At the time of its release, WoW was criticized for not bringing much to the MMO genre, and simply being a refined EverQuest. Refining someone else’s idea was, after all, how Blizzard made a name for themselves originally. In 2004, it was a valid complaint.
By 2013 standards, not so much, considering what Rift, SW:TOR, or GW2 have brought to the market. And while it is certainly true that today’s MMO player is not as easily entertained as the average player was back in 2004 (where simply logging into a server and seeing others run around was a new thing for many), current offerings are also not even bringing to the table what WoW did in 2004, and the retention rates reflect that.
As I previously mentioned, a game generating enough interest/hype that ‘everyone’ wants to play day one is a huge factor in getting the social ball rolling for your title, and those social hooks are a major retention tool. At the same time, your game has to be different-enough that once everyone arrives, they stick around past the normal 3-month drop-off.
WoW certainly had that, in no small part because leveling to the then-cap of 60 was at least 3 months of gameplay (the insanity of viewing that as a problem to fix has never made sense to me). The longer you play one title, especially in a social setting, the more time the hooks have to develop, and the more likely you are to get involved in some form of end-game. One of the not-so-hidden dangers of being ‘accessible’ and letting everyone level to the cap solo is you deny people the natural social evolution of your game, and no matter how awesome your one-and-done content is, an MMO ultimately lives or dies by its repeatable content, be it dungeons, instances, PvP, etc.
That repeatable content is, overall, not amazing stuff. Its degree of fun can vary, but it can’t compete straight up with one-off stuff for the most part. The reason players stick around for months/years to run it is mostly due to the social hooks. A dungeon might not be amazing the 50th time through, but if you are doing it with a fun group that you meet in that game, its enjoyable-enough to keep going, especially if you are working together to advance to bigger and better things.
There is absolutely no better example of this than EVE and the ‘action’ of null-sec. Waiting HOURS to form up a giant fleet only to shoot at a structure and then head home is likely not on anyone’s top list of awesome things to do in an MMO, yet year after year EVE retains and grows while pilots in null-sec continue to do what they do. Why? Because sometimes that fleet will result in a massive, epic battle. But just as important; because shooting that structure and winning advances your alliance forward, and that’s important in EVE. The players are invested because of the social hooks, and those social hooks don’t magically appear at the level cap.
The next big MMO needs to find that sweet spot of fostering and encouraging the social aspect while not falling into the ‘forced grouping’ trap. It also needs to contain enough quality new stuff to keep people interested long enough for those hooks to develop. Those are both easy to describe but difficult to execute items, but if we are to see an MMO ‘work’ anywhere close to the level of a WoW or an EVE, it will contain them and perform them well.