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1:18pm on Tuesday, 26th March, 2013:
In the very early days, MMOs (or MUDs as they were called back then) had an actual ending. You reached the level cap and then stopped. In MUD1's case, you could play on as an administrator (wizard/witch), which many did; most drifted away afterwards, though. They had no need to play any more.
This makes a lot of sense in terms of narrative: if the game tells you you've won, that's basically the Atonement with the Father step of the hero's journey the players are on. From that point onwards, you're always going to leave, it's just a question of when. It's better as a player that you leave with warm, fuzzy feelings and fond memories than from disillusionment that the game has become boring and unfufilling.
Now although this is a very satisfactory ending for players, it's something we never see nowadays. Why? Well, there's this feeling that if you (as a developer) give players permission to leave, they will actually do so. That means they're not paying you any money any more. Instead, the levelling game is treated as a qualification you need to play a completely different game (a PvP game or a raiding game). People who like neither of these are going to be frustrated; people who prefer them have a nagging awareness that they didn't really need to play the levelling game at all.
Hmm. Well you can perhaps see why someone on the business side of an MMO development company might want their players not to leave: once they do, you get no more money from them. OK, well that made sense when everyone was subscribing, sure, but does it still make sense for when most people are playing for free and aren't going to give you a bean anyway? The ones who have paid you money will hang around for longer anyway as they've made an investment; the ones who haven't probably won't by this stage, unless you can convert them while they're growing gradually more and more frustrated (and therefore less and less likely to want to be converted).
Suppose you had an MMO with a definite ending: an Escape from Colditz game. You're a prisoner of war: your aim is to escape. Your ultimate goal is to go on a home run and get back to allied lines and safety. That home run attempt is going to be an incredibly exciting event, and when you make it you're going to feel elated — you've won! That's it, pats on the back, game over, well done. I know it will be like that, because that's what wiz runs in MUD1 were/are like. They're the pinnacle of MMO excitement.
Afterwards, you can drop back in as another character, or go play something else and come back for our next game (remember those happy thoughts!). If you don't want to escape, because you like hanging around with your friends or exploring the prison camp, OK, don't — you can always change your mind.
Revenue models do affect game design. If the revenue model rules something out, you can't do it. If the revenue model changes, though, you can revisit what you previously ruled out — if you remember why it was ruled out in the first place (or indeed that it was ruled out!). You don't have to go with a paradigm based on a defunct system — you can change it. The past two MMOs I've played through until I was raiding at nightmare level (SW:TOR and TSW) would both have been easy to adapt to this model; designing for it deliberately wouldn't be especilly difficult.
Of course, if someone did implement an Escape from Colditz MMO, you just know that in order to cement your escape you'd need to buy some black-market in-game Reichsmarks for real-world dollars...
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