I haven’t listened to the latest Shut Up, We’re Talking yet, but one of the topics covered is SWTOR and the alleged 50 novels worth of content Bioware is saying will be in the game. While I don’t doubt that it may be true, and while I expect SWTOR to be a very good game (ironically, it was Mass Effect that sold me on SWTOR more than any residual love for the embattled Star Wars IP,) I have to think that all this structured content misses one of the points of an MMO.
Any MMORPG is a synergy of two main threads, the game on the one hand and the virtual world on the other. Largely due to the overwhelming (and misapplied) influence of World of Warcraft, whose great leap forward was equal emphasis on the game part of the product, we’ve seen almost all new titles de-emphasize the virtual world, while neglecting to notice that World of Warcraft didn’t.
EverQuest’s big flaws tended to be on the game side of the equation – as a virtual world, one of the key appealing aspects of an MMO, it was spectacular. Newer games, citing better gameplay as their reason, add restrictions as to what you can and can’t do, thus limiting their worlds and marginalizing the ability of the player to inhabit the virtual space. This started with WoW, but WoW launched with an extremely solid foundation for a virtual world (at least partially a relic, I suspect, of the early, more “clone EQ” phase of development,), and later development hasn’t undermined that much – although Cataclysm might.
There are exceptions – SWG was one before the NGE, and EVE Online remains one today. Fallen Earth (whch I still haven’t tried) might fall into that category, and one hopes that Darkfall will take that direction. Gameplay will only take you so far – players will eventually get tired of it even in new guises. It’s the virtual world that keeps players involved. But these (with the exception of EVE, which cannily markets to a wider audience than other MMOs) are all deeply niche titles. There are partial exceptions like CoH, EQ2, LotRO and AoC. But many mainstream, triple-A games like Warhammer and Aion, as well as things like Runes of Magic and have truncated, shallow virtual worlds – Warhammer in particular might as well not have bothered. The trend seems to me to be in this direction, and maybe it’s unalterable at this point, but I have to think it’s one reason why people fled from those games in droves after the first month or two. It’s not so much that they cloned World of Warcraft (neither game is a true clone of WoW in my opinion, and both actually have better-functioning gameplay insofar as PvP is concerned,) but that they missed the hook that keeps players in titles like WoW, and even EverQuest after 10+ years.