Space for a new style of MMO?

My uncle's dead 'ardAs you may know if you've read my earlier posts, I'm basically a Second Lifer, but in the interests of research and writing for Massively, I've tried Runescape, Dofus, Oberin, Vendetta Online and World of Warcraft. You may also have noticed a number of first impressions posts but relatively little follow up.

This isn't entirely an accident. All of the games have failed to attract and keep my attention. Second Life has not. Come the end of my free month, I'm not 99% certain I won't be subscribing to World of Warcraft because it's doing the same things as the other games.

What they all do is claim to be a role-playing game, but actually they're a power-gaming game, at least to my eyes. Whilst there may be space for some debate (are Hunters or Warlocks the best solo class? What's the best sort of mage to be?) there are, essentially, few good choices in the categories and many bad ones. This leads to a structure where all that choice becomes, in fact, an illusion. This is exacerbated by the level system you see in the games. If you make your almost perfect 2 man "hunting group" in any of the games, and hunt another player 10 levels higher - let's say 2 60th level WOW characters versus one 70th level character. I'm willing to say that, despite not having got there yet (not even 60th level) my money would be on the 70th level character each time. Make the disparity bigger 1 70th level character versus 3 50th level characters, even 4 50th level characters and the money is even more firmly on the 70th level character.

The games also change their nature - at least from what I read. Take World of Warcraft again. Up to 70th I can hunt solo or in small groups. There are things I can't do I'm sure, but basically I can reach 70th level without PvP and without forming big parties and raiding. Can I advance in any meaningful way at 70th level without changing to do one or the other? Perhaps, but I'm not seeing it from what I'm reading on various blogs.

Now, levels seem to be an inherent part of every MMORPG system I've seen. If you know different and it will run under the Mac OS (I run 10.5 on a G5 Mac, so no parallels for me) please let me know. In fairness most table-top systems also have levels. But not all. GURPS doesn't. Runequest didn't. Call of Cthulhu doesn't. Instead they have a family of skills and a chance to perform competently. If you practise the skill you have a chance to improve. Your dwarf tank can try to sneak around (and could even take his armour off to help with this). He's not as likely to succeed as the person who operates the assassin and tries this all the time, and is probably dressed in dark, soft leather. I guess Runescape tries to do this, but my experience of it was so poor I gave up in disgust. What little I did see made me suspect that although levels were disguised the same leveling issues were there in fact.

What makes Runequest and Call of Cthulhu unique is that a starting character has a chance, albeit a small one, to defeat an experienced character. Put a fully tanked up Rune Lord of Humakt up against 1,000 basic skeletons and the chances are the skeletons will win. Put him into a duel with 3 good initiaties of Humakt - the same idea as the 1 level 70 vs 3 level 50 characters in World of Warcraft, and the 3 initiates will probably win, they will certainly stand a decent chance. The "monsters" are often not monsters in the sense of an ooze, they are, in the truest sense NPCs, with their own strengths, weaknesses, spells and abilities.

Am I the only person that would like to see a totally different approach to MMORPGs? Would you like a game system that encourages good role-play rather than powergaming? Even a system where the distinction between PvP and PvE is irrelevant? A system that allows teams, or solo play all the way without a big change in styles?

Would you sign up for such a game? Why, or why not? What other styles of games would you like to see?

This article was originally published on Massively.