Let's go waaaaay back, to one of the first true MMORPGs: Meridian 59. This game did a lot of things right that most games since haven't thought to incorporate, and when it came down to it, it wasn't quite the grind-fest that MMOs today are (to the uninitiated, "grinding" is essentially doing a monotonous task for extended periods of time for a given reward). The game actually employs a lot of "new" philosophy designs (we'll cover this in just a sec) but that was more the fact that it was new and didn't get into the rut that later MMOs did. It did have one old philosophy aspect to it.
Death sucks. In M59, when you die, you lose a small portion of hit points and skill points you've gained (a more painful loss the higher "level" you are - the game didn't have levels in the traditional sense), and ALL OF YOUR EQUIPMENT. You then had to come up from the underworld, find your body before anybody else did and before it despawned, and grab all your gear again. Essentially, in one moment of poor judgement - or when another player snuck up on you, you could lose hours, maybe even days of work.
So what is all this old and new philosophy crap I keep bringing up? Here come the bullet points! Old Philosophy is:
- Players are the Enemy: as a developer, the player is your enemy. Your goal is to, essentially, defeat them. The harder they try, the harder you push back. Bosses that are seemingly impossible to beat are a great way of accomplishing this. Also areas that are difficult to navigate works well too. Players will sometimes view this as "creating a challenge." But there's a difference between challenging your player base and purposely making things overly difficult, because the only way to beat obscenely difficult situations in an MMO is to...
- Spend lots (and lots) of time! If players are the enemy, time is your best friend. Nothing should be done quickly. If you can drag out the simple act of walking across town, then do so. Every second an MMO player spends doing something menial or basic is another second you get paid.
Essentially every challenge in your MMO should be overcome with time, not skill. Skill-based challenges do two things: alienate your unskilled player base, and allow skilled players to beat challenges quickly. Both of these mean less money, and we all love money.
- Death sucks. I said it again. Make dying as painful as possible for your players. After all, you're helping them out by not just deleting their characters every time they die. The beauty of making death as miserable as possible is that it brings everything together. Players spend lots of time to attempt our ridiculous bosses. They die and are miserably punished, requiring them to spend time to get back to where they once were so they can try and fail again. Now we're thinking like successful game designers.
World of Warcraft broke down a lot of the MMO barriers by removing some of these design flaws - namely treating players terribly and removing the overly harsh penalty for death. This is what I consider the "new" MMO design philosophy, and is the reason WoW has been so successful - it doesn't piss you off when you play it.
At least, not for the first few months. Eventually WoW takes the time sink aspect and really pushes it. Dungeons that take hours at a time to complete. Gaining reputation by completing the same or similar quests over and over again. Playing through dungeons several times to get the one desired piece of gear.
They've done a lot to actually fix some of this in the latest expansion, but inevitably players end up on the same hamster wheel. In addition, several other MMOs have risen and fallen, trying to copy WoW's model and hoping for similar success. However, the key to WoW's success was that it broke a model that was previously established, and the next MMO will have to do the same.
As I'm sure you could have guessed, I have some ideas on the matter.
- No Grinds: There should be goals, but you should never have to grind to get to them. Grinding is a cheap, easy way to keep players playing, and doesn't require you to create a lot of content, but it's also incredibly annoying and tedious.
For gear, present players with a choice after defeating a boss/dungeon, and have the amount of gear you get scale with how many players are participating. Getting three pieces of loot for 25 people is just silly.
- Skill-based Challenges: Have some bosses/encounters/dungeons require skill and not be influenced by time spent or gear collected. Yes, lesser skilled players will have trouble overcoming these challenges, but a subscription fee isn't license to make your game out to be digital drivel. Instead, make your challenges scale so your players get better as they play. I know, it's a crazy design concept, but it just might work.
- Make Players Matter: Players should influence the world in some way. This is tricky with games with large player bases, but the key is to not have one player on a pedestal, but teams/groups of players who stand out, and can influence the world in some way. This list of players should swap out often, and the requirements shouldn't be outside of the realm of possibility for the average, casual player.