Puzzle Pirates has a few examples of taking things like equipment and introducing them into the puzzle aspects of the game. However, what Puzzle Pirates also has done is to create tons and tons of puzzle games throughout the entire experience. While having too little is obviously a bad move, I'd rather see an MMO that takes five or six puzzle games and goes deep instead. It'd just be a matter of taking conventional aspects of the modern MMO and introducing them into puzzles.
Say there are six professions: fighter, botanist, engineer, scientist, medic and politician. Let's use the botanist as an example. This profession would involve two ways of interacting with the world at large. One involves the discovery and study of new plant life and the other is all about creating and maintaining a garden for food. Discovering and studying plant life could probably just function similar to most crafting in MMOs, while the garden part could play like a game similar to Tetris or maybe Bejeweled. As the player levels up, they're given greater challenges and various abilities to deal with them. Without going into the specifics, the goal would be to evolve both the puzzle and players' methods of solving them. It wouldn't be exactly the same with every profession, as each one of them should offer a different experience. That way, players can keep themselves entertained in the long term by working towards the mastery of each offered profession.
As for the actual colonizing part of the game, well that's simple. At launch the actual space ship that transported all the players would be in orbit around the planet. It drops a very gigantic building that will serve as the central unit of the building process. Inside it will be basic utilities, vendors, trainers, etc. Players begin by building up towards the first additional structure. While that's going on the diplomatic pursuing players will work towards choosing which building and advancements in quality of life they want to focus on. There would probably be more for diplomats to do as well, such as possibly speaking and trading with primitive human-like life on the planet. There would be much structural expanding and all of that. The whole process would take time of course, but there should still be plenty of things to do and build while the developer works on any additional updates. The trick is to allow players to do more than simply build up their colony. Giving players plenty of personal goals should keep expansion at a slower tick.
- Professions should be interchangeable so players don't have to make a new character every time they want to do something different.
- The game client should be exceedingly easy to download and install. Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms touts this feature and it will serve to the game's benefit. People like to be able to jump in and jump back out at will. This is especially true of a game that's free-to-play because people see those games as a lighter experience.
- Being free-to-play doesn't mean the game should look cheap, either. It needs to have a sleek and sexy presentation throughout. Personally, I would love to see a space colonization game that pulls from Star Trek's LCAR design slightly and add a touch of Portal or Mirror's Edge super-white, crisp look on top of it. The clean parts of the colonization ship should then be heavily contrasted by the wild planet and early version of buildings made by the players.
My ideas very likely aren't entirely perfect and I'm certainly not claiming to know how to do this thing perfectly. I wouldn't really expect anyone else to either, because the whole concept is explored ground for any videogame let alone a massively multiplayer online one. However, in the end I do think a space colonization MMO is a viable game concept. It's not an easy one, but that's what makes it so worthwhile.