Yesterday I described a pure endgame MMORPG, for people who are only interested in the raiding endgame of existing MMORPGs, based on various comments from raiders about what they want and what they hate. Having thus got rid of the endgame, I can now describe the game I would actually want to play: A pure leveling game without endgame.
So how would a MMORPG without endgame be even possible? To understand that, one has to realize that the endgame is a fake solution to a real problem. The problem is people with different levels having difficulties to play together. Thus, on paper, once everybody is at the level cap, everybody is at equal level, and we can all play together. In reality that turns out to not work at all. Just try to join a raid with a freshly dinged level 85 in WoW if you don't believe me. An expansion in World of Warcraft offers 2 years of continual progress. The fact that only 2 months or so of that are "leveling" is irrelevant, as people *still* progress afterwards, and thus *still* have vastly different power levels, which prevent them from playing together. People are in reality still "leveling" after hitting the level cap, only that now they increase their gear level, which is measured in iLevel or Gearscore instead with character level.
Thus a pure leveling game would work a lot better if it adopted a different solution: The ability to temporarily adopt a lower level to play with a group of lower level friends, or even to temporarily adopt a higher level to play with a group of higher level friends. That has been done in various other MMORPGs, like City of Heroes/Villains, and if you choose an intelligent implementation of it, that works extremely well. Problem solved, thus no more need for an endgame.
Having only a leveling game has some big advantages. Experience point rewards and penalties can be tuned a lot finer than loot rewards. How fast your gear progresses in the WoW raid endgame is to a major extent based on luck: If you happen to be the only leather-wearing caster in your raid and a lot of caster leather gear drops, you make huge progress, while somebody in the very same raid with the very same performance doesn't get the same reward. If you are in a game in which most progress is by experience points and leveling, then rewards for group effort will be a lot fairer.
There are already a lot of people playing World of Warcraft without participating in the heroic/raid endgame. The level cap is actually a major problem for these people, as the game basically ends at the level cap, and there isn't much left to do. To avoid that, a pure leveling game would have to have a lot longer leveling process. Instead of needing 2 years to reach the last raid boss of an expansion, players would need 2 years to level up to the level cap.
People who only ever played World of Warcraft and games produced after WoW often have problems to even imagine how leveling can be challenging. But of course the fact that leveling in WoW is so trivial is a deliberate design decision, and not inherent to all MMORPGs. A pure leveling game would work by being easy only at the lower levels, and then getting harder and harder, requiring better and better performance to advance further. But unlike the current raid endgame, a pure leveling game can tune that a lot better: A lack of performance would not mean that you get totally stuck like a guild that can't get past a certain raid boss. In a pure leveling game your performance would directly be reflected in the speed of your progress. Thus somebody playing badly would still advance, because sometimes he gets lucky and kills a mob and gains xp. But somebody playing better would advance a lot faster.
The same principle would also serve to create a flexible social game. It would be possible to solo, but the efficiency in experience points per hour would be relatively low. Group, and you advance faster. And you wouldn't need a full group for that, as a group with 2 or 3 members would simply advance faster than a solo player, but slower than a full group. Thus given the possibility to temporarily adjust your level for a group, and a flexible group size, you would always be able to form a group with whoever of your friends is online, without one of you having to sacrifice progress and the other "leeching".
Having eliminated the endgame need for instanced dungeons, the pure leveling game would take place in an open world. Part of the content would be static, as in quests and scripted events. Another part would be more dynamic, like in Rift and the upcoming Guild Wars 2, with players being able to change the world around them. Not permanently maybe, but at least to the point that as long as there are players defending a village, that village would remain in friendly hands, and as soon as the players give up on it, an invasion turns the village into an outpost of evil, which has to be taken back to get back to village status.
Of course gear would still exist in a pure leveling game, it just wouldn't be the only means to advance, like it is in an endgame. Having a slower leveling process also enables a more meaningful crafting and player economy. If you don't outlevel your gear every 5 minutes, it makes more sense to gear up during the leveling process.
There being no raid content, there would be no need for raiding guilds in which you are valued only for your performance. Instead guilds would be mostly social, a means for people to play frequently with the same bunch of other people, instead of having to look for pickup groups. But pickup groups would also be a lot nicer, as it would always make sense to group up when you see another player hunting the same monsters as you are. And as performance is measured gradually (advance faster for playing better) instead of a simple black/white success criteria of either wiping or clearing the dungeon, there would be less recriminations flying around.
Class balance would have to assure that every player can advance solo at the same pace. If some roles are more desirable for forming a group, in this pure leveling game the balance between roles would establish itself naturally. As grouping accelerates progress, it would only be natural for players to choose roles which are likely to get them invited into a group, and the extreme problems like "tank shortage" in WoW would be less likely to arise. Nevertheless nobody would be forced to play a role he absolutely hates, as there would always be enough other players choosing whatever role there is currently in demand.
Players finally reaching the level cap can either continue playing to help friends, develop their tradeskills, or just fool around. Or they can play alts, and come back to their level capped characters once an expansion raises that cap. If there is enough to do, enough challenge, and enough interest in a leveling game, the artificial raiding endgame really isn't necessary for a MMORPG.