There’s an old saying among programmers: You can write FORTRAN in any language. What this means is that, while many languages allow you to write much clearer and more expressive code than is typically produced in FORTRAN, none of them force code to be better. Even the ones that claim they do. It just can’t happen. You can’t make a bad writer good.
World of Warcraft enjoys, to some extent, a similar position in the MMO world. Many, many, people have played World of Warcraft. Some liked it. Some disliked it. However, because it’s so well known, it is easy to end up with several players in another game who have all played it, and thus, it is easy for them to fall into the same patterns and behaviors.
This, of course, results in angry players who declare that they were promised a game which was different from WoW, but this is exactly the same. And they’re sincere, but they’re wrong. The problem is not that every other MMO is like WoW; the problem is that people are choosing to play WoW in other MMOs.
A central theme of WoW’s design is the fairly traditional MMO gameplay model called the “holy trinity”; this is that each group needs a mix of tanking (characters who are good at taking hits and compelling mobs to attack them), healing (characters who are good at curing damage taken), and DPS (“damage per second”, that being characters who are good at doing a lot of damage, but typically can’t heal significantly or take many hits without dying).
WoW players tend to view the world through this filter, and often do not realize this basic truth:
Not every MMO is based around that design.
In City of Heroes, basically any group can probably do nearly any content. You don’t need a tank. You don’t need a healer. CoH has a category WoW doesn’t, “buffs/debuffs”. This category focuses on many and varied ways of making fights go better, which may include healing players, but also may not. (The central reason this works is that CoH characters continue to heal in combat the same way they would out of combat; thus, if you can reduce incoming damage enough, you do not need a “healer”. Note that killing everything quickly reduces incoming damage enough.)
In RIFT, things are closer to the WoW paradigm, but there’s still a “support” category. WoW players tend to think of “support” as being some kind of mix of DPS and healing, but this is not what support is. Support is buffs and debuffs; improving the performance of your group, disimproving the performance of the enemy. Support characters are more valuable in larger groups, but even in traditional 5-player content, they can be a huge asset to a group.
There’s more, though. RIFT encourages hybrid builds, combining aspects of two roles to make a character who can perform either acceptably. In WoW, you are now prevented from even attempting this by the mechanics, which is just as well because it almost never actually worked; the developers simply didn’t consider it a viable or relevant play style. By contrast, in RIFT, a hybrid DPS/healer may well be able to heal well enough for most content, and DPS well enough for most content… and thus able to switch roles during a fight. Similarly, the much more aggressive promotion of quick switches between preset builds or “roles” means that groups are encouraged to, say, completely switch composition from one fight to another.
A friend of mine put it quite well:
WoW’s design and culture encourage you to ask the question:
What job do I want to do today? Okay, what tools do I want to use to do it?
City and Rift have a design that encourages you to ask:
What toys do I want to play with today?
The weakness, I think, is that WoW players come to RIFT or CoH and apply their previous model. They go looking for a job that needs accomplishing, then try to figure out how to do it. People who have gotten the hang of playing City or RIFT, though, will come to the game looking for something they enjoy doing, then do that and figure that some sort of positive outcome will result. There’s no “job” you need to do; you can focus on whatever interests you at a given time, and it’ll be something you can do. You have a broad array of things available that you can do or play with, and whatever you pick, the game has some mechanism in place to produce some kind of accumulated benefit for doing so.
This gets into an idea I’m still working on. One of the traditional criticisms launched at people who find content in an MMO difficult is “learn to play”, by which people mean “learn to effectively use game mechanics to achieve goals”. The real goal, though, should be to learn to play; to do the thing which is unlike work that children do automatically and adults seem to mostly forget. Playing remains one of the most fundamentally important things human brains do, at any age, in any context. If you want to be happy and understand your world, learn to play.
(Edited May 24: Added link to l2pnoob, my site on learning to play.)