First of all, I'd like to point out that "linear" has become just a forum "buzz word" just like terms such as "grind," "hardcore," and my favorite, "vaporware."
The real meaning behind the word has been lost, people have a vague understanding of what the word is suppose to mean and the proper context in which to use it in this forum environment, but they don't really understand what it really means.
In MMORPG lingo, linear best falls into the dictionary.com definition of "extended or arranged in a line: a linear series." What this means, is that the player character follows a straight line from point to point to point as they progress their character. There is very little room for deviation or exploration, or simply that there are very few, if any, alternative paths to advancement.
You go from the Level 1-10 zone to the 10-20 zone then to the 20-30 zone etc. You go from this quest to the quest after it, and that takes you to the next quest, and so on.
This is best characterized by the standard MMORPG question for general chat, "I'm level XX, what zone is best for me to level in?"
I think many at MMORPG.com see the word "linear" and think "classes, levels, quests, raiding" and they are only partially right.
The only difference between modern, quest based games and the sand-box games of old is that the quest-based titles provide direction. Before, /con systems where the only way to tell if an enemy was too powerful for you to fight, so you'd stick to areas where things were more "at your level" until you became strong enough to /con the tougher stuff and be capable of handling it. UO didn't have anything other then trial and error. Is this really any more or less linear?
I don't think so. It's still a progression system based off of your relative power in comparison to the game world. Even in a sandbox game, you could go to a new area and find the mobs way too challenging for you. The only difference is, in a quest based title, one that many here would call "linear," you are guided to content appropriate for your level.
So does this mean that the title is really more "linear" or simply that it provides more direction?
Or.. you could have a system where you gain xp in different skills as you use them... no matter if it's against mobs or players or crafting or social skills or...
that way, you are rewarded for doing the things that you want to do, and you get better at those things AT THE SAME TIME.
Wait, isn't that a "skill based advancement system?"
Didn't old SWG have that? I think it did....
Problem is, it still becomes a "grind" because people end up only doing one or two things. They want to be good at killing stuff, so all they do is "grind" up their combat skills...
The only alternative is providing players with... wait for it... CONTENT!
And in order for content to be successful, to properly hide the grind underneath a little thing called "fun," the player has to care about the content.
A quest to kill 30 rats for the sake of killing 30 rats is not content, it is a grind. A quest to kill 30 rats because the Queen of Cheeseville is having a crisis trying to get ready for the anual Cheese Ball and is in desperate need of help to clear out the pesky creatures so that...
Just an example.
There will always be a "grind" in MMORPG games. Fact.
The ONLY thing you can do, is provide fun, operational game systems with depth and variety, as well as content that is interesting, varied, and entertaining in order to HIDE the grind underneath a little thing called "entertainment value."
This is, of course, EXTREMELY subjective. As in, all about your personal opinion. If you enjoy the content, and are having fun, it won't "feel" like a grind. No matter if it's a so-called "linear" game or "sandbox" game.
If you are doing something JUST to get to some end goal some where down the road, you are probably grinding.
If you are doing something because you enjoy it, and it's fun and interesting to you, you'll reach that end goal and it won't feel like grinding.
It's only a grind if YOU make it a grind.
Unless it's a Asian game with NO content except killing monsters over..and over... and over... for no purpose other then watching your XP bar slowly inch up... that's a grind no matter what you do.
Here's a thought. HIDE you XP bar, and just enjoy the game for what it is. READ the quest text, explore the game world, take TIME off from questing/killing to socialize, dance, play music, craft....
Yes, I just copy/pasted this from some forum posts I made, but I thought it was enough to bring together into a new blog entry.
I guess the overall sumerization is that a game is what you make it. Instead of always blaming the game or the developers, perhaps you should take a step back and ask yourself "how am I approaching this game? What can I do to make this experience more fun/challenging?"
If you can't find an answer, maybe you're playing the wrong game, or the wrong genre.