MMOs have changed a lot over the years try have been around, but they are all still rooted in the same concepts of delivered content that all users have the same chance of interacting with and accomplishing.
As all of you know MMOs take many of their concepts from Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role playing games. In those games you do the same things that you do in games like World of Warcraft, only with paper and dice instead of a PC and mouse. You get quests, explore areas and kill monsters to get loot and level up. The main thing that you end up missing when you play MMOs over traditional RPGs is the directed experience.
When you play an MMO you don't have a single guiding hand Game Master directing your story. You likely are experiencing pre-canned content that is going to be the same for you as it was for everyone before you and after you. At the tabletop your GM may be making everything up on the spot, and this is something that just doesn't happen in an MMO.
Tabletop GMs may even be using a published adventure module, which is closer to the type of game that MMO players experience today. Go here, do X thing, kill Y monster, collect Z loot. The benefit to playing with a small group of players was that the Game Master was free to improvise and customize the adventure to the players involved. Has a player been pursuing a specific magic item? He could put it into the boss’ treasure trove. Is one of the characters wanted for crimes they didn’t commit? Have one of the encounters be bounty hunters looking to make a quick buck.
I would love to see MMOs take on aspects of a more directed experience. The short-lived development cycle of Wish seemed to be the first major title to attempt to create directed experiences for the players. There were very bold statements thrown about in the hype-days of Wish before the project folded. “No two characters will share the same quests”, “Quest results impact the world and change the game for everyone.”, etc. The only way I could foresee pulling this off was having a near 1:1 developer:player ratio like a D&D game might have, but that was back in a day when I was a bit more green when it comes to what MMOs could do.
I think we’re approaching a day where a pseudo-directed experience can be made in an MMO. Guild Wars II started your career out with a questionnaire about things your character experienced in their past, and then they had story-arc quests seeded throughout the levelling that harkened back to your answers. I see this a prototype for a future MMO where you are given an opportunity (if you wish to take it) to fully flesh out a background for your character based on several multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. Then the game designers can seed elements from your background throughout the entire game. There might be some disconnect when two players know the King of the land as two different names, but those problems could all be worked through eventually.
Then there are the quests. If we move away from a world of ! and ? over NPC heads we can watch what the players do with the game world. EVE is a good example of this. Players take it upon themselves to make the stories happen. However, even a paper and pencil RPG needs the Game Master to be involved in crafting the epic story that the players will undertake, so it can’t just be one giant sandbox of things to kill and nodes to mine. I’d love for each players’ journey to the level cap to be algorithmically generated to be unique to that character, pulling data from the large questionnaire taken at character creation and just enough randomization so that even if two players did exactly the same character, then they would still have enough variation to not think that they were playing in each other’s games.
So what do you think? Do you think the world is ready for an MMO that tries to rewrite the rules? I’d love to hear your thoughts against more customized experiences for the players as well. What problems does this type of MMO generate that traditional ones don’t need to deal with?
Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner.