So my brother made a blog post a few days ago about MMOs, and that spawned this thought process.
The problem with having a story in an MMO is that inevitably there are too many actors. Everyone wants to be the hero, but you can only have to many heroes without a story feeling cheap (see Sluggy's recent commentary on respawning evil quest mobs). When the NPCs are the supporting actors, you end up having hundreds, thousands, even millions of star actors.
But that's entirely the wrong train of thought. MMOs don't need a story, or at least those that I've played. The story is the players themselves.
The weakness of such MMOs isn't that they limit what players can accomplish. Players have no final effect on their environment aside from their effect on other players, which could hypothetically be part of the motivation of griefing. This lack of investment in the Player's ability to shape their environment is ignoring the strongest pull for play.
What you need aren't the tools for players to design their own worlds, but to have an effect on their own world. To have players create by playing.
In an MMO where cities can be sacked, leaders killed, nations conquered the players are motivated to make history. They can recall "I was at the battle of Fanador, and was at the forefront of the suicidal charge through the gate". They can say, "Ah yes, I gave my life defending the King of Pelas". They can wax nostalgic, "It was I who furnished arms for the High Guard of Tornoth before they made their final, wild charge to death and glory." This is exciting, this is visceral, this is history.
It's the ultimate solution to the "consuming is easier than creating" problem. For almost everyone reading history is infinitely more boring than making history. Give the reins of history into the hands of players and you have the truest form of digital crack possible.
Granted, there are amazing hurdles to surmount. Balance is a nightmare, the disconnect between impermanent death and permanent world effect could be offsetting, what are the incentives for being a part of the wars, and what if the scale makes it too much like the real world where the effect of one person feels too small?
But these are problems equivalent to those other MMOs face today. The MMO I've described here has a completely different dynamic. It doesn't require leveling because your investment is in the world as much as the character. It doesn't requiring grinding the same mobs over and over again, battles will never be the same. It trades one set of problems for another.
Now someone read this post, steal the idea, and make the MMO for me. I'm lazy.