I started reading Wolfhead after he had already stopped posting as much as he used to, but, even though I don't often agree with him, I always find his posts thoughtful. He wrote a late response to Blizzcon in December and this is my delayed response to that post.
I played Ultima VI and VII in the early 90s and remember some fascination with the idea of an Ultima world where multiple people could play together when Ultima Online came out in 1997. I also remember reading about EverQuest in Computer Gaming World when it came out in 1999. However, I never seriously considered playing either game. It seemed like a fascinating experiment, but it didn't seem that much like a game. It reminds me of my wife's response to the first SimCity.
However, when I read about World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2004, it seemed like something different. I had played Diablo I and II (and Lost Vikings) but the Warcraft games weren't of much interest to me since I never enjoyed real-time strategy games. I had played many role playing games besides the Ultima games and if I had to pick my favorite genre, it probably would have been RPGs.
World of Warcraft was something that, unlike Ultima Online and Everquest looked more like a traditional RPG. I was used to the pattern that I guess was originally established in Dungeons and Dragons where there was a plot one followed, minor battles and new places to explore interspersed with large battles. I played the beta, found a guild and started playing on the release date and have played with some breaks ever since.
I believe Wolfhead wants something much more like the Ultima Online or Everquest experience where there is a world to play and explore in, but most of the content is driven by the players, not by a plot dictated by the designers. He is correct in saying that this is more easily sustainable than the plot driven model of WoW. However, I believe he makes the mistake in thinking most MMO players want the same thing he does.
To me, much of it is a matter of convenience and time. I don't have the time or inclination to generate our own content or depend on the content that others have created. I want to be able to follow the breadcrumbs and make progress on our own or join with our friends when it is convenient. At one point, when you finished the breadcrumbs, about the only options were new characters, raiding, or pvp. Pet battles have provided a new way to spend time (and help level a character if that's what you want to do). I am enjoying Archaeology and Engineering as ways to build or gather toys, pets and mounts.
I believe there is a significant market for the kind of game that Wolfhead and many others want, a game that allows for real exploration and the sense that you are living in a dynamic world that you can influence. I hope many games of this type get created. However, my belief is that these will always be a relatively small market compared to what a more structured game like World of Warcraft.
Maybe I'm wrong. The 33 million Minecraft users is many more than the 12 million maximum that World of Warcraft had. Maybe there is a giant market for a sandbox game that some team will find the right formula. Maybe there is a third way that some team will find in the future. Maybe MMOs will all but go extinct like other genres. I don't think either of those things will happen anytime soon. Wolfhead keeps focusing in his post on the millions of users lost by World of Warcraft. The other way to look at is that 7 million users in still many times more than any other subscription MMO and that having that many users for a 9 year old game is quite remarkable.
I believe we can learn more from people with different opinions if we allow ourselves to be open to our differences. I also believe that World of Warcraft will thrive for many more years.