Different settings and themes for MMOs would give the scene far more of a freshen-up than any amount of new level caps ever will. There’s no reason at all that RPGs can’t inhabit the same worlds as any other game style. Whether we’re kerb-stomping a flying turtle or removing a zombie’s brain tissue through the back of his skull by way of a Magnum, we’re still playing a role in a story. It’s just that RPGs usually only get labelled as such once the grinding and troll-smacking kicks in.
Take Bioshock as your example. It might involve shooting guns from a first-person perspective, but it’s also a brilliant role-playing game. It exists within a startling vivid world, better-realised than that of any traditional RPG we’ve played in years. It drips with a personality, plot, and rich back-story that puts most of the genre to shame. Throw in some powerful but accessible character customisation which has a genuinely dynamic effect on the gameplay and the approaches your character can take to his environment, and you’ve got a game that’s a far better role-player than 90% of the dungeon-crawlers out there.
And now that fantasy has become duller than poop in a ditch, why not go in the opposite direction and experiment with role-playing in a more realistic setting? Part of what’s dull about fairy-tale adventuring is the way that everything is painted in broad, pantomime strokes, and accessorised with last season’s cliches. The real world might not be as grandiose on the surface, but it’s far more intricately layered and packed with shades of grey when you scratch that surface. The little human dramas of real life are far more epic and affecting in their own way, and they’re made up of things we can all relate to. If MMO worlds were scaled back a little, we’d probably be surprised by the vast number of new and engaging scenarios available to us. We enjoy killing a balrog as much as anyone else, but sometimes those kind of events are just too big to really feel involved in.