This paragraph over at Ardwulf's lair really got me thinking:
It’s funny that we hear so many complaints from the MMO pundit class (of which I myself am a member,) to the effect that almost all MMOs are basically the same, and then when titles which are different are pointed out, they’re dismissed for putative ‘barriers’ set up against fun. D&D Online and EVE Online are two examples of this – both titles varying from a much inveighed-against paradigm, and both criticized for not matching expectations.
I think he really hit the nail on the head. What big budget MMOs have come along recently that were well and truly innovative? I would argue that AoC, EVE, DDO, MxO, Tabula Rasa, and City of Heroes all contained at least some major innovations. And all but two of those MMOs fell flat on their faces in the marketplace soon after launch. In many cases the very factors that set them apart are the features that many players complained about (e.g., the "link system" combat in MxO, the boggling complexity of EVE, or the heavy use of instancing and reliance on teamwork to progress in DDO). The main reason that MMOs are so rarely innovative is that publishers believe that there is little market for experimental MMO designs. And based on the behavior of most MMO gamers I'd be forced to conclude that they are right.
What I find even more frustrating is that there are a ton of games that really push the MMO design envelope, and that get almost completely ignored. Many of the commentators whining about a "lack of innovation" in MMOs have likely never even tried one. Below is a rundown of some of the ones I'm aware of (and I'll happily add in more). I will allow that many of these games stray so far from the design of a standard MMO that it's debatable whether they should even be considered MMOs. However, all of them are online multiplayer games that have the ability to support hundreds of simultaneous users.
If you are currently playing Everquest, Everquest II, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, or Lord of the Rings Online and aren't willing to try at least one or two of the following MMOs, you are part of the reason why big budget MMOs aren't generally innovative. You are therefore a giant hypocrite if you complain about it.
A Tale in the Desert: there is no combat. Players collaborate to "build a society." Myrmecology, raising ants, was recently added as a core system (no, really!).
Endless Forest: a social MMO where you are a deer. You can communicate with other deer only via sounds and body language.
Arden: the World of Willian Shakespeare: an MMO designed to teach you about the works of Shakespeare. Requires Never Winter Nights to play (designed with the NWN modding tools). Development was stopped because testers deemed it "not at all fun." But an interesting experiment nonetheless.
Wizard 101: it gets a lot of flack for being a semi FtP tween focused MMO. However the card based combat is like nothing I've seen in any other MMO, it has one of the better housing systems I've seen in an MMO, and the idea that you earn health/ mana potion refills by playing arcade and puzzle games is downright bizarre.
Cities XL: an upcoming MMO where you build cities. Entering closed beta in a few days, one to keep an eye on.
Puzzle Pirates: sword fights, crafting, ship to ship combat, and other systems are all resolved by playing puzzle mini games. Interesting "grouping" / social mechanics that many MMO designers would do well to examine.
Sports MMOs: there are way too many to list. The one I've spend some time in is Shot Online, which is based on golf. You play golf games with other players to gain levels and improve stats that affect things such as your accuracy or how far you can hit a ball. However, it's sufficiently skill based that a level one newbie can beat a vet if they are a better player. Others off the top of my head include Fantasy Tennis and Project Torque. You couldn't get any further from a swords and sorcery Diku MUD MMO than these games.
MANGBAND: a multiplayer version of Angband (a Tolkien themed rogulike). Rarely has more than three or four players on, but I've found the (minuscule) community to be quite friendly. The hard mode server is also the only perma-death MMO that I am aware of.
Planetside: the original, and currently only, MMO FPS. Still alive and kicking.
Asheron's Call: an older MMO that I personally have never gotten around to trying. However it still does a lot of things that few other MMOs have attempted, including ongoing updates that continually alter the world and push forward the game's narrative. This game is nearly as old as Everquest, and still more innovative than 95% of the MMOs on the market.
Those are all off the top of my head, I'm certain there are more that could go on that list. I didn't even get in to Diku MUD style MMOs that explore non fantasy settings, of which there are an increasing number. Innovative MMOs are out there. If you really want to see publishers take more risks with experimental MMO designs, seek these games out and at least try them.