I have been thinking a lot of MMORPG design of late. A lot of this design thought has really made me thinking of the gaminess of online games. I personally have always been a fan of realism in my MMOs over gaminess. So personally, from a systems point of view, I prefer Ultima Online over World of Warcraft.
A good example of what I mean here can be seen in ecology. Yes, ecology. When Ultima Online was first put into beta, they had a virtual ecology going where you could actually endanger species by over hunting them. This was abandoned because it turned out that players didn’t care and over hunted animal life because they saw only the benefit, not the downside. That being said, even now there are varying degrees of a virtual ecology, even without it being complete.
Some games will just spawn a creature at set spawn points and that creature just stands around. There is no real thought to why the creature is there, just that it is there to fill a level need. I think this is best signified by Asheron’s Call and other older generation MMOs. Newer games generally get away from this a little, and at least introduce roaming where a creature will spawn and then roam around either on a set path or randomly through an area.1 This particular level seems to be the norm in most games.
To take it a step further, some games may try to pretend to create more of an ecology by having both predator and prey in the same area, and even better they will have predator hunt and kill prey from time to time. This of course doesn’t effect the ecology other than one less prey, but it is still there to give the player some sort of belief.
This is the base idea, but can be extended to other things. For instance, just the idea of levels is gamey, and not particularly realistic. Unlocking is also a very popular thing to do in online games. Ever get an item with a level 57 requirement? Or need to get to level 30 to get in a dungeon? Heck, some games don’t even create an in game reason why you must first complete dungeon A in order to visit dungeon B. All these are gamey/non-realistic systems.
For items, I think the more realistic approach would be to say that everyone can use anything. So everyone could use that Uber Sword of Doom that you just found laying around. But if you aren’t trained to use swords at all and you decide to use it, that sword could very well hurt you as much as anyone else around you. Would certainly suck to find an awesome item only to decapitate yourself with it ten minutes later.
The point is made however, there is gamey, there is not gamey. I am full on in the not gamey. If I could figure out a fully realistic game, I would. To me, the more realistic the better. I want to create a full on world online that other people can have access to and live in. To me that is the holy grail of not only the genre, but also for video game development as a whole. Perhaps part of the reason that I feel so much animosity towards WoW is that this game goes on the reverse side of things. Blizzard was very much trying to make a game that was online with it. It very much is Diablo 2, just online. And I despise the thought.
But is there a time and place for gaminess in a virtual world?
For instance, creating a true Virtual Ecology may actually be a terrible idea for this point in MMO history. It is, at the very least, a programming nightmare. But at best may never work considering the play habits of the average MMORPG player. We can’t ask customers to change how they want to play. So realistically, it may actually be a better idea to simulate an ecology rather than give players a real one. Players won’t understand or appreciate a real one, and may in fact ruin their own fun if you give them one. Sure a simulated ecology may have ups (difficult as it may be to see). But simulation may a gamey solution may be better. That being said you should do your damnedest to try to make it as little gamey as possible.