I tend to categorize most MMORPGs into three basic categories):
1- an early quitter
2- a max level only game
3- a long-term game.
Here's a little more description of the three classes.
An early quitter is a game that you try out for fun. You might load it in, play it for a few days, and decide it's kind of fun but not worth your time. Or you might consider it awful, and play it one afternoon, and that's it. Whatever the case, you quit in short order; before you reach the maximum possible level.
A max level only game is a game that you play until your character hits maximum level, then quit shortly thereafter. The main problem with this category of games is a broken or dis-interesting endgame. My personal examples of this category (you may or may not agree) are: Age of Conan (PvR is teh suck), Dark Age of Camelot (too much zerg and not enough skill in open RvR), EQ2 (got to 80 but my friends mostly left for Age of Conan) and Warhammer Online (broken fortress seiges, final endgame unplayable.) I played each of these games to the maximum level, then played for a few weeks and decided that I didn't have anything fun, new, or interesting to do, so I put them down. You can say about this class "the journey is worth taking, but the destination is not up to par."
A long-term game is the rare breed that manages to keep you interested for a long time, even well after you reach maximum level. For example, with me, EQ1 and Warcraft were both long-term games for me. I played the end game of each for quite a while, because both were interesting and managed to have challenging endgames that made me come back for more.
I have to say; I'm not an alt guy. I can't stand leveling multiple characters. The reason is that once I play a game with a character; I've experienced the majority of the game. I don't care in WHICH WAY I experience a game's entirety of content that I find interesting, I just care about the experience, the journey, the first time through. Extra times through the same story, the same quests, etc, feels more like busy-work to me than fun.
From a developer's point of view, they all want to make the game that keeps people playing forever; a long while after the endgame. The ultimate goal is a sustained community that continues to feed 15 bucks a month into the company coffers (as well as provide a great game to the community, of course. usually.)
So what goes wrong, exactly, with so many endgames? Why is a good endgame so elusive? Honestly, that's a different blog for a different time, and If I can REALLY answer that question in a blog, I should be working for a game developer somewhere. I'm going to gloss over this question for now until a later date.
All I know is the true test of an MMO is in the endgame. If a developer gets their endgame right; they get their game right. That's where the true money and dedication from the community rolls in.
I don't put a lot of stock into the "levelling up" portion of an MMORPG. That portion of the game is pretty much set in stone in appropriate length for most American gamers. If you hit max level in a month or less, the game is "too easy." if it takes more than 6 months to hit max level, it's "a grindfest." The majority of MMO gamers seem to stick to this mantra rather religiously. Levelling up is usually a fun 2-3 month adventure in MMOs; but developers aren't going for three-monthers, they want sustained players.
Enter the wildcard: the "sandbox" game. In these games, there doesn't seem to be a max level. You can play for years and not "max out" your avatar in-game. For those of you that have played EVE, that's a good example of a sandbox game. Another example is most likely going to be the upcoming game Darkfall, though I am merely speaking through conjecture as I have not yet been able to play the game, which is currently in a closed-beta.
I like the idea of a sandbox game. It's open, and you play the parts that you like; there are many different ways to play them. You aren't pidhgeon-holed by classes, specific skills, and levels. There are a few problems with EVE for me, though: the travel time (space is like.. mostly that: space, man. Lots of autopilot all over the place), and PvP in the low security sectors. The game has been out for 5 years or so now; and there are people much further along than I in the game. It would take me months and months just to get to a place in the game where I would be considered worthy of being another player's roadkill the second i go to an unsecured sector. I just feel a little too far behind the curve on that game to make it fun, since I picked it up so late. It's kind of too bad, in spite of the extreme learning curve in the game, it looks like one hell of a game to me. Just thinking about the depth of that game makes me want to try it out again anyways, in spite of the issues i have with it.
Darkfall will be a similar experience I would imagine, but of course in a different, fantasy setting. And of course, in this case, I will be getting in at the outset of the game, letting me be more competitive. I'm really looking forward to the experience once it comes out. If it's implemented properly, it's going to be completely awesome for a long time. Because, there's no level wall/transition to endgame at the end of the experience.
Kind of an interesting concept, actually: Very often, when you finally level a chaacter to max level in a standard MMO, the endgame is a completely different game than the game you played to get to the maximum level in the first place. That's got to change people's conception of the game and throw more than a few players off. Again, probably a different blog topic, but a sandbox style game would avoid that possibly awkward and "player-pissing-off" transition.
Anyways, hopefully, you can agree that the true test of an MMORPG is in the endgame. Let's hope that developers can improve their track records for endgames; as most of the current generation MMOs are sorely lacking in that department.