In a recent thread about game communities Espoire asked how to create a better community for a game. This is an aspect of MMORPGs which appears to have been widely neglected, as many players feel that older games often had a better community than modern games.
Unfortunately part of the problem is that some factors that would help to improve the community have fallen out of favor with developers and players alike. One such factor is simply size: Small games tend to have a better community than large games. But as the number of players is also roughly proportional to revenue, game developers obviously prefer games with more players. One could artificially create smaller communities by cutting the game into small servers, but that would have the negative effect of longer waiting queues for battlegrounds and dungeons. You'd also have to suppress the ability to transfer between servers and change names to avoid that players escape social consequences by hiding or fleeing.
Similarily out of fashion are the tricks that the original Everquest used to foster a better community: Long downtimes between fights, and a harsh environment basically forcing the players to cooperate or perish. Forced grouping and 15-minute stretches of mana regeneration giving players the time to socialize are unlikely to reappear in a modern game.
So what can developers still do to foster a better community? One trick is currently applied in some cheap Asian grinder MMORPGs, and works reasonably well there: Giving veteran players rewards for mentoring new players. The first Asheron's Call had a similar system with lieges and vassals, which also resulted in veteran players having a vested interest in new players doing well in the game. A similar trick is having a system in place like City of Heroes / Villains, where players can temporarily adjust their levels to be able to play with others of higher or lower level. With rewards from dungeons being increasingly some sort of points instead of gear, that would actually be feasible now even in World of Warcraft. If you can give a player justice points for running a level 85 dungeon on normal, then why not give him points when he lowers his level to run an older dungeon on normal with some leveling friends?
Of course one could say that all these tricks of social engineering that make people be nicer to each other are somewhat creating a fake niceness. Veterans aren't really helping new players because they like them, but because it gives them an ingame benefit. But of course that is the best we can hope for as long as we demand that the improvements to the community come from the developers. We can't get to a really better community, where all the goodwill is felt from the bottom of the heart, without the players themselves contributing to that. I still remember my first day in Everquest, where a complete stranger helped me and even gave me a magic necklace, for no gain to himself. It is hard to blame developers for the fact that such behavior has become so rare.