If you let players design their content, they will not design it to be the most fun. They will design the content so that they can accomplish their goals as easily as possible. This dooms open PvP games set entirely in traditional purely persistent shared worlds.
My philosophy of design is to make the path of least resistance into the path of most fun. There doesn’t always need to be an easy way out of every situation that yields positive results for the player, but if the player is optimizing for the easy way out, which players usually do, they should find their optimization leading them towards engaging with game systems in intended ways designed to be fun.
In a typical open PvP MMO, players can pick and choose their engagements so that they very rarely have to fight a superior enemy. This means that players hunting alone are going to get ganked by roving bands of players who risk nothing in the engagement. Rarely will there be a scenario where players on each side of an engagement assess the situation as being even enough that unpredictability of the outcome leads to a willingness to take the risk on an even-strength enemy. The result of this kind of behavior: most engagements are routine for one side and frustrating for the other.
Discontent stirs regarding PvP as pageantry, as well. Players who seek alternate worlds where consequences can be devastating and rewards significant abhor scenarios and “battlegrounds” preened and molded particularly for the delight of theme-park goers.
There must be some middle-ground between meaningless risk-reward scenarios and largely uneventful, often-frustrating open world PvP.
The most obvious solution is to restrict the actions that players can take in the game world. This doesn’t mean adding even more hyper-gamist rules to an already rule-riddled mess. It means limiting the parts of the world in which the game allows direct player interaction so that each interactive simulation can be very good, very fun, and very convincing. Only interactively simulate the fun stuff—allow the player to only participate in the simulation of what players want to do in their character’s shoes. The game world and AI can handle the mundane stuff. If the player needs to control the mundane stuff, let her give the AI goals and then go and do something fun with another character or *gasp* let the player play another game instead of getting burnt out from playing your game too much.
My primary issue with modern MMOs is that they encourage players to put four hours or more into the game per day, and out of those four hours less than one hour is spent doing what’s fun. It’d be better for both players and devs if games were made that can be lots of fun for 30 minutes a night out of 45 minutes played. If I’m going to get 1,000 hours of total game time out of your target audience, I’d prefer to get those 1,000 hours at one hour per day instead of five hours per day—especially when that one hour will not lag behind the five-hour session in terms of time spent having fun.
(In a later post I’ll get into the specifics of how to do what I suggest here. This is a basic precept on which I’m designing my own MMO. I intend to make the design completely public—I don’t care if someone steals my ideas. I don’t have the time and resources to make the MMO I’d want to. I’d rather play the game of my dreams than have it sit in a word doc on my desktop.)