This is just a quick note to pin down one of the design issues about my “dream mmorpg” that I was considering. So that I don’t forget about it.
The problem comes as a consequence of the skill system. If the game isn’t built on levels many useful structures simply vanish. In World of Warcraft the levels are extremely useful from many different perspectives. They are used to build zones bundling together the players around a similar level range. This isn’t a trivial feature and it’s instead tied to many core concepts. A zone has its own chat channels, its own offer of content, its own (temporary) sub-community. This allows to “chunk” these elements and the larger community into manageable units. If the players are put in an environment, sharing a similar status, they can also build groups and play together in order to reach the shared goals more easily. This builds the social aspects and allows at the same time to immerse the players in an environment that they can understand and begin to interact with.
But what happens if there is no direct and artificial separation between the players? From a side we solve a huge and consolidated complaint coming from those players that hate to get split from their friends and foreced out of the “accessibility” of the game. In fact we know that removing these “walls” is good. But from the other side we lose the depth of the system along with the whole RPG perspective. The content becomes all relative, all accessible, always, maybe even through insta-ports from everywhere in the world. And it would be extremely hard to recognize an experienced player from a newbie and this would ultimately frustrate the players and directly bring to closed communities that will never accept to open up their “friend list” (A big issue even if it doesn’t seem so at a first glance, the “who cares?” typical reaction).
To manage all these points my (rough) idea is to use the content to give some substance to the world and develop the characters. To an extent this happens already in Guild Wars. The players move and gain access to new zones by accomplishing missions more than just by levelling up. Even without the need of coding a strict level system, the content can still be used to bring along the players on their journey and mark this path in a significant way.
This brings the design back to a “world” model more than an artificial ruleset that strictly imposes its will. Your access to the various parts of the game isn’t anymore defined from external rules but defined instead by logical reasons coming from the game-world. The player will move on its own journey through the story-lines, developing its character and following logical purposes. I’d leave behind the extreme linearity of Guild Wars to open up choices. So instead moving from (A) to (B) and then (C), the player should chase down his interest and explore the game-world following logical ties and interactions (discovering, exploring, making choices as an active element of the system). Instead of a strict linear progression of the content the model is to mimic the complexity of a world, with more complex ties between the parts, more choices and persistent elements that do not systematically reset.
This idea is a compromise between the two approaches, in order to collect the qualities of both and minimize the limits. From a side the artificial walls (levels) between the players are removed, from the other the content is built in a logic, believable way to bring in a definite progression that can be recognized and used. At the same time moving away from an artificial linear progression of content (as seen in Guild Wars) to chase instead a model where the simulation of the “world” is consistent with what happens and where the progression from a point to another is subject to logic, self-consistent ties. Opening up choices and non-linear (but logic and natural) progress.
Reducing even more: from a side the artificial walls and boundaries are removed, from the other they are progressively rebuilt in order to recreate and respect the natural (complex) behaviour of a “world”.