Y'know, I was just reading through that big Seika thread in Off-Topic, skimming through some of the more recent replies, and there's a major trend in there about work--"Seika is good cuz you have to work to get what you want, like in real life" and things along those lines. Now, this is not to pick on Seika--in fact, it is very emphatically not to pick on Seika, because this seems to be a common trend among online RPGs of all varieties. It seems that what defines RPGs as a genre is gameplay that consists of jumping through hoops: "Well, slaying Dragonoth the Generally Unpleasant takes a lot of work, so players naturally deserve a big reward for that. Playing for 2000 hours to reach Super Arch Mega Ultimate Master status is a tremendous amount of effort, so of course players should get awarded with lots of awesome powers for it. Running around in circles nonstop for 48 realtime hours is a huge accomplishment, so obviously we should make a special award for players who put that much energy into the game just to do that, too."
Now everyone just stop for one second and consider what an incredibly twisted world we live in where players have to be explicitly rewarded--bribed, not to mince words--to play games. Just reflect on the absurdity of that. I mean, call me crazy, but I always had this insane theory that maybe playing games was supposed to be fun. Sure, there's always that sense of accomplishment there. When you see your scores at the end of a round of deathmatch, or when you beat a single-player game and see the credits, or enter your initials on the high score list... these are all rewards the game gives you, but they're temporary and external to the game; they merely exist to acknowledge an accomplishment. A good analogy here is getting a certificate of merit from your boss, vs. getting a big fat bonus check; both are rewards for good work, but the difference between them is plain. Of course we'd all prefer to get a bonus from our employer... but when you're playing a game, you don't work for the game's designer, owner, or manager. Why should you accept wages--even imaginary wages--from them?
So, I'm taking a vow. If I ever create a game in the traditional online RPG mold--and I'm getting quite a hankering to--it will not have 1000 character levels, or 100, or 10. It will have 1 level. Depending on my whims, it may or may not have character classes, and there may be a few skills, or many, or none--but past character creation there will be no further skill levels. Equipment will be largely interchangeable; while the game will feature a basically capitalist economy that allows for players to get ahead financially within the game, it will be a deliberately uncertain and unstable economy that will be designed to prevent any static accumulations of wealth. The game may be simple, or it may be complex; in either case, while there will always be some form of learning curve to the game, there will be no lasting "secrets" or deliberately obscured fixtures in the game, so much as I can help it. In short, there will be as little character advancement as I can possibly get away with. Therefore, players will have no choice but to do things which they find genuinely interesting (well, they could always choose to deliberately bore themselves, but this would take even more dedication than even the most determined RPG'er can generally muster). Players who seek achievement must find success through being competent, intelligent, and creative, not by killing a bajillion generic monsters or putting hundreds of hours into the game.
If I ever create two or more such games, then after the first one, they may very well have relatively normal advancement patterns. A system of character building which is interesting and complements gameplay rather than co-opts it is fine. However, I think an example needs to be made, and very desperately so, of an RPG that does not rely on character advancement for meaningful gameplay.