I promised earlier to write a separate post about my perfect MMO. As it happens, I will combine this with the task posted in the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog and make it a list post. I suppose it will be a long one, so bear with me.
Tobold posted also about the RPG concept in WoW , though from a point of view I haven't noticed yet. That's because I haven't raided yet. But as soon as I read the post, certain things clicked: the dungeons and instance bosses are more videogamey than roleplaying gamey. I agree with him to the point that MMORPG's are more based on general videogame concepts than roleplaying, as I described in my earlier post. The single player experience is not that of immersion, but that of achieving something more in the game. Sure, pen and paper roleplaying was full of anticipation of the next level abilities and the possibility to gain the ultimate weapon/armour/gear to overcome the main villain. But the journey was more important than the destination, and as the commenters in the forementioned Tobold's post stated, the D&D modules that were initially written for sale, the game itself was more of the heroic story of the group or one character in the group.
Great RPG experience was more akin a good fantasy novel than a hack and slash session.
Now to My current view of the "perfect" MMORPG:
1. Intriguing setting. Something that invites you to explore and find out the lore, story and the background. For me the first computer game equivalents of this were Albion and the first Silent Hill. Why, where, what and when. This being said, the genre isn't that important, the setting can be as well fantasy, sci-fi or contemporary.
2. Growing storyline. Character should be involved in a developing story that makes the player feel s/he's accomplishing something great and wondrous. Even though Tigole claims that the players want to see their minimap blinking yellow at the quest hub, I strongly disagree: if the storyline is inviting the player to find out what comes next, it's at least more motivating.
3. Meaningful decision making. Every decision should have an impact in the evolving story. You could even have two or more possibilities to continue the chain, and no possibility to come back to change the current character's story. The faction/people group reactions should reflect your decisions, with appropriate ripple effect from the point the decision is made: with this I mean that the impact of the decision should be less profound the farther you go from the point.
4. No levels, but a reasonable way of gaining expertise. My personal favourite ever in pen and paper games was the Chaosium 's Basic Roleplaying system , in which you had the possibility to gain more expertise every time you used a skill. Possibility got smaller every time you got closer to the maximum, making the maximum almost impossible to reach in normal gaming. Original Call of Cthulhu utilized this system, and it's IMO still the best pen and paper RPG devised.
5. Open storylines. Goes well with points 2 and 3: your decisions open new opportunities and you can drop the line. This means closing that particular line for some indefinite time, maybe even returning you back to the former story after gaining more information and/or experience in the ways of the world.
6. Basically independant of gear. Meaning that there are several different swords, but they basically do the same damage from level to level. It's more of a question of skill, the characters skill, how much damage s/he inflicts. In fantasy setting this leads however to the next point.
7. Unique gear. The unique or named gear should be such. Not like in WoW that you have umpteen Neriak's Supernumerary Stickers in the AH. There would be only one, and until that one is disenchanted, destroyed or discarded, there would be no others. This could lead to the interesting possibility to have someone really collect the unique gear...
8. Collections, shinies and dingies. Fluff and something to keep players interested in the overall world itself. EQ2 did this exceptionally well, I loved it.
9. Player housing and guild housing is a must.
10. Guilds and co-operation should be emphasized and made easy. I'm still wondering how WoW hasn't copied the system EQ2 has for this.
11. One character per server/world. Makes your experience as player unique.
12. Some way to reward for not dying without actually punishing for it. Then again, permadeath would be permissible if the setting would account for it.
13. Open Sandbox to explore and do things in. This was omitted from my first version: freedom to do asa you please, only the stories from quests to guide you on. Freedom to interact, work and do when and what you like to.
That was the initial list, out from the hat. It's not complete and I could define and refine it endlessly. All of the areas are not yet reasonable to expect from the current MMO architecture and technical side, but I can dream.
My dream is a level-less MMORPG set in 1930's, with prohibition, mobs, sinister cults, mad scientists and evil aliens. Call of Cthulhu with permadeath or insanity, in which you could leave a will to leave inheritance to your characters distant relative, with whom you could continue the story, creating her/his OWN story from the remains of your former character.
One thing that I would like to see is something that was introduced in a Finnish novel for young people: in that novel the MMO world was built in chapters. One chapter lasted for one real time year, developing the story to the next chapter, all the while depending on the players activities (like Sunwell Offensive in WoW). The 'story' itself would take three chapters to complete, after which the game would reset completely. Technically still challenging, but possible. A Tale in the Desert does this already, but to see a MMORPG set like this...
That would be something.