Ok you have all heard it before: "Game X is like WoW because" or "WoW is better then Game X because". Now I have very little against WoW (although nothing against WoW would be impossible) but WoW was not the first MMO nor was it the most original, nor (once again) is it the center of the MMO world.
The term MMO was coined by Richard Garriott for use in describing Ultima Online making UO the first MMO. Since the terms creation, subsequant use, and expansion of games defined under this genre several leap to the forefront of truly defining the MMO (for lack of a better word) style. Among the early innovators where Meridian 59, The Realm Online, and Ultima Online. However it was a beautiful day March 16, 1999 when EverQuest first brought forth the modern MMO to western culture.
After EQ the MMO world lept forward with the development of game like MapleStory, FFXI, and yes even WoW. But to truly deconstruct MMOs we must first find a way to break them apart. Categorization has been used before to track MMO players and their play styles. Among these the Bartle Test is the largest and most popular for studying MMO players. It simply asks players question and breaks down their answers by play style. There are four categories Explorer, Socializer, Killer, and Acheiver. Out of a possible 200% each category is assigned a percent based on the answers given and then placed in descending value. As an Example I like Exploring, then Acheiving, then Socializing, and not much into PvP so low on Killing. I am an EASK style player. But this study is more for players then for the games themselves. So...
...MMOs have several things in common with one another, traits that are commonly shared between other MMOs. The first of these is Theme. Theme is shared between MMOs and most usually focus on a fantasy setting although others have emerged like Sci-fi, Sports, and even Super Hero. Most people define these as a genre or (really) a sub genre of MMOs. And although some players cross between these sub-genres many still limit themselves to one and then point out the similarities in games of that same sub-genre.
Progression is another shared element. Progression is done in several ways the most popular of these is leveling, or a leveling system. While some games do without this particular device most tend to stick to the idea that a player advances through a game, both in story and content, by leveling up and then moving on (although the option to return to past areas of the game is usually possible in most games). Some games move progression through loot or items, aka I kill X amount of stuff in PvE/PvP I get an awesome helm. As well some games use trees and development of skills with in these trees as progression, aka lvls are less important then learning new skills and tactics. Still other games use storyline as primary game progressor, a good example of this is GW and the GW mission system.
Like wise social interaction of some form must be available in these games, other wise they woould simply be O-RPGs. Although the degree of how social intereactive we are varies not only from game to game but from player to player with in the game. Thus we have developed such terms as Soloer, Guildies, and even ZERG!.
In and of themselves each game creates from these a unique culture of play. This becomes the games image and this is what is usually most compared between games.
However we can break this down even further. MMOs usually focus their main play in one of four areas, although they are not restricted to one area they tend have more in common with one area. PvP is one of these areas, but PvP itself can be applied in a number of ways from structured arena PvP to FFA PvP to something in between line storyline driven battlelines PvP. So if we take initially PvP out we are left with three major points shared between games. They are Storyline driven content/Lore (this is usually the part that quests relate to), Role-playing (this usually refers to how removed you feel from your own world into the games world), and finally the Grind (endless killing of monsters: fun but only in moderation). Ideally a game would try to balance all of these elements to create the best playing system, the problem with this being that every players definition of these, and in what amounts, varies. This makes extremely hard for a game to create the "Perfect Game".
If we try to graph this we come up with a triangle. All game fit somewhere inside this triangle some drifting closer to one point then another. If we add back in the PvP element we end up with a pyramid. With all hacing their own little niche inside the pyramid. This gives us a comparitive for each game available on the market. Like wise we see what points of the game are common to others.
Just about every MMO has some similar points. From UI to classes to races to controls.
UI is a commonly shared point between MMOs. Most have some sort of skill bar to keep track of skills being used (or macros) like wise a way to keep track of health and energy. Likewise, while grouped you can usually keep track of other health and/or energy. Most give you can experience bar that tells you how far along in the progression of the game you are. Pop-up screens include Maps, a Quest Log, and usually a character load out screen of somesort.
Controls, related to UI, usually have some sort of walking mechanism whether it be WASD or click to move or someother way. A hailling mechaism to interact both with objects and NPCs, but also to attacks Mobile Objects (mobs). Usually the skill bar quarelats with number fors attacks, although some games create menus from which you must draw your skills.
Like wise classes usually share common types or roles. Tank, DPS, and support being the three most basic. From those different combination and specialties can be drawn.
So how does this effect games and the future of MMOs?
Well many games will play off of stereotypes, continueing to settle for the stereotypcial Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs (EDO games :P ) this theme has honestly been done to death (beating a dead horse, etc). Even in new games that reuse this idea they will be popular for at least a time because this theme has a large fan base. But if the game itself does not do anything extremely impressive then it will not ultimatley succeed. I personally believe that from an MMO stand point EQ and EQ2 have this market cornered, not the best but simply one of the first and oldest. Likewise games like WoW and WARhammer etc will flourish becuase of a large fan base to that particular name, even if the game istelf begins to struggle. A good example of this is Star Wars Galaxies, which has begun to waver dramaticaly from many vantage points; but still some people cling to it as an incredible game simply because of the Star Wars name and will easily chew me out if I say otherwise.
Some games come up with something innovative though and move the market forward. I believe FFXI was one of these games (although I did not personally enjoy playing it) I can really see how it moved the industry forward with its unique style of play and cross-platform appeal. AoC is another example. These games original ideas will be taken manipulated and applied to the more stereotypical market once they are deemed safe. However these leading innovators often forget they are building a game, and a game will be beaten. They will get wrapped up in their new stuff and not truly finish the game (drastically underestemating the power players).
So as it stands what the game industry needs, must have, is a game that is massive in deisgn and intention. To rewrite stereotypical lore and create something new and unique to it, be large and robust allowing players a depth of content on fathomable by comparison. Release a game that is so vast that even in its new state carries more grandure then the most veterans of games. That appeals to every lvl of player. The Utopia of all MMOs.
Is this possible maybe, but unlikely.
The real trouble is whether the consumers at this point would be willing to except it. And I have spent my dear time reading blogs and posts and have come up a ressounding 'NO' the average MMO player will not allow the gaming industry to progress forward in MMO development. Why? I call it the WoW Cult Mentality. Basicly most players are stuck in the infant stages of MMO adapted Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs. They are stuck in the Psylogical in the basics of the gamng world, simply having something to play and liking it. Something that fulfills the inate gamer need. Some have moved beyond that to needing a better safer game that is stable, some need a game that truly player friendly and where they reach out and truly interact with others. But few move beyond this. This is where the gaming industry will grow stagnent by palyers who say 'we accept this'. Instead we need players to say no we need something more, something bolder, something better. We need players who strive to see a game succeed but understand the flaws in ever game that does. To objectively look at the best of games and say this is where we can improve. Players who say 'I want something BOLD' in order to move the industry forward.
Of course maybe that's just me trying to challenge the sunrise.