First of all, I figure I should preface this with a note on the fact that as much as I disparage the "karma marga" approach to MMO development it isn't because I'm unskilled with it, its rather because I personally find it "boring" and "more work than fun". Just to illustrate that, allow me to point out that I'm quite skilled at the few I've tried (current level 47 main in Paragon City/City of Heroes) and that I've picked up some observations over time. For instance, I have made a reputation for myself and have several power-leveller "friends" in game. Being level 47 I occaisionally get that n00b tell asking to be PLed from anywhere between level 1 and level 30. The key piece of knowledge that they lack is that you don't ask to be PLed, you ask someone if they want to be PLed. Power Levelling generally requires that the Leveller to have a good degree of knowledge of the game (in order to best maximize the xp/time ratio) and it very often requires the Levellee to be relatively skilled in the game to best minimize the debt/time ratio. In City of Heroes in particular there is further knowledge to be taken in consideration: xp/time is often best maximized (for the PLed Levellee) in cases where there is a +4 level difference in Leveller and Levellee, so all those tells/broadcasts from level 1s, or level 30s are pretty useless for them. If they really want to power level they should be looking for 5s or 35s (respectively), and to maintain a good PL they probably need to move through a constant string of +4s, and that requires making a good reputation for yourself (which is why most PLed characters are in fact alts for already capped characters (level 50 heroes, in CoH), and are done through guild/supergroup connections, often for the purposes of high-level guild/supergroup-level raids). Furthermore, the best powerlevelling in City of Heroes is only to be done in full, well-balanced groups, and that also requires maintaining a good reputation.
With that said, let's bring back the discussion of the previous post. There are several reasons for the current karma marga MMO*, from the fact that everything is easily computable (just check the appropriate statistics), the fact that everything is ultimately borrowed from Gary Gygax's original D&D work. But in my mind that is precisely the problem with it. Because it is computable, because it follows invariant rules, it is predictable and patterned. This pattern influences everything in the design. For just one example, I really get a kick out of synthetic world geography, and one of the easy things to notice is that there is always a "linear" progression of the spaces in the map of a current MMO. You can sit down and circle large areas and point out "this is the level 5-10 area", and there are reasons for that. It segregates the map into an onion that doesn't make any sense from a physical/geographic sense (ie, you never find real world cities/countries that traffic patterns always flow in the same way). Rarely in the real world do you as continually move and never really establish roots in a zone/area. Another prime example is just the simple fact that most current MMO* gameplay can be optimized in Excel. I don't want to pretend to be an Industrial Engineer just to play a game well.
The big key in my mind is in balancing the control between the Developer and the Player. Right now there is duality: synthetic worlds, pretty much, are either majorly player-controlled (Second Life) or majorly developer/system-controlled (EverQuest, City of Heroes, et al). There are exceptions (the biggest one that I generally point to being Eve Online), but for the most part there hasn't been much experimentation in the modern graphical arena into less travelled parts of the spectrum. The fun part comes in trying to tell a story in a space where players have real powers of change. None of the current MMOs are really all that story-oriented...
So lets get back to the Soap Opera analogy. Right now the major MMOs (the developer/system-controlled ones) are "Quest Soap Operas", the major components of stories are given in repeatable, simple bite-sized chunks. Touch a contact/npc, get a quest, finish quest, get reward, repeat ad nausuem. The "stories" told are all rather simple pieces about "x things need to die" or "find y for me". One of the ideas out there (I call it the "Soap Opera Episode Criteria") is that theoretically anyone with access can find and read the story. Game developers are lax to bar players from content, as I've mentioned before.
So, how do break that? How do make stories more interesting, less predictable? My take on this is a form of emergent story-telling. Players often have a natural wont to build interesting story pieces: rivalries, cooperative groups, etc. Some of this is evident in social structures in current games (guilds, supergroups), but other parts of it aren't necessarily there. The closest I've seen, that is currently running, is Eve Online's work. The idea of building "story facillitation systems". What if a player could put out a "bounty" for another player after that player "did him wrong"? Beyond the obvious worry that such a system might be abused, do you think there might be interesting stories there if it were used well? I'll save implementation details, but I think it can be done well and without as much worry of abuse. That might just be one tool to be used in emergent story-telling. Another one is player-run "news organizations". Journalists are very much a part of reality (and an even greater part of our view of reality), so why should it be unusual to find journalists in the game competing for the best scoop, the most interesting story? Can you imagine getting an email asking you for an interview following a particularly well played out exploit? There is nothing more interesting in story telling than playing with real emotions, and games would be that much more fun if people got such a real, tangible ego-boost from an in-game work.
Another question is that of balancing story goals versus player choice. I think that for great story-telling to get across in world, amidst a sea of player change, requires a lot of depth to a synthetic world. If there is good foreshadowing, and good "reason" for a particular number of changes to happen, you can "push" for it to happen. Of course, the best layering would provide multiple possibilities for story change and let player control "direct" the flow of the story. One of the interesting tools in such a space is Rumor Mongering. You could misdirect players away from things you might want them to find out more slowly. You could subtly hint to players where they might find interesting story tidbits.
The obvious place for inspiration here is how ARGs tell stories. I keep harking that one of the things that I really would like to see is more (and better) convergence between game media. The game that gave me the most hope for telling an interesting and intricate story in these types of ways was Uru, and I was very hurt when the publisher folded their hand so close to the end of the round. (Hmm... speaking of Uru, the D'mala note sounds intriquing... time to reinstall?)