Tesh at his blog has a very good post here about both the need for work and the freedom from it, and poses a strong question:
“What would you do in an MMO (or any other game) if you didn’t have to work for gear or levels, and all your in-game wants and needs were satisfied?”
Wolfshead, who Tesh linked in his post, also had a good comment as well as his article:
“I’m not suggesting we get rid of loot but can we please have some MMOs that reward players with something other then loot?”
I responded, but after thinking a bit I felt it was inadequate. They are right, and following the break is a list of ideas of how to reward players apart from the level/gear grind and to give them a way to play when their needs are met.
In many offline games, the point of playing is to advance a storyline. This isn’t to denigrate gameplay, but a story connects gameplay and gives it context and meaning. Without it it’s still possible to make a great experience: Robotron and Tetris rely on addictive gameplay. But imagine how much weaker Halo would have been without a plot or background, however sparse. RPGS wouldn’t have moved beyond roguelikes without it.
You can focus on storyline to reward players in two ways.
-Live Storylines which are sandbox, and tend to be freeform and influencable by players
-Closed Storylines which are not, but are revealed in the course of the game through missions and cutscenes.
FFXI does closed fairly well, and for live I hear that The Matrix Online did it well in that regard. These can be a strong reward for players, because its possible to emotionally reward them as well as adding richness and depth to the world.
2. Construction and Ownership
You let players construct virtual things, or somehow restrict existing things to a form of ownership as a reward. This is different from loot or crafting as the items are external to a player character, not internal in terms of what he can use.
Building houses or books is one way, building intangibles like government or letting them vote or shape content is another. This is hard to do because it involves relinquishing power to your players, who will abuse it. Restricting existing things tends to involve formation of alliances and control of virtual space, whether you charge in-game or real life money or not.
Spinks has an idea about applying for characters here which involves both, by giving characters more power (which may or may not be used for construction) and also restricting it as an aim for players to work towards.
3. Gameplay itself
Gameplay in an MMO is not really engaging in the same sense as other games. It tends to be repetitive, stat-based, and rotation based (focusing on proper rotations of abilities timed to react to external forces, which are repetitive more than freeform. Cast Utsusemi: Ichi, count the shadows, Cast Ni to overwrite, watch the mob, recast.)
What would be a strong reward would be to make the gameplay deep enough to be its own reward. A good example is the Virtua Fighter series. While you can grind fights for a bunch of accessories to pimp out your fighter, the gameplay itself is the main reward, and is fluid and not stilted or repetitive.
What you could do is rather than focus on repetitive grinding of large amounts of mobs, focus instead on perfecting mob AI to act realistically so that advancement tends to be in terms of player skill instead of stats. Virtua Fighter at high levels provides AI models of human players. I could see a MMO modeling more realistic fighting responses that force players to think instead of react.
I would include Social Aspects as a reward, but I’m too misanthropic to really think of good rewards for it, so I wont comment.
Hopefully others can take heed of the insights in all the linked articles to make a workable alternative system of reward.