I started to reply with this idea to a comment in my last post, but it ballooned out as usual into its very own post.
So, the idea was discussed about having players take the role of NPC's. The idea I've had kicking around in my head for a while now is to have a world composed entirely of NPC's that all move around and do their own thing - when a player logs on, they choose an NPC to take control of.
The player is then free to do whatever they wish with that NPC, however within certain bounds. If you take control of a palace guard, he absolutely can not be forced to turn around and slaughter the royal family. However, if you take control of a brigand on the streets... well, his moral compass is a lot more askew, so he can tend more towards the ultra-violence - but he can't be made to go out on a trek to save the city (looting a dragon's lair would of course be a different kettle of fish!). And so forth.
Obviously, there would be some NPC's that would be more desirable to take over than others - your Drizzt's and your Elminster's for example. These characters would have a dynamic price based on the demand for them, and the length of time you can play one for before being logged off it would be less. There could even be some sort of system whereby players can bid on particular slots for particular characters.
The currency with which to buy play time would be accrued by fulfilling the goals of other NPC's you have taken over (i.e. take over that palace guard and defend the royal family from assassins... get points. Take over that brigand on the street and nab some purses for him... get points). Whether you want to blow all your points on playing the most famous character for 10 minutes, or playing a lesser known but still fairly powerful character for a couple of hours, is up to the player. The higher the profile of the character you take over, the more opportunity for changing the world would present itself. There would of course be free characters - peasants and beggars, you know.
So basically, I envision this world that drives along on rails of its own accord resulting from the combined action of thousands of NPC's scattered across the game world. Players can deviate the story from those rails if they work hard enough, by controlling particular NPC's at particular times. Or they can just muck around and enjoy the ride.
One objection many MMO-ites would have (I imagine) is the lack of a persistent avatar with which to identify yourself. To overcome that problem and also to add a bit of flavor, you could have the players being, say, angels or demons, who are able to possess the earth-bound NPC's in the world. In 'spirit' mode players would be able to turbo-fly all around the world, looking for a likely NPC to take control of.
This even makes for interesting faction-based warfare, with angels warring demons by proxy through their human hosts, each seeking to promote their own agenda. Or something.
Conventional MMO problems I see this system as a whole overcoming:
- People can do epic stuff in the game that changes the game world.... they will literally get their 15 minutes of fame (more frequent players will get their 15 minutes of fame more often though!)
- Players will feel like they're driving the story, but because it's governed in large part by NPC actions, they can't deviate things too much from the interesting scripted plots that the developers have in mind for the game.
- No running around in RvR looking for a fight! The armies of NPC's will already be there fighting each other, you can just take control of one and jump right in.
- No armies avoiding each other since 'not defending gives more renown noob'. The NPC's can be made very reluctant to leave their posts (unless of course the army is being routed).
- Death means something - the NPC dies. But YOU don't, you can just take over another one.
- Battles can be balanced - the developers can make sure that in a battle between 2 armies, there is an even representation of all classes. Then the players can waltz in and play whichever class they feel (of course, important battles will fill up fast, so the better you can read the flow of events in the world, the easier it will be to get into such events). No more people bringing classes to a dungeon that are incapable of beating the encounter - developers would be able to design things KNOWING what the group composition will be for each fight.
- No levels or classes or respecs needed for your character (the NPC's have all these things, and control of each one is temporary)
- No accruing endless power - you can save up for that leet NPC, but if I play once a week and you play every day and we both have enough to each take over a wizard in some epic mage duel that's about to happen, we're on the same playing field for that fight.
- Instant travel possible while in spirit mode (avoids wasting player's time) while still avoiding having armies teleport on your doorstep to ruin PvP (since the NPC's still have to walk the old-fashioned way). Also, the 'massive world' epic feeling is retained since in NPC-mode you can't teleport around the place.
- Can easily get rid of griefing while still having a massive open world (since NPC's can not make be made to do things that are too against their nature, those very against griefing can control NPC's in peaceful nations, etc). But, there's still a place for the griefers, since they can take over the murderers and brigands of the world.
- I'm sure there are others....
Anyway, discuss :)