I was recently inspired by Guild Wars 2 to rethink how to implement common ideas of the mmo genre in new ways. So what I started was to analyze the genre, strip it down to the basics and then design based of taking the basics to a more polished and eventual game level.
So to begin, I'll lay down the framework with what I have decided to be the two driving actions a player can do in an mmo.
Category one is combat. An mmorpg's core gameplay could arguably be about putting yourself in a situation where you (and possibly others) need to attack other things (monsters, or people) in various categories and settings. This is the typical grind, and this is also the "end-game" raiding. Also, this includes player vs player content. Needless to say, most players will spend a good portion of their time doing something about combat.
The other category of actions a player can do is simply non-combat. The reason why I grouped everything else in here is because in practical applications, every goal of a non-combat driven action is to feed the combat experience. Trading, crafting, selling, buying all provide extra levels, skills, or items for players to bash other things. Also questing and traveling are used to find new areas and new things to fight. There are very few opportunities in the mmo-genre, in my experience, that offers non-combat actions that are entirely peaceful (ideas like gambling, mini-games and that sort of thing).
Now the game has to be able to guide the player to combat and non-combat opportunities, otherwise the game becomes a very expensive chat room. This has historically been done with quests. You talk to a person, most of the time its the one with a " ! " above their head, or a similar kind of marking, He then lays out a simple mix of combat and non-combat goals and tells you where to do them. Afterward you get a reward and you're off on your merry way.
Now, with the advent of Guild Wars 2, there is a gradual curiosity building where people are starting to disregard the historical way of questing and try something new. In Guild Wars 2's case, the NPC is eliminated, and you just show up to an area and when you do, a brick comes hurling at your face with a list of objectives that can be done in that area. You do the objectives, fill the bar, grab your reward and leave.
From what I can tell, both of these presents the same core problems I feel are the cause for a lot of the complaints about the mmo-genre.
Problem 1. It's too transparent. You know what you have to do, how to do it, and where to do it at. This kills all kind of creative thinking, quest text reading, socializing and exploration. All of these are arguably what makes the genre so immersive and social.
Problem 2. It's predictable. After your first hub of WoW, you already know the pace of the rest of the leveling experience. Talk to everyone with an " ! ", leave the immediate area to the surrounding map, kill things and collect things until the bar is filled and return for rewards. In Guild Wars 2, it's also pretty predictable, even more so. What I do like though, is that it offers more incentive for exploration, since you have to find your hearts and events instead of being guided to them.
So now lets talk about my opinion on some solutions.
First off, remove all signs of an NPC wanting to give you a quest. No NPC should have a " ! ", because the ones that don't are generally ignored and then the town starts to feel like a ghosttown after all the quests are done. In order to figure out if an NPC wants help with something, it should be obvious (or not so much) by reading his actual Dialog. For example, talking to a farmer could say "Boy, I wish I had a better tool to do this job with." Should be inclination enough that if you give him a tool, he could reward you. I also want to note here, that a quest journal should NOT be updated after talking to him. If a quest journal were to exist, it would be filled out by the player. For example, if the player finishes talking to a merchant and she heralds about a shiny gem she heard about near the west coast of New Terra, the player may choose to manually input in a journal (Kind of like a sticky note) "Merchant wants a gem, west coast New Terra" or something, so s/he can remember the details without having to talk to the NPC again. Also since the NPC is generally not an omniscient, omnipresent being, their descriptions can be a little more vague than actually needed. So you may find a few gems, and trading them to the merchant she could say "oh it wasn't like this, it was more xxx" That way a player has to make the decision "well you think it could be like this? Do you think 15 would be enough?"
Secondly, make the distances to complete a quest varied. This would encourage exploration. You don't know whether or not a quest would take you near or far, or if you should keep talking to more townsfolk to find more things to do. This would also encourage socialization. "Hey, I came this far to try and find X for so and so, or to kill Y for Z. I figured out he's too hard solo, can anyone help out?" Or by asking players "Hey is there anything I can do around here?"
Then when you're out exploring or killing things, anywhere can have something of value and any drop *could* be a quest item to someone, so in my mind, that encourages players to try looking for new things, go off the roads between cities, talk to NPCs and other players.
It would facilitate adding in Story lines, arcs and more "epic" feeling quests, where the player ends up traveling more, looking for more rare and harder to find things, forging alliances with players and reading NPC text which would promote an overall bond towards certain NPCs (which is dependent on how well the writers are and story depth is, but it facilitates it nonetheless).
I believe it would make a more "livable" world, where the NPCs are more colorful and humorous, the players are more engaging, and the story and lore are more built-in and the quests actually feel like quests and not intermittent rewards.
The only major problem I'd have with this system, I think, is that it is hard to implement with character levels, and the like. However, if I look for alternative ways of character advancement and derail myself from a level system, I could see this being a method of story telling and quest giving in a sandbox styled game where skills and alliances matter more than equipment and levels.
Thoughts? Agree/Disagree with any of my processes? Questions? Suggestions? Anything in *your* mind on how you would design a system?