "Oh, yah, built my house on top of a spawn point. Five gold coins and you can go in and kill stuff. Ten gold coins and I'll let you use my fireball turret to do it."
But that's besides the point, really. The problem lies in the fact that there are so many other players. There's this peculiar idea that you can just do whatever it is you're doing while more or less ignoring the fact that there's someone five feet away doing something similar and you could, in fact, easily do it together if this were reality. It's like there's an invisible wall between you and them: you can see them, but you can't really interact with them.
I think it's a combination of factors, but many of those factors can now be resolved using technology, and I think it's time to just take a quick look at them again.
1) "We're all heroes here!" problem. The population density is too high in 99% of the MMORPGs on the market. Or, rather, there are too many heroes. The population density is just about right if you have, say, 5% heroes, 5% researchers, 5% chefs, 5% tailors, 5%... well, you get the idea. But when they're all the same, you can't let the world bend at all, because it'll change the world too dramatically for everyone else, who happens to have all the same concerns as you do.
There are a lot of ways to reduce the weight of this. One is to simply reduce the population density, another is to allow players to participate in radically different domains. Above I gave the example of different jobs. It's not boring to have those jobs: the minigames involved and the act of acquiring the things you need can be made just as interesting as the mindless, endless fucking grinding of the "heroes".
But there are lots of ways to do it. For example, what if there were, say, ten overlapping dimensions. Any given hero was only really active in one of them, but was somewhat visible in all of them. Visible enough to talk, trade, and so forth, but not visible enough to steal your kills or feel like a stranger.
Flat-out reducing the population density by a factor of 100 also goes well, because you can then begin allowing the players to build and develop the world through their actions, because only the edges of their world touch other player's worlds.
These are ideas that have been around a long time, but we have the technology, now, to implement them.
2) The "Robot Dancing" problem. Although the world is full of other people, you never really interact with them as people. Even when you're using emotes, they are a painfully clumsy second-hand method of communication.
There are two pieces to this problem. One is the lack of body language. This can be solved either by the avatars having moods and personalities, or by somehow reading the body language of the player. Either of these is possible these days, but we do have the problem that almost every game engine on the planet uses static animations rather than allowing for recombinant or on-the-fly animations. Until we can arbitrarily animate an avatar, this is impossible.
The other half of the problem is one of vision. Even if the avatars are beautifully animated, we can't freaking see them. In reality, we're constantly looking around us, and our eyes have a much higher resolution than the screen. To imitate this in a game, we'll need some kind of zooming, auto-looking-around thing. Perhaps avatars could be inflated in "bubbles" on the screen, zooming in on them so you can see their body language. There are other options.
3) The "Greedy Greedy Gateway" problem. Most games really focus on the grind, and in order to keep that intact, they need to follow some very specific and horrifying practices, gating and segregating content and players. Most players are so used to it that they can't even see it any more, but it's there.
Static content itself is an example of this problem. With today's technologies, it's quite possible to give everyone in the game a unique weapon. Perhaps based on one of ten or twenty base frames, sculpted using various settings, add some add-ons to it, color it uniquely, add some particle effects... with statistics it's a bit harder to do, but not as much as you might think.
I also think that most next generation games should do as Conan does: the clothes are actually a separate model applied on top of the game model. This has a lot of disadvantages, sure, but it has a lot of advantages as well, none of which Conan uses. One is that it allows for more diverse, customizable clothes and armor. Another is that it allows for easy visual representation of wear, tear, and damage.
Bah, that's all just aesthetics, though. The core of my gripe is that content is rigidly gated, and players are herded through like cattle.
I am very bad at being cattle.
And it's just not needed any more. We CAN develop games with other techniques. We're just too damn stuck in this gated mold. We print these games one after another, and the only differences are aesthetic. That's not different games! That's expansion packs! Every MMORPG released these days is just an expansion pack that doesn't let you carry over your saves.
What's your opinion?