When I first started looking into the design aspect of worlds, I was a teenager and wonderfully enamoured with table top RPG's. What made them so special was not just the creativity and freedom that they allowed, but that the game world grew and changed beyond the agency afforded to us as players.
Now, a decade later, I am immersing myself back into game design, and the concept of change is firmly lodged in my brain. What makes a game different than any other form of media? What, aside from user interaction, allows it to immitate life better than any other media? In a word, change. Unlike a book, movie, or other piece of traditional art, the ability of a game to change sets it in a league of its own. But if that is the case, why have game developers eschewed change for the Hollywood-esque static cinamatics?
Dwarf Fortress to some extent tried to address this issue with their wonderful system of players continuing to play in a world that is affected, not only by their current actions, but by the actions of the previous games. While this is heartening to see and addicting to play, the bigger question is, what can we learn from it?
Panning the mental camera over to the big wig MMO worlds, Ultima, EQ, EQII, WoW, etc, the one thing that really stands out is that despite being a persistant world, they are also entirely static. Yes, the models move around, but no matter how many times you play the game, you will always meet the same people, run the same quests, fight the same mobs, and conquor the same dungeons.
With today's technology, surely there is a better way to design our worlds so that they present the feeling of a living, breathing, CHANGING environment versus the static, lifeless, repetative fair we are being served.
If we pan that same camera around to take a look at a near forgotten venue, MU*s, some have already started tackling these problems, those most haven't. Some of the key areas they have addressed that the industry should take note of however are:
- Customizable Equipment - Players in many muds are not only to able to modify, but create and DESIGN their own custom gear. Nothing says I'm unique like a rose & violet + 90 vorpal sword of rat slaying.
- Deep NPC interaction - I am not talking about a selection of three or four dialogue choices, I mean meaningful interaction. If you kill an NPC, how does the world react? Does his brother, the Ranger, in the next town over start hunting you? What about his wife and kids?
- Non-monetary/equipment based rewards- If you slay the evil vile wicked bunny, does you get something meaningful from the transaction? Land, titles, political standing, trade incentives? Maybe someone who wouldn't teach you before will teach you now, perhaps the bunny was the last of its kind and now PITA is coming to break your legs...
- World Changing Events - If you kill a god, (looking at you Sony EQ1) shouldn't their be some fairly significant changes in the world? What happens to all of the priests and whatever powers they possessed?
- Houses, Buildings, and Changing the environment- Yes, EQ2 and others had player houses, buuuttttt... The players didn't get to build them, destroy them, or even SEE them from the outside. Much less look our their window from their carefully selected vantage point down onto the world below. Blizzard, how do all those rocks that people mine keep coming back?
- Economy - I know there recently was a really good article regarding the economy, and one of the things I took from that was the infinite resource problem. Who says their has to be infinite resources anyway? Why not take the time to actually design a fluid economy that has a meaningful impact on the game denizens and by extension the players?
If you want to get rid of the 'grind' you have to get rid of what makes the 'grind' possible, the static environment. If you want to endow your players with a true sense of agency and get them invested in your games, give them a reason to invest.
Perhaps it is time to reallocate some resources. Let's ditch some of the ultra-glitz, and take a step back to look at the core underpinnings of our game worlds, and figure out how we can really make them come alive. Trust me, the glitz will be back in no time, and when it does, it will be representing a much richer inner beauty that will leave players feeling like they own the world.
**edited to remove a mistaken reference in the player housing section**