Some thoughts while considering "alt-itis". I'm glad that it happened to coincide with Damianov's "End Game" article, because I think the subjects are closely related.
WHY HAVE A MAIN?
Why is permadeath such a frightening prospect to most MMO gamers? Well, it's because permadeath is a real end to character progression, and character progression is first-and-foremost in your typical RPG; certainly in your typical MMORPG. Permadeath is a brick wall, whereas the sort of death usually found in MMOs is more of a speedbump.
It's a valid concern, but I wonder if character progression in MMOs could be reimagined so that it is both powerfully immersive (the player strongly associates with his or her character) and fleeting. Is it possible to design an MMO in which players expect to play one character for only twenty or thirty hours of gametime before starting the next character? Afterall, it seems most people have at least one alt, if not more.
Is it possible to create an MMO in which "alts" are king, and replay is essential?
In an arcade game like Pac-Man or Super Smash Bros., it's no big deal that one play-session is entirely unrelated to the last. But a sense of continuity seems to be an essential element of any RPG. So abandoning the traditional MMO model of prolonged character development would demand that continuity be provided in some other way.
There are two examples I can remember reading about.
In one MMO being developed about a year ago (I remember it changing its name at some point, but I can't remember either title), a generations system was proposed. The player's character had a limited lifespan, but each new character was a descendant of the last. Some skill affinities (representing childhood training) and objects (heirlooms) would pass on.
Trials of Ascension, on the other hand, advertised a system of delayed permadeath in which the player could die so many times (around 100) before being permanently buried. Rather than heirlooms, it allowed characters to sacrifice their last few lives to create an artifact (an item imbued with traits representing that character), which would be left to the world to be discovered but not passed on to any character. The mere mention of permadeath scared many potential players away. However, because the proposed world was dynamic and players could leave a meaningful impact on the world, there was a sense of continuity (theoretically, anyway; the game didn't make it to release).
Right now, I feel like Colonel Patterson in The Ghost and The Darkness...
Beaumont: "Did it work?"
Patterson: "Point of fact, it didn't. But I'm convinced the theory is sound."
I'm sure there are more ways to provide continuity than just these two, but player impact on the gameworld, in particular, seems to be a strong method.
If an MMO was designed for short character lifespans, would that mean the tradition of massive worlds must be abandoned? Afterall, any single character could not experience the same breadth of content. One can't walk the same length of road in a month as one could in three months. I don't think that necessarily means the world should be smaller, though.
In Deus Ex, a good example of a game designed for replayability, the player repeating the adventure could enjoy running through the same settings with different weapons, different skills, and making different dialogue/quest choices. That sort of system could work equally well in an MMO. In fact, EQ2 is a decent example, since I played many different race-class combinations in the city of Freeport and still had fun (though more of the quests could have been less linear).
The original EQ and WoW demonstrate the value of having a variety of starting locations. Even if a shorter-lived character can't trek as far, he or she can begin in a different place.
Also, shorter spans mean more teasers. The player might get a glimpse of unexplored area or quest shortly before the character's end, enticing him to work toward that content in the next life. Or the player might be thrilled by another player's skill or item. An alt-oriented game would not make the character feel like he is abandoning his investment when trying a new character.
What about depth of experience? A shorter lifespan could mean less room for character growth. But in real life, don't our limited lifespans add value to our achievements?
By combining a system of skill trees and skill drops/rewards, then placing some of those skills at the farthest edges of potential experience, the game could be a paradise for achievers and explorers alike. In a typical MMO, anyone can reach the highest skill levels with enough time and dedication. But place enough dynamics in a limited lifespan and it becomes truly a challenge to reach the highest goals. This can be done with items and other elements as well. A player might even prove that it was more skill than luck by repeating the feat.
The elite status of individual characters wouldn't last long (except in record, possibly in-game) as the players who find/achieve epic items, skills, or monsters would die, but player organizations could take on new meaning. A guild could adapt its goals to new discoveries as its member characters are constantly changing. Whole characters, and regiments of characters, could be designed specifically for epic goals. If an epic monster seems vulnerable to cold and shock, then the guild might solicit its members to develop characters with cold and shock prowess. In addition to traditional raiding, imagine guild endeavors that are weeks in the making and based on more elements. Perhaps the guild has gained knowledge of a particularly powerful cold spell scroll in some far off land. It might arrange to acquire it to aid in the monster assault... and the quest for the scroll, alone, might span more than one character life. Much could be done here to take raiding skill far beyond organization and execution.
Thirty hours (longer than most single-player games) should be enough time to satisfy player desires for individual character development. The main challenge here is probably just changing the expectations of veteran MMO gamers.
WE CAN HAVE IT BOTH WAYS
None of this is to suggest that the old system of one main, continuous character is a system that should be replaced. I just don't think it's the only viable way.