I've been thinking about MMO design in general, what games like WoW achieved and failed to achieve etc, why Vanguard has so much potential yet it was difficult to keep enough loyal fans and what I worry about Age of Conan. Sadly, I might not have the time to thoroughly explore Age of Conan.
In all MMOs, the best way to keep a crowd and have them entertain from level 1 to cap is the crowd themselves. Just making the world seem populated with PCs is enough to create a good online experience. You don't even need to have a designer to mash out 2 million unique quests to make grinding enjoyable. To me, WoW leveling experience is no different than EQ. Instead of you telling yourself what to grind, the NPC tells you what to grind and/or make you walk to weird parts of the world. Of course, this is with the exception of chain quests leading up to a big reward, like Epic Quests from EQ. Those actually FEEL like quests. Killing 5 rats...not so much.
So with that begs the simple question: How to make grinding fun? WoW answered this with quests. Er...lots and lots of quests. I haven't played enough Pre-WoW MMOs to know whether they have a spamfuck of quests like WoW, so I just assumed they came out with it. Or rather, expanded on it. A lot. The zerg way. Having a clusterfuck amount of quests, despite whatever adjectives I used to bash it, undoubtedly makes the grind from 1 to cap enjoyable. They point clueless players in the right direction, make them explore the world as well as giving them short term satisfaction from the rewards or the sudden exp bump.
Brad Mcquaid (rofl did I spell it right) tried to answer this question with the advent of Vanguard. Looking aside the horrible bugs and codings, Vanguard 1-50, pure leveling-wise, feels a lot like WoW, except that sometimes you can chop fallen treants. It may sound pointless but at least it adds to the fun. But that's all Vanguard added to the 'fun to the grind' topic imho.
Having played VG somewhat showed me the direction WoW clones can head to. In WoW, the amount of quests seems rather balanced, nothing to complain or notice about. The number of quests really fit the leveling curve. VG has shown what happens if you take WoW to a more hardcore level. 20+quests in one area, blatantly asking you to "Run around and kill everything, click everything and loot everything, come back to us and complete everything". It's really ugly and becomes a grind, because quests feels more and more meaningless and stupid.
An example, an undead infested town consists of Mob A, B, C and Clickable Object D, E. Outside this town, littering the zone is Mob F. Hmm, let's think of quests. Kill X amount of A, B, C and F. A is a subtype of F so you can kill 1 of them to update 2 quests! Two birds with one stone! Everyone loves that! Also collect Clickable Object D and E which is usually guarded by Mobs A, B and C, but E is a little rarer so take note of that! Oh ya, remember to pick up Loot G from Mob B and C and Loot H from A. Oh ya, explore the town too for me! That makes, what, 4 killing quests + 2 looting quests + 2 clicky quests + 1 exploration quest for a grand total of 9 quests for one little area in a zone. I am exaggerating of course, but the idea is around there. 6 quests leading to an area is normal. Why don't they just give me a couple of quest that says "Zone Name: Kill Everything!" or "Zone Name: Loot Everything". Oh ya, because there are some people who like to read and follow the 'lore', who are level 30 and doing level 5 quests. Sorry, almost forgotten about you guys. Your love for the world is admirable. Whoops, I'm flamin'.
Grouping is what makes an MMO an MMO. It's a Massive MULTIPLAYER Online Roleplaying Game. However, because nowadays people are getting busier and busier, and proportion of no-lifers and busy people is getting wider, soloing become inevitable. More than that, soloing allows people who cannot find groups something to do. MMOs must learn to strike the perfect balance. An MMO in which soloing reaps better work-done vs reward tio will be totally pointless. In the case of WoW, pre-cap dungeons are totally unneeded due to the rate of leveling, the really fast item-level growth, and the ease of soloing. Most already know that WoW pre-cap is a short tutorial to the actual game.
VG, imho, managed to strike some kind of balance. Unfortunately, groups in VG is so damn scarce due to the retarded-ly low population. VG has so much damn potential, but that's for another post for another day. Still, however much I say how great VG can be, it is still, ultimately, a WoW clone with more stuff.
By now you might be wondering why do I keep referencing to VG and WoW. Because they are, imho, the best examples to give. There's not much to talk about, say, City of Heroes/Villains. CoH/V is like EQ without loot and screwed up classes. You just grind grind grind grind grind grind grind grind grind like a monkey and grow extremely jealous of Scrappers and maybe correctly spec'ed Blasters because they can solo every damn thing with a lot less risk than grouping and seeing people fuck up. Still, mob fights are fun. Then you die, get fuckload of debt, cry and quit. I don't even want to talk about the instances.
Some people think that leveling is a chore, while others think that it is a fun thing to do. It is difficult to make a point that leveling is needed. I would just do away with leveling imo and follow UO's example. Then again, UO-model MMOs are really different from EQ/WoW-model MMOs, so this is something to think about. The more important questions have to be answered: Is leveling necessary? How to make grinding fun? With more and more casual players entering the market, it is important to cater to them since they are the bulk of your MMO's income. Also, you must make sure that hardcore players feel that their achievements are equivalent to the time they take to play, compared to casual player. If I spent 100 hours getting a weapon 2 dps higher than a casual player who only spent 50 hours, I will get very upset. Obviously. Saying that, I believe WoW managed to obtain a very good balance in this casual-hardcore catering aspect.
As far as RO-model and WoW-model MMOs are concerned, classes can be easily split into 3 categories, The Holy Trinity: Tank, DPS, Healer, the bare bones of a group. Without them, groups will have a hard time dealing with mobs. Smaller categories include Support and Crowd Control. The trick is to make all your classes in your MMO to feel unique, like 'Class Defining Skills' or more. All of them MUST feel useful for late game, raid or groups. Bad example would probably be druids in Everquest. They are a unique bunch. They can heal, nuke, support and was one of the few classes to be able to solo. Forming groups, people might just think 'why the hell would I want a druid?'. For heals, clerics are far far better, wearing better armor, able to give exp-return rezzes, and heal better. For nukes, or dps, rogues, ranger, necro, wizards and mages can do it so much better. No reason to grab a druid unless you are hard-pressed trying to find a cleric.
Another bad example would be CoH as stated above. Good examples include WoW and DDO, but then again there aren't many classes. VG had almost every class as useful as it can be. I can think of reasons why I want almost every of the 15(?) classes in VG. I'm looking forward to what AoC can produce.
Class design is really tricky. If you want to have 3 tank classes, you must make all of them unique as well as useful. Sometimes I think VG is kinda lame in that aspect. DKs and warriors are made noticeably more useful than paladins because they have more crit buffs/debuffs. Rangers have lower dps than Monks but they are also made useful by having crit buffs. Rogues are awesome dps and also gives crit buffs. Everything in VG is centered around crits for MASSIVE damage due to finishers.
Still, WoW did a rather nifty job of balancing out all their classes. At least they made warlocks, paladins, hunters and druids unique and useful (ideal group was supposedly warrior/rogue/shaman/priest).
More to come...