I tend to play MMOs more than anything else. Even though I'm rabidly anti-social towards most of the people who play them I just love the idea of playing in a shared world full of stupid talking scenery.
But they never get it right and until I read Halting State by Charles Stross I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Halting State is set in Scotland in 2017. In it Stross decides that MMOs have become very big business indeed and proceeds to build a rather good conspiracy story around a robbery in one of these MMOs. At as basic level he says this "The economy of an MMO is based around fun. If your players aren't having fun they'll go somewhere else".
Here's my list of things that Stross's MMO did right that current teams haven't managed to figure out yet.
1. Scale. The first time we enter Stross's game it's in a city 2km across floating in the sky above a landmass that doesn't seem to end. You can start off and head in any direction looking for action or performing quests. According to Stross upon the realisation that manually creating content was expensive and time consuming companies put a lot of R&D money into procedurally generated content. Both quests and landmass. So in a 2017 MMO no two people will ever do the same things. You might get a quest to go to a dungeon that has been spawned just for you but will still be there for other quests later for anyone. Compare that to WoW or LOTRO and these games begin to look very small and very static. Most current MMOs never really change the early game (Which is odd considering how many people end up replaying them with different characters). One thing I really hate in an MMO is starting a new character since I know I'm going to have to do exactly the same things every other one of my characters has done. It's boring.
2. They feel like games. With the possible exception of Eve Online all current MMOs do a very poor job of hiding the fact that they're a game so that in the end they all become an exercise in min/maxing, stat tweaking for max dps and effective exploiting of the game mechanics. Why? Because there's nothing else to do but rush to level 50 and see all the new content that they've spent the last 12 months creating to keep you interested. Why should I play an adventurer in a fantasy game and be somehow unable to figure out how to ride a horse until I've been playing the game for 35 levels *and* then find it costs more than I paid for my house for the same character. It's fantasy land. I run around killing orcs for a living. I should have known how to ride a horse since I was a nipper.
We know why I have to wait for level 35 to get a horse of course (Sorry). It's because the devs are focused on creating a game and a game requires a reward and something to strive for and timesinks to keep you playing. So Ultima Online lets anyone with 500 gold (10 minutes for a new player) buy and ride a horse (One that you have to stable and doesn't vanish the second you dismount) while everything since would rather you spent most of your time traveling. What I'd like is a big sandbox that features plenty to do (Including save the world epic quests) but no two players should ever have to play through the game in the same way.
3. Combat is everything. Only Ultima Online to my knowledge has ever tackled this. It's the only MMO I've played where it's possible to create a successful character without ever having to pick up a sword. It was easily possible to spend your time running a shop or being a blacksmith. In almost anything else those sorts of occupations are secondary and normally directly tied to fighting. Stop it please.
4. Odd stuff. I've already mentioned seasoned fighters being unable to ride horses but what about other issues? In a huge game world you might not be near a town when night falls or you want to cook some food and have a kip. In LOTRO only specialist cooks can cook food and create campfires (Creating campfires used to be the Hunter's job). Say what? You mean to say your traveling mercenary has no idea how to get a campfire going and cook some salted meat he has in his backpack? Seriously?
I start up my game client and login. Upon choosing the character I want to play tonight (I have several) a map appears with towns, villages and special areas I've already visited highlighted and I'm asked to choose where I want to start. On the map I can see where my friends are but tonight I'm going solo. I choose to start in a stone circle on a hilltop near a small village. A real life friend told me he'd passed through there yesterday and was told by a npc that an orc warband had been sighted in the area. I want to investigate and see if they're still around. I can go anywhere I've previously been in this game. Why shouldn't I? What dev team in their right mind would expect their players to trudge halfway across the game world before they can start having fun (Oh wait. Most of them). I look around and immediately notice the bloody corpse in the center of the circle. A quick examination of it shows it's a ritual sacrifice and I have a new quest. It's not the orcs I was expecting though. It seems I recognised the killing as the work of a cult that worships an insane god. I'm told I can see tracks heading off into the woods to the east. I decide to accept the quest and investigate. I head off to the east and when I reach the edge of the woods I switch on my tracking skill (This character spends a lot of time in forests. There are no strict classes in the game but you could probably call him a ranger) and discover the people I'm following passed by here a few hours ago and then turned north. I follow the trail until I come upon a small shack in a clearing. Two cultists are standing guard outside. I unsheathe my bow and stick and arrow in the throat of the one on the left (Those damage bonuses for stealth kills are very handy :) ) then unsheathe my sword and run at the one on the right. As I'm killing him another two run out from the shack but don't worry. It's an MMO and not real life. Despite being realistic and huge it's still possible to fight a few mobs lower level than you ;). I finish these off and head into the shack. Inside I find a woman bound to a chair crying. I ungag her and she asks for my help......
And of course if I'd started in the village instead of the stone circle I'd probably be in another part of the map fighting orcs now.
Note that I'm not saying my way is the only way or indeed easy to do. I just wish that MMO developers and publishers would grow a pair and start working on making their games live and breathe rather than churning out the same thing over and over again.
What does everyone else think?