Eric Sniff and I were having a conversation on MMORPGs today starting with Age of Conan and eventually ending at SecondLife.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (AoC) is an upcoming MMORPG that is based on the character and fantasy world created by Robert E Howard back in 1929. They are doing several things fairly interesting with this MMORPG starting with how you get into the game: you start off isolated in single-player mode within a fixed area playing until you develop your character to a certain degree and generally become familiar with the controls. It then transitions into the multiplayer world alongside everyone else. It solves a common current issue of game development and getting started on multiplayer games (dealing with noobs). The game is visually gorgeous, on par or perhaps better than Oblivion, one of the top single-player games of 2006.
One interesting aspect of the game is that rather than fixed predetermined attacks ('press this button for "slash"'), it is much more analog allowing more realistic combat. This means you actually have to direct the sword where to hit. This exact same feature is what I liked about another game available for the Nintendo Wii, Red Steel. (ok so I really do like swordfighting, and not just in real life)
The Wii itself is raising a new phenomenon in game, that of 3D motion-sensitive game controllers, where you have to move the controller around to perform an action, rather than simply a joystick or by pressing buttons. The Wii Remote and Nunchuk is changing how people play games rather than what they play. For example, if you're playing tennis, you have to wave the Remote around like a bat. Just look at what everyone is doing with it: tennis, bowling, fishing, swordfighting, etc.) It's only starting out and there's not a huge selection of games, but I for one am excited that this new direction is succeeding. Rather than playing an ever increasing war of more complex systems--not that I mind the improvements in graphics--Nintendo came up with real outside-the-box innovation. Now if it will only spread to PCs and other consoles.
This kind of playability got us talking about other issues of MMORPGs. This introduces even more information about each player's movements that have to be conveyed across the network to other players. It would be interesting if it strikes a good balance between playability and performance with this level of complexity. Some of it lies in the problem of managing servers... I'll come back to that.
Where most MMORPGs require a lot of work in development is filling out the world. SecondLife which is not a game in particular but still a MMO system solves this by letting users develop the world. That however results in a wide variety in the environment from the well-made to the random garbage and litter. But the question remains: can you design an MMO where the game is networked and functions peer-to-peer style, rather than a multi-server based system run by a company like most MMORPGs.
With most true peer-to-peer systems, each client itself is smart enough to provide the application environment and only the peers that interact exchange traffic, rather than a more centralized system of servers (even if distributed). Games like AoC have the capability to display everything in one user's direct view in 3D, but it works well when all that data is local on the drive. If new data was available (new buildings, environment features, etc.) in each peer, they would need to be transferred to other peers that interact with them, and in a 3D world, that may be a lot of data.
SecondLife does a slightly different model I believe (I only understand the server system on a basic level), where each island is a server and all avatars on that island are essentially on the same server. When you move off an island by walking, flying or teleporting, it transfers the avatar object to the other island. This can be slow in redrawing all the details when receiving the data a bit at a time. This isn't bad or incorrect, it is a matter of complexity and traffic.
Who knows? The net certainly has grown by a billion percent since the old days of text muds with a max of 3000 simultaneous players. Game development has reached magnitudes of greater sophistication. MMORPG players today simply demand a lot more and there are a lot more of them. They're certainly taking over or replacing other forms of entertainment (in terms of dollars).
SecondLife, playability, Nintendo Wii and the Age of Conan