The open-source Worldforge project is another example of this, though it is very much in an unfinished state at this point. The concept is to produce a living, breathing world where you control things in the same way you do in Wurm - you plant trees, build houses and all that. I'm on the mailing list for the project as I did some work modernising their website, and I've been following their progress over an extended period of time. It's coming along nicely, though as a platform more than a game - the best we can hope for really is that it can reach the level where a game development company comes in a picks up the framework to make a truly unique game. It'd be something to see.
Another game making waves in the MMO world is APB, largely due to its novel take on what an MMO should be. It's an interesting idea, because while games like World of Warcraft and its many imitators (and games like Wurm too) have gone for the concept that it is the grind that makes the game worthwhile, the developers of APB have worked from the basis that it is the social element of the game that is more important - the ability to create yourself an identity online.
Its worth noting here that I'm not particularly judging either model. 'Grind' is a very loaded word that seems to have negative connotations of endlessly doing the same thing over and over again, whereas in reality it also equates to the progress and journey that one experiences playing through a RPG. You 'grind' your way from a beetle-fighting newbie to a heroic aventurer who slays fearsome dragons and all that, and you feel like you've earned it. If done well, I actually very much enjoy that, at least the first time I play through a game. But the social side of a game is also very powerful. It's what makes people keep playing an MMO when it's not at its most enthralling. You become attached to your guild, your online friends, and you have shared experiences that are all the richer for it.
APB is very much about the latter. The team working on it, Realtime Worlds, was founded by Dave Jones, the bloke who came up with the original GTA, and his influence is readily apparent. It's a dystopian online game based on the fighting between criminals and lawmen across a large, breathing open city. How staggeringly original, I hear you say, but there's a lot of good ideas in it.
The basic premise is that a player chooses to be either a Criminal or an Enforcer, and joins a server which contains up to a hundred players. Each server is a different 'city', though you are not tied to a server in the same way you are in conventional MMOs. You can go and find trouble by completing a mission dealt out by NPCs, like 'rob a bank', and the game then acts as a sort of matchmaking service. If there's a bank robbery going on, seveal Enforcers may be given the mission to go and stop the robbery. And that's the meat of the game. It sounds a lot like an advanced online FPS, but in some ways it sounds rather flimsy. Is it the kind of game I see myself playing for a whole year?
Well, no, not on paper. But I think I'm underestimating the lure of APB. The staying power of the game is based around the power to create an identity for yourself, and I think that will be a very powerful lure. I remember that on WoW there were a couple of 'celebrity' characters on my server, like the guy who was always grinding honour in the early BGs so he could be the first bloke to hit Grand Marshall and get his hands on the epic gear it got. But that was it. The reason was basically because it's very hard to get known as a very skillful player, because there's only so much better a player can be than another reasonably competent player of his same class. You're constrained by the numbers, basically.
Conversely, shooters are not constrained by numbers at all. A good player is infinitely better than another one. It remains to be seen whether APB will do enough to make itself a viable persistent world, but they've added in a limited progression system to attempt to do so. Players will advance as they play, but only to ever be about 20% more powerful than a new player. This means that the game world doesn't need to be segregated between players of different levels. That I like. You'll be free to make your name by being skillful.
But the biggest feature that people are raving about for APB is the character and vehicle customisation features. They are literally fantastic, good enough the players could recognise you based on your appearence rather than your name tag. I won't bother describing them, just look at this video instead:
APB is slated for an early 2010 release, and I for one look forward to it. I still have my doubts though; chiefly because I worry that in gameplay terms APB is not going to be light years ahead of the latest online shooter, be it CoD or Battlefield or whatever. Many of them have basic advancement systems now, so APB is essentially taking their ideas and adding better matchmaking, and more open world and better character customisation to it. The traditional lure of MMOs has been the massive timesink into the grinding, where it takes you months to max out your stats and then burn through all the content. Taking it out is risky, because it's a huge part of the traditional MMO model. Powerful though the social element of a game is, it often doesn't kick in to the later stages of the game when you're in a guild/clan. I just wonder if it'll be enough to sustain interest in a game long term.