How things stand
If you want to know why many RP servers nowadays feel as though there is no RP happening there at all, it helps to think about the experience of a new WoW player who signed into the game for the first time. As soon as they give their account name and password, the game presents them with a choice as to which server type they would like. If they choose roleplaying server, there is a little box on the lower-left hand side that reads,
Roleplaying (RP): These realms have strict naming conventions and behavior rules for players interested in immersing themselves as a character in a fantasy-based world.
This one sentence by Blizzard is everything many players will ever read about what it means to roleplay in WoW. It's nothing compared to Mythic's small article on the topic, of course. It is a single sentence in the lower left hand corner of the screen, under a bunch of other information on "Choosing a Realm" and "Realm Category," and the whole thing looks and feels very much like a manual. I can easily imagine many players who have some familiarity with computer games ignoring it entirely.
But some players do pay attention to Blizzard's description of an RP server -- even so, how can they understand it if they are not already familiar with roleplaying? If we say there are strict naming conventions and then do nothing to explain what those conventions are, doesn't that somewhat reduce the effect of both the rules and the message designed to inform you about them? It's as if a father were to tell his young teenager, who has only ever driven digital cars in his console racing games, "there are strict conventions and behavior rules you must follow on the road, my son. Now here are your car keys." How can such conventions and rules possibly be "strict," or even important at all, if you don't even say what they are?
Now, obviously there are a number of players who do know what roleplaying is, and they are familiar enough with it to know more or less what Blizzard is talking about in that sentence. If they are roleplayers themselves, then all is fine and good. But if they are not, they may still have other reasons to ignore the general purpose of an RP server -- reasons which are really beyond Blizzard's control. A surprising number of non-roleplayers come to RP realms just because they hear that people there don't participate as much in sort of immature babble you often find on the internet, notably as Chuck Norris jokes and the like. Roleplayers generally have no problem hosting a few of these people on their servers, but when the server crowds up with all these players who either don't know what roleplaying is or know but do not wish to participate, the roleplayers themselves become a tiny minority. Then we have a problem.
The Warhammer solution
So how good is Warhammer's solution to this problem? First of all, WoW's competitor actually requires players who select the RP server to read through the extra roleplaying rules and click on the "accept" button. Now, Mythic's in-game introduction to roleplaying is not what I would have written if they'd put me in charge of it. I felt there was too much emphasis on RP names and not enough on an explanation of what roleplaying actually entails; but the fact that they included any sort of explanation at all is definitely something -- and they force you to notice it if you want to play on that server, which is another important thing. Players must actively ignore Warhammer's RP notification in order to violate the RP server rules.
To be fair, I haven't played through the game yet, so I don't know the general quality of their RP servers at all, but even if I had, I don't think Warhammer's case could give us the definitive answer as to what Blizzard should have done to solve their problem. The two games are different in significant ways, and there are many other factors that can affect the quality of their RP as well. However, I definitely think a clearer presentation of the rules of roleplay naming conventions as well as a description of roleplaying itself is very important for an MMORPG like this if roleplaying is to thrive there at all.
The Warhammer Online website has "A Short Guide to Roleplaying" up, which has a lot of the great kind of information I'd like to see in an article by Blizzard. It's too long to actually be in the game itself, but with a bit summarizing it could be cut down to a perfect size of about 250 words or so. The best solution would be to put a short notice like this into the game itself, explaining what roleplaying is in such a way that players can just decide if it's their thing or not, along with a link to a more detailed web page if they want more information. If they click "accept," then they are allowed into the server, and if they click "decline," then they can choose a server which suits them more in any case.
Too little, too late for WoW?
All this is a nice idea and all, but is it too late for WoW? Even if such a message were to be added into the game, many server populations are very well settled, and players are not going to transfer just because a new message pops up and tells them about roleplaying more clearly. In fact, if the message is set to show only for new players, then the old players might miss it entirely. However, while it is true that such a message might not have much effect right away, it's overall effect over time could mean quite a lot. New players still coming into the game would be more aware, and generally the awareness of the overall WoW population would increase. Also, such a message would give players the understanding that the distinction between RP realms and normal realms is a distinction that matters -- even if they were aware of the difference before, their respect for it would go up if Blizzard made it more prominent.
A roleplaying notification for new players and new server selections is not the panacea for all of WoW's RP-related problems, but it is a great step forward in the right direction, even now at this late stage of the game. It's also very easy to implement into the game interface when compared to a lot of the other things Blizzard works so hard on (such as new battlegrounds, raids, gear and so on). I'm sure it's something Blizzard has considered at some point -- but I firmly believe now it's time to actually make it happen.