I've been feeling dissatisfied with what's available in the MMO market for years. While I've had a lot of fun in a few different games, it's fallen short of the kind of imaginative experience that these kind of games should be able to provide. I think a different kind game is not just possible but potentially profitable.
This is a picture of a forest in Virginia.
In elementary school, I used to spend afternoons with my friends in the forest. We would tear up patches of nettles, build forts, eat berries, have mock battles with sticks, hide and spy on each other. Our play was based on imaginative interaction with the environment. We played in the forest because the forest itself contained opportunities for a lot of interconnected structured activities.
Look at this picture again. Imagine hiking down that path. You would experience the place not simply by walking down the path, but by feeling the ferns brush against your legs; hearing the soft sound of your footsteps; noticing a lone flower down in the ditch to your left; feeling the texture of the bark on the trees. You could reach down and pick a fern or a blade of grass; you could pick up a rock and throw it. Every interaction or possible interaction with a place enhances the sense that you are where you are.
Basically, I feel that current games lack this sense of place. Exploring a new area in LotRO or WoW is fun, but the world feels _thin_. There are not that many objects in the environment (trees, rocks, plants) and there are no possible interactions with any of them. In contrast, the world in the picture feels _dense_ - it's filled with different species and you can interact with every object in multiple ways. In addition, if you pull up a plant it's no longer there; if you chop down a tree, there will be one less tree, until a new one grows to take its place.
Another thing that reduces the sense of place in current MMOs is the blatantly artificial way that the wildlife behaves. Mobs stand around statically every 100 feet, waiting for somebody to come by and attack them. In an actual wilderness, of course, animals live life cycles of their own and must find food and reproduce. If you approach them they are more likely to run away than to attack. The possible interactions with a creature following its own schedule and priorities are much more interesting and numerous than with a mob that sits in its place until aggroed.
Finally, environments in MMOs feel limited because they are usually much smaller than corresponding places in the real world. In an MMO, five minutes of walking down that path is likely to take you to a new biome; certainly not more than ten. But if you were actually on that path, you could walk for hours without leaving the forest. There is a point of critical mass when the size of a place makes that place feel significant, and the interactions you can potentially have with that place become more than you can count. There have been games with giant landscapes, it's true - but usually these games are empty and static, and the number of possible interactions is still small.
It will always be impossible to mimic completely the density of the real world in an online game. Each extra object you add increases the load on the client and the traffic between the client and the server. Plus, designing a world by hand gets harder and harder as the number of things in the world increases. Simulating a world that feels as full as the real world will have to wait until we have highly realistic procedural algorithms, and can run the entire game on a cluster of supercomputers and simply stream video to each client. But it's definitely possible to go far beyond the thin place-ness of most MMOs.
I know it's a single-player game, but check out the landscape in Deer Hunter Tournament. (Sorry for the low quality.)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDebHkSd2D8
Even within the limitations of the kind of game this is, the landscape is absolutely epic. It's realistic and filled with objects. The draw distance is insane. When you see that lake shore through the binocs, you know that you can go there, and maybe find some game. Imagine how much more potential there would be in a game where you knew you could set up camp, go fishing, harvest plants, make a raft, etc. etc.
With the goal of nurturing a sense of place that feels real, here are a few features that I think would be possible in a fantasy game using cutting-edge technology.
- Many interacting species of plants and animals in each biome, each with their own life-cycles (born/sprouted, migrate, reproduce, hunt each other, die) that persist in simulation even when the players aren't around. A place should feel _full_ of living things.
- Multiple ways to use many of these creatures and plants. For example, you could try to eat a plant, or boil it to make a dye, or try to make a rope out of it.
- In order for the increased number of ways to interact with the environment to have actual gameplay effects, characters should have more needs than is customary in RPGs - warmth, food, water - with consequences for not meeting them. Also fun would be poison effects that you might get if you eat the wrong thing, and disease effects that you can remedy with the right medicine.
- Interactions with the environment need to be entertaining - not just click and wait. Free Realms and other casual games are making interesting steps in this direction, turning crafting and gathering into enjoyable minigames in their own right. It should actually be fun to spend the day gathering berries, and you should feel after you're done that your player skill helped you to be more effective at game activities.
- Players should be able to make at least some semi-permanent impact on their environment. This ranges from simply cutting down trees to making roads and paths to building structures and modifying terrain. (This is a feature in Wurm, a game written by one guy.)
- It should not be so easy to just go through a place. Players should have to deal with traversing a mountain range or making a path through a jungle if they want to pass through those areas, and should have options (cut down trees, climbing gear) that allow them to engage with the place in order to do so. This would make the place feel more real.
- The game should not require you to go everywhere in the world in order to succeed. Because each individual place holds more interest and potential interaction, you should be able to have a rewarding play experience simply remaining in one area, or migrating once or twice over the course of the game. Think Harvest Moon, or the Unreal World.
- The game should ideally restrict communication ingame to local /say, /shout, and /whisper, each with limiting ranges. This might not be feasible, but would definitely force players to inhabit the place they are in more thoroughly - perhaps going to a tavern to find adventurers instead of simply spamming a channel.
I don't know if I would even call this game an RPG. But it's a beginning on the path to realizing the kind of experience that should be possible in MMORPGs, and the kind of stories that we should be able to tell.