Over all the time I have spent in various MMORPGs, I have seen the many ways they hang the proverbial carrot in front of you. Whether it be leveling and gaining new skills and spells, or simply allowing you access to new and interesting zones. While all of these are effective, I have seen the death of many MMOs come due to the complete lack of end game character building. If a player doesn't feel like they can improve their character anymore than what they already have achieved, they will find themselves bored and wanting. A few games that have lasted the test of time by employing one or more of the following methods to keep players around for the long term:
Loot Centric Progression:
Can you really have a good MMO without amazing weapons and gear sitting on the horizon, just waiting for you to claim them? Sure, it may take 25-40 players to kill the monster that has those loots, but the fact you have a chance to be one of the few to receive that loot gets many players salivating. Some MMOs rely solely on loot for their end game character progression. Nearly all your stats and benefits come your gear and/or from customizable additions to your characters equipment.
World of Warcraft is the most prevalent user of this tactic. Once you hit max level, everything is focused on getting enough gear to get to the next tier. At level 85 you hop into your basic level 85 dungeons and kill bosses till you have good enough equipment to go into Heroic dungeons. The gear in heroic dungeons look slightly better aesthetically and have slightly better stats. Once you get all the gear you need from heroics, you can start hopping into raids. Then it is all about getting geared enough before the next tier comes out.
Before Cataclysm was released, they were toying with the idea of adding in a "Path of the Titans" system that would allow you to improve your character without raiding/gear, but the idea eventually fell through. Many people believed that this system would be similar to the Everquest AA system, which we will get into a little later.
Experience Pool Centric Progression:
Are you already max level? Well, keep on grinding those mobs out because you can still gain exp! With this mode of end game progression, exp becomes currency that you spend on various stats or enhancements to your character. Some games completely forsake the "lucky phat loot drop" method of progression and allow you to become strong simply with hard work. Whether you are buying additional stats or increasing your max HP pool, experience grinding in its various forms are still prevalent.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds is the game that comes to mind for this type of progression. This was one of the first Korean grinder MMOs. Despite the grindy nature of the game, it was incredibly fun due to the Zelda style battle system and interesting world. Now adays, the game is under new management and got a graphical overall that many are not pleased with... but we will leave that for another story. Anyway, Nexus: TK allowed you to increase your maximum HP/Mana pool through spending increasing levels of experience. While you could buy stats like Strength, they capped out fairly quickly. So the game became a race to see who could get the highest HP/MP.
Eventually, they added plateaus of progression. I forget the exact numbers, but upon reaching X-hundred thousand HP/MP you could upgrade your class and receive access to new pieces of equipment. "But I thought equipment didn't matter in this game." Well, it does, but not in the same way as other MMOs. In this game all pieces of equipment are expendable. Your weapons will eventually break and you will have to buy/find another one. So loot wasn't terribly rare, just expensive. There weren't any rare/special drops either besides a few aesthetic pieces. If you were at a certain level of progression, you were expected to have certain gear.
The HP/MP increasing strategy worked well in Nexus: TK due to each class having some form of scaling attack that would deal a percentage of your HP or MP as damage.
Skill Gain Centric Progression:
Probably one of the rarest forms of progression in MMOs is the skill gain method. Honestly, I haven't seen much out of this method since the MUDs(Text based Multi-User-Dungeons, the father of MMOs.) of yore were still alive and well. The basic principle behind this method is that your skills are highly ineffective unless you spend countless hours using them in order to improve them in various ways. If you are bad at the skill, it will fail. If you are average, it will work but won't do much. Reaching higher levels of mastery of the said skill allows it to be used effectively.
Lensmoor, a very very old Diku-Based MUD, is probably my favorite example of this method. In order to swing a sword, you had to have learned the sword skill. Each sword swing had a small chance to increase your skill in the weapon. The higher the skill the better chance you have to land the hit or deal bonus damage. Later you may learn abilities like kick. Kick will probably be useless until you have attempted to kick an enemy a few hundred time until you have gotten it to a high enough level. At end game, even the strongest characters in the game haven't mastered all the skills available. Time-locked skill gain caps are in place preventing people from learning every skill in the game(There are thousands of skills by the way.)
The frustration and intense work required in order to make this method useful has been a reason any likeness to it has been removed from more recent MMORPGs. At one time, WoW required you to level your sword skills if you wanted to use a weapon effectively. Many players found it frustrating and the mechanic was removed.
The Hybrid Method:
The Hybrid Method employs all of the above methods in some form or fashion. One day you may be grinding exp at max level to increase stats while the next you may be raiding for rare loot. Usually games avoid this method simply because it causes so many hurdles for the players in the form of blocking them from content due to lack of what is necessary in one or more areas. Not only do you have to have your skills up to date and a ton of end game experience grinded, but you also need to fight the random number generator and get loots.
Everquest is the main employer of this tactic. Not only do you have to hunt incredibly rare loot in order to be viable, you need to spend countless hours grinding out experience in order to buy alternate advancement points. While this is incredibly time consuming, I actually really liked the concept of the AA point system. Basically, after a certain level you can spend your experience points on purchasing various upgrades for your character. These upgrades come in the form of increased stats, passive bonuses during combat, special effects on your attacks, and even abilities themselves.
The only issue here is the fact that players who have been around for countless years have already gained 6000+ AA points where it takes new players weeks just to get around 200. This creates a very large gap in the player base between the loyal gamers and the new comers. The recent HoT expansion has made AA point grinding much easier, but there is still a noticeable difference.
Has an MMO you've played before had a strange or unique way of continuing character progression past simply leveling or loot?