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For me, Ultima Online always remains the model as I feel a MMO should be. Even though I did not like some of it's "hardships", the idea to have a world where players are not narrowed down merely on a quest-tunnel, but have a real world and an impact on it, is something I find the way more appealing vision than the current trend of endgame fixated "EQ/WOW"-clones.
The basic question of every MMO developer is: how can I assure people do not quit, once they levelled to max? And the common answer in our days in themepark MMOs is endgame. It is essentially, that they recycle dungeons, warzones and the like - instanced zones - in a sort of hardmode and let people grind for coins, faction points asf. Now while some people like that, I think there are a lot of people who actually don't find that appealing.
Now the thing I don't buy is the entire "sandbox VS themepark" myth, which supposes that a MMo can only be EITHER a sandbox or a themepark with quests and stories. That is IMVPO THE main paradigm we must overcome.
One sort of games has always had an appeal, in various different manifestations. Take the most recent one: Minecraft. Minecraft is a great testament to the human creativity, the desire of gamers to "create" something, to leave a visible impact on a world and not just be a guest in a preset story. There have been many games with different foci of this topic. Games like "Creatures" or "Spore" which had their reflection in SWG's Creature Handler and Bioengineers. The various and popular "Dancing" games, which had their reflection in SWG's Entertainer system which was very popular. Music systems like LOTRO has. And of course farming. There are millions who played games like Farmville and Frontierville, and the question is: why? Now I know the common brush off answer of some MMO-gamers is: "come on, Farmville, for real?". Yes. For real.
I know a LOT of people who had did farming in LOTRO. Just to relax between fights. You had an impact on the world, you had your own small world for yourselves, no matter how small. I know one of the features a single player RPG like Ultima VII was prominent for: you could sow crops, let it grow, harvest it, grind it in a mill, add water and make a dough, bake it and then let your party eat it against it's hunger. THAT is immersity, where a MMO could be more than a musem, more than a theatre stage! And no matter how many combat enthusiasts will laugh at it, I know there are a lot of MMO gamers who love just such things like fishing and farming. Having you hut in the MMO world, having maybe a field and some farm animals, a small part of the world where you have an impact and you can be creative. In your small garden. That is what would make people stay. Not only farming, other things like that too. Things where gamers have an impact, where they can just be creative.
The existence of many such games proves that people like that, and in games like UO and SWG such creative elements where part of the MMO world. They do not contradict quest driven stories. But they could add more longterm appeal than the dull endgame grind. And THAT is what I see as the real challange for REAL next gen MMOs, that they overcome the EQ/WOW paradigm of pure themeparks, not by doing away with story driven quests, but adding a world which allows our creativity to live in, to have some part where you can be creative in such ways. With music and entertaining, fishing and farming, building houses and villages, full crafting and many other things.
THAT is what I expect of future MMOs which really deserve to be called "next gen".
People don't ask questions to get answers - they ask questions to show how smart they are. - Dogbert