There are two reigning schools of thought in MMO design. We have the more common amusement park style of game, and the long sought after, but notoriously hard to successfully implement sandbox style MMO.
In a sandbox game the idea is that the world is your sandbox and what occurs is up to the people playing in the sandbox, more than the designers that created it. Want to kill that guard? Go for it. Decide you want to chop trees for a living and kill anyone else who tries to get into the lumber market? Sounds like a plan.
Some of you may be back in town saying "All I was doing was trying to cut down a tree and some asshole killed me for no reason! Why should he get all the lumber?!" and as a supporter of sandbox style games I'd reply with a fireball to the face and the theft of all your remaining money.
It's a fantastic dream, but so far there have been very few successful sandbox MMOs due in large part to just how hard they are to create without being tough to get into, unbalanced or just completely unfair.
But don't worry! Some developers heard your cries and realized that the QQ crowd had no interest in this world full of murderers and just wanted to "play the game".
Enter the amusement park style of game where what you can and cannot do is pretty strictly defined. Full of "You cannot do that here" and "You cannot attack that" messages, it is a world where you are forced to play the role of the productive member of society. Everyone is equal and everyone gets their turn. There are no thieves lurking in the shadows, wandering groups of murderers or long lost caves that may or may not be discovered.
Everything that is in an amusement park game is put there for a specific purpose, and if you use it for any purpose that it was not intended, or benefit from it more than other people, you are cheating and it will be removed/buffed/changed/nerfed.
This is still a role playing game in purely mechanical terms, but the role you play is not up to you, it's up to the people that designed the ride.
Now that my bias is clear, let me say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with amusement park MMOs, I just personally don't see the point. Every game has limitations but things have gotten so out of control lately that I wonder why I'm even playing?
Luckily for me I do almost nothing but raid, so I am able to ignore most of this stupidity so that it doesn't send me into a massive nerd rage when I can't kill someone that just "abbreviated" fail using a ph.
However, the most recent raid zone in World of Warcraft, my current vice and the ultimate amusement park MMO has started to horn in on my only remaining sanctuary of choice.
Without getting into the details of raid design and how it advanced in WoW, I'll just jump right to the point.
Raids are becoming more and more scripted as the game advances. We are now dangerously close to (and in some encounters already way past) the point where the strategy in raids is unimportant and it's all about repetition.
There is very little room with current raids to do anything but follow the script. Where once sandbox rules applied and you could use different abilities, positioning or strategies to take down a new boss we have started to move more towards a game where there are no strategies. The bosses are no longer designed to kill the raid; they're designed to be beaten by it.
The amusement park mentality of allowing players to do only what you intended for both ease of design and to promote equality between players and classes is starting to bleed into raiding, and it's making it worse.
Obviously there has to be some scripting, there have to be limitations and there have to be some abilities that are meant to be countered by specific player abilities. It just makes sense for the health of the game, but there should always be room for outside of the box thinking.
Don't get me wrong, I like Icecrown and honestly believe that it is a really well designed instance with plenty of fun encounters, but in many fights you are so limited in your choices and guided in your actions that it starts to feel a bit stale. I'm starting to feel less like I'm fighting an epic battle against an ancient evil being and more like I'm playing Simon Says.
Anyone who has played an MMO or really any game for that matter knows that the most exhilarating wins are the ones that you pull off by the skin of your teeth. It's not close because you're playing badly but because the monster you're fighting against is a little unpredictable, your role in the fight is not exactly the same each time. You have to adjust on the fly and mistakes are made but when it comes down to the wire, when people start dropping left and right and the boss is at 1%. You push as much as you can and with your dying breath you get him down. Then quickly throw your headset off to avoid the screams of nerdy joy.
Its fights like these that we all remember, but the more scripted and predictable the fights become the less it happens. It might be tough the first time, but any secondary kills become laughably easy since you've already memorized your role in the script, and so the close calls never happen again.
Walking that fine line between challenging and impossible can be extremely tough, so I can see how the amusement park style of raid design can be appealing. I just really hope that the developers haven't given up entirely, and that in the next raid zone we see there will be a better balance of sandbox and amusement park elements.
Most raids are already too rewarding of repetition and practice, as opposed to actual ability, and if we aren't able to come up with more creative ways to make encounters more interesting then we're all doomed to just be pressing buttons when the game tells us to, and have reduced one of the genres with the most potential for memorable experiences to nothing more than Rock Band: Azeroth Edition.