Okay, that isn't entirely correct, the worlds are compelling but as soon as you set foot in it the effect rapidly wears off. The cutscene generates excitement but then grinding and questing and PvE events etc. etc. work to make the game into some kind of numbers and skills drive. Nice if you like it, total immersion breaking if you don't know what you are signing up for in an MMORPG.
Case in point? I recently had a look at WAR. It looked nice and everything (immersion breaking HUD aside). My friend (playing as a Magus) summoned his disk of Tzeentch, left the beautiful crystal cave he was in and then crested a hill to end up in the middle of an Elven fortress of some kind. "Cool" I said as the encampment stretched out in front of us, lined with archers, warriors and war machines. Meanwhile, the Elves seem pretty unfazed so we fire balled one and got his attention. A couple of seconds later, the guard was a burning corpse and the rest of the defense force......just stood around. Apparently, not at all fazed that their colleague had been killed and that the base was under some kind of attack. We then saw that a guildmate was in the area so we IMed them and met up. In the middle of the camp. An Orc and an evil wizard stood in the middle of an enemy encampment, shooting the shit, and not getting any trouble from the guards.
"I'm looking for a guy with a sword drop" Noggle IM'ed us.
"Yeah he's named, he's up on the ridge" Was my friends reply.
Both then went off, walked past about 30 guys, who weren't interested (unless you violate their personal bubble of about 2m diameter) greased the named guy and collected the sword. And so it went on.
If this was a game of any other genre, that kind of AI would be game breaking. Maybe Solid Snake and Sam Fisher had it all wrong. You don't need stealth just an air of confidence and you walk straight into the heart of the enemy, kill the bad guy and walk out the front door.
We then went into some kind of capture the flag PvP variant (escort the explosive barrel to the enemy base while they were trying to do the same deal) and the whole universe of Warhammer is shattered when you see 15 disorganised evil doers bundle 15 disorganised 'good guys' for 15 minutes straight. Running around like an idiot, jumping about, clicking icons and keeping your eye on four or five bars is not exactly my definition of fun. There were no tactics, no plan, no communication. Just 15 players spawning, buffing themselves (self gays), running into the fray, dying, respawning. Occasionally someone would pick a barrel up in which case there was some vague sense of escorting them to the base but everytime the ensuing melee would leave everyone, barrel carrier included, dead to start the pointless trial again.
It strikes me that a group of well organised players could dominate most of the game, until that is they hit bad guys of sufficiently higher level which is where MMORPGs suck people in. Leveling. I hate it. And these days, everything is leveling, spells, skills, renown, the guild blah blah blah.
It seems to me that MMORPGs could put their pretensions away for a while and learn something from other genres and dare I say it, console games. Here's a list, as ever, numbered:
1) More mini games.
I'm not talking about wiimote waggling mini games proper mini games that are engrossing and a whole new game in their own right. Remember the FFVIII card game? Addictive as hell. Why every MMORPG hasn't just ripped this off is bewildering. Or Blitzball!? I knew a guy who spent practically two years solidly playing blitzball in FFX. In a game like WAR the obvious mini game would be blood bowl. Imagine it. In fact, there's a whole new class, a Blood Bowl coach. Crap in combat but get some special items from a few quests to boost the coaches performance in a match and if your regional team beats another regions team, the whole faction gets a boost (in various things) until the next match.
Imagine hundreds of players congregating weekly to fill the stadium to watch a game. Hoping that their team wins. Hell, go down this road and you could have your own hall of fame per faction of players of renown.
2) Better Exploration.
A fraction (I won't hazard a guess as to how many) of MMORPGs cite exploration as reason for playing MMORPGs. Problem is, exploration in MMORPGs is shit. They need to take a cue from GTA and Oblivion (Fallout 3 too). Make exploration interesting. As Chuff_72, friend of TGAM says: "Anything, why isn't there a catapult on top of the highest mountain with a parachute to fire you around FOR FUN, or a ski slope, you could argue that this breaks the atmosphere but frankly that's a cop-out. A mini orc circus or fair, with a shooting game, SOMETHING other than walk miles, hit a guy in the face, walk some more." As someone who spent hours exploring San Andreas I fully agree. Reward the players with hidden areas and hide them so well that only the most avid explorer will find them. It could even be built into the game, if you get a guild of explorers together they can go off and discover whole new continents, unlocking new items globally.
3) Persistent worlds.
The ultimate MMORPG lie. Play Animal Crossing for a month and you have a real feel that you have changed the town. Swap records with friends in Pokemon and you are occasionally surprised to see a TV show talking about the feats of one of your friends from undertaking a hardcore feat through to the ridiculous. Play any RTS and you really get a feeling for your base, think carefully about where you build your new buildings and where you put bunkers etc. Play an MMORPG and the hub is the hub is the hub. Some areas can be 'captured' in MMORPGs but often this results in everything being blue to being purple, until the good guys recapture it. Why not launch an MMO where there are no settlements whatsoever. Players can then band together and start to build one. Harvesting resources and building villages, towns and cities in the shape they want. Take the building design thing from Spore, and the resource management and city creation from SimCity and Command and Conquer and you'd be on to a winner.
Players who build their own settlement will be much more connected to it and you'd start to get some interesting conflicts over resources for building between factions and between settlements.
Don't like the main city the players created? Find fellow players unhappy with the status quo and set up your own colony. Every building can be destroyed meaning that to get a big illustrious city you have to defend it pretty well. This means that if you went to a different server the world we be completely different depending on where the factions built their settlements. One server might be a classic setup with good in one corner and bad in the polar opposite. Another server might have one faction building cities whilst the other faction exists in a guerilla state, relying on thieving and raiding to live in nomadic like settlements. It would be great, trust me.
4) Better character customisation.
Okay a potential problem for PvP players because you need to recognise what class you are up against to work out if you are on the right side of the paper, scissors, stone triangle to bother with the fight. But come on. PlayStation games offered superior customizations than your typical MMORPG and they were games you weren't expected to spend 2000 hours looking at the back of your characters head. Character customisation is so dreary, you'd be hard pressed to tell one MMORPG from another from a screen shot, but you would be able to tell what class they were. Some might worry that you lose the sense of a universe if all the buildings and inhabitants looked completely different, but then most universe seem obsessed on making you kill 24 frogs, or rats, or crabs or XXXXs for rewards. At least make everyone start out generic but allow them to customise their character as they progress. That way players would know to instantly fear the giant electric pink gimp, not because they were a gimp but because they'd spent a lot of time in the game to customise their avatar to such a degree.
5) Dispense with leveling.
I don't know how this would work. Leveling keeps players playing and buying expansions and keeps MMORPGs in business. Dispense of it and it becomes another throw away game. Leveling as a means of progression is very cheap though and an easy way to prevent players from running from the starting hub right to the last stage or phase of the open world. Some other mechanism of unlocking new areas, items and skills would be desirable and help to take the genre away from being a basically tarted up numbers game.
6) Persistent worlds II
Did you beat the big bad boss that everyone in the last village was complaining about but didn't get the drop you wanted? It's fine, just come back later and he and his minions will be there again. Every day, round the clock. Narrative breaking. Immersion breaking. And sad to think that villages are kept in perpetual fear by the ever-respawning local bad guy. By the same token it would be a pretty poor game if you spend the whole time trailing the servers leading group, coming across the still warm corpses of all the big bad bosses. In some MMORPGs this system is so broken that you have to queue up to fight a particular battle. Game breaking indeed.
A way around this is, if you beat the local bad guy, you become the local bad guy. Taking their place either permanently, choosing to settle in, decorate the place and choose your own army of minions or by leaving a copy of yourself. This way, it at least makes sense in terms of the storyline and in theory could result in some interesting dynamics.
7) More server wide celebrities.
There may be some MMORPG 'celebrities' but unless you play every day and haunt the forums, you'd be hard pressed to pick out any kind of achiever, arch nemesis or hero on any given server. NPCs should be programmed to chatter about a particular player character who has been causing havoc recently. Some MMORPGs have a king or lord which is one way of drawing attention to successful players but more effort should be put into recognising individuals. If one guild consistently defends a settlement from being razed to the ground then the villagers should start singing their praises. And if the town is overtaken it takes a while for the citizens to stop complaining that things were better under the "I love willies" for example. This would help players build attachments to areas of the world and also add a bit of comedy when NPCs become attached to a particular player.
8) Get rid of the HUD and try to make things look more exciting.
I'm not offering up any answers to this but some of the stuff going on in EVE Online sounds amazing. Watch a video though and it looks like a poor screensaver. The same is true with fantasy MMORPGs. Watch the top players play against each other on GomTV and die of boredom as two avatars jump around each other until one falls over. The HUD and little numbers hovering above players heads need to go. Again, it all makes you take one step back from the universe and just looks , well crap. Also, we all know about bullshots in console games but compare the FMV of most MMORPGs and compare them to the game itself. They are two completely different entities. One is dramatic and exciting and leaves you wanting more and the other is boring and silly with little people firing blue crap at each other whilst hopping around. Plenty of other games manage to disguise or hide menus and lifebars so MMORPGs should look to do this so that regardless of whether or not you know what dps is, the fights look good to everyone not just the people behind the clicking or people who know exactly what is going on when 'the green shit appears on one guys head and the other guy keeps spinning on the spot". Hard to pull off but I think it would help in the long run. Perhaps a bushido blade system should be implemented. It would be hard and tip the scale in the favour of skill, over level and would probably drive most MMORPG players away.
So there we have it. Anyone in the know will probably go through this list one by one picking out why each of the above is either impossible or game breaking so we'll just stick with what we've got thank you very much. That may be fine but until then myself and a few others will remain skeptical that MMORPGs are little more than poor copycat machines designed to keep people paying subs. It's not that MMORPGs aren't popular of course but they could be a hellovalot more compelling IMO.