Dwarf Fortress claims that losing is fun. The trick is that in order to enjoy playing dwarf fortress, you need to have such a philosophy.
DF generates a lot of fan reaction because it’s such a unique game. The game isn’t well-designed, well-planned, well-implemented, or well-anything from a technical stand-point (although you may say it's well-received and well-researched). It is the ultimate sandbox, and certain kind of person is drawn to that. To generalize perhaps overmuch, the DF player is a unique creature in gaming—someone who enjoys being given a world and a seed from which the vines of power will grow, someone who doesn’t need to be pointed, with a firm ever-prodding hand, in one direction in order to have the most fun. Dwarf Fortress players find their own way to enjoy a game that leaves goal generation up to you.
It’s nice to play a game that taxes my CPU more than my GPU.
DF occupies a niche so deep and hard to climb into that you might consider it another world in itself. First, you must overcome the interface, which is, even in the dark recesses of the world of roguelike games, obtuse and awkward. Then you must actually make sense of what is happening on the screen, which is not always as easy as it should seem—the screen can turn into an impenetrable conglamaration of characters whose ascii codes are over 127 when you have twenty little dwarf icons alternatively flashing red with the exclamation points of fire and flipping between their icon and the fifteen cats, two mules, one camel leather thong, and one left low chain boot that also share the square. Now that you have some idea of how you interact with the game, you’ve got to figure out what you can do and how you can do it.
Here’s the twist: you don’t actually directly control your dwarves, you give them orders that they will get to when they feel like it (when they’re not too busy eating, drinking, sleeping, giving birth, getting married, being harassed by astoundingly lethal carp, or having a party). You can instruct your dwarfs to perform a myriad of trivial, entertaining, important, and sometimes hilarious tasks and combinations of tasks. Sometimes the dwarves will do what you want in a reasonable amount of time, sometimes they’ll decide it’s a better idea to go get some food from outside and get mauled to death by a skeletal zombie bear THAT IS ON FIRE. In such a whacky environment, the player is forced to adopt a very dark sense of humor and a willingness to fail. Often.
Can MMORPGs adopt a similar mentality? What would it be like if it was as fun to die in a fantastic and ridiculous way as it was to kill the eleventh rat and level up to the level cap? I’m not suggesting make a game that is a Leeroy Jenkins theme-park, but instead I’m suggesting that we can change the perspective on death and failure. Perhaps it should be rewarding to try some radical, crazy new idea and fail miserably. The first step towards this, though, and the step that I’m afraid the modern MMORPG gamer is least likely to take, is the step away from having thottbot open and ready to give them every detail about the ten rats they have to kill. There’s an enormous amount of risk aversion that seriously saps the fun potential of MMORPGs and it is only getting worse as information gatherers get better at gathering and disseminating their material.
Dwarf Fortress’ cult success has shows that a game doesn’t need tons of polish in order to gain acclaim from a sizable (though not WoW-sized) fanbase. If a game has a core ruleset that allows for diverse player action and predictable/deterministic consequences, that game can see success. Even with the majority of the idioms and tropes of modern games stripped away, Dwarf Fortress still can be a lot of fun to play if you can accept some of its surface flaws and learn how to lose with a smile on your face.
I think that many people would live happier lives if they learned how to lose with a genuine smile on their face.