Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
My experience of the Elder Scrolls began with Daggerfall. Buggy, expansive Daggerfall. I didn't even know about Arena when we bought the second part in the Elder Scroll series and struggled with its terrible, game destroying bugs that would send you falling through the floor, leave you stuck, with quests unfinishable and savegames ruined. For some folks it would be too much to go through to even bother playing, but we stuck with it, at least for a while.
For me it helped that the customization was so extensive. Creating a custom class and fiddling with the skill system, species/race, and character development was always fun (even if I wound up playing versions of the same thing). The art style, which some might think of as anachronistic, seemed to hail to the old pen and paper role-playing game art that made me feel like these guys knew what they were doing, whether or not they actually achieved it.
It wasn't just the characters, either. You got a sense of ownership in some part because of the world you inhabited too. You could bum around in different provinces, setting up a more-or-less permanent base in a region, with a house, a bank account, and an ever increasing (and admittedly unmanageable) list of places to explore. The more quests you went on and the more wandering you did, the more places on the map you'd find. While the graveyards were already marked and would yield a bit of loot, the massive dungeons were where the real money was, and until you got a spell that helped transport you out once you were done in there, those monstrosities were also where the game's biggest headaches were.
Like a lot of the game, the dungeons were randomly seeded upon creation (meaning the numbers that were used to generate the dungeons were given numbers to generate everything beforehand, as were the locations themselves), but there were some problems when setting up the borders for what these random numbers would create. You would get mind-numbingly immense caverns that had no thematic consistency that automapped into something resembling several piles of intestines all mooshed together in a chaotic horror you could spend days navigating, even with a careful, systematic approach.
Once you discounted the bugs (which wasn't really possible, but let's pretend) people seemed to react to all of this by saying that the problem was the randomness and the samey-ness that seemed to come from that. That's why we got Morrowind, which concentrated on a smaller region, and Oblivion, still smaller. Some intervening games like Redguard and Battlespire even focused on smaller areas, although many people aren't familiar with the games at all (I'd say Redguard was unfairly overlooked from what I've seen of it, though I haven't played it myself).
Yet I think part of the customization was in finding a region you liked to visit and staying there a while. Daggerfall boasted deserts, mountain regions, alien-looking plains, several types of cities and hamlets, and hidden witch covens. Each region felt different, and I loved starting what I felt to be an enterprise in a region I liked, exploring the dungeons, pleasing the locals, and finding what I could before moving on. If that had been expanded and enriched, I think it would have been hard for me to complain, and I think there are a few people who wouldn't mind them taking another crack at something on a larger scale that takes advantage of modern storage and combination ideas.
The Exploration of a Gamespace
It wasn't until Minecraft that I got a sense that someone really wanted to take random to its logical extreme and still make a playable game experience. You would find terrain built up in a satisfactory way, and if you enjoyed the phat-pixel graphics you could easily get absorbed in what you were doing. I think Minecraft shows that you can have a low-res experience feel like real exploring without the janky modularity that ruins a lot of Daggerfall's goodwill.
I see games like Minecraft and (to some extent) Dwarf Fortress showing the potential of creating a world procedurally, and letting the player explore it. What games like Elder Scrolls needed was a solid foundation and a consistent aesthetic. Imagine going to the icy north to find an frozen cave. In that ice cave the game engine would say that 100 years ago a bunch of settlers found refuge there during a massive blizzard, and wound up making it their home. They dug until they created a miniature city, until perhaps they dug too deep and let loose creatures who then drove them out. So the program would have a section (reasonably sized) filled with stuff that might be the artifacts the settlers left behind, deep down you see the dwelling of the creatures whose home was inadvertently invaded, and who are possibly still active many generations later, and an overlapping area which is a random combination of elements from the two factions and signs of conflict (residue of magical blasts if the settlers were magically adept, broken weapons, mummified corpses from both sides).
All this stuff sounds complex, but you could have a pretty straightforward string of variables to implement it. What limits expansive games like the Elder Scrolls, and games in general, isn't so much the potential of programming, which only gets better every day, but our own expectations. While I don't expect or even want everyone's tastes to mirror mine, I think there seems to be many people out there who want only the latest attempt by video games to approach absolute realism in their graphics. Oblivion has some pretty astonishing visuals, but as time passes we become used to these graphics, we begin to see the flaws, we want something more, and that march toward perfection, if it's even attainable, is at the expense of enriching the game world. Oblivion took some leaps forward from its predecessor Morrowind, and especially Daggerfall before that, but with the increase in detail, there feels to me to be a decrease in customization and expansiveness, and in a few ways I don't think it's advanced too much since Daggerfall.
Customization through Action
I was watching a person looting a jewelry store in Oblivion and I felt like I was watching a pre-programmed series of events. You could murder the shopkeeper and take all his stuff, or just burgle his store and settle for a little less loot but be less likely to have to suffer for it if you were caught. You could play the role of the thief in this sense, but even that felt modular because there was no nuance to it, as if they had said "you wanna play a thief, we have that too!" Unless you were into the bare idea of stealing, there wasn't much there to enrich that role, beyond taking specific quests for the thief's guild.
Guilds DO make things interesting, and I liked the move in Morrowind to have competing guilds and specific questlines for guilds that had a personal, human feel to things. The random guild quests in Daggerfall often felt cold, but I think in part this was because there were so few variations that seemed to have no consequence for the place you were helping. You would find a carbon-copy of the Mage's Guild everywhere, with a few different variations on the possible characters and quality of items inside, and the quests were randomly generated from a very small pool of choices with some random name attached: "Rudolf Beckwesley needs this thing called kordrom, but we know it as mummy wrappings." Always mummy wrappings. Always.
I wonder if a more unstructured approach might work better. You set up behaviors and consequences for ACTIONS as opposed to pre-planned lines of behavior. Some sellers might LOVE to buy the stuff you looted from their rival's store. Some fighter's guilds might react in horror at the story of you slaughtering everyone to get at the rat in the cellar, while others may buy you a beer for your tenacity. The spell ingredient nestled deep within the underground labyrinth has a chemical analog growing freely in the Plains of Abem, so if you supplied that instead, who would know the difference? (Depending on the skills of the people asking for help, possibly no one would know.) By making things a bit more unpredictable and dependent upon the player understanding the world, rather than having their character do all the work for them, the level of engagement might increase more than if we get more set "roles" to play.
Similar to the frozen cavern idea above, each mage's guild could have a set of variables that dictated the history of that particular guild, its rivalries, the skill of its members in identifying quality of goods. Individuals in that guild could have secret motivations that only revealed themselves the more they trusted you, and combining all of these simple things could lead to a very different feeling moving from guild to guild.
I'm looking forward to seeing what they might do to enhance the game that Bethesda has been essentially remaking and enhancing for years. It seems they'll be concentrating on a formula similar to what they did with Oblivion, where each kingdom is basically the center of a game. I can see that being a sensible way to not get overwhelmed by the size and continue to refine the experience; I just wonder if there might be some other game, possibly made by someone else, that would capture that sense of getting lost in a massive, living world.
I have more to say, more I could go into, but I guess I'll leave it here for now. Thanks :)