I just read a nice article by Mark Bernstein about endings in ongoing stories shared by massive numbers of people. He gives as examples television series, long musical works, and... Warcraft! He then asks a question:
That's the promise of a long arc: the kids will grow up. If the show were to ignore the promise, it would be an endless series of chase scenes. (his is what makes the modern arc matter in a way that endlessly episodic television -- Star Trek or The Avengers -- does not.
And this is one of my misgivings about MMPORGs today: do they go nowhere? Or are we just harvesting gold and arresting 500 villains?
It is true that Warcraft faces a big challenge in the design of the story. Unlike in single-player games, you cannot allow each player to make permanent game-changing events. You can find the missing king, but you cannot rescue him, because then no one else can. You can fight Onyxia, but not permanently destroy her, because then no one else could. Thus, all of the major events in Warcraft are in some way inconclusive and repeatable.
Nonetheless, the overall story does progress! Instead of progress being made by individual players, the writers move the whole game world bit by bit, or sometimes in one large swoop. New areas open, and in principle old ones can be closed. New characters and story lines appear and fade. The real-world pace is not so different from that of Battlestar Galactica or The Wire, where each week brings a little bit of insight, major steps happen at each season, and where the whole thing will probably end on a scale of 5-10 years.
Right now, for example, a new force called The Scourge is being phased into Warcraft. Already there are new characters, quests, and areas. Floating castles have been sighted in the sky, and underneath them are mysterious monsters not seen before. There is expected to be a major update to the game world in January which should begin to clear up much of the current mystery.
The answer to Bernstein's question is YES! MMORPGs can and do go somewhere. The "writers" change the online world in ways small and large so that the shared world progresses.
Whether that progress goes somewhere good is up to the skill of the writers. For Warcraft, I am expecting something less than the gripping tale of Galactica's cylons growing up, but more than the endless XP and gold of Diablo.