This is inspired by The Escapist's new series, Extra Credits. If you haven't seen it go check it out.
I'm almost tempted to say that aside from World of Warcraft, the MMORPG genre is in fact, dying. Right now everyone is trying to get in on some of the action and failing, they're flooding and saturating the market and aside from a few games that already had followings, none of them are doing particularly well, at least here in the west. My first MMO experience was Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast. I thought it was fantastic, and it's still very fun today, although the lack of online servers makes it very niche. Now MMO's had been around earlier than this, but it was right about here when PSO and Everquest came out that really started to define the genre.
These games could both be looked at as translations of the JPRG or Table Top RPG formulas. PSO wanted to go with a more Action RPG, with manual attacks that must be aimed (Something I'm surprised never caught on with the MMO Genre as a whole and evolved from there. The only game series I've seen that follows in its footsteps are the Monster Hunter series), while Everquest went with a table top formula, with your attacks automatically going off on your target and everything is based on stats. Everquest in particular came out right when commercialized internet really, really started to take off in ways completely unexpected. These were, relatively speaking, niche games. Oh at the time they were huge relatively speaking, but none of the RPGs came close to obtaining the level of what WoW would years later. Phantasy Star Online: Primitive but awesome.
WoW both obliterated the competition and expanded the MMO consumer market in ways completely unheard of before. I believe there was something more at work here than brand name recognition, or even it being a good MMORPG that contributed towards its success. I'm going to try to list them. 1. It was more accessible to the average person.
Back when WoW was released it was still a lot of work to level. However, the average person could expect to hit level 60 and do the higher level dungeons and maybe even the raids. WoW also really focused on its questing system as a leveling system for solo players. While doing dungeons gave you a better chance at look, if you really just wanted to level up alone and explore the world, you totally could, and WoW arguably the best world design in an MMORPG.
2. Most importantly, WoW moved away from being just an MMORPG.
WoW's player base grew steadily as the game continued on, but it absolutely exploded in the later patches of vanilla and especially after the first expansion, Burning Crusade. This is because consumers as a whole lost interest in the standard MMORPG game play, and WoW moved away from it pretty drastically over a fairly short amount of time.
As I've said before, MMORPGS draw a lot of inspiration from JRPGs and table top games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. At the same time, with how other genres like Action Adventure and the FPS genres moved forward. Those slower genres started to wane in popularity even while gaming as a whole was exploding. The JRPG genre has mostly died out aside from the heavy hitter genres like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Shin Megami Tensei. Seriously, just look at the number of popular RPGs from the Fifth, Sixth, and seventh game generations. The PSX's library alone outnumbers the two following generations in successful financial JRPGs. These games have gradually died out because people expected more involving gameplay. You can see this happening with Table Top RPGs as well. The fourth edition of D&D really streamlined things to appeal to a wider audience. It was falling in popularity before that.
As I said, WoW moved away from the influences of those genres and gained unprecedented more popularity because of it. WoW started approaching its bosses with very specific actions it wanted from the player. There were AOEs you need to dodge, attacks you were expected to avoid, spells demanding quick dispelling and weaknesses you were expected to exploit. More and more, wow started drawing from the Action/Adventure genre as opposed to the MMORPG genre. C'thun in particular was a landmark for the MMORGP genre. While other MMO's had tried this, none had included as bosses of this style. Watch at least part of this. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7137326228940700448#
This is actually kind of exciting to watch. Admit it, it actually looks exciting to play. You could rarely say that about MMORPGs before this. After the Burning Crusade, almost every boss was like this to some extent, with raid bosses getting really unique.
MMORPGs have fallen out of flavor and yet so many keep rehashing that same formula established in 1999. A lot of players expect the genre to move forward into more involved gameplay styles and WoW is the only one that has done that and done that well. That said Guild Wars 2, probably the most anticipated new MMO, seems to heading in an MMO Action/Adventure/RPG route. There are thing like dodge rolling to avoid attacks, as well as kills requiring finishing moves. Tera Online is another MMORPG going in this direction. It removes sticky targeting altogether and goes for a console hack and slash type set up. I can't judge these games, but I can say that you're going to see more and more MMORPGs in this style.
If there is ever an MMO similar in play style to 3D Zelda games, I would be so over that like you wouldn't believe.
P.S. Final Fantasy XIV is HILARIOUSLY bad.