I've been struggling for awhile with an interesting problem. It's more like an observation that I have trouble reconciling, I guess. It's all based on the sense of dissatisfaction some folks have with the current generation of MMOs. I'm talking about a particular type of player; the type of player that gravitates more to say, EQ2 or Final Fantasy XI than say WoW or WAR. The type of player that, perhaps, laments the lack of things like "lore" or "story" -- Often they're the very same people complaining about the lack of the capability for players to change the world they play in, even in games that do try to offer players that very thing.
The problem is how to address what they really want, when it doesn't really match what they've asked for. There's a huge amount of "interpretation" in what MMO developers do, I think. We look at the complaints and comments of the players and we try to figure out what we can do to provide what they're looking for. The trick, and the trouble, comes from figuring out what they're really asking for, which brings me back to that observation...
This particular problem is near and dear to my heart because I am one of the players of this type that I'm talking about. I'm having a ton of fun with WAR, but I find that I care very little about its quests. I mostly RvR (and in fact progress more quickly than a questing player, as a result) and I've yet to find a quest that really captured my interest. This type of play style is counter to the way and reasons I typically play these games for, so I've spent some time trying to figure out why and I realized it's closely related.
It's sort of about that "change the world" request we hear so often, I think. At least in PVE, Warhammer -- like WoW and even Auto Assault -- is basically a linear game. As you progress through the game's story, you move from zone to zone and you never look back. You're guided, some might cynically say 'by the nose', the whole way, with no encouragement (and in some cases active discouragement) to explore or make your own choices, along the way. For some players, I think, this amounts to having the game "happen to them" instead of "making it happen."
This takes away the sense that the game space isn't a fully realized world. No matter how complex the space itself actually is this lack of control stands in the way between the player and full immersion. Interestingly enough, I think a case could be made for saying the problem here is one of authorial control. In a linear game, the narrative belongs to the designers -- to the artist. Like a movie or a book, the outcome is predetermined; even though the game includes interactive elements they are, at best, a way to control the pace of the story's exposition. In a way, this takes away from the promise of what these games are, doesn't it? Did Ultima Online make the waves it did because of its great story? Or did it have a lot more to do with the fullness of the world it presented, the strength of its illusion of reality? Perhaps, the player not having any control over the narrative - the course of his character through the world - leads to the dissatisfaction that is so commonly voiced by players like me. Imagine how a world could feel if the player did have that authorial control.
When I played UO, I never logged on to "level" or "quest" - I didn't ask the game for a to-do list of chores to do for the day, hoping to collect my allowance. Instead, I decided for myself what my goals would me. "I'm going to get a boat" or "I want to explore Avatar Isle" were, in essence, the quests I wrote for myself. I went to that world specifically to be able to make those kinds of choices; to write my own experience as an adventurer in that world. I decided what my role and level of impact in the world was, and I decided the goals that defined by experiences there. The result, I used to keep in log books, written in the blank books of the game. Even more than figuratively, I really was the author of my own story.
As a result, the UO world felt so much more interesting and alive than it really was and I think that experience - or something like it - is what players of the type that I refer to are really asking for. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to give that to them without taking away the benefits that the linear worlds in the vein of Warcraft and WAR, give you. Hand written quests and hand authored raids and events are a huge boon for MMOs; they allow the skills of good writers and good designers to be leveraged to provide heroic experiences you can't get in an open, true virtual world. Giving that up is harder than even relinquishing authorial control over the story; after all, that experience is something literally millions of players are willing to pay for, right?
That's something I'll have to think about, some more. I think the people that solve that problem stand to cultivate an under-served audience while at the same time giving their more mainstream players something truly new to latch on to.