This really is quite baffling to me...
So we have single player games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row doing their damnedest to be a go anywhere do anything inside of a relatively thin framework of dulled progression sandbox games which ultimately have a main story line but it doesn't ever seem to be one of the drawing points to the game, and then we have MMORPGs like WoW and Age of Conan which seem to be trying just as hard to provide some sort of linear storyline in order to gain the prestiged (posh) title of lore including MMORPGs. It seems to me that although single player games would be bland as hell if they shoved you into a sandbox do-anything world with no overarching storyline or goal (ie. Mount & Blade), MMORPGs which include a linear storyline are really wasting their time for a couple of reasons:
1) No one fucking cares.
- Most players, especially those strapped into the class and leveling system for the next eon, don't give half a crap what mystical ancient sword their wielding so long as it allows them to dice heads slightly better than their previous enchanted, ancient, murder-stick.
2) It makes "hero" a mediocre title.
- One of WoWs selling points which the marketing division seemed to belabor quite unknowingly is also one of it's biggest flaws. "Join over 10 million heroes already online" (or something to that effect) quoth the marketing representative as people began to scratch their heads and wonder just who were the peasants and townsfolk they were protecting.
Nowadays you log into WoW and it's a joke; nearly everyone has the +4000 armor of ultimate doom and the blade of a thousand deaths of which there was only 1 in existence ever according to game lore. It's impossible to tell anyone appart from anyone else not only because said items are about as difficult to aquire as bottled water and snickers bars, but because the game seems to produce an infinite number of the "items of legend" which never even get rusty without a second thought.
(Aside) Let me say this right out: I endorse item decay as long as it's handled properly not only because it's realistic and practical but because the good items should be not only difficult to get or produce but finite and fleeting so that you actually give a rats ass when you acquire one. I would rather be upset when my +90 hammer of smiting breaks and completely thrilled when I find a javelin launching bow of superior impaling than wade through the sea of mediocre "everyone else has-its" that plague classic MMORPGs.
and 3) It will never compare to single player games.
- You're really just shitting yourself if you think the storyline in MMORPGs can even hold a candle to single player games. First of all it's completely stagnant because the men behind the scenes can't have the world you play in change and this leads to "instanced" gameplay, which to me seems to completely undermine the idea of MMORPGs. Great, so you can team up to slaughter the same keeper of darkness over and over again in order to get your bland baubles in the giant dullathon quest for superiority over all the people who have wasted far less time than you, but ultimately you're playing a half-assed single player game in which the only storyline involves the firebreathing, hatred-engulfed big baddie you're taking down being evil and you being the shining beacon of hope who will trounce him 400 times until you finally get your shiny necklace of slightly-better-than-youness (boy isn't that joke getting old).
In single player games, by stark contrast, there's usually a bit of plot, as well as character, development so that you actually care who the baddie is and why you're trouncing him. Some games even take it so far as to let you be the baddie and smash the shimmering hopes of thousands of innocent dreamers because you like the mist created by your minigun and the screams of terror as you reduce their tiny hovels to smoldering rubble.
If you really want to do it right you're going to have to pit player forces against eachother and then somehow maintain the balance, or better yet allow your game to change as time goes on. Of course, being a developer is probably not easy in fact is probably about as difficult as maintaining flacidity during a jello wrestling contest and subsequent nude fondling at the playboy mansion, but if you want your game to keep up with the times you're going to have to be in developer mode constantly. Either that, or you can sit back and leave it mostly to the players to create their own conflict, city-states, and storyline and concentrate on more important things for MMORPGs such as combat, balancing, item creation, and stability. I recommend the latter.