Blur your eyes as you look at a new fantasy massively multiplayer game, and you won't know whether you're looking at World of Warcraft or not. But there are differences. There always are. Take Rift Planes of Telara, for example.
The people at Trion Worlds were showing their MMO, Rift, at Penny Arcade Expo last weekend. Sure, it's more graphically advanced than WoW, but those differences?
Two key things:
First, the creators have an unusual leveling system. They want players to be able to customize their hero's classes in unusual ways. You pick a calling: rogue, warrior, cleric or mage. Then, you fight enemies or go on quests in order to collect souls. The souls are specific to the calling, but only three can be associated with your character. There might be a pyromancer soul or a bard or assassin or warlock. There are more than 30 souls. Any combination of the three is a "role." Players can save up to four roles. Any one of those souls that you associate with your character has its own skill tree. The tree has branches and roots. (You're still with me, right?) The branches allow a player to optionally allocate points gained through leveling up to skills you want to unlock. The roots, however, offer a fixed, automatically unlocking progression of essential skills. As you spend a set number of upgrade points on the skills in the branches, one, by one, the essential skills in the roots open up.
I snapped a photo of a three-soul role with all of the skill trees and roots exposed. It's a bit hard to read, but this should help Rift hopefuls get the idea.
The other distinguishing element of Rift is its dynamic content. The developers hope that players will experience an MMO world that feels like it's living and progressing even when they are not there. This dynamism is evident by those rifts from which the game gets its name. They appear as tears in the fabric of the world. They're the potential beachheads of invasions from forces of earth, fire, water, air, life or death. When a tear appears, players can try to seal it. If it opens all the way and becomes a rife, an invading force enters and marauds their way to towns. The Trion people intend for these breaches to feel dynamic. They hope they will keep the players alert and will surprise gamers who return to the game world after a night's sleep to discover there might be a new invasion to deal with (the developers do say, though, that they want their dynamic system to be smart enough so that the game world isn't ruined if no one is around to stop the invasion.)
Here's a rift from the plane of death opening up, shot by me at the Trion booth at Penny Arcade Expo:
Here's a video of a developer showing me what happens when the rift opens and the invasion begins:
Rift is scheduled for a 2011 release for PCs.