If you’re unfamiliar with the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory, please read the Wikipedia article before continuing.
I describe the current state of MMOs as unabashed absurd gamism. The game rules are so strict and so vaguely analogous to real life that the player is forced to suspend disbelief ad absurdum. The metaphors in MMOs are stretched so thin as to be entirely transparent. There’s not even the vaguest notion of realism, not even a modest smear of grit to mar the pristine landscapes that are otherwise dotted with any number of mediocre models there for the player’s pile of pixels to get stuck on.
The learning experience in MMORPGs amounts to becoming accustomed to the ludicrously tiny sliver of actions that your character can perform to effect a millionth of the tiny part of the world that is actually interactive and not just painted adamantium in the shapes of houses, mountains, trees, and terrain. There is a lot of room for MMORPGs to grow into a space that computers are built specifically to handle: simulation.
We have, at our fingertips, machines that can do on the order of 2^30 operations per second (and that’s only counting one CPU), yet we plink around straight-jacketed in game worlds about as rich as a street urchin with a 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars to his name. And it hasn’t gotten better since EQ. Instead of daunting worlds full of lethality and trials, we are confined to playpens full of brightly colored balls and clowns who mirthfully caper about to entertain us. It is entirely within our power to harness the capability of modern machines to do the complex calculations necessary to allow the player to enjoy a significantly more interactive and realistic world.
I’m not saying we should force players to piss in the woods every two hours or risk soiling their undergarments—I’m suggesting we build games that allow players to harness their creativity and knowledge of the real world to solve in-game problems. And if the player fails, he may actually learn something about the world he actually lives in (as well as the world his character lives in). Solutions do not need to be esoteric processes labored over by some poor intern. Just like in a tabletop roleplaying game, individual players can use what they know of the environment to come up with a solution.
Even if we do not open up the entire world to the player’s whims, we can at least aim to make combat more realistic and interesting. Perhaps it’s not best to make it as lethal as it is in real life, but at least we can all the players to use terrain, obstacles, and other features of the gameworld to their advantage—not the circle-strafing nonsense that goes on in games like Darkfall, but a more sensible system where positioning is crucial and in-battle tactics amount to more than what hotkeys you pound into the ground in what order. Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided wrote a great article where he proposed one such system.
One of my mission statements is to move MMOs from absurd gamism to moderate simulationism. That means making the game world more like a world and less like a set of gimmicks arranged to be quickly used up and discarded. I believe that this will be one of the many faces of the MMO revolution.