What about a game where your personal history has as much to do with your future development as anything else? A game where your accomplishments aren't just backstory but an integral part of your character's abilities? A game where every new encounter is a chance for your character to learn something unique? I'd love to see a game where your accomplishments are not a list of things that you've killed but a clear litany of skills learned and scars accumulated -- a game where the path to power isn't necessarily clearly marked.
Final Fantasy XI's Blue Mage system
When Final Fantasy XI introduced Blue Mages in its third expansion, there were concerns about how the class was going to work. As it stands, Square-Enix found a system that worked so elegantly it deserves an entire game based around the mechanic.
There are two very simple steps involved: learning and then equipping the ability. Learning is just a matter of fighting a monster that uses the ability in question and then defeat the monster in question. Equipping is a bit more complex, but not by much; you have a certain number of slots and a certain number of points, and you can equip only as many abilities as you have slots and points for. If you've got seven abilities and six slots, you can equip any six, so long as those abilities don't exceed your total number of points. More powerful abilities use more points, and weaker ones use fewer points, but most everything scales to your level to some extent.
This is an astonishingly flexible system that allows for an open configuration of abilities while also avoiding some of the traditional problems of same: You have to be able to engage and defeat anything that uses ability X in order to learn it, for instance. It also gives room for players to switch configurations on the fly, changing from a healing sort to a durable sort in an eyeblink. You could easily give players the full flexibility of this system or segregate abilities loosely based on a handful of archetypical classes; either would work just fine. But let's add another layer of specialization onto this.
I'm not an endgame veteran of TERA by any means, but the Glyph system has already stolen my heart. It's not unlike the Blue Mage system just discussed, which is probably part of my love for it. You learn a variety of glyphs for each ability, then equip them based on points, with more points being earned as you level up. You can glyph several elements for a single skill, glyph several skills equally, or however you like.
This is another area where class could theoretically play a role. If everyone has the same abilities but only certain classes get certain glyphs, it has a big impact on play styles. But either way, this allows you to spend a few moments kitting out your abilities and then bust out whatever play pattern you so desire. It gives you a lot of flexibility... once you have a few abilities and glyphs, anyway. But why stop here?
Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary items
The core conceit of Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary items is that you can replicate the famous named items from the books. But in a game where so much is built around individual character growth, there's no reason not to expand the system to cover all equipment. You find a sword on the ground and forge it through leveling and practice into a weapon of considerable skill.
Again, a class system could theoretically play a role here in determining what things your weapons and armor get as they level up, but it's still not necessary. Overall, it increases the importance of the equipment you use. Your sword isn't a sword for surviving enemy attacks like the usual "tank swords"; it's been forged into a superb defensive weapon because you've used it to do just that over countless battles. Like everything else, it's your accumulated experience that makes the real impact.
So there's a lot of stuff invested in how your character grows. But I haven't even talked about what the actual gameplay would be like, which is kind of a big deal.
Dungeons and Dragons Online's quest structure
This game is clearly very focused around personal accomplishements, almost like an MMO based on Greek heroes. You can't reduce the game down to something as simple as "now go kill 10 rats" to keep players interested. Whether alone or in groups, you need to ensure that every bit of content is memorable for players in some way.
Dungeons and Dragons Online does a great job of replicating the feel of contained adventures from the tabletop game by making every quest part of an instanced run of an area. This has its downsides, but it also means that everything you do has a story attached to it. It's the sort of thing that lends itself very naturally to a game that asks players for a strong sense of personal definition, don't you think? Plus, several of the game's quests have a heavy focus on solving puzzles rather than just beating things up, giving players a chance to take a break from constant one-on-one combat.
There's also the element that quests can generally be repeated and aimed toward higher difficulties, giving players a reason to come back to old content. It seems very fitting for a player to fight his way through a dungeon and earn new abilities, get back to the surface, equip those new abilities, and then dive right back down to try to accomplish more.
City of Heroes' Radio missions and bases
Of course, even with structured missions, you need a way for players to go off the rails, else everyone just does the same quests in the same order. Luckily, City of Heroes has provided an excellent template for doing just that in the form of its radio missions. They're quick bursts of content that you can just pick up and go through, with a boilerplate description behind each mission; i.e., there's a bunch of group X in location Y, so go beat them senseless.
This also helps players learn a specific ability. If you're trying to learn a skill employed by a certain kind of enemy, fighting your way through several semi-random missions featuring those enemies is probably the fast track to getting that skill.
Of course, as long as you're racking up all of these victories, you need somewhere to keep all of your stuff. I'm not a huge fan of housing in CoH on the whole, but for a trophy hall, it works well enough. Its also suited to being a hall that you may need to fight through for certain quests, and while that was an abandoned portion of the game's PvP, it could work just as well for spontaneous endgame content. Imagine if raising your fame caused you to suffer periodic attacks on things associated with your prestige (like your base), forcing you to fight back or risk losing what you'd accomplished.
Warhammer Online's crafting and Renown
Haven't I already used the idea of Renown like nine times in this? Might as well port that directly over from Warhammer Online, which had an excellent system for locational fame as well as PvP accomplishments. This could also easily tie into the aforementioned equipment and glyph systems, meaning that as you become renowned in an area or for your deeds against your enemies, you gain access to more techniques.
As for crafting, the game is already looking a bit heavy on combat and light on gear emphasis, which means that most crafting would likely be aimed at a support role. Making consumables, decorations, and the like would be well-suited to WAR's crafting, a system that I've never seen praised much, though I found it quite fun.
There are a lot more details that would need to be hammered out, but I think this sounds like the core of a pretty fun game. There'd be plenty to do, and a gentle hand, could steer it away from repetitive gameplay. A few more open elements would probably work well, but for now, here's what I'm thinking. Like the idea? Hate it? What would you add or subtract?
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