While WoW certainly has set a standard for a ‘mass market’ megahit, I don’t think it represents the only way to go about making a successful MMO. Plenty of titles make money for their developer without having 9 million subscriptions, and I think time will show that plenty of titles will be huge failures trying to emulate the WoW formula, costing developers millions.
While it’s safe to assume the ‘mass market’ does indeed favor easy to play games (see WoW, the Wii, and countless other examples), the overall gaming community accepts a wide range of games.
EVE Online is perhaps the least user friendly MMO out, with a barrier of entry amazingly high, such that even seasoned MMO veterans are often unable to get over the hump and really dig in to enjoy it. For a new playing it’s very overwhelming in its complexity, and little is done to reduce this. In later stages, the game is very unforgiving, with the harsh life that is 0.0 space, the complexities of the virtual market, and the multitude of running scams. And yet EVE continues to grow years after release, without a single pay expansion and no shelf presence in stores. To me this is a clear indication that there IS a market for players who enjoy a little cutthroat complexity in their MMOs. Their might not be 9 million of them, but there is enough to keep a company like CCP going, and going strong at that.
Lineage, while not a huge success here, is a massive hit in the Asia market. Lineage might be the exact opposite of WoW, in how it handles leveling (it’s a MASSIVE grind), and how it handles PvP (being the key focus, unlike WoW where it’s an afterthought). Its success again shows that different formulas work, and can be successful.
An unlikely example is Auto Assault, a MMO failure that has recently closed its doors. Auto Assault tried something different, and that ended up not working out. However, since it was done on a relatively moderate budget, it did not cause a financial crisis for its developer netDevil, who is still developing games now. Had Auto Assault had a WoW-like budget, and still failed, it is very unlikely netDevil and NCsoft (the publisher) would have been able to recover as quickly as they did, and we would all be reading a Darren ‘I hate the industry’ post right now. (Get a new SUWT out already man!)
All of this brings me back to the original point; that just because WoW has shown that ‘easy’ is one possible success formula, it is not the ONLY way to make a great MMO. What the MMO world has shown is that you need to release a game with focus, one that sets a goal and follows through. If your ‘vision’ is a good one (say hi to Brad when you see him on the bus everyone), people will see it and follow, as long as you deliver a solid stable product. I would have used a word starting with ‘P’ and ending with ‘olish’, but that would just add fuel to the fire.
If your ‘vision’ is from some suit who glanced at WoW and said “make me that”, you might be in trouble, and if you have a huge budget behind that mistake, you might just drag down a whole slew of people with you.