So...having my new machine built I've spent a good deal of time the past 2 weeks trying out a lot of the games I've previously played and in doing so revisited other MMOs/RPGs. While none of them are perfect there are definitely strong points to each and every one. I am by no means a MMO expert, having only played a handful, but nevertheless here is my cherrypicked list of features I'd love to see in the "perfect" MMO.
The following would be organized into a hardcore small group PvE game. Hardcore != large groups, small groups != casual, and no PvP means more interesting and powerful abilities due to no PvP balance concerns.
WoW: In one word? Quality. What stands out above all else with WoW is its overall level of polish. Forget class/raid design. Forget art. Forget the world itself. WoW is an incredibly smooth, relatively bug free, "polished" feeling game on all levels. This no doubt stems from the dedication to perfection that Blizzard holds as across all their games, and not to mention their rather large bankroll. This seems like a given, but I feel Blizzard does such a great job here that it deserves recognition. Regardless of how many merits other games might have that make them look good on paper, or in nostalgia, WoW keeps drawing players back from other MMOs simply due to the overall quality and a huge player base (no doubt due to said quality) so finding people to group with is rarely a problem compared to other games. Also, somewhat related to quality, the smoothness of overall combat, movement, and ability use is top notch.
Items/Stats: Another aspect of WoW, while unrelated specifically to quality, is the item/stat system. While I can't say I'd want to see something *exactly* like WoW I like how there is a large variety of stats that perform distinct functions (Spellpower, Strength, hit rating, defense, etc). I would definitely streamline/clarify mechanics a bit, especially the hit stat (83% for casters to hit bosses? A different amount for melee? Strange increments? Make it 100% chance for everyone to hit mobs 3 levels or lower, 95% chance to hit mobs -2 through +2, and 90% to hit mobs 2 levels or greater), and add a built in Ratingsbuster type mod built into the game, etc. Encourage min/maxxing but make things less obscure so it's easier for the new player to pick up and for the veteran player to remember. The set bonus system is also rather nice as well, giving extra incentive to use certain pieces even if they aren't the best otherwise.
Quests: Pretty top notch here as well. I won't comment a whole lot as I've never been much of a quest kind of guy (it's all about the thrill of combat and character progression for me) however WoW does have much better quest writers than I've seen elsewhere. Sure, there might be a few too many fed-ex quests, but overall they're well written and diverse enough to keep even someone like me who isn't super interested in the story engaged enough in questing side of things.
Vanguard: In one word? Depth. Vanguard was a monumental concept that ultimately fell flat on its face as implementation (IE funding and time) screwed the pooch. Despite its shortcomings it most certainly sports a few aspects that go way deeper than other MMOs (that I have played) have attempted.
Crafting/Diplomacy: I won't go into an incredible amount of detail here as they are both fairly difficult to describe, but Vanguard has very deep "civilian" type activities. Crafting is a mini-game onto itself where you go through the process that would actually be involved in making said item. You must weigh making a higher quality product against breaking an item into uselessness if you try to go into too much detail. You have to deal with unexpected circumstance such as a flaw in the wood you're working to burning your hand on the forge. Diplomacy, similarly is a sort of tug of war type of card game. You work with four types of expression, Demand, Inspiration, Flattery and Insight to go through the process of parlay, as well as collecting cards to add to your arsenal of opening arguments, rebuttals, etc to convince your parlay opponent that you're in the right and they're in the wrong. It is used from something as simple as convincing an NPC to open a door for you (creating a shortcut through a dungeon to avoid trash) to something as far-reaching as unraveling a conspiracy to assassinate a sultan. In fact, crafting and diplomacy are so much their own aspects of your character they have their own gear sets as well.
The World: Quite simply the world of Vanguard is amazing. Both in size and scope it feels like how one would think a real fantasy world to feel. The cities are realistic in population, size, and layout. The zones aren't all muddled together in something of an unrealistic manner as WoW. There is a definite progression from area to area as to make it seem like a more natural flow of terrain. The three continents are essentially modeled after fantasy/medieval versions of Europe, North Africa/Arabia, and the far east, which creates rather distinct cultural themes and landscapes. Areas can seem a little desolate of life, or completely teeming with it, but it is as one might expect. Another aspect of the world if just how damn far you can see. In Qalia (the Arabian themed continent) if you're on high ground you can literally see for miles. Little things like this that make everything feel so much grander I greatly appreciate and would have to include.
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: In one word? Openendedness. While it's not an MMO it is pretty similar as single player games go. Quite simply I adore the "class" system in the game, IE there aren't classes in the purest sense. When you create your character you choose a set of skills to outfit your template with. I, for example, very much enjoy playing what I call a "Scout" which is something of a mix between a Hunter and a Rogue minus the stabbing and pet pandering. I chose Acrobatics, Alchemy, Athletics, Illusion Magic, Light Armor, Marksmanship, and Sneaking to reach this end. I essentially design a "Scout" class to play exactly as I want. An archer with great mobility as to reach high vantage points or run away as needed plus limited magical support to enhance my stealth, paralyze melee mobs who corner me, and create potions to boost my stats. Oblivion certainly isn't perfect with glaring balance and depth issues, but the general skill (rather than class based) system is refreshing in a world of classes that never play quite like how you'd like them to.
Guild Wars: In one word? Style. Also, another "not quite an MMO." Guild Wars is a pretty two faced game if you ask me. It has some absolutely incredible aspects about it, as well as some downright terrible flaws that far outshine the good. Oddly enough I would probably borrow the most from this game than any other, despite the fact that I generally can't stomach it for more than a couple hours a month.
Art: While it certainly does sport some dated looking low-res textures, the overall look is, IMO, the perfect compromise between the cartoony look of WoW vs. the excessive vying for realism you see in games like Vanguard and the cutting edge world of FPS games. It has a very glossy/dreamy, heavy post-processed look to it that works quite well while running great framerates even on terrible computers several years ago. Particle effects and animations are top notch as well. The UI is also very slick and minimalistic, which I very much prefer. Overall an amazing look that I would love to see updated using higher quality art assets and newer tech.
Screenshot #1 (landscape)
Screenshot #2 (closeup)
Screenshot #3 (combat)
Screenshot #4 (UI)
Aggro/Dungeon Mechanics: Guild Wars PvE is very much more like Diablo than WoW. There is no aggro. Mobs will attack at random or whoever seems to be the greatest threat. But there is no "aggro" system in the sense WoWers are accustomed to. While you might have a tank type character you try to wedge between the healer and the mobs it's much more of a fend for yourself type experience, similar to the "arena" fight in Magister's Terrace. Buffs/Debuffs are also incredibly powerful. WoW raid bosses are generally about doing XYZ when the boss does ABC. I'd much prefer a situation similar to 5-mans where intelligent skill usage can influence what happens in a big way, rather than doing *exactly* what the developers want you to do to ultimately defeat an arbitrary gimmick rather than doing what feels like actually fighting and defeating a boss with magic and weaponry.
Missions: This is absolutely one of the high points of Guild Wars. A mission is something of an outdoor instance, although it's much more fast paced, heavily script driven, large battle oriented than your standard instance. Think of the style/pacing of CoT: Strathholme in an area like Alterac Valley where you're with a large amount of NPC troops going from boss to boss with mini objectives/cut scenes along the way. It's an amazing type of group experience compared to your average dungeon crawl. While I certainly don't want to see dungeons replaced bu missions they would make an excellent supplement to them.
Most Importantly: Do NOT release an unfinished product. Far too often in the MMO world games are shoved out the door that need a minimum of 6 month more work. WoW needed it, Vanguard needed it, Warhammer needed it, need I go on? As MMOs are concerned the release dates should not be dictated by the marketing/finance people. Hell, I'm finance people but being a gamer I absolutely understand that to get anyone to stick around beyond a small core niche market is to create an initial product that works. Warcraft was quite fortunate in its pre-existing brand image, excellent timing, and targeting of the casual market in that it got away with the initial issues. If other games can't manage to create an initial product that can grab players (and ultimately hold onto them) then MMO market will continue to be effectively monopolized by Blizzard, resulting in stunted creativity and funding for new games. Bigwigs: Give your people time to work their magic if you want a sustainable cash flow.
Most, obviously, will disagree with all of my specifics, but there you go. Maybe we'll see something along these lines with Blizzard's new MMO, Elder Scrolls Online, or Guild Wars 2. Who knows =D