MMORPGs are declining. This is a rather obvious fact.
Five years ago I was convinced that MMORPGs would grow exponentially for a long time to come. Today, I have been proven wrong. Many people argue that the market is contracting until it somehow reaches its 'natural' size - 'natural' being anything before World of Warcraft. But I don't believe in perfect storms of that size.
While WoW profited from the pre-tablet area, from existing lore and previous successful games, from enough similarity to Everquest, and from fast internet in many homes, it also did many things right. And if you do these many things right again, while remembering the differences between 2005 and 201x, you can repeat WoW's success.
Still, there is one problem today that needs to be answered before you can design a new MMORPG: What is the target audience? Ideally, the answer to that question would be everybody. But that is very difficult for one single reason:
Keen is right.
MMORPGs work because they feel like an investment. And they cannot feel like an investment if you play them like a Facebook game on your mobile. The reason people like to kill 25 pigs for a tiny reward (I once spent tens of hours for gloves with +1% crit chance) is because the more time you spend doing something the more important it becomes to you. And the more important something is, the more fun it is to do; especially if it means meeting the same people again every day.
Think about waking up in the morning and nothing special happening this day; just your normal job. In the afternoon you go home and are free to do what you want - until then, just the normal, completely predictable job. 90% of humanity like this idea. I know, you might belong to the 10% who hate it. In that case (you are either lying to yourself) or you have been a guild leader before. That's ok. There's room for you in MMORPGs – if there are enough people to be lead.
Most people, however, like to do something boring to achieve a long-term goal. It makes them feel good. It gives them a purpose. It is the reason people have 40-hour jobs and get kids.
What is your target audience? Do they have a lot of time or just 30 minutes every few days?
If it is the latter: forget trying to design a MMORPG for them. When Blizzard realized that their population got older, got jobs, got families, they tried to cater to these players: The brightest people in the industry have tried to transform WoW into a game that can be played 30 minutes every few days. They started from a point that any other developer can only dream of (10mio socially connected players). They managed to keep WoW from contracting for two years. (Compare that to Eve Online!)
Lessons learnt for a new MMORPG: Don't design a game that tries to out-WoW WoW. Don't target WoW players. Don't target 40 year olds. Yes, I know they have a lot of money. But they don't have enough time to really switch games.
There is exactly one target audience that you can target: People with lots of free time. They are the only ones who will ever kill 25 pigs for next to nothing. Because killing 25 virtual pigs is only fun if you have lots of free time! People who don't have lots of free time won't ever kill those pigs no matter how much you polish the killing – no matter how much you streamline the questing – no matter that they don't need to use a sword, but kill the pigs by throwing graphically superior über-cool bombs from the back of a fiery dragon. No matter that their balanced numbers increase by 13% instead of 3%. It doesn't matter, because there are much, much, much better things to do if you have only 30 minutes of free time!
You cannot make a better WoW by making it more like a single-player game, because the massive, and the online, make any MMORPG inferior to a virtual story, like Mass Effect. The only thing that a MMORPG has and that Mass Effect doesn't have is this: the MMORPG can be played for a long time. It achieves this by connecting a massive amount of players online. And it doesn't just connect friends and guilds. Rather, it connects hundreds of strangers who, even though they are not friends, become familiar.
Generally, you cannot make a massive online game that requires its players to be online only for 30 minutes every few days - unless you want the game to be played on mobiles. And that's not a MMORPG, in my book. It certainly isn't as profitable as a good MMORPG!
So, what is the target audience? A new MMORPG has to target people at the age 10-28. These are the people with lots of free time. Ten years forward, you can also try to target the 50+ crowd. But not today.
How do you target them? By designing not a game, but a world where each single player meets the same 100-300 strangers again, and again, and again.
Why did MMORPGS decline? Because WoW-competitors targeted the WoW audience, who had ever less time. A new MMORPG must target the young - or fail.
The more time you spend doing something the more important it becomes to you. And the more important something is, the more fun it is to do; especially if it means meeting the same people again every day.
This is the Nature of MMORPGs.
PS: I am not your target audience.