Keen has a nice post about why he is finding current-day MMOs lacking, especially in immersion. I think what Keen writes is something many (most?) MMO players feel, whether they actually know it or not. A major issue with MMOs cloning WoW is that today, everyone is already really good at WoW, and so a major chunk of ‘content’ (learning the game) is instantly missing from whatever AAA MMO you load up.
This is a major reason why, despite having access, I only played GW2 a tiny bit during the first BWE event; just enough to know the game was decent-enough to play with INQ and my wife. Because while GW2 is set to cure all MMO woes, it does so in very familiar fashion. You are still mashing a hotbar, you are still going from lower level zones to higher, still collecting ever-increasing gear, and you still have an end-game where you bash people/doors/npcs until… well until you are bored (or for a small subset, until your server sits at the top).
The details of all of the above is what will make GW2 interesting, and there will be some changes thrown in (ooh, dodge), but learning those will take minutes rather than years, and because this is a mass-market game, the learning will be terrible accessible and dummy-proof.
The ride itself will undoubtedly be pretty, it will have some ‘ooh neat’ moments, and the time spent with it will be entertaining. But I have absolutely no doubts that GW2 will not be immersive. It won’t be something that sucks you in and challenges you on that level for months if not years. It won’t be the land of unique MMO stories, where a year after release we are reading about how a small group of players just discovered a new way of doing… anyway. And all of that is 100% fine, so long as you go in with reasonable expectations. I fear many are not, but what can you do.
Back to the larger point; in the days of the big three, immersion worked not only because no one really knew this MMO thing, but because each game had little in common with the other two. Simply put UO did not play or work like EQ1 in any way, and what AC-DT was doing was also completely different. If you put UO next to EQ and added up the similarities, and did the same for WoW and GW2, which total would be higher? And by how much?
On top of this, figuring each game out took longer, mostly thanks to the games being less accessible and the ‘how this works’ never being officially explained. This lead to information being posted elsewhere, but at that time half of what you read was still wrong. Today not only can you get every system explained to you on one site, but that one site is almost certainly accurate. If today I want to know the absolute best build for a GW2 character, I’m only one Google search away.
As always, the current-day exception to this is EVE. The lack of accessibility in EVE means you are left to figure many things out either on your own or in your group. The wealth of options means that while you can master one aspect, there are dozens of unrelated things you know nothing about. A great null-sec pilot is a noob in WH space, for instance, and to truly become a master of everything not only requires a massive amount of time, it’s also very, very optional. You would have to force yourself to jump from area to area of the game frequently just to experience it all, and that’s not very realistic for a variety of reasons.
What EVE loses by those dropping off before the first month due to the complexity it makes up for (and then some) from those who are 4 year vets and still have things to learn. The PvP-based nature of EVE also means that not only will that 4 year vet have game systems to learn; he will constantly be adjusting his gameplay due to other players and shifting tactics.
It would be difficult for a new MMO to replicate the complexity and depth of EVE on launch day, simply because unlike WoW, EVE has actually been expanding (rather than replacing) its content over the years. But while it would be unrealistic to expect years of complexity on day one, more than a month is not asking too much, is it?