So, after listing the 10 basic quest types seen in MMOs (and most RPGs, for that matter) I then did a slightly academic ramble about how MMO quest systems could be more immersive. However, it wasn't practical. So, let's try to rectify that (well, as much as armchair design can, anyway).
Things that can increase player immersion in a MMO include:
- Living Worlds: Other NPCs walk around, chat to each other and look like they have a life outside of waiting for the players to show up. Animals wander, some group together in herds / flocks, some act as predators, some as prey. The sun rises and sets. Lights go on and off. It's an illusion and if a player watches long enough they'll probably break through it, but it serves well enough to suspend disbelief as the player moves through the world. Ironically, open world PvP can make a world feel more alive - you can get ganked anytime, anywhere, so even walking through a field can be an exercise in danger - but it's a little too life-and-death for most MMO players.
- Mission Branching: Letting players choose what path to take through a mission, either by picking a certain path through the mission 'map' or by choosing via dialogue options what route they want to take. This involves developing more content (e.g. if one mission has 3 different paths, you've go to create 3 different sets of content) and eventually can lead to players disregarding certain paths that are seen to be less rewarding. However, allowing choice (and hopefully meaningful choice) makes players more involved (at least initially) in the route their character takes and, hence, more immersed in the game play.
- Destructible Environment: Characters that can summon up living hellfire but can't even set the straw beds they find in the dungeon alight end up breaking the feel of being involved in a living world. Being able to pick up things and throw them at opponents - as some MMOs are starting to allow - or being able to break things all over the map - as some MMOs currently let you do - is a good way to make players feel consistently powerful. Obviously there has to be some limits - fully destructible environments would see players go on a path of destruction that would level the world in mere hours after launch. But being able to break more than just the bones of opponents means that players feel they can have a greater impact on the world.
Too much destructible terrain and the player base risks turning into this guys.
- Client-side changes: One big problem with changing the world to reflect player action is that MMOs have a huge number of players in them, so letting one player break every window in town is actually vandalism that can impact on a much wider group. However, letting some changes be handled client-side, so that only the player who does the action can see the result is a way around this - to the player who broke all the windows they have the illusion of lots of smashed glass, but to everyone else the windows look safe and intact. It's not ideal - it confuses players when they can't actually see the same things - but it can be an illusory step of making the player feel that they can interact with the world.
- Instancing: Some players hate instancing and there are certainly issues if instancing sucks all the players out of the world and into that instanced content, but it does allow for special events to occur that can't be done elsewhere. Cutscenes that temporarily stop the play for a bit of narrative, special opponents that would otherwise be one-shotted by higher-level players, special goals that are tailored to the number of players in the instance and more - instancing can make the in-game narrative seem more personal since the content can be better shaped to suit the player.
- 'Pull' Missions: Most quests in MMOs are pushed on you - go talk to this person, who you have to find, who then tells you want to do. However, if the character is so important, why aren't these mission givers finding you? Quest / missions should try to pull the player into them rather than pushing them onwards - have an NPC run up and beg for help from the big strong hero makes a lot more sense than the NPC standing on the street corner waiting for someone to come up to them.
Boy, these people look desparate for help, don't they?
- Mission Curveballs: Most MMO missions are highly mechanical - if you are sent off to deliver a letter to the Kobold King, that's exactly what you have to do. There is no surprise in it at all. However, being given a mission to deliver a letter to the Kobold King only to find out on arrival that he's dead and you're being blamed for the assassination - a twist to the mission early on - makes the content a lot more interesting. From my experience if a MMO mission has a twist it is 1) usually very late in the mission and 2) telegraphed by the mission objectives, regardless of what the flavour text says. Surprising the player with content is one way of getting them more involved in playing the game (providing the surprise isn't too far fetched, of course).
- Character Customisation: Personally, nothing kills my immersion in a non-realistic MMO is getting to a point where everyone looks exactly the same due to the equipment they are wearing / their presentation. I know it is realistic - mass produced armour isn't know for its fashionability - but in fantasy / sci-fi titles, magical helms / space ships come in all shapes and sizes. Being able to make my character 'mine' is a big thing in making things feel more personal to players.
- Sensible-in-Context Quest Narratives: Nothing makes a quest feel more irrelevant than when it is completely out of context to everything else in the game. If you are strapping barbarian hero raised on the blood of slain enemies, does it really make sense to be sent out by a shepherd to find his lost sheep? Or, if you are the finest fairy floss crafter in all the land that your quest giver wants you to go out and slay an Ancient Death Dragon of Death? No. If developers are going to give players character development options then they need to provide quests / missions that suit those options, rather than just providing single streams of content for all. It probably isn't feasible for every character concept to be provided for, but enough paths to cover the basic options is a big step in the right direction.
- Owning and Developing Real Estate: Letting players build and own their section of the world is a fantastic involvement mechanism. There is a reason that house building was so popular for UO and why The Sims is such a successful single player title.
These are only a few suggestions (and some can certainly be combined for extra value), but there is plenty of scope for MMO content to be just as immersive (if not more so) than that of single player titles. Although players in MMOs might not be able to change the world as easily as a player of a solo title, there are certainly options for how MMO players can be more involved in their game world.
Now, it's completely true that pretty much all of these suggestions will fall apart over time as players see through the illusion and / or learn the optimal reward path through the game. This isn't a reason to avoid using such techniques, however - titles that suck players in early are a lot more likely to stick around than those who have no things to hook players at all.