After creating a list of the different mission types available in MMOs, I was challenged to find a solution. What can be done to make MMOs feel more immersive for players?
The broad (and obvious) answer is to increase the character's involvement in the narrative of the game. This can be direct, through making missions more engaging, or indirect, by making players feel that they are part of a much bigger world (but still an important part / driving force in that world). This is most likely to be achieved through illusionary sleight of hand than through really letting the player change the world, but in the end it is what the player feels they have accomplished rather than necessarily requiring a definitive shift in the world.
First off, I believe that in order for a player to feel immersed, they have to operate in something that resembles a living world. Single player games like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher do this by having the world move around without the actions of the player - the sun rises and sets, people walk the streets, other acts of violence occur without the player being involved. Such worlds look like they existed before the player arrived and will continue to go on after the player leaves.
Some MMOs attempt this - CoH/V's cityscapes are filled with a population who walk the streets, run away from danger, get mugged and need saving, and so on - while other MMOs with enough players (or player build structures) in an open world - WoW, EvE - can also make things seem 'lived in' for other players.
City of Heroes / Villains has civilians that walk around and do their thing, regardless of what you are up to.
However, this illusion of a living world is often punctured by the actual mission contact / quest giver system. The popular MMO convention is to have the quest giver stand in one place at all times, 24/7, come rain, hail or shine. This reduces one of the key points of interactivity to a humanoid kiosk who appears to have the sole function of waiting around for a player to poke them so they can tell them about some "urgent mission". A living world would let the poor contact go to sleep, have a meal, or even perhaps attempt the quest they are trying to hand off. Yes, this would mean that players would sometimes need to track down contacts if they have to talk face-to-face, but given that most MMOs have a solid magic / ultra-science background, then it probably shouldn't be necessary to run back to the contact every time. A phone call (or equivalent) would suffice.
Secondly, having the world react (or give the illusion of reacting) to player is another big step forward in immersiveness. Going back to Asheron's Call, they had a system in place where player actions actually changed the course of the game. However, this isn't popular because it involves developing and discarding content (more work for the developers) that players following the event will never be able to get involved in. Some titles allow you to control an area / build a house, but this is a fairly minimal (if popular and problematic) impact. What is more likely is that players will be given the illusion of changing the world. For all its faults, The Matrix Online did have a long-running storyline that players felt they could get involved in (even if they couldn't change the outcome in reality).
Open instancing / phased instancing has also been used by some titles (most recently WoW) so that players will see different things once they have completed certain goals. This has some design issues - players can be separated into "before" and "after" areas, for instance, stratifying the player base - but it does give the illusion of change in the world based on player action.
Being able to actually change the world is something that can be done in single player games because it doesn't impact on anyone else. MMOs have a challenge in that department because they have a lot of players to serve and letting one player change the world would mean that the west was won probably two weeks after launch. However, something that single player games do that MMOs rarely do is to throw a narrative curveball during a quest.
The Witcher uses this mission giver in a way MMOs haven't to date.
For instance, a curveball in The Witcher is *SPOILER* that the Detective you speak to in town has been murdered and replaced by the very mage you are trying to track down! There are a number of ways of finding this out, including finding the body of the real detective in a crypt that is entirely unrelated to your overall quest *END SPOILER*. In short, to make you think you are going down one path - doing quests for one purpose - and finding out things in another quest, making it so that what you discover and experience is more important than the actual objective. Most MMO quests are thimble deep - kill ten rats means kill ten rats. The mechanical means dictate a very direct (and basic) pathway. However, if when killing rat #6 he begged for life and promised to show you a great treasure if you spared him... well, that is something different. Add in some branching paths - kill the rat or see what his treasure is - to let the player make the choice, giving them greater control and you've already started down the path to greater immersion in the game. You don't have to think if you kill ten rats. You do have to think if you are asked to make a choice, or if things don't go in the way that you expect.
Admittedly it it all an illusion - things are fixed between a set number of options, regardless of what the player does - but it is that illusion that is lacking from a lot of MMOs. Set in a static world, the player is left to run the ever unchanging, unsubtle content with no difference from one character to the next. Without doubt, this is the true killer of immersiveness in MMOs. We'll never be able to get away from the basic ten quests I've outlined, but they can certainly be used in more interesting ways than they have to date.
UPDATE: Added in a few extra things about 3 hours after originally posting - had to post the entry or lose it at the time!