TIme for something relatively trivial.
I like MMORPGs. They're the game genre I've spent most time playing for the last seven or eight years, with occasional excursions for Skyrim, Portal 2 and a few others. When I started off there was a small number of them (1) and I played just the one. Now there seem to be hundreds and I've tried quite a few. However the winds of change appear to be on the blow. MMOs are huge, expensive monsters to breed and to maintain, and in that period of time the entire gaming market has basically discovered that there's a buttload of money to be made doing exactly the opposite: Super Farm Crush, Angry Zombie Ninja, Cut the Head off Nigel the Kitten, whatever. And I think characterising these as opposites isn't unfair. MMOs are designed for intensive long term play, are most at home on a high performance desktop computer, stretching to laptops and more reluctantly to tablets and consoles. Casual games can be played on a phone, are cheap to make and can be picked up and put down as you like, and played while you wait for the lift to arrive.
I very much hope that MMOs go from strength to strength, but I think if that's going to be the case, they need new strengths. As it happens, there are some games which are at least testing the tensile strength of the envelope, though I've not seen it truly pushed as yet.
Baseline then. I need to make this clear: I have been a World of Warcraft player for a hella long time now, from a year after its release. WoW is an eminently playable game now, and it was a spectacular, ground breaking game when it came out. When there's one of those news articles jeering about how it's lost players, the number of players it's lost is often larger than the total player base of some of its rivals, and yet it still has millions of people rinding the daily quests. The reason so much of the below is going to be in comparison to WoW is simply that WoW dominated the industry for so long, and arguably still dominates it (see (1) below for caveat of course). Nothing else has even got into the throne room, let alone taken a shot at the crown. And one major problem is that pretty much every game so far has been "WoW plus one or two funky concepts", and the diminishing returns are built right into that kind of thinking.
Traditional pen and paper RPGs are generally character focused. Single player computer RPGs can also be character focused. One of the great strengths of the Elder Scrolls series is that you are your own person, making your own choices, and the plots are for you, not just <Hail random adventurer!>. Star Wars: The Old Republic went some way towards bringing character properly into the MMO scene with its personal class quests, although I found that these diluted quiet rapidly until your personal input was pretty much nil, and you were still being railroaded along a particular path. Elder Scrolls Online has suggested it will also have individual plot, though I suspect it will be the same kind of thing — the same individual plot for all characters of a particular demographic ("We are all individuals!").
So, idea: Skyrim's Radiant system was a beautiful thing. It would basically give you as many quests as you liked, randomly generated, although they did get samey after a while. While there's most definitely room for continuous random quests in an MMO to keep things fresh, especially for the all-important endgame, it shouldn't be difficult (2) to have a continuous personal plot generated randomly within set parameters. Let's say that, when you make Ogo the Dwarf Warrior, you get a set of choices from which you pick that a relative of yours has gone missing and you're trying to find them. As you go about your Warrior business sometimes an enemy drops a note or clue. That gives you unique quests to go to other places (places you'd be going to anyway most likely) to follow the trail. There are plot-relevant enemies and items and instances just for you. Eventually you rescue or avenge the family member, and select a new character motivation from the pull-down menus — you're after treasure, you're wanting revenge, you're looking for a lost civilization… Instantly the player has a personal stake in the world. You've made a difference.
Connected with this is the whole faction fail of many MMOs. Warcraft, and a great many of its imitators, have factions. You're either blue or red. Sometimes you're blue, red or green. The blues, the reds and the greens all hate each other and want to fight. If you're of race A, B and C, go to the red corner. if you're D… etc. There's a rationale for it in Warcraft that just about holds for most of the races. Other games have adopted the same political/racial apartheid for reasons that are phenomenally flimsy. In Rifts there are essentially two different schools of pholosophy… and every race is 100% devoted to one or the other, no exceptions. In Star Wars, all bounty hunters work for the Sith and all smugglers for the Republic. It's depressing to note that, other promising qualities aside, Elder Scrolls Online has absolutely bought into this, with the familiar races crammed rather randomly into three factions that are completely opposed — the utter antithesis of the single player choice Bethesda always gave you. I understand this makes it convenient for PvP, but frankly there are loads of games out there specifically geared only for PvP. Go Team Fortress, go League of Legends. Why should a player not have the option of choosing a side regardless of race, or even switching sides by their actions? Or taking no side at all?
EDIT: Apparently the "Imperial Edition" of Elder Scrolls Online will remove the racial restrictions, as well as adding the Imperial human race, which was otherwise notable by its absence.
Making a Difference
Another big MMO problem is that time and space are inextricably linked. To move to the next zone is to go forwards in time. To return whence you came is to reset the clock: the bad guys are back on their feet, the victories are unwritten. Everyone looks at you funny when you talk to them about all those things you did for them. Traditionally, MMOs have worlds that replace, revert and respawn, over and over, so that your life is truly writ in water(3).
Most MMOs are on multiple servers, given the volume of players at any one time. And each server has run the same story, has the same bad guys and the same history. The players are basically just drifting through, not even the catalysts of history, changed, but failing to change the world around them. The Lich King will die even if you don't kill him. The Lich King would die even if nobody killed him, because the next expansion's due and the Lich King is old news.
Everquest is an old name in MMOs, but one thing that their new voxel-based offering Everquest Next promises is a persistent world, with each server having its own history based on player action. Again, wait and see. This might be no more than a fancy version of those huge server-wide shopping list quests that other games have trotted out in order to "unlock" the next expansion or whatever. But if it's genuinely true that player actions have a permanent impact on the world then that's interesting. Also terrifying, because a great many players can be real sods.
The stuff about random quests above also applies to worlds, though with a fairly strong caveat. There are games that have systems for randomly generated landscapes — Minecraft famously does it — and it does a lot of other things too, so that it isn't a WoW clone at all, but has spawned its own legion of imitators. For Minecraft-a-likes, a procedurally generated world is a must — see Cubeworld, for example, or Terraria. Everquest Next is also going for at least a partly randomised world, presumably different each server.
However there is a real problem with this content, as with most 'random' content. Computers aren't good at random, and after a while it all begins to look very much the same, whereas a hand-tailored world, though more work-intensive and simultaneously by definition smaller, is at least going to be fresh until the end.
Big Games, Small Servers
The traditional MMO looks to have a thriving online community of players all in the same world at once, competing with each other, cooperating with each other, teabagging each other or just blithely ignoring each other. This is the root cause of a lot of the evils. If you have a world with 300 demanding players each of which has to be told they're the hero, the range of quests on offer must perforce become very bland and generic to cater to everyone — and even then in WoW you basically end up doing all manner of conflicting things just because NPCs ask you to, and what else is there? There's never any reward for not doing them, and sometimes you can't progress at all (4).
Games like Minecraft change that: Minecraft isn't really designed for everyone to play on a central server owned by Notch. It's designed for smaller groups of players to pay for their own shared server. This instantly makes having a world that the players' actions can shape easier — because each time a player builds a castle, they're not going to be fighting for elbow room with 299 others. Given the downscaling that computer games seem to be going through, with the enormous popularity of browser games, these smaller and more personal setups are very attractive. Trion's in-development voxel MMO, Trove, is designed for a server of 40 people or less — that's basically a WoW raid group, in the old days. Smaller population servers will always be more amenable to being tailored to players' wishes, and to allow player-created content.
Subscription v Free to Play
This is another big shake up in the industry. WoW is one of the few games still charging a monthly fee. Most of the rest either start as, or convert to, a free to play model where the game makers get their money by charging for other stuff in microtransactions — exactly the model that browser games use. This is all very well, and it makes these games much easier to pick up and try out. However, having played a couple, the play experience can make you feel as though there's a pushy waiter at your shoulder every moment, trying to push a desert menu into your hands when you only came in for a pint. Usually if you want the same full game experience a subscription would give you, you'll end up paying about the same or more for it — and of course then there are constant temptations to ease your game experience — better mounts, better companions, better friends(5) — sometimes to the extent that a sufficient application of real world money and you can just win the game without having to go through all that hassle of playing it. Who's got time for that?
(1) This is going to be an anglocentric article. I'm aware there is a thriving MMO scene in many other countries, especially in Asia, but I don't have the knowledge to comment on what direction it's going.
(2) Caveat: I know damn all about programming.
(3) World of Warcraft meets John Keats. You read it here first.
(4) Play a Tauren in WoW. In the first village you get a set of quests. One is "Those horrible gnolls are killing are our animals, go murder them". The rest are all "Go kill a large number of these animals, taking one specific body part from each and leaving the rest to rot." Absolutely true.
(5) Not yet but soon.