What if you had a game world that had a sort of structured dynamism? Sort of a mix between WoW, Eve, and D&D. I've been working on a sort of sketchup of an MMO, but I finally figured out how to put into words one of the main themes I'm thinking hard about for it: contingency.
In D&D, the Dungeon Master, the guy running the game, often has a primary quest for the players to do. However, often the players don't do what he expects. At this point, DMs do different things. Some improvise a new storyline, some find a clever way to coax the players back on the planned path. And some have several potential - contingent - storylines planned out that the players could follow, depending on their choices. This is the idea I would like look at: the idea of planning multiple outcomes in a game world, each one different, but all equally meaningful and interesting, and then letting the players on each server decide through their collective actions which outcome will take place.
Imagine a game world; a relatively small game world, say half the size of one of WoW's continents (and we'll base the general game mechanics off WoW to keep things simple). Maybe it only holds 1-2 thousand players; that's fine. Now, this world has several zones like WoW, but its focus is on PvP. The Horde and Alliance each have a single capital city, maybe 3 or 4 major towns, and a dozen outposts. All towns are potentially conquerable, including the capital cities; maybe the outposts can be too, but they're less strategically and economically important.
I'm told this is similar to WAR, except it's Order vs Chaos, or some such.
Now we'll put the economic system into a little perspective. Imagine that among the various resources, several are only accessible in certain zones and locations, and that each faction has control of some of those resources. Both players and NPCs can take advantage of these resources to various effect. However, there are no flightpaths, and the only mail that can be sent is text, no items. This means that resources have to be actually transported from site to site.
Some of you may be thinking of Eve right now.
Now, on top of this nice little conglomeration of features, lets add a little basic "dynamic content": natural disasters. Imagine landslides happening sometimes in mountain passes, blocking the road. Fortunately, there are other passes, though perhaps they only opened up when the landslide blocked the main one. In the forests, one day the road gets swallowed by the undergrowth or is blocked by a gigantic fallen tree, forcing players to find new ways through. Maybe a blizzard blows through from time to time, or a hurricane or tornado during a battle.
Sure, some of this may have been thought of before, but the point is to have these things happen often enough that players recognize that the world can change any time, often in inconvienent, but interesting ways. And most of all, these events affect things; they're not like WoW's weather. Another example: fire magic works less well in a downpour, while frost magic is amplified during the winter (to balance, seasons could last for a week or two; a game year might take a month in RL).
Now lets go back to that PvP stuff. Say the horde conquer some alliance town, cutting off access to a number of outposts, and putting that zone in the hands of the horde. That means the alliance is now excluded from that part of the world, right? Wrong. While the horde are busy rebuilding the burnt-down town with their own architecture, the alliance NPCs escaped during the battle, and hastily construct a hideout in a nearby forest or ravine. Now instead of offering quests to deal with local wildlife and attack horde towns, they offer quests to assassinate horde peons working and transporting supplies, and steal supplies. Meanwhile, the horde moves in some NPCs, some of whom give the horde players missions to escort various NPCs that the alliance has a mission to assassinate.
In other words, the destruction of the alliance town doesn't mean the alliance players can no longer play in that zone. On the contrary, they're encouraged to go to that zone and play more there than elsewhere. On top of that, they're given certain things to deal with the dominance of the horde in that zone. Perhaps they get a cloak that can be used to shadowmeld anywhere in that zone, to reduce the advantage of the winning faction.
What's that? The fact that the alliance didn't lose anything means that destroying the town was meaningless? Let's look at that in more detail. The horde now have access to more resources, more NPC support, and can act more openly in that zone. And what exactly is "meaningful" anyway? Excluding or killing the other faction? That's a rather 1-dimensional point of view. This is meaningful because the world changed. The town changed hands, the horde got new quests, and the alliance got different quests. Instead of being simply forced out, alliance players got new and different challenges, but also new tools to deal with them. And by PvPing, and winning, the horde literally changed the world; that's pretty meaningful.
Then if the alliance takes back the town, the horde retreat to their own hideout to formulate a counterattack of their own.
This is what I mean by contingency. From what I've heard of WAR, if you take a keep, it's taken, and the other side has to take it back. That's pretty simplistic. Heck, in WoW, if you destroy all the NPCs in an enemy town, aside from the fact that they'll respawn eventually, what you're doing is "denying service" for the other faction. Imagine instead that another nearby town immediately sends out an expendition of NPCs to clear you out of the town, and rez all the NPCs. Then you have the option of running away, or trying to defeat this focused and more dangerous challenge.
In other words, when the players act - in sufficient numbers - they force the game world to change. However, it doesn't have to change in simplistic or even predictable ways. Imagine setting up potential events where a powerful wizard happens to be traveling through the town at the time and summons a literal thunderstorm to repel your attempted invasion.
That may be a bit out there for now, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work. Or make the town guards more alert and ready for a fight during the night, to discourage attacking a town when few players are online. But the important thing is to allow for one side or the other to win, and then change things based on that. And continue changing them.
Rather than building the world around static stories of quests and epic raids, build the world around a set of comprehensive ways for it to be changed. Create a structure for this to happen, automate it to a high degree (perhaps allowing for some minor intervention in extremely imbalanced cases), then after release, spend your development time on expanding the different possible contingencies of conquering and reconquering zones, on expanding the variety of quests pitting players against each other, on expanding the ways that travel paths change, on creating new random events to change the world on its own, in a natural way. In other words, continue expanding the potential contingencies and outcomes, to reduce the chances of the players encountering simplistic repetabove his headme. If the world is constantly changing in little ways all the time, it doesn't become boring. If I don't know what quest I'm going to get when I talk to that NPC the fourth time, if there's a chance it might be brand new, I will feel a small bit of excitement everytime I see a new exclamation mark above his head.