Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fond Memories of Alterac Valley

The reduction of PvP from a world-spanning conflict to arena matches was, along with PvE instancing and the emphasis on loot drops instead of a player economy, one of the main causes for the loss of the persistent world concept in online games. In World of Warcraft, oddly enough as it was one of the chief perpetrators of lowest-common denomination, there was one brief moment when it seemed the developers were trying for a true compromise and not all-out abandonment of large-scale PvP.

WoW's first PvP arena, Alterac valley, was created for two teams of 40 players. While this was a leap down from the scale of true MMO PvP it was still larger than normal PvP games which rarely jump the 30-player mark for each team.
More importantly, Alterac had a multitude of objectives, both PvP and PvE, which benefited greatly from organization on the part of the players. The central objective was a linear progression through the valley from control point to control point against the tide of the enemy team, but these could be captured out of order, making a competent group of stealthers highly valuable. There were contributions to be made in advancing the team's NPC support, mobs to be farmed (some behind enemy lines) side objectives to be captured, enemy NPCs to assassinate, etc.

Even at the front lines there was much more to do than mindlessly hack 'n slash. Forty players are enough to offer variety and complexity, but still small enough that a coordinated group of 3-5 players could make all the difference. It was enough to open up all sorts of possibilities for tactics. Flanking the enemy for a surprise charge against their ranged attackers or baiting them away from the main fight using a small group of harassers worked wonders. Well-timed deployment of NPC waves could sweep a team into a decisive advantage.
Instead of expanding on this fairly good attempt at a compromise in the scope of player conflict, it was of course abandoned. Everything since then in MMOs has been smaller and smaller, petty, simplistic arena fights with no other objective than measuring dick size against such-and-such champion leet-dood.

Such large-scale arenas, fifty players on a team or so, could easily form the basis for a persistent world's PvP system while still leaving the world itself as a gank-free PvE environment. However, they would have to be tied into the PvE resources. Winning a PvP match should give a faction or guild access to a new vendor, a new town, maybe a new zone to hunt in. For instance, in a game with five factions, access to any top-level PvE zone could be granted to only three of the factions at a time based on PvP victories.
The reverse can also be true. PvE successes could translate into better stats, more consumables or a better starting position on the battlefield for that faction's PvP teams.

The tricky part is limiting griefing and parasitism. The game would need various ways to punish or exclude players who are not pulling their weight. One way would be to allow guilds to police things. Let each PvP match have a designated guild who will get the rewards. The guild can then allow access to those rewards to whomever they wish. When fighting for control of towns, some benefits could apply to the entire faction while others would be determined by guild leaders. Day or week or month-long cooldowns could be applied to guilds to ensure that they are not monopolizing any particular PvP reward, keeping it from the rest of the faction.

The main thing that felt right about Alterac Valley was the interconnection between various PvP and PvE goals. Even if PvP is limited to Arena matches, player actions should still permeate the game world. Successes in PvP and PvE should shift control of various objectives, advancing a faction or guild toward world domination.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Should I watch Prometheus?

One of the original Alien movie's strong points was the aliens' own origin as part of the terror of the unknown. It's the nightmare scenario of a hostile first contact. They evolved on their own, who-knows-where and without any cause, by accident as evolution always happens. By accident, they prey on humans. The viewer was denied the comfort of an explanation, the sense of control afforded by more detailed knowledge of one's enemy.

By now, anyone who's heard of Prometheus has likely heard of its new take on the background story. The aliens are created beings, products of a master race's exogenesis project. As i understand it, so are humans.

Aside from a simple feeling of 'that bites' i also have an issue with the larger trend. I see it as tied into (not necessarily stemming from but sharing a root twinge of anomie among the masses) the growing religious revival we've seen in the past decade. The human animal, presumably having too much time on his brain, has found it idly doing the devil's work, pointing out its bleak, purposeless, lonesome existence in an uncaring universe. As it turns out, nihilism and the simian drive for food an' fuckin' are not as compatible as hedonism would suggest. Faced with their insignificance, apes seek comfort in fairy tales.

The big bearded father figure in the sky is only the most obvious manifestation of such straw-grasping. Those who deny the religion in which they were raised often turn to vague mysticism or the ever-facetious fence-sitting of agnosticism, or, if they're more desperate for attention and want to modernize their delusions, aliens as comforting superior beings. Put a halo on E.T. and he's just another angel.

The original aliens were a Lovecraftian blunt, inexplicable, malefic force, at least as far as their victims are concerned. They terified the audience not only by being horrific killers but by having nothing over them, a law unto themselves, unchecked and as free in their decision-making as the human race. There was no greater plan or meaning. The two species were just accidents of pattern preservation, products of evolution meeting as randomly as they came into being. Putting a deified progenitor race above them lessens their sheer presence. Putting the same angels above humans as well, creates a situation where the humans lose agency and fall into the pattern of praying for the inevitable deus ex machina, calling for daddy Yahweh to step in and break up the fight.

I'm not scandalized specifically by the movie's pandering to its audience's new tastes, since i'm sure it does that in many other ways as well, but by the fact that it's pandering to a very real moral failing which prevents humans from taking much-needed control over themselves.

Then again, it's supposed to be a pretty pretty flick. I'm allowed to like special effects, right? Anyone? Come on Promethean aliens, remove my burden of free will.

Social Engineering in Persistent World Games

As anyone who's exchanged even a few words with me could attest, i detest almost everyone. Humans are trash. The physical world is hopelessly controlled by trash. There is no room for thinking individuals.

Persistent virtual worlds hold the great promise of creating trash-free societies. If you want a moral-cleansed wonderland, head into the matrix and build one. However, it's not enough to simply find like-minded individuals and talk things over. The wicked must be punished.

A persistent world game is an ideal venue for would-be social engineers not only because of the possibility of finding worthwhile individuals, but because they can allow us to set ourselves in opposition to those we hate. It's the only way we might be able to fight the good fight. In the globalized corporate state, the handful of intelligent humans are easily divided and conquered. In a virtual world game, a dozen players can at least carve out a role for themselves. They will always be at a disadvantage, but never completely defeated.

The problem is that MMOs have persistently worked away from any system which might allow superior minds to assert themselves. Everything wrong with WoW-clones, the emphasis on repetitive grinding, the predictable, unchanging monster AI, the reduced scale and scope of PvP, the lack of consequences for player actions, has been implemented partly to even the playing field. By this i mean that game developers have deliberately removed player ability from the equation. There is no room for planning, strategy, tactics or foresight. Intelligence is a taboo.

This also means that groups of players tend to be carbon-copies of each other (much like the individual players) because there's simply no possibility of developing a group identity. You can't hurt each other and even if you do it only means a trip to the graveyard. Nothing lost, nothing gained, just the pissing contest of who 'pwnzored' whom. You can't steal from each other, even to the limited extent of stealing each others' monster spawns, because they respawn instantly. Every guild ends up with one of two descriptions:
1. We's liek awesome an we pwns all
2. We're a group of friends, almost like a family, who never do anything even remotely interesting but constantly reassure each other that being 'nice' and 'mature' are the ultimate virtues.
In games in which morality matters because player actions have consequences, where there would be meaningful choices to make, groups of players would have a much greater tendency to form according to shared mentality and the value placed on one another. Much of what has been labelled 'drama' in older games, the fights over loot, the name-calling after someone gets corpse-camped, is the natural divide between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, however it may be defined.

There is a satisfying side-effect of this divide. In games without consequences, leet-kiddies flock to each other based only on their superficial similarity in behavior. As long as you never challenge the contemporary youth culture, you're in. They are artificially prevented from screwing each other over and splintering as they normally would as soon as they find some loot to fight over. On the other hand, the truer a persistent world, the more important it becomes to find guilds which can abide by the logical rules of cooperation and fair-play. I've had quite a few otherwise despicable, worthless, normal human beings stick around in nerdy guilds i've been a part of, simply because while they would've gladly called me and my ilk 'fags' and 'nerds', ours was the only guild that never screwed them over.
In situations where their type gained control of the guild, things rapidly declined.

So how would my dream guild, Nerdburg, Geeksville or as i'd probably call it, Transcendence, actually appear?

Ground rules. (Thou Shalt Nots)

Don't cheat. This includes legitimized cheating. Don't exploit imbalances in the game mechanics. Don't pay for advantages.

Play to lose. Make things difficult for yourselves, taking on interesting challenges. Waste time exploring, roleplaying, and just generally playing the game instead of trying to win it. This means you'll farm less than others. It means you'll be behind in kill counts, etc. It means you have your priorities straight.

Don't brag. You are more intelligent than your opposition. Despite the fact that they outnumber you, that they're griefers who play only to be able to show off and they will cheat whenever possible, you will occasionally show them up, in a big way. Don't engage in their dick-measuring contest at that point. At most, make their abject failure known. Don't sink to the level of forum warriors.

No random player-killing. You're nerds. You will have enemies a-plenty without looking for them. Consider all players neutral to start with. Compile a blacklist (any PvP MMO would have it implemented as a game mechanic) and be merciless against those who have proven themselves deserving of death, but leave random players alone.

Don't compromise. The only excuse for siding with the rabble is turning one group of leet-kiddies against another.

Don't shy away from controversy. You are capable of morality while your enemies are not. This does not imply you have to be 'nice' or friendly to everyone.
They make friends because this is the instinctive means of forming socially advantageous alliances. It is a thoughtless process, a matter of grinning, winking and general facetiousness.
You band together because you consciously recognize yourselves as equals.
Be merciless against your enemies. Steal from them, bomb their nunneries, kill their women and children first.
Be merciless against each other. If anyone inside the guild does something wrong, call them out on it.

Pull your own weight. If you want others to do your fighting for you, don't expect an equal share of the loot. If you want others to gather resources for you, don't expect them to also do the same amount of fighting as you. This is not a system of social interdependence. We are not fundamentally indebted to each other. Guild resources are to be used primarily for greater goals, not spread out to members for individual gratification.

My guild will not be a democracy. It certainly will not be a representative republic or a socialist state. Play for ideals, not for instant gratification or to keep things easy for yourself. It would be a totalitarian dictatorship. I created it, i call the shots. When i leave, it will be disbanded. The social experiment called Transcendence is my toy. It is up to me to ensure that it works well for its members. The chain of command will likely consist of only a couple of 'go-to' trusted individuals to keep things organized, but respect it anyway. Aside from being a dictatorship, it's anarchy. Do as you please. Kill who you think best, farm where you want, say what you will. When you prove that you're not the type of person with whom i'd like to associate myself, you get the boot. Simple as that. No bureaucracy.


Now then... it's just a matter of waiting a couple of decades for a true MMO to be created. I'll probably have starved to death in the back of an alley by then. Carry on my legacy, anonymous future reader!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Huntards & co.

I'm sorry to say that i have and probably will keep calling various players huntards. It's one of my few digressions from my otherwise fanatically anti-leetspeak, anti-slang of any kind and by extension anti-jargon (in general) stance.

Aside from being a fairly crude pun, this linguistic fabrication merits little explanation in itself. It arose in online fantasy games, probably in World of Warcraft or at the earliest Everquest, from the observation that many players who choose the hunter class tend to be the dumbest of the dumb-by-definition population of such games. They're the ones who can't grasp the concepts of fairplay, teamwork, tactics, or basically anything other than "me shoots stuff an' gets phat lewt."

Oddly enough, nobody seems willing to look at the larger trend. Huntards are only one facet of players' mentality as predicted by their choices of class, faction, weaponry and in general anything pertaining to playing style or personal aesthetics.

Let's start with class-based games. Say you offer players a choice of roles to fill in future teams. Ya gotcher nerds in dresses wavin' batons around to reshape the fabric of reality, do-gooders mending all ills around them, masochists in tin cans jumping in first to get slapped around... and then you've got a bunch of sadists who want to make no sacrifices in personal glory for the good of the team, who want to be the ones puttin' da hurt on enemies indiscriminately while their team works to protect, heal and support them. To be the star of the show, the one making the kill, a sadist pampered and babysat by all others around you while you carry out the simplest possible task by standing there hitting things, in what world would this mentality not also represent the most idiotically vicious segment of a population?
The worst of humanity is animal nature. It is thoughtlessness, life un-analyzed and without ideals. The instinctive desire to be socially superior to all those around oneself, to give orders, be able to hurt others with impunity, flout rules even while imposing them, this is instinct. In computer game terms, anything that lets players make themselves look good or hurt others by taking advantage of an imbalance will attract the worst morons around, those who cannot even imagine questioning their instincts.

The most obvious example is indeed that which encompasses "huntards" in class based RPGs: damage-dealing. In WoW-clone games, hunters are the classic DPS class. They sit back out of harm's way and have no duty but to hit something until it dies.
The extent to which other classes draw idiots largely depends on their approximation of the "just hurt stuff" ideal. Dungeons and Dragons set the tone by introducing the "sorcerer" class. Instead of nerdy masters of the arcane arts carefully preparing for battle, sorcerers were created to be able to spam damage spells. They blurred the distinction between spellcasting and simply "throwing stuff at the enemy" like nonmagical classes. Rogues underwent a similar simplification in online RPGs by removing their role as trap-finders, thieves and infiltrators and focusing simply on poking whatever they run across with sharp things.
Other classes, the usual tanks, crowd control and healers, were also given damage-dealing methods which started to attract the rabble. Companies attempted to excuse this by citing player complaints about the slow pace of solo gameplay compared to damage classes which could grind through the endless timesink of levelling, gear-farming and reputation-farming much faster. They were, of course, unwilling to remove the grinding or the endless soloing in games they were marketing as multiplayer.

An odd example of mechanics which gain appeal simply by becoming overpowered in some situations is invisibility, or stealth. If one were to look at single-player or PvE games, it's a safe bet that stealth is largely underused. When offered the choice between sneaking past an enemy and killing it, most players will take the instinctively satisfying option of beating its brains out then pissing in its skull. That's what we do as homicidal apes. In PvE, stealth has to be pushed on players. In PvP, it's almost impossible to balance invisibility so that not every single player needs it. This is because it's inherently overpowered against thinking opponents. Ironically, WoW-clone customers choose to be rogues because they want to avoid sneaking. They want to be invisible until the moment when they decide to strike. It's a way of avoiding the embarrassing necessity of out-planning, out-positioning, out-maneuvering and generally out-thinking one's enemies. It allows the idiots to just choose easy fights.
Rogue, spy or infiltrator classes, in PvP games, attract not only sadists but cowardly sadists, the ones afraid to even get hit. This could easily be fixed by simply not giving such classes high damage, but companies are currently unwilling to move away from the archetypes which seemed to sell so well for World of Warcraft.

One constant and fairly obvious measure of a player's mentality is his choice in weaponry, guns and swords as phallic overcompensation. Given a choice, most gamers routinely pick the weapon which does the single greatest amount of damage, ignoring other benefits. They don't think in terms of covering fire, stopping power, weapon reach, blocking ability, etc. Sniper rifles tend to be the most consistent example in FPS games. Not only do they satisfy the cowardice requirement, giving their user an excuse to hide behind his teammates, but they are usually given much higher damage than other weapons. The argument that they require greater finesse on their user's part falls flat in the same way that the rogues' invisibility is a means of avoiding sneaking around. It's a way of hitting unsuspecting enemies, not by outmaneuvering them but by simply being safely out of their reach. It depends on nothing but aim, twitch reflexes. In PvP games, regardless of whether your team needs them or not, you can expect to have half a dozen snipers sitting back expecting you to keep the enemy busy for them while they safely sit back and take potshots.

Lastly, let's not ignore machismo in its purest form. If, aside from phallic symbols, we were to seek one representative masculine trait, it would be "burly." In fantasy RPGs, it's the munchkins who want to be barbarians, knights in shining armour or claymore-wielding highlanders who can be expected to be muscleheads diving into any fight regardless of roleplaying or tactics.
In other games, stats tend to take on the role of "burliness" with players comparing dick size in terms of their kill count, maximum hit points, highest single-damage hit, etc. They parade these stats around just as though they were parading around in muscle shirts in real life. The cretins who play for titles, for 'achievements' or for ranks are just another facet of the stupidity of the dick-measuring, blindly, idiotically sadistic majority.

And they usually play hunters.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Bruno started in 1997. In a remarkable effort for a work so obviously imbued with blood, sweat and tears, Christopher Baldwin kept it going for eleven years, 3-7 times a week with a couple of breaks. It centered on the fairly mundane (by comic-book standards) adventures of an introverted, obsessive nonconformist. She drops out of college, tries to write, connects with other maladapted apes and loses these connections, tries to re-form them and abandons them again. She travels and gets scared of the wide world, she grows homesick and rediscovers her hatred for the places she abandoned. She gets run through the wringer for her egoism by those she's grown fond of even as they try to step in and save her from herself. She works menial jobs even as she tries to maintain her intellectual high ground.

In short Bruno is an amalgam of a great many qualities shared by misanthropes, self-hating narcissists and would-be philosophers. For those who can identify with such a personality, she makes a very appealing character. For those who cannot, she may still offer interesting glimpses of the inner life of introverts. At one point, i remember Baldwin himself saying that he likely semi-consciously created Bruno as a Jungian anima of himself. Certainly, the strip hit me pretty hard being one of the first i discovered that were worth reading while i was myself fresh out of high school and only beginning to butt heads with society at large.

There is little more i can say to present the strip. If you like Bruno herself, you'll like the rest of it. Her most concise characterization probably comes from one of the main recurring characters, in the last panel on this page.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Called it!"

One of the most aggravating aspects of playing League of Legends is being surrounded not only by idiots, which is inevitable when interacting with humans, but by idiots who still think they're in kindergarten. Granted, many of them really are children, as the game is free to play and attracts those without credit cards. This does not explain the prevalence of the following behavior.

The game has a pick order. The five players on a team are arranged from top to bottom. They pick in order from top to bottom. Regardless of what this mechanic is based on, for any individual team's purposes it is an objective means of determining who gets to pick his favorite role on the team first. Every player will sometimes land in the first or last spot.
Regardless of this, as soon as the selection pre-game timer starts, players will start spamming chat with "i'm top" or "i'm not playing support". This is the equivalent of siblings "calling shotgun" on car trips or "calling" playing the cops in cops and robbers. What's more amusing is that League of Legends is by no means full of children. The adults in the game, at the very least college-aged, have regressed to this schoolyard mentality in a remarkable example of Stockholm syndrome. The depths of stupidity reachable in this way are staggering.

Case in point: I'm the second player on the list, i pick my role, the third player immediately picks the same role because 'he called it'. Everyone else tells me i'm wrong. The conversation progresses somewhat like this:

"Dude OMG u suck noob!"
"He's below me in the list, i pick before him, i'm in the right"
"Dude you like gotta learn to be a team player"
"How is it 'being a team player' to give him whatever he wants regardless of the actual pick order simply because he demands it?"
"He didn't demand it, he called it!"

Friday, September 7, 2012

R.I.P. Paragon City

City of Heroes is shutting down. Good riddens. Also, i'm sorry to see it go. There are a few of these MMOs which have shown great potential, despite their monumental failure in achieving even the smallest part of it. They remain as paragons of the best qualities they might have had. It's mostly tied into their setting, with the inevitable failure coming from mistakes in gameplay mechanics. There was A Tale in the Desert for village life, EVE for spacefaring and now The Secret World for dark fantasy. High fantasy would probably be a toss-up between Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot form what i hear but i can't give an informed opinion on that, sadly, as i passed them up.

What City of Heroes offered was overblown, overstated, overly-dramatic golden-age superheroism, but as i complained in my main post about the game, it sold this concept out to what its developers thought would amount to mass-appeal. Instead of making a game for comic-book nerds, they tried to appeal to leet-kiddies, powergamers, casual gamers, griefers and every other facet of online gamer stupidity, while not scaring anyone away. This lowest-common-denominator approach was what killed the project years ago. That it's been limping along since then with more and more desperate changes to attract new costumers, down to copying LOTRO's free-to-play system gimmick-for-gimmick, is meaningless. It died as soon as the development team started desperately copycatting everything they saw in their competitors.

Let's take a look at some of the nails in CoH's coffin as represented by phrases from the face-saving attempt linked above.

"a realignment of company focus and publishing support"
Realignment from funding years of idiotic last-ditch attempts to boost the game's popularity while never fixing what was wrong with it in the first place? Yes, for once, i'm going to side with the publisher on this one. What needed to be fixed was the lack of true complexity and challenge to the gameplay mechanics and the focus on the level-grind. What you did instead was make the game easier and easier then give players more incentives to roll up new characters and level-grind all over again. CoH's levelling structure had no payoff. There was no carrot to chase. Getting a character to level 50 meant abandoning it. Playing a new one meant being forced to play through the same grindfest over and over again. It was dull. All the acts of desperation like adding PvP, flashy new powersets or trying to scam players into spending money in a 'free'-to-play system did nothing to fix the core issue. The game, as a game, was not worth playing. Realignment? You got fired, and you mostly deserved it long ago.

"the world's first, and best, Super Hero MMORPG"
Well, no kidding, it was the only one worth mentioning, mainly because most companies wouldn't touch the superhero setting with a ten foot pole. Superheroes do good deeds. As a rule, humans want to do bad things and be told they're being good. This is why the fantasy setting is so attractive, as it centers on the moral imperative to kill, kill, kill and be applauded because orcs and devils are by definition evil. Superheroes don't kill.
What's more, as CoH's writers obviously found out, it's much more difficult to create outlandish stories without the all-purpose cop-out of 'magic' to fall back on. As the years dragged on, magic began to dominate the game, eclipsing the modern-day superhero setting. Croatoa, Cimerora, giving the lead hero and villain NPCs a shared magical background, the majority of the villain storylines, all subverted the urban, comic-book feel with demons and fairies.

"These developers are some of the most creative and talented people in the gaming industry. To any potential studios looking to grow your team; hire these people. You won't regret it"
There are a few parts of the development team which i'd like to see working on a new game. Graphic artists, character designers, sure. CoH lasted as long as it did just because of the fun of playing dress-up. Some of the mission dialogue was decently in touch with comic-book style. Even whoever created the original sound effects at the game's launch deserves praise. However, the development team as a whole, especially the decision-makers, are tainted by the utter failure of the project to grasp what it had to offer. When hiring an ex-Paragon employee, could you be sure you're not getting the one who, when designing the shadow shard, thought it was a good idea to make it a gigantic expanse of purposeless, useless space?

"To our Community,
Thank you. Thank you for your years of support. You've been with us every step of the way, sharing in our challenges, encouraging us to make City of Heroes better, more than everyone else thought it could be."
No. Nonono. No! Catering to the whims of the idiotic masses is what killed the game. Pretty much every bad decision was obviously made for the sake of popularity. What CoH needed was a central vision and a coherent development plan. What it got was a scramble to put in everything some ten-year-old brat demanded on the forums.
The warzones were development timesinks that came about because of thoughtless little brats demanding PvP.
The shadow shard was the epitome of the worst aspect of online games, the grind, an attempt to be the MMOiest of MMOs.
Every time some cretin cried that a powerset wasn't powerful enough, the game became easier, until it simply wasn't worth playing.
The emphasis on instancing destroyed the community aspect, the feel of walking through a real city which developers tried so hard to achieve at launch, because it's the 'must-have' of cost-cutting measures for MMOs and it's simplistic enough to appeal to leet-kiddies.

Last, the coup de grace:
"Don't dwell on the "how" or the "why""
Yes, please don't anyone analyze the ways in which we've managed to fuck up our chance at making something great. The emperor's new clothes look magnificent.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Clerics and their pet gods

I've never been happy with the way divinities are handled by role-playing games. For a cleric / priest / choirboy in any D&D inspired computer game a choice of deity, if present at all, is purely cosmetic. There is no fundamental difference between the religious and the nerdy approach to spellcasting, and there is so much that could be done to change that. The biggest issue is that players get control over the deity they like. They are not subject to the whims of a cosmic force, there is no interaction and 'gods' are merely tapped as a resource for spellcasting on the player's terms.

I'm reminded of one particular example of an alternative style which vastly improved the game experience.
Once upon a time, there was a delightful little browser strategy/RP game called Aventia. Long-time players could apply to the game's designer to become deities, god of what-have-you, founding their own religious orders. Regular players would choose to worship this or that god. Occasionally, your god might smile on you, gifting you with a bonus to your resource harvest, a unicorn or demon to lead your army, etc. You could also pray to the player-deity and be rewarded for your roleplaying with divine favour.

There is no practical reason why this could not be done in other games, especially in persistent-world games. Game-masters, if they're paid staff whose salary would give developers more leverage in policing their actions, would be decidedly preferable to actual players but there are a number of ways in which players could 'ascend' and have their divine actions limited through game mechanics.

I'll try to separate the possibilities and possible issues into bottom-up and top-down mechanics to deal with player-god interaction.

The main duty of a 'god' or other superior being would be to drive player activity. Ideally the GMs or whoever fills the role of gods could be trustworthy enough to be given free reign in their actions, limited only by gameplay mechanics in enriching the game world through various events. More realistically, there would have to be hard-coded limits. Plagues, blights and other buffs or debuffs could be handed out from a mana pool. In this respect a divinity would be a spellcaster who interacts with the game world mainly through effects on other players.
Manifestations would be another possibility, with the divinity having limited time in the game world as a gigantic monster like a dragon or an otherworldly demon being summoned by cabals of many players faithful to him. A manifesting deity could be limited by a simple timer, a "war hunger" mechanic requiring it to kill players in order to remain in the game world, a constant supply of spellcasting reagents, etc.

The main concern for players interacting with a deity would be the cost/benefit estimate. While gods will get much of their satisfaction simply from being placed in the socially enviable position, their faithful must see some profit from the arrangement in the immediate future.
Interactions would most likely take the form of worship and sacrifices. Building temples, performing rituals, sacrificing goods, trying to summon manifestations of a particular deity, all could make for very entertaining group activities and could also form the basis of a divinity's mana pool.
These activities could also easily be leveraged into PvP scenarios. Have players build a shrine to a particular god in a city full of unbelievers, have them sacrifice the high priest of another deity, become high priests and open themselves to assassination, require holy water to be made from the hearts of heathens, there are endless possibilities.

The most important aspect isn't even making gods interactive. It's giving them a bit more personality. A god of the sun or moon should get stronger or weaker as the day drags on, and his influence should be weakened by cloud cover. Disciples of different religions shouldn't just get a couple of different spells, but have their spellcasting work by different rules. "Good" gods should force players to do noble deeds to get divine rewards. Evil gods should occasionally turn on them.
Most importantly, players shouldn't get to cast whatever divine spells they want whenever they want. Acts of god(s) should be powerful, impressive, useful or dreadful, sure, but they should not be subject to the whims of the faithful. When a player sacrifices a boar and prays for lightning to strike down his enemy in the next fight, he shouldn't have the certainty of success.

There are two main ways in which gods could be made a more important part of a game. One would be a faction-based game where gods define each faction. The other is a standard fantasy MMORPG, and here it's trickier making sure the gods do not become factions. The emphasis should still be on player-run societies. Limitations would have to be placed on the number of players or land area which can be affected by divine powers so that player guilds worshipping the same god are encouraged to vie for his favor, preventing the god from being the focus of a faction. The ideal situation would be something like the Trojan war myth, with gods taking sides in human conflicts.

Other ideas:
Demigods! In a game with some sort of permanent death and a birth/lineage system, gods could party down like Zeus and Odin scopin' hotties at a kegger.
Divine death! Ok, so gods don't generally die in the same way as everyone else, but they do get retired from play sometimes. See Uranus, Ymir and most every other god associated with a creation myth. You could have entire sections of a game world built on the corpse of a god.
Oracles! There were constant scandals in the older attempts at true persistent worlds about GMs giving away information to player guilds. So make it part of the game. Have players becomes oracles of a particular deity and get inside info or celestial spy reports by huffin' some peyote.
Prophecies! Remember all those fake wishes given out by genies and all the double-entendre prophecies that trick mortals into wagering their fortune on living forever as a potted plant? When you've got a computer game's development team on your side, you could dream up all sorts of tempting promises to make players chase pots of gold over rainbows or give them a scare. Example: "the kingdom of Leetkidburg shall fall" - turns out it gets made into a cave city and gets access to unimaginable wealth of metal ores, and the mayor of Leetkidburg gets to curse whichever rats abandoned the sinking ship instead of meeting their fate.

That's about all i have for now, but there is so much to be done with the idea.