This is about a feature I miss in every Wowlike I know. That is WoW itself, Rift, Warhammer and Age of Conan. But there are many more which I haven't played yet.
It's not the kind of feature that sells well at a convention. You probably can't win players back by announcing it. But it is immensely powerful once in the game.
Do you remember the Elemental Plateau? WoWwiki notes
”The Elemental Plateau in Nagrand lies north of the Throne of the Elements. It is only reachable with a flying mount. You can find level 70 and 71 elementals of all types here, as well as Pure Water fishing spots. [..]”This plateau was a little experiment by Blizzard, that was soon given up when team B started to take over. And I can understand why. But the basic idea holds immense potential, in my opinion.
Do you remember my recent post about “How to draw players into communities”? I wrote
”You want people to meet each other repeatedly while doing content on their own. You want there to be occasions that make it socially awkward to not start talking. You want there to be a slight incentive to team up now - and in the future.”(2)
I propose to add a zone to the open world that contains mobs that drop items that are required for crafting. While Wowlikes usually don't have a player-run economy, they usually have some resources, like “essences of air” that are used for crafting. They also all have an auction house. This auction house is very important, because it allows players to access the crafting materials without actually having to gather them themselves.
Now, the Elemental Plateau of The Burning Crusade was a very small zone that was very quickly overfarmed. It also contained only mobs of equal power. Until it was overhauled it was massively overfarmed and very boring. After the overhaul it was even more boring, and still overfarmed.
The proposed zone is huge and designed in a way that it can support a lot of players. Moreover the mobs vary wildly in power. Some parts of the zone contain easily soloable mobs. Other parts contain mobs that might still be soloable, but give incentives to team up with other players. And some mobs in the zone are only beatable in a group. All mobs are clearly distinguishable by the players.
It is very important to understand that for a player who doesn't want to visit this zone ever, nothing changes. He can still buy his materials at the auction house! If properly balanced, the prices don't change! To maintain stable prices it might be necessary to sell prestige items, like mounts, in exchange for crafting materials. This way the materials stay valuable without making visiting the zone mandatory.
Some players will want to farm the materials themselves. They will visit this zone and start killing the mobs on their own.
But the smart designers that we are, it is actually slightly more efficient to team up and farm the more dangerous mobs together with other people. I want to underline 'slightly' here. It's in no way mandatory to do that. It is perhaps 10% more efficient. You can absolutely play the game on your own without any contact with other players.
Moreover, the more difficult mobs are not designed in a way that you need a tank or any kind of holy trinity. Now, this is a bit of a problem for Wowlikes, as a tank/healer combination can probably beat as many mobs as 10 DDs could. But there are ways to design around this. For example, the mobs can have mana burn abilities, penetrate armor and apply healing debuffs. It's a bit of a struggle to fight this inherent weakness of the holy trinity, but it is not impossible.
There are many ways to keep the zone interesting. For example, the mobs shouldn't always be easy to pull. The players who enter this zone managed to play the game for many, many levels up to the maximum level. If they aren't somewhat skilled by now, this is the first thing that needs to be corrected!
The player can play it safe and relax, or try to get that chest over there that is protected by three mobs. (Yes, those chests were good game design *sigh*). Special rare mobs could spawn in the zone that are a bit more dangerous, but give players a feeling of being lucky. The layout of the zone should be interesting. It shouldn't just be a flat grassland, but have some line-of-sight obstacles. To allow flying in the zone is probably a bad idea.
Playing in the zone has to keep the player's mind busy.*
What we get is a zone that gives those players something to do who like to farm crafting materials. We know that these players exist - otherwise there were no crafting materials on the AH.
However, the hidden agenda of this zone is to make players come in contact with other players in an organic way. Since grouping is slightly more efficient, they will eventually create groups with players that they meet every now and then and whose company they enjoy. They will start to talk. And so, slowly, a community is built.
And what is the downside? Well - there isn't any! Players who don't like to farm still don't have to. Goldfarmers will suddenly be met by other players and will be reported more often - but as Blizzard has just recently revealed, most gold farming is done by account hacking nowadays anyway.
The only downside is the development effort to add this zone to whatever island you have. And that's not terribly expensive! You need maybe five or six different kinds of mobs. Of course you can add many more to make the zone feel less boring and more diverse.
Game companies nowadays think that players should have instantly accessible content. Well, this content is instantly accessible. No queue times! No hassle with other players you don't like! And yet inherently social.
Finally, I heard somewhere that players actually like to do something in the open world every now and then (big surprise!). And this is very good content for an open world. Much better than open world bosses that enforce grouping! Just don't make it an instanced zone that players can queue for and are matched with cross-server randoms, please. That might look more convenient, but it completely ruins the idea behind the design.
Keeping a player's mind busy:
Information gathering (Learning, exploring, watching...)
Comprehension (Understanding, setting into context)
Coming up with courses of actions
Thinking through a course of action
Decisions, choices (calculations, incomplete information problems)
Tension (Relaxation, climaxes, adrenaline)
Gain and loss (Rewards, penalties)
Anticipation of learning, gaining, losing (Curiosity, greed, hope, fear, …)
Decisions, choices (incomparables)
A lot of stuff !