A key thing in MMORPGs for me is the story. I mean, right in the name of the genre is “RPG”, where stories are probably the most important thing. With a good story behind it, even simple things like delivering supplies or other simple quests can become more than just mashing a series of buttons in whatever order your class demands.
After the cliffhanger that was the ending to FFXIV: A Realm Reborn, I was eager to get its expansion, Heavensward, fired up so I can see what happened next. But it wasn’t just watching the story unfold like you would a movie or TV show, they make your character a part of the story. You’re the catalyst for a lot of things that go on, and even though it seems a bit Mary Sue-ish, you’re the glue that holds much of the story together. You don’t drive it entirely, but you’re involved with the many arms of the overall story in the game, rather than just watching the game’s main cast do their thing until they’re ready to give you another errand.
Contrast this with how World of Warcraft handled much of its story. At the end of Wrath of the Lich King, you were saved by a story NPC, and most, if not all, of the major victories over the main villains was done by the main cast, with you and your party members more tagging along for the ride.
I get why this is, however, don’t get me wrong. The Warcraft lore started well before World of Warcraft and all of our characters were even a thought, and having us random adventurers suddenly overtake people like Thrall or Malfurion in importance and strength wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
WoW and FFXIV were set up very differently though. With WoW you weren’t supposed to be the big savior, you were always playing second banana to all the heroes and villains from Warcraft 1-3. In FFXIV you were either a former Warrior of Light or one destined to become one, you WERE set up to be a big savior, even if not THE savior. It helped get you engaged with the story, going from more humble beginnings making a name for yourself around town and eventually joining with the main cast of heroes, but as an equal rather than subordinate.
Star Wars: The Old Republic did something similar to FFXIV, making you someone making their way up the chain as a main part of the story (complete with voice acting!), and it felt cool to be the center of the story in typical Bioware fashion. I was fine with overlooking the fact that technically everyone else playing the same class as you eventually became the number 1 in their own story, same as you, but it was a small trade-off for an engaging story.
Gameplay is important, first and foremost, but a good story in MMOs just makes the gameplay that much better. Seeing a guild master in FFXIV recognize you in a quest completely unrelated to their quest chain is unexpected and very welcome. It’s a nice touch to see “Hey Jimizzle, how’s your sword arm coming along?” when you’ve already spent plenty of time with the NPC instead of just “What can I do for you, adventurer?” It’s touches like these that make me say people who skip cut scenes and quest dialogue in games like FFXIV and SWTOR are doing themselves a disservice.
It isn’t to say WoW is a bad game (at least, back in the day) because its story had you playing second banana for the most part, it was designed that way. But having that special sauce of good story really gets you engaged in these virtual worlds the way you were intended to.
Then again I could write 10 posts on how I think WoW completely destroyed its own lore with the past few expansions and is shitting on one of the best things it had. But that’s another story for another day.