Look, I'll be among the first to admit that many developers have funneled their games down the same exact path post-World of Warcraft: theme park design. But looking at the communities of several games that adhere to this philosophy of pretty places surrounded by invisible cages shines an interesting light on the matter.
Take a look at Lord of the Rings Online, which sports one of the best communities around. Helpful, friendly people populate the virtual Middle-earth. Newbies are treated with patience and advice -- sometimes even assistance via crafted equipment!
For a game that launched after Blizzard's behemoth, Lord of the Rings Online serves up the kind of socialization that's hard to find elsewhere. How many other MMOs come equipped with a fully featured social web hub that's potently integrated with the game itself? Oh, sorry, I almost forgot about Turbine's other game, Dungeons and Dragons: Eberron Unlimited.
In fact, you can find a similarly happy-to-help community in EVE Online, which is a game that's ostensibly been designed to "totally eff" with the unaware player. That's not a slam against CCP's labor of love, however. It's that very harsh game design that allows for the kinds of drama television writers wish they could pull off. It's so very enthralling that I know several people who've jumped into the game nearly three times, just so they could get in on that juicy social action.
Not only does EVE Online's harsh nature create drama, it actually reinforces the basic human nature of being nice in order to survive. Essentially, the harsh game design fosters tight-knit communities, which results in a sort of end-game where a player can find themselves with significant amounts of responsibility and power. It forges the kind of friendships that I'm not sure any other current online game can replicate.
The Future of The Feature
LEGO Universe is coming, you know. If there's one MMO on the reddening horizon that's packing the kind of IP and design power to make would-be socialites quiver in their jerkins, it's this one. Practically every "LEGO MMO" concept I attempt to think of winds up requiring a decent degree of communication and -- most importantly -- cooperation between two or more players.
MMO development is tough, but playing with LEGOs is so far beyond fun it has to make collect calls just to have a chat with the word. I expect this game to ooze with love and dedication from the team behind it, and that means strong social tools that belie the game's topical layer of beating up demonic ghost LEGO baddies. In fact, these recent CES10 developer walkthrough videos hint strongly at that very statement.
Other avenues of new ways to socialize are on the way, too. Facebook as we know it right now certainly doesn't harbor many games of considerable depth, but over the next couple of years that's going to change. Mark my words, games like Civilization Network are going to begin to proliferate that website. As the power of what can be done through a browser increases, so too will the games offered. The eventual evolution of this will probably spread across the entire web, but that strays into highly speculative territory that I won't explore today.