MMORPG's and BlehCity of Heroes is a wonderfully designed game and I've stopped playing it. I've written at length before about why it's a terrific game. Now I'm going to write a bit about why it's not, in the sense that it shares some of the problems that other MMORPG's have.
At its core, no matter what the environments look like (fabulous), and no matter how high your hero can jump (magnificent) or run (blazing) or fly (soaring), a player will wind up doing one thing over and over again: beating the crap out of villains. There's no other way to get experience, and without XP there's no way to level, and without leveling you can't get the cool new powers which mostly, oh by the way, enhance your combat skills. All these games, whether it's Heroes or Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies, are generally skins over very similar experiences. You may argue that they're not similar, and while I agree that in many ways they're not, they all still consist of a wheel, and you and I are hamsters, and we're running as fast as we can. Except hamsters aren't paying $14.99 a month to work that wheel.
One game that does try to be different is A Tale in the Desert. No combat, just exploration, crafting, personal trials, and community. That sounds absolutely fantastic. Plus it's a small developer, so double credit. I played ATID and--well, I was absolutely bored to death. I dug the concept, I enjoyed the exploring, but I just couldn't find enough to keep me going. And therein lies the rub--without frequent combat encounters, there are open spaces in an online game. Open space=Dead space. The only way to fill huge amounts of open space are by highly repetitive, pre-programmed encounters. At least that's how it's done now.
And just for the record, my ATID account is still active. I thought it was a great failure, if that makes any sense, and I really want the game to succeed, so even if I'm not still playing it, I don't mind contributing to the cause, so to speak. If you want to try a different kind of online game, I highly recommend it, because it is a very unique experience.
Now to the nut of this particular tree, which is how could these games be less damned boring? I am always dismayed by the 'other activities' available in MMORPG's. I've mentioned this before, but 'crafting' in Everquest actually meant 'pressing a key over and over again.' Fishing was a great idea, and it consisted of standing near the shore and pressing a key. Making beer sounded like a blast--and consisted of pressing a few keys over and over again. 'Crafting' implies some level of skill, of craft.
Pressing the 'c' key one thousand times in a row does not, repeat not, constitute skill.
This is a problem for me, because I'm an 'other activities' kind of guy. If an online game had some excellent, immersive mini-games, which could lead to an entirely separate skill tree and prestige, I'd be in heaven.
Let's take pottery as an example. What if you could actually use the mouse to control a potter's wheel? It would be the crafting equivalent of the mouse swing used in golf games--moving the mouse would move your hands onscreen as it shaped the clay. You could click a mouse button to speed up or slow down the wheel. Once you finished your piece, you could fire it in the kiln, then you could paint it, again using a mouse swing interface.
This could also be tied in with another discipline. Let's say that if you practiced 'mind control' and gained expertise in both disciplines, then you could, in a funky form of astral projection, create a virtual giant that could control pottery wheels the size of houses. You could create sculptures of absolutely unimaginable size and could spend hours (or days) painting them. Install those into the world and it gives it a vitality and a uniqueness that online worlds now lack.
Relevance? Give the giant sculptures a zone of influence that will temporarily alter the stats of anyone near enough to benefit. So people are not only encouraged to see the sculptures, but also to be near them. Suddenly, the artist is of vital importance to the community.
I could keep going with the variations that are possible inside this concept, but I just wanted to give you a taste of what is possible.
I find it sadly ironic that in worlds only limited by our imagination, no one seems to have one. What we are generally left with are stale, flat worlds that underneath the cosmetics are very much the same.
Many thanks to Ian Murphy, who sent me a link to a very thoughtful article he's written about online games (available here: http://erithtotl.com/Blogs/gaming/articles/171.aspx).