Let's be honest. Most of today's successful MMOs are basically the same. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but that probably includes the one you've been playing for years as well. Now, before you send your max-level goblin berserker to hunt me down and change my mind with a mace-to-brain high-five, let me be a bit more clear. I'm not talking about the revolutionary epic armor sets or the groundbreaking numpad combat systems that people use to distinguish these games from one another. I'm talking about the pervading rule set that governs them, the core philosophy that defines them. MMOs today don't give players the free will they once did. They just don't.
MMOs today don't give players the free will they once did. They just don't.
To get a better idea of what I'm talking about, you'd have to travel pretty far back in the genre's timeline, back to the day when this funny idea of persistent-world gaming was first reaching the mainstream. The day we're looking for is September 24th, 1997, the release date of Origin System's Ultima Online, one of the world's earliest fully graphical MMOs.
By today's standards, the world that Ultima's earliest adopters discovered would be almost unrecognizable. The game wasn't exactly quest-driven, meaning if you decided to collect ten of a monster's internal body parts for your inventory, there was no one wearing a question mark hat to pay you for them. That isn't to say the game was vacuous, however. Britannia, the game's ubiquitous supercontinent, was filled with things to do; it just focused more on the society its players created than pre-scripted sequences its developers created. Ultima Online was a large, empty cardboard box, and its subscribers were imaginative children who decided what it would become at playtime.
As a player, most of your time in game was divided between civilized, lightly regulated towns, and the wild, free-for-all forests and waters that separated them. If you were new, weak, or otherwise cautious, you'd spend your time in the cityscapes, the only pockets of law on the continent. Start a fight, pick a pocket, or do anything untoward within town borders and the guards would use the pointy end of their halberds to give you a very bad day. It was, of course, up to you to enlist help, however. Unless you typed "Guards!" (the land's proverbial 9-1-1), they wouldn't come, leaving you the choice of whether state justice needed to be meted publically, or if you'd be more entertained personally fending off an attack or reasoning with a thief.