It's exceedingly easy to find MMOGs bashed for being clone-like. This cuts across both the subscription and free to play business models. It does happen far more often in the latter sector, which is only natural since it includes a lot more titles; I'm not convinced whether such criticism is appropriate or not on a proportional basis.
Earlier this month, this site's Managing Editor, Jon Wood, wrote a column about five games that deviated significantly from what he referred to as "traditional style MMORPGs" by aiming beyond this hypothetical model in order to present far greater diversity and innovation. Coincidentally, I had been thinking in a similar vein, although not with his focus on past and current releases. Instead, mine centered on wondering what and how much more might be done with designs employing uncommon core concepts. The list below isn't comprehensive; in fact, I look forward to seeing other interesting possibilities brought up in the comments thread.
There are lots of games that incorporate crafting as a secondary or tertiary element, but I can't think of any in which it's the primary focus of the play. While it's certainly possible I've missed such an implementation, or even a few, I can't help but feel this approach has been under-utilized, perhaps considerably.
I'm not trying to suggest crafting-based MMOGs possess huge potential. However, my gut sense is that they have substantially more than the market has realized to date. Considering this form of gameplay has broad enough appeal to warrant its current widespread use, why wouldn't it be viable in the starring role? Since no good answer leaps to mind, my working assumption is that it is.
Such titles wouldn't be universally attractive, but there are other ways to survive and succeed. The inherent nature of niche offerings is deep interest value for relatively narrow audiences that are still large enough to support those that capture sufficient proportions. I think there's space in the market for at least a couple of crafting-based games, and look forward to seeing how it will be filled, as well as when.
Jon's list included Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, a selection that will get no argument from me. While I'm aware of various MMOGs that incorporate mini-games, they're typically optional; i.e. secondary. Not so in Three Rings' popular release, which is based on them. For instance, you don't swordfight by facing an opponent and swinging your blade. Instead, you play a competitive puzzle. At this time, there are 20 in total; interestingly enough, five are classed as crafting - Alchemistry, Blacksmithing, Distilling, Foraging and Shipwrightery.
What I have difficulty grasping is why we haven't seen more designs that not only follow in this direction, but build on and extend it. Puzzle games are tremendously popular, both offline and on. We may tend to associate them with the casual sector, but there's no doubt many serious gamers play them too. In my own case, there are times when I really enjoy a good raid, and others when I prefer a different type of fun that comes from doing something lighter, shorter or both.
In terms of market potential, mini-game MMOGs would appear to have more than crafting-based since their appeal can probably be broader. Right now, I see what is likely a sizable gap, a substantial opportunity waiting to be filled.
Cities XL also made Jon's list. Monte Cristo's game fits one two sub-types I have in mind, which are city- and empire-builders. In both cases, I'm talking about designs wherein the main focus blends growth and management. Combat is of relatively minor importance at most; it can be partially (e.g. no PvP) or even completely absent.
I've spotted a few free to play building games in the web MMOG sector. As a group, they seem to draw a fair number of players, although most figures I've seen aren't of much use since they report registered accounts. That said, we can still get some kind of broad feel by counting servers. Doing so suggests the most popular titles can be pretty successful. Here again, I see a market segment with greater potential than has been tapped so far.
To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against MMORPGs. They and standalone RPGs remain my co-favorite genres. However, there are millions of gamers across the entire casual to hardcore range whose preferences differ from mine. They can definitely be better served, and without any detriment to me. Indeed, since I don't limit myself to just my top two categories, I also benefit as the overall selection broadens and diversifies, so I welcome further movement in this direction.