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The MMO Question
by james sadler on 03/14/11 03:19:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I've never been quiet about my thoughts on MMO games; I generally just don't like them. To me there are a few fundamental issues that come with an MMO that just make them a poor game/business model to me.

The Cost:

One of the things that just drives me nuts about a "Pay-to-Play" style MMO is the monthly cost. Generally to buy the game off the shelf would cost around $50. Back when they first started gaining popularity they didn't even come with a free 30 day account when one bought a new copy of the game.

So. I walk into nameless game store and buy MMO game X of the shelf for $50. I get home all excited to install the game and play game X with my friends only to find out that I need to spend another $10-15 just to activate my account.

So. Now we're talking about $60-65 just to get started playing a game. This makes sense in modern times as people generally pay that same amount for a AAA game title. But there are some severe differences that just make this expense ridiculous.

Let's do some simple math here. Person Y pays $50 for game X at the store. They get home to pay another $10-15 to just start playing the game. If they play the game for an entire year Person Y will have spent $170-230 to play a single game.

There are many "Free-to-Play" MMO games out there, and ones that either don't charge for the install desk or give a free month at purchase. Those are great incentives to play, but even with getting the install for free Person Y will still spend $120-180 a year playing the game. "Free-to-Play" MMO games generally don't offer the same level of play or quality and so I have yet to find one that appealed to me.

What does $120-180 a year get Person Y? A never ending game of redundant missions across a redundant landscape filled with glitchy monsters. MMO's can be fun, and I have played a few that I liked, but the cost of playing the game just didn't make sense.

Perhaps if I played the games for 4-12 hours a day I would feel like I was getting my moneys worth, but as I work full time, was a full time student, and have other interests in life, I would generally spend 1-2 hours a night and maybe 4-6 hours on the weekend playing if I was free.


Another big problem I have with MMO's is the repetitive game content, in both environment and gameplay. It seems like everything is just going from one dungeon to kill mythical monster A to the next dungeon to kill this other mythical monster. There is also the fact that a player can generally do this same event with one team and then leave that team to do the exact same mission over with another team. Man these mythical monsters are pretty darn predictable. A solution to this isn't really forthcoming at the moment as eliminating the redundancy across an entire world filled with sometimes thousands of players can be a very complex issue. Somewhat randomly generated levels could solve this to some extent as each each time a player goes through a mission things are somewhat changed, but having the missions themselves being identical is still an issue.

The End Game:

Really, what is the point of an MMO. With a standard video game there is a story with some sort of story arch that the player goes through to reach, and ultimately conclude, the story and game. MMO's don't end. It is all just one mission after the next to gain a level or item so that they can go to the next mission or kill another player. If the whole point of the game is the PvP mechanic, then $10-15 a month just makes no sense. I can do that playing Halo to some extent for free.


I don't like to construct a document without purposing at least some type of solution to a problem. Otherwise all this writing just sounds like endless complaining. So the solution to the MMO question for me comes down to dynamics of all the arguments I've mentioned above.

An MMO that I would play, and even pay for, is one that doesn't cost some ridiculous amount of money for every person to play. A sliding scale of cost makes sense for everyone. $5 a month is where everyone starts. After the player has pasts, say, 20-30 hours of gameplay that rate jumps up to $10, and those that log over 50 hours pay $20. At the beginning of the next month all rates drop back down to $5. People could option to pay more, or a designated rate in this scheme, that would give them a bonus during play or some other reward.

So now that the cost is out of the way we can look at the content of the game. Having a game that is ridiculously redundant creates an environment of customers that will only play the game for so long, or those that will play it simply to level their character. But what if we as developers could offer them more? Players could actually have some sort of story arch that they follow. There could be multiple story arches for each race/class of character in the game and which arch a player gets for their character can be selected at random. Each story arch has specific missions that are exclusive to them so having a party with multiple players, each with a different story arch, can explore a multitude of stories with a lower chance of duplicating a mission too often.

Lowering the redundancy in an area just comes down to designing zones that gradually change into one another to make a very large area to play. Large open areas make the game space seem too big, so keeping the open planes to a minimum while embracing smaller areas, not dungeons, allows for more strategy in fighting.Even though Final Fantasy 12 is not an MMO it really felt like one most of the time. The way that the landscape and environments moved together worked well.

One of the other things that bugs me about MMO's is that there are a lot of missions that require a group of players to accomplish. When I played City of Heroes I was the only one among my friends that played it, and so completing those missions was often a pain to do. I would have to play with people I didn't know or trust and hope that they wouldn't just drop out mid mission for dinner or something. Giving the opportunity for the player to buy some "mercenary" type people (number of mercs a player can buy/rent is determined by level and class) so that the player can effectively play through the game either with a group or alone if need be. These mercs don't need to be anything great, just some extra muscle to help the player through the mission. After the mission the mercs return to their imaginary village to disperse their spoils, without the player. This would give the player the incentive to make friends as mercs cost money and don't share loot, and after all the hardship of the mission, they leave the player. There are also times when a group of players might not have all the people necessary to comfortably go through a mission. They can go to the village and buy a merc or two to help them out and then they're done. This can be a very complex balancing act that is probably more in depth than I was planning for this article, so I will move on.

Finally there should be some sort of end to the player's story arch and after that end there should be little to no gameplay afterwards. "Yay I just defeated the greatest enemy I will ever know, now lets go kill some level 20 rabbits!!!" Perhaps instead of letting the player play on there is the option of starting a new character with some elevated initial abilities or they can have access to a special race/class and start at zero like everyone else. Some of that can be played with to give the player the incentive to carry on playing with a new character. Maybe giving them a time limit before this character death thing happens so that if they're helping a friend with their missions there is some time to do so before the end comes. Heck, just the idea of multiple story abilities would make me want to play through another time.

The key things here are that there are ways to bring players like myself who don't find that MMO games hold much for them into their business plans. It just takes some outside the box thinking and maybe some innovation in game design.

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Owain abArawn
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Sounds like the author and I have similar opinions regarding MMOs. The problem as I see it, WoW has been too successful, so all subsequent MMOs feel compelled to follow the WoW MMO paradigm, which includes character advancement using a Class system, and a quest-centric model of game play to advance whatever story line is present. This is fine as far as it goes if you like that kind of game, and a LOT of people do, but personally, I prefer a more open world setting, and skill based games.

Again, I'll use Ultima Online as originally released as the best example of this kind of MMO. Instead of classes, IN UO you had 70+ skills to choose from. If you wanted, you go make a tank character equivalent to a WoW warrior class, or a mage, and so forth, or you could make an interesting hybrid character by combining melee skills with magery skills. You wouldn't be as good a warrior as someone who chose pure warrior skills, and you wouldn't be as good a mage as someone who chose pure magery skills, but in some circumstances, you might be better than either (or worse than either, which made playing a hybrid tricky).

This made UO harder to play for some folks, in that a class based system makes it hard for you to screw up your character, whereas in UO, if you chose poorly in your skill selection, you could seriously gimp yourself. In another way, though, UO made it easier for players in that nothing was irreversable. If you selected a skill that didn't work as will as you thought it might, you could always start training a different skill that worked better for you, allowing the mismatched skill to atrophy. In a class based game, once you start as a mage, you can never change that character to be a warrior. In UO, players did that frequently as Origin changed how skills worked over time, and players changed their skill sets to compensate.

Some player prefer an open 'sand-box' game style over quest games as well. Part of what I liked most about UO was that I could do pretty much what I wanted, where I wanted. Now there were places where it wasn't a good idea for a player to go, particularly solo. There might be mobs there beyond my current skill level, or the PvP might be a bit too intense to be wandering about alone, but beyond that, the entire UO playing area was available at all times. In WoW, by contrast, only a small part of the total gaming area is available to a player at any one time. If you are low level, it would be worse than useless to go to a raid level dungeon. If you are a high level player, the newbie areas are not worth returning to, even though they may be geographically interesting. There is nothing useful for a high level player to do there.

Games like WoW also make grouping players of different levels problematic. My level 5 WoW player can't interact sensibly with a level 65 player. Given how XP is rewarded, the level 65 players will probably suck all the XP out of the group, making it useless for me to associate with them. In UO, it was much easier for players of differing skill levels to play usefully together. In this regard, WoW type games work AGAINST the MM part of the MMO game design. It discourages player interaction.

Class based quest driven closed games are popular and useful. Without quests, some players would stand around and complain, "There's nothing to DO here". Throw a large set of skills to choose from, and many players wouldn't know where to start. Give players a wide open world, and many will be bewildered regarding where they should go.

That's fine. ALL games don't have to be Class/Quest based. A little variety would be healthy, thanks. Give me a world. I'll figure out for myself what to do with it.

james sadler
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There are ways of making the class/quest system work, as well as the UO style like you mentioned. The trick is learning how to give the players incentive to play the game long enough to incur that monthly fee.

I liked how in City of Heroes/Villains a lower level player can group up with a higher level group and for that time they are granted higher level stats. Like I said in my post, I liked City of Heroes. My issue with it was that it became redundant after awhile. "Oh look, we're in office building #11 for this mission. That means the goal is probably over here." Generally if I played through a mission and then joined a group to do the exact same mission the "dungeon" would be a little different, but the actual job was still the same.

Eventually I stopped playing because the amount of time I was playing vs. the monthly cost just wasn't adding up. Same thing happened with FF11 to a large extent. The time it takes to really get your character to a decent "fun" level just takes too long and costs too much. I'm not sure how the business people figured $15 a month was the right number, but to me it has always been too high for what the player gets. $10 is just squeaking by an $5 will only work for casual player, if the hard core group figures cost equals quality.

Maybe I will take this whole idea and start developing it further. I can see the thoughts I laid out, along with those I didn't write down, and one of the next games my group works on will be this epic MMO. Just not sure if I like the genre enough to devote that kind of energy towards it.

Owain abArawn
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The incentive to play factor you mention is what I find a large drawback with the quest MMO model. When you get right down to it, if the quest you undertake to kill 10 rats at level 3 is functionally no different from the kill 10 werewolves at level 30 or the kill 10 wyverns at level 60, the incentive to play factor starts to wane pretty drastically for me. That is what I hate about quest MMOs. The game is telling me what to do, as opposed to me discovering what I want to do in the game. Further, once you finished a quest arc in a particular location, that location is pretty much useless to you.

Seems like a large waste of valuable gaming geography.

MMOs are too static by far for my taste. Real life isn't like that. Let's say you live in a city, and a particular neighborhood has a crime problem. Drug dealers, meth labs, prostitution, and so forth. What do you do? You allocate additional police to the area, and over time, if you are lucky, you send some bad guys to jail, and you scare others off.

That situation doesn't last. Before long, the bad guys move into what was previously a quiet area, precisely because it is a quiet area. The neighborhood isn't being patrolled heavily, people don't expect problems there, and before you know it, you have the same problems, different location.

You could do the same thing in an MMO. One geographic region could be overrun with monsters of all types. Orcs, Trolls, wraiths, werewolves, zombies, gargoyles, demons... the works. After a long campaign, player characters with great difficulty beat back the forces of darkness, and pacify the region. Everyone, heaves a sigh of relief until they hear that goblins have been sighted in the mountain passes far to the east in an area that previously had been very peaceful. Is that something to worry about, or are the rumors of undead stirring in the south to be believed?

Make use of the entire world. Mix it up. Keep it unpredictable. That would seem to go a long way towards improving replay value, while giving the players an incentive to continue playing.

As it is, games currently don't give players a feeling that they are accomplishing a damn thing. Once a group has completed an epic quest, and at long last, the terrible danger of Cthulhu (or whatever) has been destroyed once and for all, our hero's emerge from the dungeon, only to see on the Global Chat "LFM to complete the Cthulhu quest; need a tank and a healer."

Bleh. Talk about a motivation killer...

William Norman
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Good article!

I don't mind the whole class/level system in general, WoW is fine as a game and a lot of fun to play for a while. I don't really see it as an RPG at all, but then I have a more traditional idea of what an RPG is.

Most MMO's I have played, and that number is larger than I would like, have mostly been an arms race, covered by a thin coating of story... just enough that people can pretend that the story is important somehow. The point of the games however is to see other players who are level [insert randomly large number here] walking around in some stylish looking loot and attempt to gain said loot for themselves. I didn't realize it at first, but the entire reason I played WoW to high levels several times was simply to get the cool loot and recognition for having it. Other players do it for the pets, some for mounts, really I think if they added stamps to the game people would spend time collecting those too. And thats fine for them! Give people what they enjoy... just give them another option at some point too.

I find the idea of a multilevel pay model interesting. Possibly hard to maintain, but potentially could keep a lot of players who decide to move on for a little while to keep paying for a time. I would say two levels of pay, low for casual time, higher for full time. Casual would be something like an average of 2 hours a night, and once used you can't play unless you up your sub or maybe allow some "ala carte" action in there till the month ends.

I remember fondly the days of playing DnD on the table with dice. We had a great time at like level 12, and thought we were pretty epic. Today you are pretty much nothing until you get max level, and you just grind quests to get there. I felt like a wimp at level 65 in WoW my last climb through and just couldn't keep it up again. I want an MMO that brings back that feeling that I am doing a single LONG quest at my leisure with some friends. Not some major overarching story line that has already been done by a thousand people. I want to sit down with some buddies, log into the world and, go looking for a quest, or spend time alone crafting some nifty items for myself or my friends. I want the option to never speak to another living soul and still have a grand time. I want to be able to spend all my time in a particular region and never go outside of it from start to finish of my career. How cool would it be if levels became a surprise? You could just go on your adventure and when one happened you weren't expecting it. SURPRISE! How great would that be?

I want THAT game.

Now I feel like metrics such as level cap and, time per level are the first things considered and content is just filled in around that.

The good old class/level system would be fine, as long as levels were important, instead of just a notch on my belt every 15 minutes, so I feel the illusion of getting closer to the end goal of [insert random number we think people will have the attention span to get to here]. In the old days gaining a level was a big deal. Now I feel it is just a substitute for engaging content. If levels come at the proper speed, you just breeze through the content on your way to the "end game".

I don't want an "end game". I want a game that never ends.

james sadler
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I am glad that people have liked the article.

The sliding scale payment system would probably work, and I think a lot more people would play because of it. I think 3 levels would make sense, a casual, core, and then hard core. As a player gets close to the hourly mark where they're about to advance to the next payment level a notification pops up. As soon as they cross that time they are automatically charged another $5. If their transaction can't be completed they are given another popup informing them of this and telling them they will be disconnected from the servers in 1 minute.

If players know they fit into one of those payment levels they can pay it up front and get a little bonus for doing so. The value of the bonus is comparable to the payment level they pay for. Parents can use this as a way to cap their kid's playing as well.

As far as no end game, I don't agree. The idea I was giving was that there was an over all story arc for each player. Once that story was completed they have some time before their character "retires" and they are given the choice of continuing with a new character. I like the idea of having some races that are only accessible once this happens, or starting a new character with a decent amount of levels and loot, maybe a carry over from their original character (some balancing would really need to be done with this part). In some ways I think the player should age with their level. This way once they reached the point when they defeat the last "dungeon" they're a ripe old age and so "retirement" would make real sense. If the player decided to carry on with a new character of the same race then their story could be of their original character's kid or something and they get a little bit of added notoriety or something.

MMO's are very difficult business models. There are so many that just fail, and it often brings the whole company down with it (read about APB) and how the players pay for this service is tricky. One of the things that WoW has is a huge player base, and the more players a game has the more people will want to join it. Its kinda like an amusement park. Will this epic and awesome MMO we've been talking about ever be made, and more importantly will people pay to play it? I don't know. I'd like to think so. There is a lot of game design that would need to go into it to develop those stories and other reasons to keep the players playing.

Kim Pallister
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Nice to see people giving thoughts about how to innovate on pricing models for MMOs.

However, the author should do a little more research (e.g. most boxed-product MMOs include a free month with the $50 product), and more importantly, shouldn't look down his nose at the genre as a whole.

I'm not an MMO fan either, but apparently, legions of WoW (and other MMO) fans consider it great value for their money and have a great time with them. Perhaps maybe their point of view is worth something too?

james sadler
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I don't look down on them, and I hope my article didn't come across that way. I want to like MMO's, I really do. I like the premise and what they could be, but to me they have just become stagnant. It just all seems about leveling one's character to do some PvP stuff.

I said above that the older MMO's use to not include a 30 day free pass. FF11 and City of Heroes were both like this. I remember when I first bought FF11 I was in between jobs and so spending a good amount of money at the store to come home and find out that I needed to spend even more really aggravated me as I didn't have that kind of money to throw around then.

WoW has done wonders for the MMO genre, and I don't knock it for that. Personally I think the legions come from the game's notoriety versus actual content. People will play it because their friends are playing it, and then their friends play it, etc, etc. Again, I don't bash them for this, it is just how it goes.

Think of how many more players WoW would/could have if their payment scheme was a little more flexible and if their missions were less redundant. I'd love to play through a Final Fantasy type game with my friends as the other characters, but it just seems that most MMO's focus more on the grinding/leveling mechanic than the actual missions as a whole.

Owain abArawn
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"As far as no end game, I don't agree. The idea I was giving was that there was an overall story arc for each player. Once that story was completed they have some time before their character "retires" and they are given the choice of continuing with a new character."

I strongly disagree with this design. This leads back to my previous complaint that MMOs are too static, and nothing the player does actually accomplishes anything. So I have an option of continuing with a new character. And do what? The same exact thing I just did with my previous character??!? Although it wasn't an MMO, this was a complaint that I had with Dragon Age: Origins. It has no replay value for me. I played it through as a warrior, then started playing it again as a mage, but gave that up because other than the first 5 quest, the story line was identical. That is understandable in a standalone RPG, but I find it far less acceptable in an MMO, particularly one I for which I am paying a monthly fee.

This is why, for me, quest-centric MMOs fail in their premise. Once you go through the quest cycle, there is nothing left to do other than repeat the same quest cycle, or wait for the next expansion, which again is the WoW model, imitated by so many other current MMOs.

It would probably require additional development effort up front, but game companies would probably come out ahead in the long run by implementing something more dynamic, and less fixed. Instead of having a fixed story line that runs the same for everyone regardless of when they start the game, you'd have a story line that evolves as time goes on, and the game you experience if you buy it on release would differ from my game experience if I were to buy the game a year after release, simply because the game had evolved over time.

Eve is an example of a current MMO that follows this model, since that game, from what I remember of it, is predominately PvP, particularly when you get below the level .5 regions, but I think it could be made to work even in a predominantly PvE game if the developers were to get beyond the static spawn engines used in every MMO I've played to date.

Players become STRONGLY attached to their avatars. I started playing MMOs with UO over 10 years ago, and as it so happens, my character in each one has been named Owain, since to my mind, it is my same character from UO, transplanted to a new game. If you were to develop a game where once I finish the quest cycle, my avatar is forcible 'retired' and I have to start over with a new character, I have just two words for that game design.


That is a failure on many levels, but primarily it is a failure in the promise of a persistant world. It is an admission of a fundamental failure in design to punish the player, YOUR CUSTOMER, because it is too hard for you as a game designer to come up with a solution that permits player continutity. It is lazy design, that unfortunately permeates modern MMOs.

As I said previously, WoW and its imitators have their place, but MMOs need to evolve beyond WoW. This is an aspect of MMOs that could definitely use some improvement.

William Norman
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Have you tried DA:2 yet? I recommend!

My thoughts on quest systems...

Seadogs, one of my favorite games from the past, employed a random quest system. The number of variables were pretty low end, but still just that small variation allowed for a lot of continued play for me. Not a viable system for an MMO unless it was paired with other more static systems as well. Another thought would be ongoing development. Why wait for huge paid expacs in order to expand content? Variables could be added to a random engine, also static quest lines could be added on occasion. NPC quest givers could also have randomized quest lines, instead of giving you quest line A, they give you quest line C. I think of it like a quest giver taking on the role of a Dungeon Master, at least in part, by choosing quests both randomly and suitable for your current character.

As to character retirement, I can't see players enjoying anything forced on them... But I think a retirement system of some sort that rewards people who stick with the game for a long time can have a place. The reward would need to be balanced however as not everyone would want to sacrifice a toon, and "power players" would plan on it from the start. Maybe involve it somehow in crafting?

I'm not opposed to overarching story lines, I am just opposed to them being specific. Your example of a per class basis is possible, and I believe coming in Old Republic. However I still don't think it is enough. I want my character to largely be in command of his own story. I don't need to be the one who kills the dragon... but crafting the weapon used to do it would be interesting. Some people would even love to be the bartender who sells drinks to the guy about to kill the dragon. There is enough room in a fantasy setting for a lot of variation. An example could be the Neverwinter vs. Luskan dynamic in DnD games such as Neverwinter Nights. Let the story be that the two cities are at odds, and players undergo quests to support their city or fight their opposition. They don't need to be able to kill the king, just be a part of the fight.

I also think the lack of individual recognition in MMO's is detrimental to long term play as well as replay value. Yes you can get "achievements" in many games now, but I think it would be far more interesting if things were tracked on a different scale. Why not have a larger storyline unfold on a website, then as different players effect that story they are included in it, then their involvement is also written on their personal page as well. Not as easily programed as static quests to kill bunnies, but far more interesting.

Finally I would like to see advancement by means other than questing. If I play a rogue why can't I break into a house and steal something? I don't want a quest to do it, I just want to be able to do it on a whim. Maybe my decision could touch off a quest elsewhere or something, I wouldn't care.

As to end game, I still firmly believe it isn't where you are going, but rather how you get there that should be the worthier part. Think I read that in a book somewhere.

Meh I'll shut up now, I could spend days talking about design ideas and such.

Owain abArawn
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"Finally I would like to see advancement by means other than questing. If I play a rogue why can't I break into a house and steal something? I don't want a quest to do it, I just want to be able to do it on a whim. Maybe my decision could touch off a quest elsewhere or something, I wouldn't care."

Which again reminds me of Ultima Online in the Good Old Days. On every shard, there were infamous player killers (PK). It wasn't a game developer quest for anyone to become an infamous PK, they just did it because they wanted to be able to do it. In reponse, the anti-player-killers (Anti-PKs) made it their task (not an artificial game quest) to hunt down the infamous PKs. This was a dynamic continuously renewable 'quest' system that lasted for years, much to the enjoyment of both sides (of less enjoyment to the non PK/Anti-PK players being killed, to be sure).

What was the reward? In the early days of UO, you could use a knife and dismember a slain foe, just like you could harvest meat from animals. As a trophy then, you could harvest meat from your foe and use your cooking skill to process it, thus giving birth to player jerky trophies. That is what the item would be labled in your backpack, Joe-PK jerky (or whatever the player's character name was). You could eat it too, if you were so inclined, and would get the stamina boost that eating any other food item would offer. Yum. I think that inspired whole groups of players who role played Orcs or ghouls, or similar creatures.

Origin decided that was a bit too gruesome, and after complaints from overly sensitive players, that feature was removed from the game, but the items weren't removed, and player jerky became a sought after item on the 'rare-item' market, with jerky from infamous PKs or famous Anti-PKs commanding the highest selling prices.

You could still dismember your foes, though, so the next coveted trophy item was player heads, and some players accumulated quite a vast collection of heads in their bank boxes. Origin even made head hunting part of the notoriety system, where players could place a bounty on another player, and if you turned their head into one of the NPC town guards, the amount of the bounty would be deposited in your bank account (I'm less sure of this feature. It's been quite a few years since I last played UO, and it may be that this was suggested, but never implemented. If it wasn't actually true, it SHOULD have been!)

This is the kind of player interactions that can develop on a sandbox MMO that would never arise on a quest-driven MMO.

Build the world, give the players freedom to act (within reason) then see what develops. It certainly is a lot cheaper than having to come up with perpetual expansions. UO's problem was that they made murder too easy to get away with, and enforcement of player justice too hard to enforce, so they ended up nerfing the entire thing, much to the dismay of hordes of PKs and the Anti-PKs that hunted them. Game developers, for the most part, don't have the courage for such experiments any more. Far easier to churn out yet another WoW copy. Too bad.

William Norman
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I know a player in Eve who collects corpses. She doesn't care if she killed them, but will pay money for any corpse which she keeps in a hangar somewhere. Gruesome maybe, but I think it was a great emergent gameplay mechanic.

A solid bounty system for PvP is something I have always thought would be great in a fantasy game. Trophies would be great as well, although there will always be those loud few who think it will corrupt kittens and other cute fury things.