I've learned most MMO's are a constant struggle between the rules of the Game and the systems in the World. At times they're in direct opposition to one another; one's improvement causing the decline of the other, while other times they can actually share a bit of synergy. In some MMO's one is expressly favored over the other, most often the Game, but many titles attempt to strike a delicate balance.
What is a game? What is a world? Well we think we know what a world is - we live in one, right? I mean we just look around us, obviously this is qualifies as a world!
But how do you define such a thing? When you sit down to read a great book it can seem just as real. Surely that can be a World as well? Perhaps somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos the World of your favorite book actually exists. Who's to say that there isn't a Krypton somewhere in the trillions upon trillions of stars in the universe?
When we sit down to play a game of Pac-Man, though, the same feeling is never conveyed. We can use our imaginations, surely, and construct Pac-Man's mundane life of eating pellets at his day job and paying Ms. Pac-Man's alimony with his fruit scores, but Pac-Man's world is little more than an interpretation of the abstract. Pac-Man is a Game.
Worlds construct complete systems that interact with one another, ecosystems, economic systems, or even social systems. They adhere to rules but not for the sake of preserving the system, since the system is beyond the capability of failing, and certainly not for the sake of fairness. The rules in a World exist simply to construct the world itself and lay the laws for its interaction, such as the Laws of Physics in our own world.
Worlds thrive with life. They can evolve and change, even if it is only to follow a predetermined cycle like the changing of seasons. They provide entertainment by making the mundane interesting - by making little actions carry significant weight - by making intricate systems that can be as beautiful and terrifying as they are complex - and by ensuring that the system builds itself up from the smallest blocks. Worlds are fluid. In the most basic sense every MMO community is a World because it constantly changes, adopts new standards and modicums of behavior, and never has the same people active from one year to the next.
Games are not concerned with the smallest common denominator, because a Game is built around specific goals. In a Game, there is usually a winner, even if it is not readily apparent. In fact the Game may even include uncertainty over the winner - Who has the best gear? Who is the best PvP'er? Or who has the most respect? The debate becomes part of the goal to win, even if the debate itself is purely a social element of the World.
These systems are built specifically around the rules and preventing some actions in order to maintain some level of fairness (but of course, fair for those willing to pay whatever the price is to win the game, most often a time investment). The rules also ensure the Game itself remains intact - their underlying mechanism is limiting the player's freedom to interact so they may only succeed by approaching the Game from specific angles. Games are fun to win, and that's why we play them, but they can be fun to compete as well. Their obstacles can be anything from direct competition against players, a puzzle, a form of exploration, mastering techniques to defeat an AI opponent, formulating strategies for victory, managing limited resources, or any combination of these together.
I like to think of MMO's with the division between World and Game. Sometimes I hear them described as Sandbox and Theme Park, which I feel are grossly misleading and inaccurate descriptions. I feel the word Theme Park carries a distinctly derogatory tone as well. A person deems an MMO to be childish but they want to veil the insult behind rhetoric; "A child enjoys going to Disney Land. Disney Land is a Theme Park. Children enjoy playing this game, therefore this game is a Theme Park." I think it's been used as such for a while now and its usage is further perpetrated by people apparently oblivious to this undertone. It implies the game is chalk full of irreverent and childish toys that appeal to only the most immature and inane gamers.
But even this is an affront to the real word. A true Theme Park is built on the idea of letting someone have fun. First and foremost, the rule for all video games decreed by the Gaming Gods themselves is thus: Let it be fun.
A game which is not fun is a failure. When you plop down at your computer and log in to your favorite game, be it to track bounties across Jita or go toe-to-toe with the Lich King of Azeroth, you do it for fun. It is not done out of duty to some MMO historical precedence. Implying that a game has some higher standard than this simple golden rule of the Gaming Gods is patently absurd, blasphemous and idiotic.
What you find fun, well, that's entirely up to you. But never pretend you play for a reason other than to have fun (short of those last few reluctant days before you quit a great game) and never suggest a game is bad because it puts fun first - even if it's not your idea of fun. All games put the fun first, even if someone convinces themselves otherwise. All MMOs are, and should be, a Theme Park.
But not all MMOs are a World, nor should they be, and not all MMOs put an emphasis on the Game. World's often have a lot of annoying or mundane tasks with seemingly no point; like choosing food to eat for a virtual character that never poops or walking across a vast continent to join up with friends. But these little parts of a bigger whole make the World of an MMO feel more life-like and give it depth. A Game with no World is flat and repetitive, an FPS title that's single-player only. Even a multiplayer, MMOFPS would introduce at least one element of a World: A social network where players can team up and battle each other for dominance. Where the name of the best players are as famous as those of the worst gankers are infamous.
Conversely, having an MMO that is all World and no Game may sound appealing as well - but keep in mind how many elements of a Game we have come to expect. All elements of combat, dealing damage, avoiding damage, and dying, are rules for a Game and not elements of a World. Leaderboards, raids, gear upgrades, skill-sets and character abilities are as well. They exist to be in careful balance with one another. Each has a cost attached to it, either directly in the form of an element like mana, or indirectly in terms of a time investment. Each fills a specific role and each is used to help you win the Game or compete in it more actively.
Many older games, like UO and EQ attempted to strike a balance between Game and World, and some of these elements have been carried over to more modern games. PvP is often a good example of the great synergy between these two opposing forces. Players begin by battling each other using combat mechanics and rules, the elements of a Game. Eventually a victor is chosen, he takes the spoils of war from his opponent, and then moves on.
But the defeated foe is angry, so they take to the city and shout for help to track down the bandit that stole the merchant's prized possessions. This is an element of a World, because now there is no telling how the situation will resolve itself. Will the victim be ignored? Will players raise an army to track down the bandit? Will they organize a city-watch to protect incoming merchants? Or does the bandit have a guild of thieves waiting in the woods to ambush the would-be aid? Perhaps the merchant's things are already gone - making the entire quest an effort in futility. As an element of a World, there's no real planning for the outcome because it is entirely unknowable.
Socializing, however, is one of the easiest elements of a World to create, as the game requires little more than a chat box and possibly a forum to foster its growth. I've been more interested in the elements that have fallen by the wayside and failed to integrate as well into the Game. Things that always come to my mind are crafting, human settlement, character building and expansive environments.
Crafting has become little more than a byproduct of primary advancement since the advent of WoW, which I sorely miss. You may see human settlement and say, "Well wait a minute, I know Shadowbane had player-built cities and Eve has player-built space stations!" That would certainly be true, and while player built houses and cities are important, they do not make up the entirety of human settlement. In fact cities are simply the mega-centers that spring up naturally when trade between towns becomes most concentrated. They're built on the backbone of other activities, like mining, farming, production, etc. When a city is little more than a place to launch battles against opposing cities then it is just an element of a Game.
And then there are far more unusual areas of a World to explore like character building. I do not mean character development where you gain skills or level abilities, which I certainly enjoy, but building up how your character would behave in the MMO. Are they a priest of a certain religion? Perhaps they would gain a bonus for each person they convert to their faith, or be forced to fight anyone of an opposing deity. These elements have no succinct goal or purpose that can be quantified as part of a Game, and thus I feel it only correct to label them as part of a World.
Even though elements of a Game and a World both come together in an MMO, I can't help but feel that we've only barely touched on what a real virtual world would be like and what it would offer. Perhaps we need more titles willing to try tipping the scales in one direction, but there are significant development obstacles to such a goal besides the overwhelming content requirements.
Still, a boy can dream.