Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnSteinhauer's Opinion: To Be A Hero, Part 1Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
In general, MMOs have two approaches to the heroic progression of characters. The first, and most common, has been alluded to above. Everyone does the same string of quests which engender the same responses, and the same character growth. Some, like LOTRO tie their quests into an epic storyline in an attempt to create the illusion that your contributions matter. But, considering the thousands before you and thousands after you that will fight off the same surviving Nazgul, the only truly epic results are the better-than-average equipment rewards.
Other games, try what I would call "Dial a quest." I remember a few years back when Anarchy Online came out and I decided to give it a try. The way its quests work was that you walk up to a box that looks something like an ATM machine. It spits out a bunch of randomized possible quests and the loot rewards associated with their completion. You order your adventure (no super-sizes), go off to your own particular instance, complete the quest, and then go back to the machine for your reward. This methodology means that each quest is somewhat unique, but doesn't even attempt the illusion that what you do matters. After a few weeks of this unsatisfying technique, I went back to Asheron's Call.
Those games that have attempted to market off of a famous movie or book (such as SWG and LOTRO) have a particularly daunting task because their epic story is already written. A player would have to have lived under a rock to not know that the Emperor is doomed to take a long fall down a ventilation shaft or that Frodo is going to throw the ring into the Cracks of Doom. Nothing any player does will affect the outcome. The epic stories for those worlds are already complete.
Ultimately it's clear that the focused hero-arc of classic pen-and-paper games is not possible in the MMO world, but are there ways to make our contributions to the game matter? We'll look at some other solutions and new possibilities next time.