In the next three to five years, a new generation of MMORPG's will begin to emerge. This new generation will accomplish an age old problem that still exists in online role playing games today. This is the problem of how to immerse a player into a role of a character while still allowing the control of what that character is defined as mostly, or completely, up to the player.
Modern MMORPG's are designed with amazing accuracy in the science of the Pavlovian experience, and the common player is capable of feeling great moments of satisfaction with the achievement of the goals that have been laid out in front them. A player can select a type of character format and pursue it with a passion only stopped by reaching the fullest level of advancement that character type is capable of attaining. In systems that are more open, the player is able to construct a character from building blocks to their hearts content until they run out of some form of currency (often skill points) to buy more building blocks with (often skills). The dynamic variety is achieved by placing systematic obstacles that act as character leveling virtual walls, pits, and swinging vines for the players to hurdle their character through in the pitfall chase to their ultimate aim; their completed and ultimate character...at least, mechanically.
MMORPG'S MECHANICS STALEMATE
The pursuit of the best mechanical character, in whatever Ken Doll variant a game has presented to a player, can only go so far until a plateau has been reached. At this point, that plateau has been reached. From the onset, MMORPG's had far more trialling issues to face down before they could begin working on any problem of role playing character immersion. Now, however, it is obvious that the developing industry has all but mastered the engineering feats to accomplish nearly any form of mechanics imaginable. The only challenge that exists in the realm of mechanics is in striving to achieve a newer and more dynamically alterable interpretation of the same mechanics while pushing the boundaries of efficiency in streamlined usability; allowing a player to express their desires easily and intuitively with such mechanics without compromising the game's integrity. It is obvious, and painful, to any frequenter of the MMORPG fare, that the cry from players for newer developments in mechanics isn't really about a newer method of the same mechanics existing, but really about a new approach to the game entirely; literally, new mechanics. As to what those new mechanics are, however, has continued to elude the industry and players.
THE PROBLEM OF PLAYERS
These "new mechanics" are actually the very thing that gets regularly ignored by developers when sounded against the other, more pressing, issues that arise on the table of the usual complaints and praises found surrounding the typical MMORPG. Of course we are referring to that of role playing. There are plenty of arguments between "carebears" and "player-killers" on precisely the issue of the developmentally unmarked territory of role playing. Of which are regularly dismissed since there is not a control function within the game's constructs for such a feature. Because of this we have pro-role-playing and anti-role-playing players who's arguments for and against role playing are as follows:
Most pro-role-playing players are wanting more character role play to exist in the game because they want a game about character; some to the point of purism. Anti-role-playing players are generally content with the current construct of the games focus; that of the Pavlovian-mechanics-driven structure. Since role playing is something that the developers have not presented into the game for the players, it becomes a highly volatile passion of playing style (rather than format) and gets lost into the mix of debates on game playing ethics and etiquette.
THE DEBATE THAT DOESN'T EXIST
The developing industry is right to ignore this conversation, though, as there is nothing that they have been able to do about this issue. As such, it is not an issue that a developer can solve for the debating fan fare, as developers can only offer mechanics. Regardless of what everyone thinks, however, this debate regarding how or if to role play does not matter. It does not matter because it will occur naturally as an extension of the mechanics. It will not be separately inserted as a rule-binding code of honor, conduct, ethic, or etiquette as some suggest. Nor will it be sloppily inserted like a bastardized adoption of ye old D&D alignment system. No, it will be a natural extension of the mechanics that will progressively become more intuitive and nearly invisible as time goes on.
THE SHIFT OF FOCUS
Presently, the gaming world at large is still working off of the same principles founded at the end of the 19th century when pinball machines began to emerge. This principle is that the player bounces off of the world. Players will bounce off of players, but as far as this is concerned this doesn't much change the way the player bounces against the world. Consider basic systems like Mario: a simple two dimensional world that does not change; it is the same level each time it is played. Changing Mario's superpowers seems like the world changes how it interacts with the player, but it really just changes how Mario bounces off of the world. This concept exists in MMORPG worlds via mobs, quests, missions, computer characters, the character look and feel staying the same unless external objects or services are applied, to name a few. What will happen, as the new generation of MMORPG's emerge, is that the world will instead begin to bounce off of the player. This will mean that Mario will make a choice of where to go on the level and find that his superpowers shift accordingly to that choice, on a basic level. More appropriately, the world, character, avatar, and other players will react to a players choices accordingly. This is by no means, a small shift of focus. This is a shift that changes everything about how a game is played. For the player, this will mean that choices of statistical gain and general ethical conduct will be one in the same set of choices, or at least incredibly linked together. The concept of a chivalrous knight stepping up to any possible chance for combat will not be an option for long for that player, as doing so will result in an eventual shift from being a chivalrous knight into a more brute warrior standard character with less chivalry. This, of course, will result in a change of options statistically and mechanically as well as socially.
THE MECHANICS OF ROLE PLAYING
Usually when people think of role playing and mechanics they cringe at the idea of being forced to speak in bastardized Elizabethan English and being confined to behaving certain ways according to their character archetype. However, games such as Fable and Spore have shown that such a concept is not only not necessarily true, but flat out wrong. The ability of a game to allow a character to evolve continually and dynamically in every respect of the character will simply be done by anchoring actions, activities, speech (to computer players at least) selection into a continually tracking system that constantly tabulates the points that each of these choices are worth in the evolutionary direction the player is taking the character. As this is done, the world and players will react differently to the player and the player will react differently to the world. Even the physical appearances will be evolving based on these choices. A character will grow more muscular as they increase their hard labor, or battle involvement choices. Counter to this, the character will lose muscle mass as they increase choices that are not involved in hard labor or battle involvement. In some games, the look of regrown broken bones and scar marks may emerge on characters, and contain memorable information about a point in time that such things were gained (creating a time-line connection between the player and the character, similar to the concept explored in Spore). Different material to wear, use, and own will cease and become available accordingly to these choices as well. A player may find certain groups of players, missions, or computer players attracted to them for one reason or another involving their continual choices (similarly seen in some respects in Star Wars Galaxies). On a smaller scale, even with in the example of a warrior form of character, the evolution of the character's choices in combat may push more options in training skills and weapon/armor choices that lead from a short sword over to a halberd. Again, completely based on choices that the character is making inside of the combat arena and mixed with all of the other choices as well. The character will literally form around the player's choice of playing style and evolve with any changes in the player's playing style over time. The world will dynamically interact with the player, and the player will look less like a player and more like a character.
GAME (never) OVER
The advent of highly efficient and well oiled MMORPG systems like World of Warcraft have succeeded in pushing the classical Netonian mechanics of MMORPG's to their fullest potentials. It is because of this and the demand by players for a more full exposure to a truly immersive environment that a pioneering in Metaphysical mechanics in MMORPG's will be the next explosion in the revolution of the genre. The day of this new intelligent and rapidly evolutionary reactional game is inevitably close. Look to the offline games and see for yourself tomorrows MMORPG's. And then step back and smile at the potential.
The future, is wild.