Sandbox and Themepark was invented at the birth of table top RPG
As MMO’s stem from table top this is not as surprising as you might think. Any Games Master uses one of two methods when he runs a game. He uses a supplement with a scenario or he does it on the fly making it up as he goes along. Hopefully you are with me now; theme parks are scenarios, impromptu is the sandbox method.
But I have very, very rarely heard any table top roleplayers say something like ‘I feel too confined in the scenario, it is a straight jacket made of grinding.’ Equally when a GM is doing it of the cuff players do not go ‘I am bored, there is nothing to really do, no meat to get my teeth into.’ Why is this?
Well for one thing a GM controls the pace of the game, MMO’s have tried many methods to do that, but have never totally succeeded. So there is no end game, the characters don’t shoot up that fast. But pacing also means that boring material is skipped while anything you find interesting is slowed down and gone into. Any half decent GM can spot what his players like, that’s what he concentrates on with a throw in of something different every now and then to see if they bite. This is all part and parcel of having a response human in charge, not a rigid game AI.
So what lessons can MMO’s learn from table top apart from the obvious one, that we need human GM’s in game until the AI is good enough? Well the GM controls how much scenario and impromptu you get, he may put a load of created on the fly in a scenario. Or he might use a scenario like a slow boiling stew, when players start to have nothing to do amongst themselves he ladles out another slice of the scenario.
This points to it being good to have MMO’s which mix and match play styles, we already have that you say? Yes but you can level all day every day, craft all day every day and so on. If you rely on the player to pick the best mix each day that will never happen, instead he will fall into the rat race of levelling or being the best crafter etc. So a FFIV style bonus system which rewards you for switching class and tasks is a way forward.
The rat race to end level only occurs because people think others players are in front of them and they think that matters. Table top does not allow more than a moderate difference between players so the perception does not arise. How about a MMO where each tenth level could only be reached when 20% of the population were at level 9, then 19 etc?
No matter what is done simple rules won’t substitute for in game GM’s or a AI good enough to think on its feet. But if we put are minds to it we may find some short term solutions if nothing more than that.