Shintar's comment yesterday said a lot, perhaps more than she thought: "I can see dozens of other people doing the same quests as me right next to me, we can't all be the top ".00001% of Azeroth"."
She is both right and wrong. We can easily see that killing ten rats is an endlessly repetitive task, even without game mechanics and respawns. But the quests and kills we perform are not always of the ten rats variety, but sometimes of the heroic or assassination variety. For example, I killed Archmage Arugal, cut off his head, and turned it in for a reward. Others have done this as well. Does this mean that there are a million Arugals around for us to decapitate? Pardon the irony, but that just isn't believable.
Instead I think what we're seeing is something Blizzard, and no MMO developer wants us to realize: we're barely playing a multi-player game. Instead we're playing single-player games in the same space. Parallel Single-Player. Note that I did not even say same world. We're not in the same world. In my world, in its history, I killed Arugal. In your world, you did. In another world, someone else did, or perhaps even no one at all, and the question of how he died is unanswered.
The other players you see, they aren't proof that you're just one of many. They're all their own heroes and you are your own hero. WoW is a game of heroes. Sometimes those heroes are sent to pick up poop, but none are common grunts and all have done what they think they've done.
How would we really play in the same world? We'd need player actions to influence the world, the shared world. Arugal dies once to one player or one group. The world would have to be able to change itself. But how? There's where it gets tricky, because a randomly generated world isn't going to fit easily into a pre-determined storyline, but a manually created world to fit the storyline cannot be made as fast as players kill it. What do you do with eleven million murders? Even the real world can barely handle such massive conflict on an ongoing basis and before long we end up with a devastatingly brutal peace, which no one can bear, so we grind our economies and faction rep up again for another war.
A random world could work, with terrain which is shaped by weather, and mob leaders with randomly generated personalities, such that we can fight forever and never run out. But highly random content, at least for me, ends up inspiring nihilism. Minecraft was a lot of fun, until one day I just stopped caring. I didn't feel as if I was exploring anymore, that there was nothing to find, because it's all just random variations of what I've seen before, with no story to send me there, no reward, just random endlessness.
Then there's the whole issue of regulating progression and rewards with randomly generated content and before long the parallel single player theme park model looks pretty good.
So uh, good point, Shintar.
P.S. What's a good tag for a post like this? I've been trying to tag my posts, but ones like these don't fit any of my existing tags, at least as far as I remember them.