As the industry has only continued to grow over the years for MMORPG's, failure to recognize the successful elements can result in the loss of not only customers but even worlds. Taking time to recognize successful mechanics can become critical in producing not only player interest but keeping it as well. Though there may be many arguments for or against some of these examples of currently successful popular mechanics within the industry, recognition of both their success and failures may close some doors only to open new windows.
While being free-to-play has definitely managed to keep several of the subscription-based MMORPG's sustained on a veritable life-support when subscriber numbers declined, as history will show free is not always better. Though the price-tag of a video game or its content can sometimes seem ridiculous making free titles that much more appealing, the reality of the saying 'you get what you pay for' becomes only that much clearer to many that play through the transitioning of a subscription-based game to any of the current free-to-play models out there.
Currently the fore-running income for most of the free-to-play models is a money-market where players can purchase items, bonuses, and unlocks to various features and offerings of the game. The largest complaint in regards to many of these money-markets is the fact that often times a player that pays is going to be able to buy their way to success and the need for actual skill and play-technique can become diminishing in value.
While a less common model today, a previous model that failed to achieve as much success was free to play at beginner levels; purchase to advance further. Possibly this model has fallen from the map due to exploitations by free players in one means or another, or maybe it just simply was not as profitable for the providers that may have attempted its application.
The only other model that comes to mind in terms of 'free-to-play' is that of a single purchase to then receive the full content available to that purchase, unless/until an expansion is released requiring further purchase. While this was the model followed with the initial Guildwars MMO, Guildwars 2 incorporated a money-market system as well.
Though there are cases of games that have seen recovery of their realms by going to a free-to-play model, there are still a larger majority that have instead seen the plug pulled even after this life-supportive action was taken. So if 'free' content, access, and play is not actually saving these lost MMO titles, what is it that can and does?
Whether event-driven to celebrate holidays, compelling quest-lines to follow, team-building or solo-able; the content any MMO has to offer is a major contributing factor in the success of all MMOs. Failure to provide content will not only lead to a decline in the players, but worse a decline in their interest. The reality of any video game regardless of the title or player involved, they all become repetitive and ultimately can begin to create a sense of boredom. Updates to the current content, expansions to the game itself, and even the newest addition of items to a game can all be helpful and worthy of pursuit by the developers; but content includes the theme of a title. While sci-fi and fantasy driven games currently dominate the market, the wild west, and feudal orient have all begun finding those that would take interest as well.
It may be easy to zero in on major fiction titles or popular movies for a theme to develop an MMORPG within, it could easily be argued that a great many of these themes have been gaining momentum from the MMORPG counterpart element. While the Lord of the Rings may not have had its own MMO when the movies released, there were certainly a number of budding fantasy MMO's readily available to provide their own flavor to the enticement of those motion pictures as entertainment. It could even be argued that the only reason the Star Wars Galaxy MMO went on for as long as it did was due to the popularity of the title itself. Some may even go so far as to argue their current MMO survives under the same pretenses. Whether either argument is true, the relevant fact that needs to be recognized is the theme/title itself definitely can and does contribute to the success any MMO will have to offer. The larger the fan-base of a title, the greater the odds it will sport a decent population. The better the population, the easier it can be to enjoy certain measures of content within the game.
Mechanics of a game, the challenge, and even the engine utilized can all be positively or negatively accepted by the players, but even when these can fail to measure-up often times they can be changed; the theme or setting of any MMO however usually will not. Recognizing popular themes and titles throughout the media can be advantageous, but sometimes the real pioneering of interest can be trying something that has not yet been done.
Though every game can develop their own flavoring of end-game content; those that fail to either limp along until disappearing from cyber-space altogether or end up being taken over by those that recognize the potential thereof and apply as much. Just like every game adds their own flavor to the end-game offered, the players seem to have just as dispersed an appetite there for. Where one player finds unending entertainment, another finds annoying repetition.
The reality of things is there simply isn't a way to please everyone with everything when it comes to the end-content. What better answer to such a challenge than to have not only a decent amount of end-game entertainments, but a wide range of variations in such activities or even a scheduled rotation of the content offered can add just the right spice to a flavor less palatable and even make those that are more enjoyed that much greater of one.
Recognizing the need for end-game content is nearly a given, recognizing success within end game content is easily measured, determining what will make for the best end-game content is simply the more and wider variations offered the greater the odds of success.
Commodities & trade
Probably the largest contributive force I've seen in regards to the success of MMORPG's is in regards to the money-system utilized, and not simply the gold, credits, or resources; but even in the form of commendations and marks from things such as PVP or Reputation systems. Needless to say we are all consumers, and as such a simple general truth is we love to be able to make purchases. While we may not always want to work for the funds involved, if the prize presents enough desire; things like boredom and repetition can seem simple hurdles to clear.
Recognizing that we as players are also consumers and feeding those fires with a wide range of purchase-ables will definitely help. Step that up a notch and add a number of money-type systems whether in trading resources, marks, or commendations. Mind you it is definitely wise to add some token-esque items of minimal real value in the mix of these types of purchase-ables; something that can be fairly low priced for those that may grow frustrated in potential grind-process for acquisition. Another great source of entertainment to enthrall when it comes to moneys of the game are gambling options of sorts as well. Popular in a number of Free-to-Play MMO's are the lockboxes containing unique and rare items but requiring a purchased 'key' to open. While some of these games may lockdown the purchases to some degree using character binding techniques rendering the purchases made exclusive to the buyer; many have found the trade value in making items such as these 'keys' trade-able. This creates the greatest trade layer any MMO can offer its players that of the player-market.
Auction houses, vendors, and even simply player to player trades can all create a massive drive to play for the player driven by such interests. Couple that with a wide range of money-types and items exclusive from those purchases, then expound upon that with a player-based money versus a game-based money and you begin to find an extreme entrepreneur gaming that can often appeal to the least likely of players. We may not all be able to be wealthy in our real-lives, but there is a measure of satisfaction achieved by wealth in an MMO for countless players. Give the players a wide range of money-types, items those moneys can purchase or unlock, then a means to trade amongst one another of those items if not the moneys themselves and you are formulating the living economic that can drive a large number of players to continue 'playing' games that no longer truly interest them. Utilize an update or add a new expansion and those hanging by that thin line of interest, could in turn become reawakening to their original interest that acquired that wealth; the adventures of the game itself.
While there are definitely a wide range elements that can contribute in the recipe for success of any MMORPG; rest assured those mentioned above certainly leave memorable footprints within the recollections of those that enjoyed them. They may not assure permanence for any title, but they definitely can help.