I just read the interview with Bill Roper where he confesses all the mistakes with Hellgate. Now that I'm involved in designing an MMORPG, albeit one aimed at the casual market, I'm particularly sensitive to the violation of what I consider the make-or-break of any MMO:
The first month's experience.
Why is this more important for MMOs than for other genres where a bad first hour means we just buckle down and sweat it out?
What Bill Roper's and his team didn't get was that you can't build an MMO off of great ideas. At least at this stage in the MMO industry, if you want to compete with the big boys, you've got to innovate off of them, not invent a whole new wheel. Indie MMOs of course are a different matter.
The reason that polish trumps brilliance in an MMORPG is because an MMO is a service first, not a game. Gameplay is its function. Think about the way subscription feels compared to a purchase… in the consumer's mind, it buys entitlement because he feels the company is equitably "entitled" to a constant stream of payments that, neuroeconomically speaking, we've already paid into the future for the moment we signed up. The subscriber doesn't expect $15 of service for his first month, he expects some derivative of the whole $180 he'll be paying for the rest of the year that he expects to be playing. This is only compounded by the fact that he's shelled out $60 already for the initial game box.
So while Roper is close in his assessment, he hadn't gone far enough. Sure, the motley features was a design problem. Sure there were bugs. Sure there were play-balance issues. Sure sure sure. But what I had coming out of the beta was the feeling that I wasn't needed in Hellgate. I made no impact, my character was placeholder, the story was a dead cat bounce, and the connection between the two was a corpse twitch.
It wasn't the plot or the play mechanics, it was simply the first two hours of my experience being wholly paint-by-numbers. Maybe feature creep sapped their energy, maybe ambition bought them too large a bite, but the design wasn't as fatal as Roper thinks. Even with a free-to-play model, I felt compelled to subscribe for the full experience, and given my experience was shallow, it was all or nothing. Like everyone else who had already subconsciously done the cost/benefit analysis, the game failed to deliver for the price we wanted to pay, and we had no confidence that would change.