There are a lot of variants on the sentiment because it's expressed by a lot of people in a lot of different ways. What it boils down to, in a very broad sense, is a player lamenting about how easy games are now. They're lacking something critical, some magical and immersive spark. The complainer almost always wants to go back to a simpler time, a time when men were men, a time when your character died and then could be looted and by gum we liked it like that.
The problem, of course, is that the question isn't necessarily whether or not you liked it. The question is whether everyone else in the world liked it.
This has been touched on in previous columns, including a recent one that pointed out quite adeptly that no one is developing an MMO just for you. But there's more to it than just that. MMOs, by their nature, are businesses. Businesses follow a certain law of evolutionary fitness. A business that customers do not like will die off in favor of one that customers do like. The reason a lot of elements of World of Warcraft have crept into other MMOs isn't that studios are out of ideas; it's because the makers of other games noticed that these features were key things that many people liked.
You may not be among them. You may prefer a game that doesn't use heavy instancing, for example. But the fact that you dislike element A or game X or whatever does not mean that it's a universal sentiment. Even appealing to the people you know doesn't make it any more true; of course the people whom you associate with by choice tend to like the same things as you do. That's why you all hang out in the first place.
Unfortunately, among the gamer community as a whole and the MMO community in particular, there's a strong sentiment that huge seas of silent majorities exist. There are still die-hards insisting that closing off open and universal PvP ruined Ultima Online, despite the fact that players flooded toward the option to avoid open PvP as soon as it became available. There's a reason no subsequent open PvP game has done well for itself, and that reason seems to be that a lot of people just don't like it.
That doesn't mean there aren't games that have that element to them. The MMO market is large enough that nearly everything you could ask for is there. The thing is, no one's devoting a huge budget to making an open PvP sandbox because the market has made it clear that it doesn't intend to purchase one.
But those games are still there. In most cases, they haven't gone anywhere and don't look to be going anywhere. There are a lot of options for the sort of game you want to play, including the game that first got you thinking "wow, this system should be in every game!" It's not an absolute truth, but many of the games you're missing are, in fact, still there.
What you liked may not, in fact, be the recipe for a good game. It's quite possible to like something that no one else likes. There are people who like anchovies on pizza, after all.
As MMOs evolve as a genre, they may very well be evolving in a direction that you don't find particularly compelling. I've seen it happen myself; first-person shooters evolved toward the multiplayer deathmatch end of the design spectrum instead of following Marathon's story-heavy immersion, which killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the genre. But at the same time, that doesn't make the evolution bad. It just means that what I liked wasn't what won out in the end. You like what you like, and it's not a crisis if that isn't what others enjoy.
That doesn't give you a unique claim on what games ought to be (a line of thought I have issues with anyway). It's just a different set of hopes formed back when the genre was still nascent. Hopes that one day people will clamor for open PvP (to keep using that as an example) are pretty much pipe dreams; that ship sailed a longtime ago and doesn't look to be coming back. Players as a whole don't like some of the ideas that got floated in early MMOs, and the reception to many subsequent games that have embraced those ideas have more or less hammered the point home further.
The simple fact is that it's been about 15 years since the first game that could really be called an MMORPG was launched, a graphical successor to the MUDs and MUSHes that dotted the early days of online gaming. In that time, we've gone from a genre that could be anything to a genre that has some conventions and some things that players just don't tend to like. Even though you might like them, the widespread demand just isn't there. Saying people are wrong for not demanding it is missing the point.
The games you love haven't gone anywhere. They just weren't necessarily the games that everyone else loved.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!