There's a great article over at Gamasutra, "The Academics Speak: Is There Life After World of Warcraft", with some interesting folks discussing the question of how players end up in different virtual world. World of Warcraft is clear king of the MMO jungle right now, but many players choose to spend their time on far less populated worlds. Some choose games like Guild Wars that offer the lure of a one time investment, others stick with the community of Second Life, and a stubborn few continue to play MMOs or even MUDs that put graphics on the back burner in favor of other qualities. One of my own friends recently migrated to World of Warcraft after sticking with Asheron's Call for over seven years [the game launched in 1999!]. The move was traumatic for him: it's abandoning a world that had become a second home. I was a long time resident of Asheron's Call myself, and I could return to that game today and still comfortably manuver the land of Dereth.
When I migrated gaming worlds, as I've done repeatedly, I took a core of fellow gamers with me--my extended family. I only stayed in contact with a few other players who'd switched worlds in a deliberate sense, but I did find commonality in running into other players discussing the worlds left behind. But if my family didn't play Warcraft, would I have stayed with the hard core tribe of Asheron's Call or migrated on with the rest of the coolseekers to newer and graphically improved realms? Probably the former. Once comfortable within a virtual world, I don't feel the same pull to move to a new environment--the same reasoning, perhaps, that makes old school adventure games still feel more appealing to me with their relaxed and cartoonished environs than their "realistic 3-D" counterparts.
So what will be the next big game? I've read the previews and heard the hype for the next generation of MMOs. Star Wars Galaxies was supposed to move the world away from fantasy games, but couldn't get over the problem of too many heroes in a world that needed ordinary folk. Lord of the Rings seems fit to suffer from the same problems--not everyone, after all, can be wizard or ringbearer. World of Warcraft is particularly suited to networks of social tribes as the entire world is at war, and a concept for heroes and allegiences exists in every faction. Players can build their groups within sets of avatars that share a language, race, and appearance and advertise their loyalties with proudly worn tabards. Even my students in my Cyberspace class had their own guild--they dubbed it the "Fluffy Wuffy Friends," as I recall, much to my dismay. These common ties and rituals can migrate to another game--but I think it will take more than slightly better graphics and a license tie in to draw the hordes.