In the spirit of E3, I thought I'd bring up a few games that MMO devs (and perhaps MMOers) should try in order to hopefully introduce new elements into the genre.
5. The Metal Gear series.
I don't think I really need to even link gameplay of this, and I can be pretty direct with why it should be played: non-combat gameplay. Aside from bosses, the player can skip fights, which is something developers are usually worried about. Sure, you can walk past low level mobs later on, but rarely do you have the choice (or skills) to simply sneak past guards except in pvp games that don't have players on the radar.
Even if you do get in a fight Metal Gear Solid, you don't have to use lethal force, but can simply knock them out and put them some where more convenient. While some games have CC that helps with this a bit in pvp, it's not quite the same. Darkfall, for example, generally makes you deliver the finishing blow to an enemy, but more often then not, you'll probably out right kill them. If not, by default a person "bleeds out" (meaning actually dies). Can't I just knock a guy out and drag him behind a tree till he gets a rez?
Also (and this will come up again later) environmental factors are taken into consideration in the MG series. Explosives nearby? Light'em up, watch the chaos it creates. Cold area? Use cigarette smoke to see laser traps. In WoW you sometimes have canons and stuff you can poke, but it's usually part of the encounter, not just an option. I remember a particular encounter in WoW where players had to dodge fires, so I thought "Hey, why not try to put the boss in the fire?" No good =/ Little things like that add a lot to a game.
4. Mario sports games and Smash Brothers.
Another series that I doubt needs an introduction, but perhaps an explanation. Mario games, from Mario Kart to Smash Bros, generally have a certain level of skill involved, and may even inspire competitive play. However, more often than not, the competitive play strips the game of its random elements, and this is something that I feel gives some of the Mario games their high replay value. Environmental hazards that randomly appear, power-ups that suddenly turn the tide of a battle, enemies unexpectedly turning up...
Chaos may not be appreciated in a Mario Kart tourney that people bet money on, but your average player loves it. It's why World of Warcraft has slowly turned the Ring of Fire into essentially a reskinned Nagrand arena map. Having little power ups and environmental hazards adds spice to encounters. Yeah, it sucks in raiding (generally semi-competative gameplay), but imagine if in game lighting could randomly strike you or your opponent (assuming this is a game with a low death penalty, which is pretty common these days). Imagine if during a world pvp encounter, you suddenly found a piece of fruit on the ground that would restore some of your health... or your enemies. If death is going to be meaningless in the modern MMOs, why not at least make the trip fun? I know I generally have to go out of my way to risk my life in a game these days (even on "pvp" servers).
3. The Sims/Spore Series(es)
I know, it's 2 series, but it's by the same creator with similar goals. The Sims is well known, but Spore may not be some folks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xAYkPVOTbc&feature=related
Both games are essentially sandbox games. They have some objectives, but you can keep building and creating. Your imagination is the only limit to how long you can play these games (so uncreative people or those who need strict external goals usually won't last long). Yes, some user content is "bad" (either in taste or form), but usually this can be filtered, and unlike in some MMOs, there's no reward system for creating things, just social incentives, such as getting known for creating quality content or giving good feedback. Make a family, a city, a planet, a space ship, music, whatever. Share it with friends, play with something someone else made, try playing the game in a different way, etc.
The general idea is this: players can create content. Theme-park MMOs need devs to constantly create new content for players, and people like, say, the WoW player base, will get done with most of the content within weeks, after it's taken months/years to develop. Will Wright (creator of both series) designs games in which players explore their world and are given many tools to invest in it. When given the power to create, some players flourish, and when they can share it, it gives content to other players. Spore had a creature creator launch before the actual game, in order to get about 1 million creations for the game's launch. They had (if memory serves me right) 1 month to get that... and players reached that in a few days. Sure, maybe 90% of it was crap, but players could easily ban crap from appearing in their game again. If players had real customization options, like giving their character tentacles, actually building a housing structure, customizing the full look of their armor, and yes, even creating quests, current MMOs might get some longer life spans. We know some of this has already happened, but few new MMOs are doing this, and it's a damn shame.
2. The Animal Crossing Series
Odd choice maybe, but hear me out for a moment. Animal Crossing is, for the most part, fluff. "Quests" tend to be deliveries, chat with X NPC, maybe write someone a letter or catch a fish, which earns you money or furniture. All you do is build your town, your house, decorate, trade items with friends, etc. You can compose some simple music, create simple art (well, I've seen some good stuff), create clothing, plant trees, etc, with few time restrictions/commitments (some may say none if you want to play with the game's clock a bit and time travel). I played Animal Crossing for months, maybe even a full year, largely on my own, and I've personally been fighting urges to get the Wii version for a few days now.
There's no combat, but think about end game in your favorite MMO. It's like a second job, isn't it? You gotta raid X days a week at a certain time or lose your raid spot, and for what? More killing power or to look cool. When you get bored, it's generally because you're unmasked the game's grind (http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs/Dengar/052011/21693_UnMasking-the-Grind). People who still play, say, Star Wars Galaxies, at the very least, still play because they have so much fluff to play with. A game doesn't have to be about just combat. If you add enough fluff, you can, at the very least, get the social casuals, who may help power your game's economy. At least, that's what I'm hoping ArcheAge's goal is, with what we've seen from it so far.
1. The Monster Hunter series.
Example gameplay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UjY-b1qPrw (from MH3 for *gasp* Wii!)
Monster Hunter's pretty damn popular in Japan, and generally sports pretty good portable titles for the PSP, and has gained some recognition in the States. In fact, Japan and I believe Korea both have access to the MMO, which says something about the playstyle.
To be blunt, the MH series is what raiding... no, pve should be. It's always skill based. Those who know about the upcoming TERA know about games that make players move to dodge most damage, as opposed to dice rolls to determine this. Aim is critical, as is watching out for your team mates. An incorrect dodge or a wide arcing slash may screw your party members. There's no tank/dps/heals, but different weapons that give different abilities. For example, lancers aren't the most mobile characters, but can block most damage, while a sword and shield user is highly mobile but can't block much. If you use a lance and decide, "Hey, I wanna use a sword and shield instead!" all you have to do is make even a basic weapon and you entirely change your playstyle. Each weapon has a different feel, different moves, and different combos, not to mention different reach (for example, lances can hit nearly any point on a monster, but are a bit slow, while sword+shiled hits very quickly but in a limited about of areas). Even then, fights can be won via items you build (such as shock traps and tranq bombs), smart dodging (mobs can damage each other, and at times will even attack other mobs!), and even environmental use (stand near a wall and a charging monster may get it's horn stuck in the wall, giving you te freedom to whack on it unmolested).
The game tends to cater to the hardcore because of this, but items for your raids (and even simple housing) can be gained offline, and parties are 4 players max. Even the most difficult encounters can be managed with some team work and communication. Your reward? Parts from the thing you slew, which can be turned into gear, furniture, and consumables. In addition, throughout the fight, you can break off parts of the monster, such as horns or tails. Personally, this never got boring to me, and not only does it increase your rewards (on the spot too, might I add), but it generally effects combat. After all, when the monster does a tail swing with 3/4s of their tail missing, it makes dodging a hell of a lot easier.
I'm not much of a raider, but I was hooked on MH3 for months due to it's challenge and varied encounters. Similar to raiding, there's still a bit of a "dance" to learn, but it's much more complex than your average raiding game. There's more random factors, which some folks may dislike, but for PvE, I think this should be welcomed in light of the general waltz other games essentially offer. My girlfriend is an avid raider but rarely picks up action titles. However, she never said "no" to MH sessions (though pleaded at times for us not to do some of the more intense encounters, such as fighting 2 dragons at once). She quickly learned when to dodge, when to attack, when she could do both, how to set up item combos, etc. If she can be won over by an action game's design, I'm sure any RPG fan can appreciate the MH approach to PvE.