Now I want to think a bit further about the content of game experiences, specifically in virtual worlds.
[Spoilers for the game Bioshock, if you haven't played it yet.] For all my frustrations with the riding-on-the-rails aspects of Bioshock's gameplay, I'll give it this much: I was emotionally engaged by the conflict with the first "boss" of the game, Andrew Ryan, but also had a strong emotional reaction to the revelation that both my character and myself had been manipulated by "Atlas", the seemingly sympathetic ally who helped the protagonist get to Ryan and kill him. Of course, the ride-the-rails aspect of the game structure means that you never had a choice but to follow Atlas' promptings, nor do you have any choice but to seek revenge against him, if you want progression through the gameworld. Nevertheless, at certain points in the first half of the game, I genuinely wanted to kill Ryan, a structure of feeling I experienced as within rather than outside of the fiction of the game.
I have a hard time thinking of NPC antagonists in virtual worlds who inspire any kind of emotional reaction which is a part of the gameworld itself as opposed to within the outside framework of guild or player sociality. This is partly because nothing that these NPCs do has any dynamic consequence to the gameworld itself. If a major NPC boss in a virtual world took stuff from characters, raided guild banks, destroyed travel junctures, removed resource spawns, and by killing that boss, you could stop it from doing so, that might be different. Or even if the boss had done something within the game fiction that was more emotionally meaningful instead of stereotypically dark-lordish or lore-incomprehensible. It's hard to get too worked up about Illidan in World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade, for example. Even within the context of Outland, it's not altogether very clear what Illidan has done that makes him an enemy to players besides being a big fat (if very challenging) loot pinata. About the last virtual-world NPC antagonist I remember that seemed to have a kind of tangible emotional connection to player's experience of the world itself were the olthoi and the demon Bael'Zharon of Asheron's Call.
The nature of a given boss battle and the visual look of a boss can give virtual world players some sense of emotional narrative. Exceptionally pesky or challenging bosses are a special pleasure to defeat. There are some curious undercurrents to a few repeated conflicts because of the look or feel of a boss. I'm always a bit struck when my current WoW guild, with a fairly large number of academics as members, celebrates downing the Maiden of Virtue in Karazhan by saying things like "The bitch is down" and so on. (Not criticizing: I trash-talked that bitch myself before we put her on farm status, and I still think she's a bitch for withholding the drop that the guild is still coveting.)
The same thing mostly goes for quests in virtual worlds, the key gameplay infrastructure which composes a good deal of the experience of most such worlds. But it is thinking about quests that begins to make me wonder whether the current crop of worlds is really selling us short, because the odd exceptional quest here and there makes you realize that there could be more emotionally engaging experiences even within the DikuMUD structure. World of Warcraft has a precious smattering of oddball or special quests that tend to be imaginatively involving, sometimes even if you've done them a number of times. For example, I love the questline that gains the player access to the daily quests of Ogril'a, in which the player is crowned "King (or Queen) of the Ogres". The conclusion of the event is almost a better reward than the access to a new money-producing grind. Lord of the Rings Online has done a good job, I think, of integrating some quests into the storyline of the book Fellowship of the Ring, to the point that some players (well, at least me) feel an interest in seeing what happens next in the central storyline quests.
By now, most virtual world players are familiar with the typology of the typical questlines, just as we know what bosses great and minor are likely to be and to do. The kill quest. The Fed Ex quest. (My young daughter asked me while playing Toontown a few weeks back: 'Why don't these shopkeepers ever leave and do some of this stuff for themselves'?) The drop quest. The escort quest. Our familiarity is part of what precludes most of us from emotional connection even when the text of a quest is especially well written. Just throw players a slight wrinkle in an ordinary level-up quest and watch the general chat blossom with "Where is Mankrik's wife?" or on the Hellfire Peninsula, "Where is the assassin?"
So let me ask two questions:
1) Is there anything that a boss or major NPC could do in game-fictional terms within the current conventions of most virtual worlds that might make players feel a strong emotional desire to defeat that boss?
2) Are there stock structures or types of reasonably implementable quests which might be: a) more emotionally engaging than the current range of stock quests and b) a good way to diversify the current range of stock quests?
Both questions might get a boost through looking at non-game fictions. What do antagonists do in other narratives that makes them hateful, that gives the audience a desire to see them destroyed or defeated? What kinds of stock narratives in non-game fictions are absent from virtual world games? (Boy/girl meets boy/girl, loses boy/girl, gets boy/girl; mentor puts young hero through training exercises more engaging and enigmatic than 'kill 100 womprats'; protagonist seeks elaborate revenge or has to right a reversal of fortune, and so on.)