I've been pretty busy with school this week, so here's an old post of mine from the Vanguard forums. I'm a huge fan of Diablo 2 (single-player only...believe it or not, I played it for years offline) and can't wait for Hellgate: London. This blog is largely about applying some of the successful elements of Diablo 2 to MMO design.
A great way to add fear and wonder is controlled-probability spawning. All over the gameworld, create triggers that spawn mobs in fixed places and cause the environment to come alive, giving each of these spawns a probability of being triggered by player actions (the spawns are not automatic, but also not random). There might even be qualifiers to the trigger, like requiring so many players to be within the trigger zone.
For examples of what I'm talking about :
1) A player is walking around a temple garden area. There's a pool to the side of the walkway. Usually, players walk right on by the pool and nothing happens. But this time, as the player approaches, a water elemental rises up from the pool and attacks.
2) A group of players is exploring the interior of a temple. There are giant statues everywhere in the halls. The statues are very different from each other...some dog-like creatures, some men, some drakes and so forth. Each of the statues has a small chance of being activated as the group walks by (only a group of 4 players in the same trigger zone could activate the trigger). One group might get through it all without any statue coming alive. Another group might have to fight the dog-like statue and get through the rest of the temple unharmed. Another group might be attacked by the dog statue, then the man statue, then the drake statue...just getting unlucky/lucky with every trigger. If they made the mistake of running past the dog statue after it came alive, instead of holding their ground or taking a few steps back, then they might have to deal with the dog statue and the neighboring statue at the same time.
Help players to experience the same content differently and to have their own unique experiences that not everyone has shared. They should know they're not experiencing the same adventure as everyone else, that theirs is unique. Replayability is something MMOGs sorely lack these days.
Spawns like the water elemental, which had no visible trace until it was triggered, could take characters completely by surprise and players would soon be wondering what other surprises lay in store for them.
In the case of the statues, if some of the statues had no chance of coming alive, then it adds expectation in the player's mind. Every time they see a statue, they'll wonder "Is it just a normal statue? Or is it going to attack?". And the odds can change over time. One month, the dog statue may never come alive. So everyone will ignore it and just watch the other statues. But the next month, the odds are changed, and the dog statue is usually the first to attack. Some areas might have statues all over the place, but none of the statues ever attack....at least for the first few months. The developer can change spawn probabilities as often or rarely as desired.
Expectation is an important element of gameplay. If players know exactly what to expect, they'll work the system, exploit and quickly become bored.
If players can never be sure what they'll run into when they go to Borruk Dun, even though they've been there a thousand times, then there's a whole lot of replayability there. Advanced players won't feel completely confident in the knowledge they've gained, though they'll still know much more than the newbie (they are rewarded for knowledge). And new players wouldn't feel belittled by the "uber" players. They could look forward to unique experiences that would earn them a space in the tavern gossip once in a while.
Diablo2 had mob heroes. Sometimes, you'd go to the place where you're used to seeing harmless imps....and there they are again. But this time, they've got a stronger imp with them who may give you a run for your money.
Surprises. I hope to see lots and lots of surprises in future MMOs. And if the surprises, the wonder and the fear of the unknown dies off, then so will my enjoyment of the game. When I played EQ, it was my first MMO and I didn't even know forums existed. So I accepted it as a finished product, just like any console game. These days, a lot of players keep playing an MMO because they do follow the forums and they hope (often groundlessly) that the game will improve, or something new will be added, and they'll enjoy the game again. I quit EQ at level 45 or so because I knew exactly what to expect. There was no mystery anymore. Sure, there were mobs I hadn't seen, but I knew almost precisely how my game experiences would play out. Fighter tanks, cleric heals, wizard nukes; here's how you kill the monster, here's where and when it spawns; etc.
That's lukewarm gameplay. I was able to enjoy Diablo 2 longer than any other PC game ever because it was able to provide me relatively fresh and unexpected experiences over and over and over again, and because my gameplay experience was remarkably unique (including among my own characters).