Over on Broken Toys, Scott Jennings made a post stating that players don't really want hardcore PvP in an MMO.
While I agree that his basic arguments are correct, I think much of the crash that PvP-oriented MMOs have regularly suffered there is simply due to lackluster and/or half-assed implementations. There is definitely a lot to be said for doing a game 'right'. If someone would make a PvP-centric sandbox game, AND do a good job of it, there is plenty of room and interest for it to be successful. More thoughts through the link...
And if you lok back on the 'Holy Grail of games', as many old MMO players fondly remember Ultima Online, it wasn't ONLY about non-consensual, full-loot PvP. It had an extensive crafting system, tons of non-combat skills, semi-interactive environment, options for dying clothes, and the ability to have fun, experience the game and interact with other players without ever leaving your starting city. In fact, some players never even stepped into the wilderness or a dungeon in UO.
In my opinion, there are two very important factors that no PvP MMO should be without:
* Resources to fight over
* Non-PvP activities
Don't just say, here's Important Spot #1. Now fight! Important Spot #1 should actually be important beyond a developer attaching a flag to it and giving players points for interacting with that flag. Why is this spot worth more than that one down the road? Was it just arbitrarily chosen? If so, throw that idea out of the window.
Let the playerbase decide what is worth fighting over. Put one of a kind resources on the map. Plop a keep down onto a narrow pass that happens to be the only way through the mountains. If the players aren't fighting for the spots that the developers thought they would, then look at what they are fighting about, re-evaluate your premise and tweak your world as appropriate. Make those large battles meaningful. Let players affect the status of their world.
But even more important than that (if the combat is fun, players will fight even if there is nothing to gain or lose), is providing some alternatives to 24 /7 combat. Some players just don't enjoy PvP, and even those that do need some downtime occasionally. Crafting, PvE, mini-games, world interaction; these are all aspects that both increase the worldliness of your online world, and also provide alternate outlets of fun for your player base. Even something as seemingly superfluous as animated emotes can provide hours of entertainment.
As an example, lets look at Shadowbane, which was a game about guild vs guild PvP and city sieges. There wasn't even any crafting or other activities in the game. Spawns were exceedingly static and PvE was pretty boring overall. So ALL they had to rely on was their hardcore PvP selling point and their city building / destruction system, and they couldn't even do an effective job of implementing that limited feature set. Lacking in other areas, Shadowbane had all of its eggs in the PvP basket. IF they had delivered a polished, functional and fun city building and siege system, they would have likely had a lot more success. (And for any who are curious, I tried playing Shadowbane on three different occasions, dropping out after shorter periods each time.)
Eve is a good template to look at for how to make PvP combat meaningful and provide alternate forms of entertainment beyond blasting other players to space dust. Territory control and PvP are crux of the end-game for a lot of Eve Online players, but there's plenty of other things to do such as playing the market, mining, creating equipment and blueprints, salvaging, etc. There is a lot more to PvP than the PvP itself. An army doesn't run on fighting alone. It requires infrastructure and support. MMOs need to realize that this infrastructure can be as fun and interesting as the actual combat, and it should be just as important. And they didn't open up the game and then tell players that they had to go out and fight over 0.0 space. Instead they put the more valuable minerals out there and allowed players to decide on their own what to do about it.
Unfortunately, putting all of this together requires a lot of work. So far, all the studios that have tried going this route have been forced to cave into outside pressures and released half-baked games (Shadowbane, Horizons, Tabula Rosa, Roma Victor, just to name a few). I don't know about you, but eating something that is half-cooked is never a pleasant experience for me. And to continue the metaphor, once you've had that first, awful bite, its very hard for anyone to convince you to try it again.
Sadly, Darkfall is looking even less than half-baked and will likely join that long list of MMOs that had interesting ideas and great potential, but simply failed to deliver. And that, I think, is what results in the constant failures of the 'hardcore PvP' MMOs. Its much easier to build a successful themepark MMO. But I'm still holding out hope that one day, someone takes the time and money to look back on these failed trailblazer MMOs, learn from their mistakes and their successes, and build a truly enjoyable, PvP-oriented, sandbox MMO.