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The Power of Change
by Richard Vaught on 07/30/11 09:42:00 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.


When I first started looking into the design aspect of worlds, I was a teenager and wonderfully enamoured with table top RPG's. What made them so special was not just the creativity and freedom that they allowed, but that the game world grew and changed beyond the agency afforded to us as players.

Now, a decade later, I am immersing myself back into game design, and the concept of change is firmly lodged in my brain. What makes a game different than any other form of media? What, aside from user interaction, allows it to immitate life better than any other media? In a word, change. Unlike a book, movie, or other piece of traditional art, the ability of a game to change sets it in a league of its own. But if that is the case, why have game developers eschewed change for the Hollywood-esque static cinamatics?

Dwarf Fortress to some extent tried to address this issue with their wonderful system of players continuing to play in a world that is affected, not only by their current actions, but by the actions of the previous games. While this is heartening to see and addicting to play, the bigger question is, what can we learn from it?

Panning the mental camera over to the big wig MMO worlds, Ultima, EQ, EQII, WoW, etc, the one thing that really stands out is that despite being a persistant world, they are also entirely static. Yes, the models move around, but no matter how many times you play the game, you will always meet the same people, run the same quests, fight the same mobs, and conquor the same dungeons.

With today's technology, surely there is a better way to design our worlds so that they present the feeling of a living, breathing, CHANGING environment versus the static, lifeless, repetative fair we are being served. 

If we pan that same camera around to take a look at a near forgotten venue, MU*s, some have already started tackling these problems, those most haven't. Some of the key areas they have addressed that the industry should take note of however are:

  • Customizable Equipment - Players in many muds are not only to able to modify, but create and DESIGN their own custom gear. Nothing says I'm unique like a rose & violet + 90 vorpal sword of rat slaying.
  • Deep NPC interaction - I am not talking about a selection of three or four dialogue choices, I mean meaningful interaction. If you kill an NPC, how does the world react? Does his brother, the Ranger, in the next town over start hunting you? What about his wife and kids?
  • Non-monetary/equipment based rewards- If you slay the evil vile wicked bunny, does you get something meaningful from the transaction? Land, titles, political standing, trade incentives? Maybe someone who wouldn't teach you before will teach you now, perhaps the bunny was the last of its kind and now PITA is coming to break your legs...
  • World Changing Events - If you kill a god, (looking at you Sony EQ1) shouldn't their be some fairly significant changes in the world? What happens to all of the priests and whatever powers they possessed?
  • Houses, Buildings, and Changing the environment- Yes, EQ2 and others had player houses, buuuttttt... The players didn't get to build them, destroy them, or even SEE them from the outside. Much less look our their window from their carefully selected vantage point down onto the world below. Blizzard, how do all those rocks that people mine keep coming back?
  • Economy - I know there recently was a really good article regarding the economy, and one of the things I took from that was the infinite resource problem. Who says their has to be infinite resources anyway? Why not take the time to actually design a fluid economy that has a meaningful impact on the game denizens and by extension the players?

If you want to get rid of the 'grind' you have to get rid of what makes the 'grind' possible, the static environment. If you want to endow your players with a true sense of agency and get them invested in your games, give them a reason to invest. 

Perhaps it is time to reallocate some resources. Let's ditch some of the ultra-glitz, and take a step back to look at the core underpinnings of our game worlds, and figure out how we can really make them come alive. Trust me, the glitz will be back in no time, and when it does, it will be representing a much richer inner beauty that will leave players feeling like they own the world.

**edited to remove a mistaken reference in the player housing section**

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Darren Tomlyn
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(As always - my post is based on my blog - (click my name).)

What you're talking about here is recognising and using the behaviour games represent an application of, in a more consistent manner in regards to affecting their setting. This doesn't have to happen in games, but is one of the main ways in which some types of game - especially computer games - can develop further, towards reaching their full potential AS games.

As you said, many games are made with a static setting - a story that its creators (ultimately) are TELLING to the player(s). However, such behaviour is not consistent with what the word game itself represents. Art is the word consistent with such behaviour, (in that the story has been created to tell). Games are NOT about telling stories, nor about stories being TOLD. (Interaction with stories being told is the basic behaviour puzzles represent an application of, and competing to be told a puzzle is a competition).

Although stories by their very nature require a setting - (a time and place for any such events that are then stored as a story) - games are about WRITING stories, and so there is no reason why a game's setting cannot be part of that, affected, or even created, in some way as part of the game itself, too.

But grind itself, isn't really about the setting, (though that can affect it), but the story written by the players within being overly repetitive and therefore boring - the basic gameplay itself.

There are three main areas which have yet to reach their full potential as being affected by the written story of a game, (i.e. by the behaviour of the players):


Gameplay development

Gameplay mechanics

All of these have been touched upon by many games in different ways, but have yet to reach their full potential in isolation, let alone in combination. But when games are not being fully designed AS games - rather works of art to interact with in limited ways, it's not too surprising.

Richard Vaught
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I don't necessarily think that there is a problem with narrative styled games. I simply think that when telling a narrative story in game form, you have to pay more attention to the ancillary details than you would in a novel or movie. If the player has any chance at all to revisit locations that they have played through previously, there should be changes beyond dialogue. Thought should be given to what has happened in that local during the time between player visits, and the changes should be reflected in everything, from the economy to the architecture to the clothing and hairstyles of the population. Which characters are not there that were before? Which ones are there now that were not there previously? What affect did their absence or arrival have on the location? What were the reasons for the changes?

In persistent and open world games, this becomes even more critical as the player is likely to revisit a location numerous times. So basically, I partially agree with you. A game can be about telling AND writing a story at the same time, and in almost every case, it should be both.

The remarks I made about removing the 'grind' was not simply about changing the setting. Removing the grind involves rethinking the things that make the grind possible, and one of those enablers is a static world. If you know X mob is going to spawn here every Y minutes and gives Z exp, then you know the fastest way to level up your character is to grind whichever mob gives you the best Y:Z ratio.

Getting rid of this requires several things. The first is to remove the X:Y ratio. Find a better way to trigger mob spawning than predictable timers. The second is to remove the Y:Z ratio. This can be done partly by better spawning methods, meaning players have to do more than simply sit in one spot and wait for the mobs to pop, but also by making the mobs themselves dynamic. Why should every Orc in the same area be worth the same amount of exp? Why aren't the orcs doing something to improve themselves, thus dynamically changing their difficulty and exp value? The third thing to change is the Level system. I'll expound on all this in my next blog post though.

Misha Icaev
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I think this article lacking perspective. Game should be interesting for both casual and hardcore players.

1. Game is Grind.

1.0. Card-game's grinding is act of drawing cards from deck. Repetitive action is core-element of gaming itself. According grind should be employed effectively to give player choice of being either hardcore or casual or in-between. There are 2 ways for that:

1.1. Authorized and taxed RMT trade and services between players. This way hardcores can go pro and earn while casuals won't face risks of unauthorized RMT.

1.2. Multi-class-system where grinding single-class character much harder than multi-class, but rewarding in performance/power. This way casuals won't loose to hardcores in level-grinding.

2. Resource limitation is skill challenging mechanics (for hardcore players).

2.0. Difficulty would grow with time.

2.1. I believe farming junk and resources should be replaced by money farming (money is only loot). 2.2. Money should effectively be crafting resource - either craft raws from money or sell by vendors.

3. Construction must be useful.

3.0. House for living (sleep, eat, dress) is useless.

3.1. Destructible houses even more so, since they aren't safe.

3.2. Building that is part of environment should also be accessible for other players.

4. Events should change the world, but scale of change should be sensibly limited.

4.0. Death of warrior-god should affect all warriors, but only as long as warrior-god is dead for day at most.

5. Privilege based reward is good idea, but useful privilege is no different from bound-item and if it's limited, then it's another hardcore-only stuff.

6. Deep [and sensible] NPC interaction require freedom (behavior) and equality (they should play as well).

7. Extensive customization of equipment significantly complicates trading.

Richard Vaught
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1. Repetitive action is work and tedious, games are a way to make work(repetitive action) fun. Working when you are supposed to be playing a game is not fun. So the goal should be to remove as many associations with work as you can, so that the player is unaware of the grind.

1.2 Leveling is an unnatural type of progression period. We do not mystically get stronger/better at everything just because we do one thing enough. Multi-classing does not change that. Graph level progression, then graph flow, and analyze the difference.

2. Resource limitation is also a game balancing mechanic. It is a way of ensuring resources retain value. (See U.S. Treasury Department for an example of what NOT to do)

2.0 Difficulty is supposed to grow with time. (See Flow chart)

2.1 Why use money when you can use loot that SHOULD be found on creatures anyway? Skins, hides, bones, meat, etc. Intelligent creatures should carry money and or equipment. Equipment should be able to be salvaged for useful bits, providing a drain for the 'junk' other than the vendors.

3. Agreed

3.0 I do not agree completely here. Some people play games because they like to be able to customize their clothing, homes, etc. However, the more purpose you can give a building, the more value it has and the better it is.

3.1 Destructible buildings created a vested interest. Though I agree that this is an area that would have to be fairly tightly controlled/regulated.

3.2 Agreed, unless the doors are locked. There was a really good article on here a while back about the value of locked doors.

4. Agreed. And their difficulty to achieve should be proportionate to the change that they affect.

4.0 There are lots of ways to deal with something like this, the point was that there should be SOME effect when a god dies.

5. Useful privilege can be much better actually, as it gives players a vested interest in the world and its inhabitants, if you tie the rewards to towns, NPC's, or some other such resource that can be removed from the game by players, or its removal prevented by players.

6. Agreed.(Also part of the design I am currently working on.)

7. Graphical customization does not effect it overly much as long as the players can preview the graphic. Statwise, there are numerous ways to deal with the problem that do not revolve around binding equipment and such.

Richard Vaught
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Also, check out Runescapes player housing. While they are off the grid, they definitely fit the criteria of being useful for more than simply changing clothes and sleeping.

Bart Stewart
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Richard, I share your interest in gameworlds that change over time. Done well, it would benefit both players and developers: players get a more interesting world with more frequent content changes, and developers (because they've already implemented world-changing as an automatic/procedural system) don't have to spend time manually making world-changes. (Though of course they can always make big changes, as in WoW's "Cataclysm.")

However, I think this notion of a mutable world filled with more aware NPCs would be easier to sell within a single-player game than a MMORPG. A MMORPG that changes raises one of the "fairness" question of whether all players can enjoy the same play experience. If I can have some kind of fun, and then the world changes and then you can't have that same experience, will that seem fair to you?

More specifically, will that seem fair to many players of today's MMORPGs, who, let's be honest, have strong feelings of entitlement? A single-player game doesn't have that problem to the same extent (DLC aside). Creating a procedurally-changing world could, I think, be more easily sold as a feature in a single-player game.

Either way, I'd like to play such a game.

Richard Vaught
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I would be definitely easier to sell in a single player world. There is no doubt about that. I think, though, that the fairness question is a bit off, IMHO. How can we guarantee that every player will have the same experience, even if they all do exactly the same thing? In short, we can't, because the experience is not generated by the game, but by the cerebral interaction of player and game. One persons trash is another man's treasure.

Again, to me it comes back to the fact that you can't please everyone, no matter how hard you try. Someone one will always find fault with it, always be completely miserable, and unfortunately they will keep playing and complain about it because they feel that everyone else should be as miserable as they are.

I do think there would have to be somewhat greater limitations on a system like this if it were used in an MMO, at least until some research could pin down the pros and cons.

Thanks for the feedback Bart, I will be giving that some thought over the next few days.

Nick Harris
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A procedurally-changing MMORPG works better if all of its players act in cooperation on one side versus a computer-generated enemy. You can already play through campaigns in Halo with four friends and try to out-do each other's score chains. Perfect Dark had an interesting "counter-op" multi-player mode where your human opponent would teleport into the next enemy's patrol location when whoever was playing Joanna Dark killed that guard. See 5:00 min into this:

Obviously, this suffers from "screen hacking" which is only a problem in split-screen games, a modern MMO gives every player their own private screen so their opponents cannot surmise their location from familiar scenery and landmarks in their view in order to sneak up on them.

Furthermore, you could support switching between enemies within the same line-of-sight as in Battlefield: Modern Combat:


However, whilst switching from a soldier to a helicopter pilot is fine for this single player game you might want to introduce some form of XP or Ranking to restrict / unlock vehicles in a MMOFPS. The same applies to the RPG genre. You may start as an Orc and be unable to hot swap to a passing Dragon until you have levelled up. The difference is that being the enemy you get to keep your rank, etc. whereas the goodies lose theirs when they die fostering safety in numbers, caution and collaboration.

As to 'Grind', I've often wondered why RPGs don't incorporate a combat modifier based on skill, by which I mean the player's dexterity with their input device supplements the quality of their sword, their avatar's strength and agility, etc. It seems as if the genre is purposefully targeted at players who lack reactive dexterity, which I understand. However, I don't see how mixing in some of the arcade style controls of Soulcalibur on top of a framework that still worked with hit points would hurt things. Unskilled players would grind against 'recommended' opponents and ambitious players would test their skills against significantly harder opponents in order to level up faster. There is also no reason why casting a spell should be all that different from an FPS:

Personally, I'm hoping that the next Xbox console comes with a Hard Drive as standard (no Arcade model), so that developers can create persistent worlds.

Ben Versaw
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You might want to revisit some MMOs - especially WoW. Also WoW never had player housing, by the way. According to the developers, and in my opinion as well, its a waste of resources and actually makes the world seem less populated and more artificial.

"Customizable Equipment - Players in many muds are not only to able to modify, but create and DESIGN their own custom gear. Nothing says I'm unique like a rose & violet + 90 vorpal sword of rat slaying."

I agree with this point - but it all comes down to resources and what players want. Is time better spent making it so the few in the game who want to be able to tie-dye their armor can do so, or building new content that all players will enjoy.

"Deep NPC interaction - I am not talking about a selection of three or four dialogue choices, I mean meaningful interaction. If you kill an NPC, how does the world react? Does his brother, the Ranger, in the next town over start hunting you? What about his wife and kids?"

Yes there is still a fair share of 'bland' NPCs in WoW but lets face it not every person in real life is interesting either. Even giving them houses / families / etc wouldn't make them any less bland. Also there is the argument of functionally. I remember merchants in WoW used to all have 'flavor text' at least but Blizzard removed it for merchants who only do one thing. Because that extra click to choose "Browse Goods" harmed the game.

The other problem is having definite 'final' consequences in a MMO is just a horrible idea. Especially when getting another character to max level can take a long time.

"Non-monetary/equipment based rewards- If you slay the evil vile wicked bunny, does you get something meaningful from the transaction? Land, titles, political standing, trade incentives? Maybe someone who wouldn't teach you before will teach you now, perhaps the bunny was the last of its kind and now PITA is coming to break your legs..."

Borean Turean in WoW has a PITA like group of druids that will get angry if you kill animals and show up before you wash away their blood. This is in response to a famous quest giver that moves to an area in each expansion to hunt animals there.

Many quest / questlines in WoW change the environment and world based on your progress. Also many factions change their opinion of you. Some notable ones start of attacking you on sight and you must earn their respect.

Class quests give you new abilities - some examples are of blood elf paladins learning where their power comes from since they don't serve the light. And that quest being changed after the source of their power escaped.

"World Changing Events - If you kill a god, (looking at you Sony EQ1) shouldn't their be some fairly significant changes in the world? What happens to all of the priests and whatever powers they possessed?"

This just doesn't work in a MMO. Some current guilds have already killed Ragnaros the new top dog in WoW. But I'm likely a month or two away from getting that far as are most of the player base. But because one guild killed him should his forces be defeated now for everyone? Even though a huge percentage of the player base haven't experienced it yet?

However, Blizzard does progress the story line with content patches, quests, and individual player phasing. When a content patch occurs for the most part you can assume the previous big bad dude is dead according to the story line and now you are seeing the aftermath.

The problem is certain things must by necessity still reference and point to the big bad dude for people who haven't yet beat him and still want to.

"Houses, Buildings, and Changing the environment- Yes, WoW and EQ2 had player houses, buuuttttt... The players didn't get to build them, destroy them, or even SEE them from the outside. Much less look our their window from their carefully selected vantage point down onto the world below. Blizzard, how do all those rocks that people mine keep coming back"

WoW doesn't have player houses, never did, and probably never will - moving along. As for ore nodes - lets say they don't come back. Oh no! We now no longer have any crafting resources because all the ore has been used.

In summary, I think you are forgetting what is most important to a game - the game play. This is why its going to be nearly impossible for any MMO to knock WoW off its horse. Blizzard cares about game play first. They have also integrated story very well into their MMO - for those who take the time to read / see their incredibly rich world.

But if the decision ever comes between story or game - game should _ALWAYS_ win. Otherwise you are better off choosing a different industry like movies or books.

Richard Vaught
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Ok, first off, this was not a bash against WoW, and I do not claim to know every detail there is to know about the game. I took my month, got the obligatory maxed character and quit playing because it was boring, even compared to other MMO's. The last I played was before Lich King came out. Obviously you are a huge fan of the game, so sorry if my blog seemed like it was peeing in your cornflakes. However, I do not apologize for the point I was trying to make, that was quite obviously missed.

Merchants, NPCs, MOBs.. they are all like the guy on the Star Trek away team that wears the red shirt, they are expendable and will most likely die in the first encounter. So let's play a game. I want you to spot the difference between scenario A, and scenario B:


Scenario A:

Quest Given By George:

Grok the Kobold king has been terrorizing the country side for months. He and his band of kobold hunters have been raiding all the farms and killing all the animals. If you take him out, I will give you this +90 vorpal sword of kobold killing for your efforts.


Scenario B:

Quest Given By Bob

Horis the Kobold chieftan has started advancing across the lands between this town and the next. He seems to be backed up by a fairly strong group of warriors and is starting to interrupt trade. If you think you can handle the problem, I think we can work out a little discount for you in my shop.


So here's the kick:

Resource wise, Bob and George are identical, except that George has been 'alive' longer and has better trading during his time. (So the NPC has more resources with which to reward the player. Call it a reward table based off the overall NPC net worth and encounter level difference. Random name generator gives them different names. Random Stat generator gives them different stats, which in turn impacts their trade skills and overall networth. If either one dies, a new one will come along eventually, but he will suck for a while. This gives players an incentive to mind their home cities.)

Grok and Horris are also essentially the same resource wise, except that Horris is younger, a lower level, and has fewer followers.

The bands of kobold's are of different composition, one is primarily range focused and the other is melee focused. Very similar in resources.

Scenarios much more complex than this basic can created in very short order with simple scripts, or even designed to arise naturally throughout the game as part of the game environment using game resources that would have had to have been developed anyway, but only if included in the design from the beginning. Will player A have more fun than player B when they play through the quests? Not definitely, but then, if fun were a definite formula we would all have it written in our notebooks and games design would be as static as the worlds we have been building with it.

Richard Vaught
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Sorry, internet flaked out before I could finish posting.

There are other subtle difference in the two scenarios as well. The fact that one gives the player a definitive item, while the other gives the player incentive to reuse the vendor, thus building a vested interest in ensuring that the vendor stays alive so that they don't lose their discount.

The second scenario also implies a trade route between two towns, which could be affecting prices in one or both, again giving the player a vested interest in performing the quest outside of the obligatory uber weapon or pocket full of coin.

A quick study of Jungian psychology will give you an idea of how many personalities can be derived from a very few choices, simply by mixing and matching those choices in unique, or even random ways. This too can be applied to NPC's/Mobs, thus changing the player experience. Perhaps one of the kobold bosses is more aggressive than the other, or more sneaky. The possibilities are practically endless.

If you are looking for consistant every-experience-is-exactly-the-same gameplay, then you would be one of those players who unfortunately wouldn't enjoy a game like this. As I said, you can't please everyone.

Ben Versaw
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I wasn't trying to attack you at all - I was merely trying to suggest that you look at a game which already has this pretty much figured out. I don't believe I missed the point, either. I directly answered each of your suggestions with either an existing example of that exact thing being done in a successful MMO or why its probably a bad idea.

The first rule of trying to 'improve' something (IE MMOs) is to understand what there is currently. Many of the suggestions you have made are already in play in some form or the other - and the suggestions that haven't been are because they are unworkable / unfun for a MMO.

So my suggestion of trying / researching WoW has less to do with being a fan than it is to point you towards an example of what works. Also by actively taking place in a MMO environment you can see what will and won't work.

One of the big reasons behind the 'failure' of Warhammer Online is that its developers deliberately choose not to look at other MMOs and learn from their mistakes / learn from what already worked (*).

* = A warhammer developer commented on how they deliberately tried not to be exposed to other MMOs in a podcast. Also I'm well aware that there are other factors in play with its 'death' such as unstable of game / servers / and the large potion of its player based that got credit cards charged repeatedly in error but even these issues could have been solved by examining other MMOs.

[Edit:] I would like to add that vast and accurate knowledge of the genre / the popular games within is essential for being able to provide worth to that genre. This is just par for the course in the same way that if you were suggesting a revamp of how FPS(s) worked I would expect you to know every detail about Gears of War, Halo, Killzone, etc worked - even if your not a fan. Probably especially if your not a fan.

Richard Vaught
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I've played numerous MMO's, including WoW(Granted, I didn't stay with WoW long because, as I said, it was BORING. There was no challenge and the game was pretty static at the time), and this critique was designed specifically with the goal of trying something new.

So, with that in mind, I will end this post with two favorite quotes of mine.(I'm a sailor by profession at the moment btw)

You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. ~ Christopher Columbus

When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap. ~Cynthia Heimel,

WoW is playing it safe. And from a business stand point I can understand it and applaud their good sense and caution and safety while making millions. However, down that road lies a dead art, and I would rather take a risk and fail than say that I took the safe road and followed the crowd.

Bart Stewart
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Just as a quick follow-up on the subject of player housing, Star Wars Galaxies implemented this.

Not everyone cared for it, but I think it's fair to say that many of those who did like this kind of feature *really* liked it in SWG. There were only a few styles of house, but it was possible to decorate them to an extreme degree. And you couldn't look outside -- one of the developers explained to me way back when that it was due to a limitation of the rendering engine -- but some houses had exterior verandas for the feeling of being "in" your house while still being able to see around it.

SWG also allowed player cities, which, based on the number of people with houses in the city, granted particular bonuses. This, along with the Politician skills that were released after launch, allowed for a unique playing experience. Not everyone liked how player cities looked, and it could be a pain if you planted a house in the wilderness only to have a player city pop up next door one night. But just to have player cities at all was pretty remarkable.

Sadly, many of these "worldy" features that were part of SWG's highly original design received only minimal attention from the post-launch development team, which focused more on combat enhancements. It's interesting to speculate on whether player houses and player cities might have become standard features of serious MMORPGs had the SWG dev team given these worldy features more attention.

Richard Vaught
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I think a lot of this comes from the fact that many designers do not see things like player housing, politics, etc as 'Games'. Perhaps in a sense they are correct, if you concede that Sim City was a toy, not a game, or that kids playing house or throwing a tea party is not a game. For some reason, there seems to be this idea that only the combat portion of a RPG(MMO or Otherwise) constitutes the game, while everything else is ancillary.

One thing I learned from years spend building and running table top RPG's is that the players generally responded to the lead I gave them as a DM, and took full advantage of the possibility space that I afforded them. Some DM's would run kick-in-the-door-kill-the-monster-grab-the-loot-games, and their players would follow that and do exactly that. The point is, it wasn't the players that ignored the possibility space, it was the DM. The players were just playing the game as it was presented to them, and improvising wherever they were allowed.

I think SWG is a classic example of that. The players played with the housing and cities and such, but when the developers focused on combat, so did the players, because that was the area that was being paid attention to.