The MMO genre is a funny place. On the one hand, it promises to let you play with thousands of other players and share adventures together, while on the other it sets you up to be a hero doing some rather amazing things. The original idea was to take a single player RPG (where you almost always play the hero saving the world), allow thousands of people to run around in that same world, and see what happens.
The very obvious problem is that you are not all that special if what you just did has been done by thousands of others. Slaying a god is not an impressive feat if that god is being farmed daily. Instancing, phasing, and NPCs making long speeches are all just shallow tools used to try and mask the fact that you are no more special than the thousands who have come before you, or the thousands that will come after.
The truly funny part comes when any MMO does allow its players to really be special, to have an actual impact on the game, as most players get all up in arms and rage. “I missed the event, not fair!”, “I’ll never see that content, not fair!”, “What if I join late, not fair!”, “My dog died, I can’t be online, not fair!”, etc. Most MMO players have an odd sense of entitlement, that just because you pay your $15 a month, you are entitled to ALL the content, regardless of how that might cripple anyone else. If a village is going to permanently be burned, by god if YOU can’t be there to see it it’s time to hit the forums and rage.
For all our requests to live in a massive virtual world, we cry foul as soon as anything happens when we are not around, yet at the same time some of the most memorable moments in MMO history are just that, moments. They don’t repeat when the instance resets, they don’t allow you to experience them again thanks to phasing, and you can’t roll on a fresh server and see it for yourself. Rainz only killed Lord British once; if you were there you saw something rather amazing, if you missed it, you missed it. Yet life in UO went on whether you saw it or not, just like life in EVE goes on after any of the more memorable (and not repeatable) events happen. In DarkFall the fall of Hyperion was special, and only happened once, yet you can still roll a character and enjoy the game today.
Impact events, especially player-controlled impact event, scare a lot of MMO players. Everyone wants to be the big hero, yet in a world that actually allows a character to rise to such status, they do so because they are greater compared to everyone else. The leader of BoB is a ‘hero’ in EVE because he controls a powerful alliance, an alliance with thousands of ‘grunts’ that follow his orders. A rich merchant in EVE is a ‘hero’ because he can control and manipulate the market, and he can do so because there are thousands of ‘grunts’ with far less cash and market skill than he has. The best PvP’ers in UO, EVE, DarkFall are ‘heroes’ because their player skills are above most others, and in a world where such skills can have world-impacting results, that matters. Being the top arena team in WoW means you have a high number next to your name, but you don’t have any more impact on anyone else than the top-ranked Counter Strike team has on the average CS server. Ensidia might be a top-tiered raiding guild followed by thousands on a forum, yet they don’t impact your raiding guild in any way save for a youtube video, a video that would still be there if Ensidia was not, as the “Simon Says” pattern for any raid boss is set by Blizzard and not the players.
And while the big impact events get all the coverage, impact in games like EVE or DF is not limited to just the major players. If a small-time merchant sets up shop in his corner of the world and out-smarts the other sellers in that region, he has an impact on them, one that could start a domino effect. Another merchant might move out due to the competition, he might ask his Corp if they can switch spots and head to 0.0 space, and that move might spark a Corp or Alliance war, all because some small-time merchant with some player skill moved to a new region. You changing your auction house price in WoW just mean the auctioneer mod is going to adjust, and ultimately a skilled merchant in WoW can at most buy his way to ‘epic’ gear or new mount colors. The richest person in Azeroth can’t buy out access to a raiding instance for the whole server, like a merchant could buy out control of a mining region in EVE. You buying your epics mean nothing to everyone else on the server, which shows just how ‘epic’ that gear truly is. A Titan ship in EVE changing hands means a lot more to the world, and it earns its epic status even without being colored purple.
And ultimately that’s where the fear comes from, the fact that like in real life, there will be people out there that do things better. In WoW an NPC will tell you that you are a great hero for defeating some mob, but in EVE no one is going to call you a great hero until you’ve actually done something, and that something pits you against other players and not some mob designed to die. The less impact that’s allowed, the easier it is for the world to maintain it’s illusion that you are special. As soon as the game allows for some player-driven distinction, the illusion breaks and most players will fall into ‘grunt’ status while only a few will rise to be ‘heroes’. For many, the illusion of being a hero is better than the reality of being a grunt, even if following that illusion means you will never get a chance to become a real hero. In a genre that allows anyone, regardless of physical ability/appearance, social status, race/color/gender, or any other real-world limiting factor to be special, its telling/sad that so many would rather live under the illusion of being someone than for the chance to actually be it.