What hasn’t been conquered, still, is making alternate worlds accessible enough to broad audiences.
I’d ask if this is really a problem that needs solving. I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of WoW having 12m or whatever subs and MMOs being a ‘hot item’ (though this has cooled down recently, and will likely be completely over a few months after SW:TOR is released); where future MMOs look to hit the ‘mass market’, yet still deliver something resembling an actual MMO, or more precisely, a virtual world. As I see it, the very core ideas behind a virtual world only appeal to a relatively small niche due to all the factors that go into playing in one (time commitment being the biggest issue), and the only real way to broaden that appeal is to reduce those core values, which, at some point, we are no longer talking about an MMO.
Now behind every game is a company and that company needs to make money, which it will only do if it gets enough customers. We all get that. But it’s really only because of WoW that the expectation for many is millions rather than low 100s of thousands, and more than a few examples exist of 100k sub games raking in the dough, whether Take Two knows it or not. Sure, it would be great to be WoW, just like it would be great to be Google, but does every startup set out with “Google or bust” as their opening statement? Because post-WoW, that’s EXACTLY what has been going on in the MMO genre, and, well, the results are not pretty.
Let’s go back to the beginning, where the only major MMOs out were Ultima Online, EverQuest 1, and Asheron’s Call. Was anyone at Turbine losing sleep because AC1 only had 200k (or so) subs compared to EQ1s 500k (or so)? I’m betting not. Actually, I’m betting everyone over at Turbine was thrilled just to have as big a hit as AC1 was. Now, EQ1 was the ‘winner’ of that time, and made SOE boatloads of cash, but even if EQ1 had ONLY hit 200k subs, guess what? SOE would STILL have made money, and the game would have gone on in much the same way as it did. The added success was nice, no doubt, but I’d be willing to bet no one over at Verant (EQ1s devs at the time) set out to hit 500k or they’d fail, much less 1m+.
I’m all for games trying to be MMO-like, much like different games today are RPG-like with stats or character levels. No one is going to confuse Call of Duty with an RPG because it has stats, yet we continue to see games that don’t really deliver a virtual world lumped into the MMO genre, or try to incorporate too many MMO features just to qualify. WAR for example is a very poor virtual world, but cut a bit of the MMO out, and WAR could be a really good deathmatch-ish product (assuming some serious changes, but hopefully you get the point). A good example of success here is Guild Wars, which ArenaNet originally stated was not an MMO, and in many crucial ways is not a virtual world. GW is a success because it embraces what it is, rather than trying to fit itself into the MMO genre.
Point being, I don’t believe it’s possible to tweak something like Ultima Online, EVE, Darkfall, or whatever ‘true’ virtual world we are talking about, and turn it into something that millions find appealing. And, assuming from day one you as a company accepts that, it should not be a ‘problem’ that needs solving. Yes, you always want to improve and attract more players, but the last 13 years or so have shown that the closer you remain to the core values of the genre, the more the core, niche audience will respond.
Deliver a product worthy of that group, with an appropriate budget, and everything else is gravy. Chase the millions WoW attracted, and you will soon join a long list of high profile failures. That or you won’t be much of an MMO, which is perfectly ok.