Encourage Player Interdependence
If people aren't encouraged to come together, then everyone will just be playing all alone, together. You don't get a very solid community when everyone just runs around like they are the only ones who matter. Other players must be more than simple decoration on the screen. Getting people to interact builds a community and the social bonds is what makes these skinner boxes interesting. Without community, the very spirit of these games dies a little bit, as Kevin from "The Server is Down" said.
Traditionally, MMO developers attempted to do this through forced grouping. And people hated it, for good reason. There are lots of logistical nightmares involved in getting that system to work. Even with decent tools to facilitate looking for a group (and we still have a long way to go there), its still too difficult to find a group for a forced grouping system to work.
My ideal game would be one that minimizes the number of restrictions available in grouping; if you can group with ANYONE, its not really that inconvenient to be forced (for some quest or encounter) to group with SOMEONE. Its often hard to find a group because most MMOs force you to find people within a) your level range, b) your zone, c) on the same quests you are (especially if the quest is in a chain, as Bildo points out), and d) that are a needed class. As level ranges increase, as new zones are added, as new quests are created, and as new classes are introduced, the player base is further segregated and grouping becomes harder over time.
Give us ways to transport new members to the party more rapidly. Give us better tools to find those parties. Forcing us to group doesn't work if:
- we can't find a group,
- we find a group but can't get to the group,
- we can get to the group but it will take all day (we've got lives to live),
- we have nothing to do while waiting to find a group (some form of soloable activity)
Flatter level curves (so people of widely disparate levels can still group together), mechanics that temporarily change peoples levels (like in City of Heroes), and/or an ability to let characters assume multiple roles (such as the ability to change classes), could all help make grouping easier. Or just get rid of levels: skill-based games that don't have levels can avoid some of the issues with grouping if they are designed so that new players can max out on a few needed skills early on; while they may be less "flexible" than a veteran, they can still make a contribution when grouping with one.
Encouraging player interdependence doesn't have to mean that people can't "solo." In fact, being able to solo helps foster grouping. In Final Fantasy XI, I would sometimes have to turn down a group because the camp site was impossible to get to alone! And, at any rate, players who want to play the game should always be allowed to do so without being forced sit in a corner shouting 'LFG'. And since grouping itself is simply a combat mechanism to prevent zerging in encounters, if a game could be designed where zerging was acceptable then a major obstacle to grouping is removed right there. No Holy Trinity, no elitist min-maxers, just lots of people coming together for a common purpose.
More importantly, though, we need game mechanics that encourage player interactions outside of the combat system. Give us zone-wide quests that give everyone a shared goal (such as a quest to build something where some players can harvest the raw material, some players might craft, and other players might individually fight off monsters that spawn to interrupt the activity) would force people to interact as a community, which is what we want, but could still allow the players the flexibility of finding a role that fits their playstyle. Give us quests that randomly group people together and scale the difficulty based on party makeup.
We should have game mechanics that encourage players to obtain the services of other players (such as work item requests for crafting). Require a moderate degree of interdependency in crafting (not so much that it is annoying -- if people just start building alts to avoid having to deal with anyone else, its too much --, but not so little that everyone is their own master craftsman island). Provide opportunities where crafters can work together to create something that one person alone can't (like building a ship which might require metalwork, tailors, and carpenters together.)
There must be many other ways to encourage players to interact besides forced grouping. Solo players can make contributions to a vibrant virtual world; give us ways to make each player affect the world and each other besides tanking and healing in parties.
Simply getting people together doesn't automatically form social bonds or community. We are forced to interact with one another in the real world but that doesn't mean I'm friends with the grocery girl, bag boy, gas station attendant, or my dentist.
If the pace of the game is too fast paced and frenetic, players won't have a chance to actually talk to the people they are grouping or guilded with. If they don't talk with each other, then at the end of the adventure, they log off none the wiser about the people they just spent the last few hours adventuring with. They don't form friendships or bonds. Without those, you don't forge a community; all you get is a static, stale theme park world where people show up on occasion to go ride the grindfests. And that's fine -- I'm glad there are different games for different folks. Not everyone wants a virtual world. Some people just want a game, and an online game doesn't need a community to succeed. But a virtual world does, and thats what many of us are yearning for.
Down time doesn't have to mean excessive time sinks, or lots of waiting. It just means that the game can't be constantly go-go-go nonstop action. It was implemented excessively in past games, but it isn't entirely without merit. A little breathing room gives people a chance to chat, make friends, strategize, and do something other than mindlessly mash the buttons.
Mix well, stir. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Like any recipe, you don't want too much or too little of any single ingredient. And I guess thats the trick. Maybe I'm an old curmudgeon, but I think too many newer MMOs are eschewing these ingredients in favor of fast-and-furious all-action gameplay.
That's not to say I think that NO MMO should be like that. Different strokes for different folks and all that. But some of us would rather have something a little more like a world than a game. And things like the leveling mechanics, the questing mechanics, button spamming combat systems, and all the other hallmarks of the modern MMO just seem to take us the other way.
Apologies to Hechicera for 'borrowing' an idea or three. (You really need to start your own blog.)