As I see it, there are four fundamental aspects that all MMORPGs (and perhaps all multiplayer games) share. MMORPGs are distinctive in that, in order to stand the test of time, they must sufficiently address all of the questions both individually and as they interrelate.
Here they are:
- Conflict Resolution. When players seek to perform actions that somehow change the game world, they necessarily generate conflict. This conflict can be as simple as crafting a dagger or as complex as the political negotiations of two player-run nations. The game must have some system to resolve such conflicts—in this sense, games are mediators of conflict foremost.
- Goal Generation. A game must provide goals for its players. Aside from the basic fact that a goalless game is not a game at all, players play games that have goals that suit their motivation in playing the game. In an MMORPG a player may see his goal as “to optimize my character for the PvP endgame”; the player will manipulate game mechanics to accomplish this goal—he’ll pick up quests from local NPCs because he knows that completing the quests will advance his character. Quests are, in this way, a smaller-grain goal generation system. Even though the smallest-scale objectives they put in place may be completely arbitrary, they give the player concrete goals to achieve that will produce pre-determined and guaranteed results that are in the player’s interest to attain.
- Power Growth. MMORPG players expect their character to advance in some fashion that is instrinsic to the character. An MMORPG must decide how character advancement manifests itself and that the advancement options are balanced enough to allow players to play the game effectively in different ways.
- Player Interaction. All MMORPGs must have a set of social and game-meaningful activities players can pursue when working in concert (or in opposition). The rules for player interaction primarily motivate players more as they reach the endgame of an MMORPG, where they need to become a part of a larger unit in order to reap the greatest rewards—or, perhaps, in order to reap any rewards. The social bonds established through player interaction provide a powerful incentive to play an MMORPG—these bonds may override severe doubts about the quality of the game, so their cultivation should be a focus as an MMORPG is designed.