First off, if you read the title and think "huh?", then there is nothing to see here, move on for your own safety!
Now I have to say that I am very much old school when it comes to the fledgling MMORPG genre. I’ve been there since very nearly the beginning and have slogged through everything from UO through WoW at times as the hardest of hardcore players and at times as casual as you can possibly get . I tend to try every MMO that is released for at least a week or so, but have only put real long term effort into the ones that have really captured my attention: EQ (subscriber since nearly day one), EQ2 (day one), WoW (day one), CoH (first month) and CoV (first month). Personally, I think the pinnacle of MMO achievement is represented by both EQ2 and WoW, so I thought it might be interesting to ramble a bit in an objective manner about these two great games.
More than any game genre, the MMO faces some challenges that are truly unique. These challenges are both technical and design oriented. On the technical side, the development team is under pressure to deliver graphics and sound engines that are very nearly up to par with current single play games (in order to capture interest), and must ensure that these engines have some sort of scalability roadmap since these games last a long time. Now state of the art gaphics and sound design is difficult, but when you combine it with a large scale, client server, architecture that must scale economically to thousands of users with wildly varying connection quality, you’ve got a task that is nothing short of monumental. Finally, you have to ensure the integrity of the environment as much as possible since environmental integrity is core to the experience of a persistent world. This means that security and data integrity must be top priorities.
So the technical issues are impressive, but the design issues are no less impressive since it’s the game design that truly makes the experience and captures the players. It is the nuances of design, I think, that have made WoW and EQ2 so successful and it is these nuances that are worth examining…
An MMO design must execute well in 4 key areas: immersion, diversity of content, play mechanic and challenge. Immersion is a tough one because it means different things to different people. In general, however, the environment must successfully suspend disbelief to some degree and foster an attachment between the player and their character.
Everquest 2 does a great job on immersion. The world of Norrath is mature at this point (after being online for more than 7 years with Everquest), so the designers faced the challenge of creating something new without breaking existing lore too badly. The balance they struck revolves around an apocalyptic event known as the "Cataclysm" which, at some point in Everquest future, shattered the world and created the Norrath of Everquest 2. This works and explains the radical changes to the worlds geography and population distribution (case of game lore rationalizing technical and design decisions). The EQ2 team worked hard on differentiating their game from EQ1, creating a draw for casual players (who in many ways feel alienated by EQ1) and building in those extra little features that make for a realistic feeling game world. In nearly every case, the hard work shows and, in the final analysis, EQ2 creates a much more convicing world than EQ1.
Some of the high points of EQ2 in terms of immersion are player housing, tradeskilling, the status system, the faction system, and the language system. In each case, the quest design is very well integrated and provides worthwhile and tangible benefits. An example of how all of these things work together can be found in the Heritage Quests. These are big, epic, tasks that earn your player "status" in their home city. The tasks are approached differently for folks of the good city of Qeynos than they are for the sinister city of Freeport, but the results are the same. Along the way to completion of these complex tasks, a player may need to learn other languages like Giant or Dragon in order to continue and, by the end, they will earn valuable status, coin, experience and items. This status allows a player access to titles, higher end housing and exotic items for their home.
This foundation structure was expanded nicely with the release of the Desert of Flames expansion and the introduction of a third city, Maj’Dul, with its own look, feel, factions and housing. Players can complete tasks within Maj’Dul and even choose to move to that city after earning citizenship. It is a neutral city, so it is not considered a betrayal to do so (unlike moving from Freeport to Qeynos and vice versa which would require completion of a "betrayal quest"). Combine all of these featurs with small touches like "supporting cast NPCs" in the form of folks going about their business, regular animals, farmers out in the fields, etc. and the world of Norrath has grown more immersive than ever.
World of Warcraft also offers a tremendous amount in the area of immersion. To start with, the world of Azeroth is vast and seemless and not divided into zones. This structure makes the world feel extremely "real" right off the bat. Standing in a field, you can see a mountain range far in the distance, and eventually walk all the way there ultimately ending up amid snowy peaks. Traveling the world from forest to desert to snow covered tundra with no break is an awe inspiring experience. One neat feature that is new to both WoW and EQ2 is enhanced travel. Travel is often something that players gripe about (and is a side effect of a large world), so the new games feature rides on flying carpets, griffin back, boats, airships, etc. WoW really uses the seemless world to great advantage here. The griffin rides, in particular, are a real spectacle. In addition, unlike EQ2 which has basically given up on boats and instead implemented a kind of virtual, single-click "boat ride", WoW has implemented a perfect real boat ride. You see the ship come into port, you get on, and you sail away. And the boats are on time and work. The same thing applies to the airship travel. Both games offer player mounts such as horses, but WoW does the better job in this area. Both mounts and players leave footprints where appropriate, kick up dust, and are just really well animated. Mounts and players in EQ2 look somewhat detached from the terrain. The superior shadowing in EQ2 makes up for that a bit, but WoW still wins here. Overall, the travel in WoW definitely adds to the immersion more so than EQ2.
Two other areas where WoW gets the immersion nod are the "supporting cast" NPCs and, get ready, the ability to really SIT on a chair! That second one seems minor, but it adds a massive amount of realism to the game when you can see your character actually sit down at a table in a bar. In terms of the supporting cast NPCs, WoW has done a pretty much perfect job. As you travel the world, you see all kinds of folks going about their business. It makes the world feel very alive.
Unfortunately, WoW does not offer player housing or anything really similar to the status system. Tradeskilling, as well, is a bit more bland than EQ2 and feels less rewarding (and therefore less immersive). I would say that the weather effects in the two games are roughly equivalent and largely window dressing. Both dev teams also do neat things on the holidays like decorate and add holiday NPCs and both games feature extremely diverse and unique cities with truly unique character.