On a forum buried here in MMORPG.com, a poster brought up the idea of "replayability" and ways to improve it in MMOs. This got me pondering and a wall of text ensued.
While I agree with the OP, I am not sure if "replayability" is the best choice of words. For me, "replaying" an MMO infers rolling an alt. I want the game to continuously challenge and interest me as I play my main. I played for years on the Firiona Vie server on old EQ where one was allowed only one character. One of the carrots for this was the harsh level-grind and the other was the epic endgame content, that was accessable prior to level max.
Another, vastly more enthralling reason for me to continue to log in was to play with friends. We would camp and grind and chat together for hours everyday. The exp and plat grind was moronic, but we had fun as we roleplayed and bandaged each other. I spent hours just listening to shouts for buffs in the Plane of Knowledge, or taking part in language-spamming because there was no "common" language.
I am not a fan of "forced" grouping, but MMOs need have a sense of community to create retention. I am not sure how a gaming company can design this. I am not sure that having "group-only" carrots creates friendships. And I would hypothesize that MMOs that are easily accessible to the "masses", while finacially successful, inspire less successful friendships.
I repeatedly reference "real" life whenever I ponder a better MMO. I know this is a fruitless and ignorant exercise, but it does make me question some of the ingrained mechanics of MMOs and wonder if there is not a "better" way. Using the model of reality we see that carrots do exist but are myriad. We could reference Maslow's Hierarchy Needs. While I am by no means well versed in them, a major to point to be learned by that is that baser needs have to be met before higher needs can be satisfied.
Forgive my tangent, but I see it as just another example of how MMO designers ignore basic tenents of reality. These games seem more centered around instant gratification for a mass market. I would like to see them focus on making mundane, commonplace chores more fun and meaningful.
In all the MMOs that I have played combat is central feature. But the event has been reduced to meerly another grind. In MMOs, most combat is simply a math problem of comparing levels and ability to out damage each other. MMOs have made the math a bit more complex with the "tank-healer-dps" mechanic, but it's still just a math problem. Because I am old and slow and usually have poor internet connection, I am not a fan of "twitch" games. But does the combat have to be "twitch" based in order to give something as dramatic as a fight to the death meaning and excitement?
And, I must admit, that most of the real-world combat I have experienced has relied on surprise and superior firepower. But at some point somebody has to "take the hill", "enter the room", "plant the flag", "mop up" or "secure the objective". All of these activities involve tremendous risk, even if we "nuked 'em from orbit". The real stress of combat for me isn't the fight itself, which is handled by adrenaline and training and dumb luck, but the continuous prospect of the fight. The stress of combat is that huge, looming possibility that at anytime there will be this flash of blood and steel that will kill me, or, worse still, one of my buddies.
This is one factor that is quite absent in MMOs. At some point, most MMO advesaries become trivial. At some point my character is barely even damaged by mobs, and the ones that can hit her can't do enough damage anyway. I have spent hours grinding mobs for experience and reputation and never saw the health bar drop out of the green. Combat in MMOs is not a challenge.
I would relate this back to Maslow by explaining that my character's need to survive has been met with levels and gear so easily that I feel no drive to fullfil it. I no longer feel motivated to log in to satisfy that need. Whether it's rats or demons, killing ten of them in hand-to-hand has no meaning.