This post is partly encouraged by Tobold's posts on the distinction of end-game and leveling-game.
I want to discuss the 'central game' inside a MMORPG.
A long time ago, when MMORPGs first used graphical representations, the selling point was to have a technically working virtual world. Not much thought was spent on the central game inside that world. This worked well - until the next generation of MMORPGs appeared. These had a central game.
In WoW you have several central games. During leveling this is the exploration game. You explore the world, the quests and the possibilities of your progressing character. During endgame the central game becomes an itemlevel hunt for most and an organisation challenge for some. The itemlevel hunt manifests itself in raiding and dungeon running. Sometimes in doing professions. WoW also has a second, mostly seperated, endgame that is PvP. PvP is loosely connected in battlegrounds and arenas. Some people also play a very simple economics simulation.
The 'central game' is the answer to the question: "What does the player actually want?" or "What motivates him to do what he does?".
Sidenote: "What does the player actually do?" would be wrong! In chess you move pieces, in soccer you run around and kick a ball, but these are not the central game. They are just what you do while playing the game.
The central game(s) is a defining characteristic for any MMORPG. The character power progression, for example, is usually just a feature of the central game. In the case of WoW's endgame, however, it has become the central game for most players. And if I had to guess, that's one of the reasons WoW is having problems right now.
Most importantly, however, there are a lot of central games out there that can be used to make MMORPGs. Most can be found inside the simulation aspect of the MMORPG. Warhammer and Age of Conan tried to implement different central games: players fighing over castles. One reason this didn't work as well, was that these games lacked focus.
If you make an MMORPG you need to know your central games and focus on them. What you must not do is clutter your MMORPG with many different minigames and no focus. Even one central game can be enough for a great MMORPG. More than a handful will usually be impossible to sustain without isolating them from each other (see WoW: PvE / PvP or leveling game / endgame).
Some central games in MMORPGs that I would like to see in the future:
- trying to defend a vast land against a PvE enemy
- competing for resources against other players
- trying to explore an endless dungeon
- trying to create a perfect dungeon
- trying to gain fame in piracy (on earth or in space)
- trying to build great fortresses / palaces
- trying to move up the ranks in a military (star)ship
- trying to survive in a PvE environment
- trying to survive in a PvP environment