A term often bandied about in MMO circles is "Next Gen". I have asked my wife, who has years more experience in MMOs than me, "What makes a next gen MMO?".
No good answer has be produced. We just don't know.
If any MMO sub-genre needs the Next Gen treatment, it is superhero MMO. At present I have played 3 Superhero MMOs (I have also played 3 supers table top games and read many more). Each superhero MMO (SHMMO) has failed on some key point.
City of Heroes/City of Villains (COH/COV) had much to recommend it in character design, especially given its age. I found the missions to wear thin after a while, however and the template or metaclass system is not superhero appropriate.
Champions had the most attractive and robust paperdoll of any MMO I'd ever played. A SHMMO needs a vast, and I mean VAST, amount of colors, costume pieces, and body styles. Super is all about costume and powers. Champions, however, had uninspired gameplay. It promised far more than it could hope to deliver. It originally seemed to eschew the metagame templates, but as of Free-Play it is restricted to the same tired metaclasses.
DCU Online has mediocre costumes at launch and the color palette leaves a little to be desired. The power sets are not ideal (Superman is an 'ice' hero), but it's choice to separate the 'powers' from the 'combat skills' was great. DCUO comes closest to the superhero feel by having EVERYONE be a damage dealer, then tacking on the metaclass.
Just to be clear, by metaclass I am speaking of TANK, HEALER, DPS, RANGED DPS, CONTROLLER, etc. These roles simply do not fit the super hero mold.
Superman is often seen as a PROTECTOR or DEFENDER, which is superhero MMO METACLASS speak for 'TANK'. He absorbs damage, protects the hard hitters and controllers. Sure, of course he would step in front of a bullet to save Batman, but he is also a VERY HEAVY HITTER. Do laser beam eyes and the ability to move the planet not equate to DPS somehow?
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CATWOMAN
Anyone who grew up on tabletop RPG knows that problems are not always solved by simply doing damage. A thief sees the world differently than does a cleric or a wizard. When presented with a problem in a tabletop campaign a thief looks at his skills to survive and succeed, while a wizard looks at this spellbook. Unfortunately years of uninspired MMO programming and dull-witted children playing the games have led to the current state of gaming. The MMO does not provide multiple solutions to a problem, just multiple classes seeking the same solution: kill it. The stealther, the tank, and the nuker all need to do the same thing, which is outdamage the foe, they simply approach the goal in predictable, but different ways. When put together into a group they automatically fall into their role or fail.
Comic readers and fans of the genre know that there is more separating Flash, Batman, Spiderman and Superman than simply strength and roles. They think differently from one another. If a smilodon, brought through a time portal, was let loose in THE CITY, each would solve the problem differently. Batman would use a gadget to capture the beast, then spirit it away to the Batcave's Bat Prehistoric Menagerie Wing. Flash would use his speed to baffle the great cat, maybe fun off, get some bait, and lead it away from the public, tricking it into a zoo cage. Spidey would just web it up, but then the writers would forget how strong his webs are supposed to be and the sabretooth would just cut free. Supes wouldn't even get winded dealing with this. He'd probably fly it back in to the past as well.
In a standard MMO (fantasy mostly) the nuker would nuke it, the stealther would sneak up and use a set of combos and the tank would take a long time to kill it. No inspired gameplay.
SHMMO deserves a next gen treatment. Looking at the older DDO we saw a game where, through instanced gameplay, the DnD 3.5 classes actually used their 'skills' not just their line of damage abilities to solve problems. There were also puzzles that the player actually had to solve or suffer. There were traps for the rogue to disarm and locks that required a specific 'stat' like Charisma or Wisdom to undo. All of this made for a 'tabletop' experience. Bioware's Neverwinter Nights was capable of the same through networked play and modding.
SHMMO deserves such a treatment. Certainly the popular image of comics is the 4 color slugfest. Muscled men and buxom women duking it out in mindless violence. Every true comics fan knows that this image is false. Comics are varied and exciting with characters who eschew violence as much as bellicose pugilists glorify it. Shouldn't the Next Gen MMO be the SHMMO?
At present the SHMMO has fallen into the same boring MMO rut as the extant fantasy games. The metagame is still the same, with the metaclasses unchanged, save for the names, and no hope of inspired gameplay waiting in the wings. Things are looking grim for Star Wars: The Old Republic as well. SWTOR is being produced by Bioware, the company that brought the world two iterations of Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. SWTOR deserves to be THE NEXT GEN MMO, but will it?
According to my sources, no it will not. Success in this business is determined by subscriptions. Bums in seats. Thus the designers must give the people what they want. The sad truth would seem to be that the people say they want fresh, new, and Next Gen, but demonstrate through forums, beta tests and their purchasing dollars that they want more of the same. If it ain't broke, don't fix it; what if it never worked in the first place?
The first MMOs grew from the love of the (tabletop) game, yet computers were just too limited to provide the full tabletop experience, which is one of possibilities and human interaction. The tabletop game featured game controllers who could and would fudge a die roll to save the story, who could adjudicate a situation not covered in the rules book (programming), and who were capable of shifting the pre-programmed adventure to suit the needs of the consumer. When presented with a cat that needed skinning, the tabletop GM could be convinced that perhaps the cat didn't need skinning after all. When presented with 4 standard ways to solve the problem the human GM could handle that new, innovative and slightly insane 5th way. None of this is part of the MMO. To make it mass market and profitable the designers needed to focus on doing one or two things well. Those things were combat related. Since that time MMOs have been defined by COMBAT and the esoterica of tabletop, such as Stats, Skills, and Choices have all given way to an action bar full of ATTACKS, SPELLS, and BUFFS. This is great in a wargame sense, but is not good enough for SHMMO and certainly not the path to Next Gen, unless, as failed evolutionary science teaches us, the Next Gen is just more of the same, parent to child to grandchild.
With such a shallow and polluted gene pool as we currently have in this post-Blizzard MMO world, how can we expect Next Gen to be any different from This Gen?