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All this debate about theme park vs. sandbox, action combat vs tab targetting, dynamic vs. scripted and the 'stagnation' of MMORPGs...
The biggest problem that has plagues the industry since WoW isnt that they are copying WoW, its that they aren't copying the GOOD parts of WoW. 'You're not in Azeorth anymore.' No, I am in someplace much more generic and bland.
Games have lost sight of immersion and the RP part of MMORPG. And I'm not talking about creating backstories for your characters or heading to the Goldshire Inn on Moonguard for some good ole kinky ERP, Im talking about the abilities for games to suck you into the world and create an attachment to your character.
This goes back to that greatest slogan ever created for an MMORPG. Norrath was an actual world. It was massive, and full of wonder. There was tons of in game lore waiting to be discovered, and different races with different personalities and motivations. So much care went into creating that world and it shows. Vanilla Azeroth had this as well, and its a very big reason for its success. As its gone farther and farther away from that approach, interest seems to have gone down.
Now we have games like Rift and SWtoR, where the game world is just a place to cram quests in. Every bit of the map has its purpose to fulfill a quest of some kind, and the whole thing just feels fake and artificial. The last time I rode around an MMORPG just taking in the world around me was in LOTRO, which is coincidentally (or is it?) the last game to not suffer a loss of subs in its first couple years. It just seems games are now content first, world second.
There is some hope on the horizon though. WHile it suffers from cramming in too much content like other games, at least GW2 gets the lore driven world. Its glorious cities are the best cities an MMO has seen in a VERY long time. Full of local flavor, they are wonders to explore. Even the often too hectic zones in GW2 at least seem a bit less artificial. Its a step in the right direction at least, and GW2 has that exploration factor because there could be something interesting lurking in that unmarked corner of your map.
Another completely different positive sign, one that DOES focus on the textbook definition of RP but will create a greater bond with your character for many is the SoEmote. It is finally a company that is interesting on improving the social aspects of an MMORPG beyond just bigger and badder guild features.
I think the future is a return to the quality of game worlds, with more sandbox elements thrown in but not necessarily pure sandbox. I still have never understood why companies don't look to SWG for inspiration, as that game was a disaster PvE combat wise (bad balance, lackluster and sparse content) but had a loyal fanbase around 300k people. How did a game that did so poorly at what companies think people want have such a large following? People felt connected. They logged on not to a game, but a galaxy far, far away.
MMORPG developers: bring back those immersive worlds. We want to be in your world once more.