One of the fun things about the world in Farcry 4 is that events don’t feel as fake as they do in MMOs. For instance, when PQs were first introduced in Warhammer, they were new and fun. By the time Guild Wars 2 used the idea, it felt tired, old, and fake (especially when compared to that disaster of a manifesto). The events being marked on your map, the by-the-numbers repetition, and the odd insistency that these ‘random’ events need to be heavily scripted all leads to them being far short of what they should be.
To return to the Farcry example, seemingly at random Karma events will happen, whether it’s a fight between the two factions, a supply truck that you need to steal/destroy, or a messenger speeding on an ATM you can intercept. These aren’t major pieces of content, and if you want you can fully ignore them, but they also don’t feel as staged or as forced as the MMO examples above.
For instance, chasing down a supply truck can be lengthy if you have bad aim, and during that chase you might run into other Karma events or just a random enemy patrol, who will join in the fight and start shooting/chasing you. Or maybe the truck will drive towards randomly spawned allies, and they in turn will shoot and possibly kill the driver, or get into a fight with whatever enemies might also be chasing you. The major highlight is that these things aren’t scripted, so sometimes the Karma event is short and easy, and other times turns into a bigger deal, and those aspects are somewhat player-controlled (first shot killing the driver basically stops the event, while again bad shooting/chasing can seriously extend and snowball it).
All of this could still be taken further, especially in an MMO. While the Karma events are fun, imagine if those supply trucks didn’t spawn at random but instead because a faction actually needed supplies moved from a real point A to a real point B? If a messenger wasn’t random but not only had a reason to go someplace, but his actual message was real as well? If outposts traded hands to really push a war in one direction or another, rather than just falling because the story said it should fall now?
Way back at the start of the MMO genre, Ultima Online tried something like this with its living ecosystem. It never made it out of beta because the players killed everything, the chains fell apart, and it just didn’t work in terms of a fun, playable game. In terms of lost potential, I’d rank UO’s abandoned living ecosystem as one of, if not the greatest, losses to the genre (which should also tell you how sad and devoid of advancement the genre has been when its first big title is also one of the most innovative). But that was in 1997; its 2015 now, and we certainly have the technology and hardware to make what was impossible in 1997 very doable.
I also don’t believe what UO tried to do is actually impossible from a player-behavior perspective. Yes, in a game where killing stuff is needed to gain skills and loot, with zero clear negatives for such killing, people are going to kill stuff. But look at Skyrim for example; does everyone kill every NPC? No, because the game rules suggest (but don’t outright prevent) that you don’t do that, and so unless you are playing a very certain style (which has its own challenges, ie guard agro), you don’t. An MMO could be designed in a similar way, leading to a more living, working virtual world. If you discourage but also account for the outliers, and create a system that not only handles them, but actively supports them, it can work.
That nothing on the horizon is even attempting to do so is disappointing, but disappointment has been the hot MMO trend for at least the last few years, now hasn’t it?