I'm looking at the various features patched into older games or promised for the upcoming games, and I'm asking myself whether all these game developers are working on the wrong set of features. I see all sorts of variations of game content, different sorts of combat systems, crafting systems, quest systems. I see new classes, new zones, new dungeons. But what I don't see is innovation in chat systems, looking for group systems, guild functionality, and all the other social aspects of MMORPGs. If anything modern games are less social than the first generation games, as they now allow you to play solo and to avoid all player interaction including PvP if you want to.
It is well known that you can get players to stay in your game beyond the point where the game itself bores them, if only they have friends in the game which they don't want to leave. Thus if game developers introduce some social engineering into their games and promote people making friends, they ultimately help the longevity and profitability of their games. Problem with that is that social engineering isn't easy, and if it is overdone it can easily backfire. "The Vision" is social engineering gone wrong, and has been thoroughly discredited by the failing on Vanguard. Yesterday's news about that Chinese game company demanding proof of being female before being allowed to play a female character is another example of bad social engineering.
But that doesn't mean that social engineering in itself is wrong or can't work. You simply need to go from trying to enforce social ties to trying to promote social ties. And as the players of a MMORPG mostly communicate with each other using the systems of the game, there is a huge opportunity here. You can easily foster social ties by simply improving the social features of your game: the chat system, the looking-for-group system, the guild system, and whatever more you can think of.
Except for the introduction of voice chat into MMORPGs, I haven't seen much innovation here. And voice chat isn't actually the best way to meet new people and make friends, although it is useful for friends to cooperate better. If you look at MMORPG chat system, the overwhelming majority is downright primitive, and hasn't evolved at all since Everquest. Many still work with command line /commands to operate them, and are way too complicated for most people. A developer would just need to spend a week using various internet chat systems to come up with hundreds of ideas how to improve in-game chat and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. SOE is ahead of the curve here, offering options like being able to join guild chat from a web browser, or being able to chat to people playing on a different server, or even different game. But even they would really need to invest some time into improving their chat interface.
While facilitating chat is important, you then still need to give people a reason to talk to each other. This is where looking-for-group and guild systems kick in. There is a lot of room for improvement here, even in the market leader World of Warcraft. It is not that some games don't have good ideas in LFG systems, but somebody needs to go and gather all these good ideas and combine them into one coherent and working system. And guilds need much more than a dedicated guild chat channel: A guild should have common projects and goals beyond raiding, and systems that enable guild members to contribute to these goals as well as record their contribution. Knowing what others contributed to the greater good of the guild helps a lot to build trust, and could go a long way to overcome the paranoia and guild hopping going on in WoW for example.
Social engineering in MMORPGs needs to bring people together, enable them to communicate, and give them common goals towards which they can work together. Partial solutions to all that already exist, but developers don't spend enough time on these features. Creating new content is important, but not sufficient for the longevity of a MMORPG.