I mentioned recently on a post by Syncaine that I felt the people who create Wow-a-likes and the people who could resolve the issues of wasted content in the lower level areas were simply not the same people. I think it's important for me to get to the root of that distinction. Hopefully, by the end, the flaw I'm pointing out will seem obvious enough to stand out as a good measure for future MMOs and VWs.
I've been in the center of the debate between worldly worlds, and game worlds, between virtual worlds and MMOs many times over and what I'm consistently impressed with is that we're having slightly the wrong discussion. What it comes down to most specifically is that of a competition between two fundamental business concepts, that of the creation of a product, and the running of a service. What dominates the AAA North American MMO space right now is the sort of unholy union, so to speak, that publishers have reached between their concept of a product driven business and that of actually having to run a service. Since they are primarily product it isn't entirely surprising that, by and large, the service end is treated as the red headed step child.
This creates a secondary battle between placeness and gameness. You see, the goal of a product driven business is to release the initial game with a certain amount of stickiness, hopefully full on addiction, to pay the intervening time frame until you can release another product. The goal of a service driven business is to create a 'place' that people want to be, and then to use that place to sell products, advertise, and/or charge admission. While a service may benefit from a more addictive style as well, it's single most valuable asset is positive word of mouth, and putting that in danger for a little more stickiness could cost you everything.
Another difference is that a product should always end leaving you wanting more. This is how you make money on sequels and expansion packs after all. The goal of a place is to be all inclusive, to fill as many wants as possible so that people are more likely to remain loyal to you. In order to create these environments you also have to focus on very different players. For this we'll use the Bartle types, despite their flaws, just to simplify the taxonomy somewhat.
The primary audience of any product will always be the achievers, those who want it for it's own use and to excel within it's use. The secondary target would be explorers, those who are interested in seeing it in it's entirety. You may still want some socialites to build buzz for you, but they are more likely to strain your system without seeing very much content so their presence is more a marketing investment than anything. Killers are last place, to one extent catering to another audience is always a good thing, on the other, killers are more likely to drive away other players or cause harassment issues. Killers are probably only given serious representation now because they simply make up one of the largest minorities in MMOs.
For a service your audience priorities are somewhat different and the primary target will always be the socialites. Not only do they create good marketing, but they also drive retail sales and will work to improve the experience for other users. From here you have a fair amount of freedom and it depends significantly more on your team's specialization. A focus on killers can give your socialites and achievers purpose, see EVE online for an example. If you have a team capable of constant content output or immense amounts of user created content, explorers are a very viable option for secondary focus, ala Second Life.
The simple fact of the matter is that everything in the MMO genre is a service, but are being given the treatment of products. Those who make WoW-a-likes are banking on people wanting more of the same product, which is a complete fallacy, since they are trying to create a competing service. It's hard to blame them too much though, since it was WoW that was continuing on the mistake in the first place. I tend to believe part of the reason for WoW's success was primarily because they improved on the fundamental experience they were giving to their players compared to most games released before it.
This dichotomy also comes up over and over again in RMT debates. When RMT is discussed surrounding a product, the great fear is that it will be used as a means of assisting people to "win the game". I can't entirely blame them since given a product driven design, most designers will attempt to design micro products as tools for playing the game. However, it's important for both designers and players to understand that within a service, your most effective line of sales are things that increase the player's enjoyment of the place, and are best targeted towards socialites. New looks, more 'comfortable' areas, bigger houses and better decorations are probably your best bet. These will add to the enjoyment of your service without, assuming you had even a general plan for this while designing the game, disrupting other portions of your service.
While this will automatically trend you towards "worldliness" there isn't any reason to limit these lessons to sandbox games. Free Realms for instance is one of the best examples of this thought process when dedicated to a more gamey experience. Likewise, it also doesn't mean that mini-games are the wave of the future, just that they are something which shouldn't be dismissed or underestimated.
As great a divide as there seems to be between the two, our games do not need to go through incredible changes to come more in line with the reality of services. In some senses, the more difficult battle is simply in forcing both industry vets and players to unlearn certain reactions that have been conditioned in over decades of community segregation. For starters among players, it has to at least be understood that social players are as much a valid part of the game as the achievers/killers. As for designers there are more lessons than I can count, the importance of UI, world design needs to go back to the drawing board entirely, horizontal design focus, project scale being proportional to demographics, point of contact needs to be improved tremendously, and perhaps controversially I think senior community management needs to be a part of the design team. But the final play experience could change only subtly from what it is now at the end of all that, it's just that those changes would be in the places that really mattered.