MMO Design Approach

I’ve been experiencing a recurring thread of thought on an approach to MMO design.  In short, system design should be thought of as creating tools with which the player can do stuff.  As opposed to “creating a game”, this approach has as it’s only conceit the setting of the virtual world, which includes, say, that players can do things like fly like superheroes.

It’s my impression that a virtual world is fundamentally different than a “game”.  Both are defined by rules, yes, but in the case of a “game” the players are asked to abide by rules well within the “horizon of possible actions”.  A virtual world on the other hand asks its players to abide by rules, but those rules define in and of themselves the “horizon of possible actions”.

While playing a game in real life one is quite aware of the limited scope of the rules.  In Settlers of Cattan, you could physically just place 4 extra roads.  It would be against the rules, and by breaking those rules, the game breaks.  In a virtual world such as, say, Star Wars Galaxies, the rules become the scope of what you can do, of what is even possible.  It’s not like you have a choice of whether or not to abide by those rules (EULAs and gold farming are a bit different).  In Settlers of Cattan, you have the option of abiding by the fundamental rules of the game.  In SWG, you don’t.

How does this relate back to  the “build tools, not games” bit?  I think humans look at their environment, maybe even everything, as composed of potential tools that can be used to do stuff.  That “stuff” is in a way not quite as important as the act of using tools to do it.  The satisfaction, it can be said and indeed has been said, comes from the journey to the destination; not in the destination itself.  As such, tools are what we all are looking for, and tools we will be drawn to.  Therefore, as an MMO designer, we need to make tools rather than conceits (read “games”).