As far as PbP games simply dying out, as they so often seem to do, I do think that having a great concept, good players, and a GM that isn’t a control-freak will all contribute to a game’s longevity. However – on this site at least – there are three GMs that I can think of who’ve had more than one PbP game that has managed to run consistently for more than a year, and a few of those games have run for two or more years. Those GMs are Dawn OOC, Justin OOC, and Mr Fox.
From what I have seen, each of those games has continued to run for one reason: the GM simply hasn’t let the game die. Dawn, Justin, and Fox have all had games that’ve hit major roadblocks and stall points, and each of them has responded by simply buckling down, knuckling up, and pressing forward no matter what. Sometimes this has been met with much approval and renewed interest on the part of their players, and other times it’s been met with a collective yawn of relative disinterest and their efforts could only really be called a ‘success’ in the sense that the game hasn’t died yet. But even in this latter case, by simply pressing forward and not letting the game die, they’ve ensured that it’s still there when their players finally lose interest in whatever new shiny has been distracting them, or when whatever RL interference has been keeping them away finally lets up, or what have you.
Basically, what I’m saying is that whether a PbP game dies or not seems to come down to whether the GM is willing to keep it going, no matter what. (Certainly, my own PbP games – none of which have survived terribly long – only died because I allowed RL interference to get in my way, not because I lost my players.)
As far as how PbP games are run: my own personal experience has been that GMs tend to run them more as very slow-moving tabletop games rather than as very slow-moving chat-based games, but obviously your mileage may vary. Regardless, I would agree that this approach is far from ideal. Apart from the fact that it is a roleplaying game, that it may involve the same or similar rules set, and that it may involve the same or similar lineup of characters and/or players, any PbP game will have essentially nothing at all in common with either a tabletop or a chat-based game. And no, I do not mean that as a deliberate overstatement intended to make a point, I mean that PbP, TT, and chat-based games have about as much in common with each other as they do with MMORPGs. Which is to say not much – beyond a similarity in setting material and the types of people interested in playing them.
Now, beyond simply keeping a PbP game alive, and as far as keeping it fun and interesting goes, I recommend the following for GMs (and some of this will be a repeat of what others here have already said): Make sure you have a strong concept before even thinking about starting a new game. A ‘neat idea’ doesn’t qualify, and if you can easily sum up your ‘strong concept’ in a single sentence then that probably doesn’t qualify either. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t be able to sum up your idea in a single sentence – it just shouldn’t be easy to – if it’s such a great idea, then you should find it difficult not to go on for pages and pages about it!) Only consider running games that you yourself would want to play in (but resist the urge to create an ‘NPC’ that you can play in your own game)! If you wouldn’t want to be a player in your game then why would you think anyone else would? Remember that the PCs are the stars of your production! They are the single most important part of your entire game! Not your story and certainly not your NPCs – but also not your players! – it is the player-characters around whom the entire game must revolve. Too many GMs (and players) forget this, and too often, and that is a shame. Know your player-characters. This plays right into the last point; your PCs are the stars of your show and should be treated as such. Give them opportunities – regularly and often – to shine (or to fail) in a big way. Praise your PCs (Icly and OOCly) when they do well, and make their failures as dramatic, engrossing, and entertaining as possible. Unashamedly play to your PCs’ strengths when it’s time for them to be the heroes (or at least to win), and only use your PCs’ weaknesses against them when it will further the story in a way that will make it more fun, dramatic, or exciting for everyone. Try to avoid rubbing a PC’s weaknesses in their face, period. (I won’t say ‘don’t do it ever’, but I’ve seen very few instances where a GM has managed to this in a way that was fun for the PC in question, and that didn’t make the GM look like a huge dick in the process.) Let your player-characters stand out! Seriously! It happens way too often that a GM (or other players) will take umbrage at a PC that seems to stand out or impress in any (good) way, or for whom certain things in-game seem to come easily. While it is important that there be conflict and struggles and difficulties and challenges in a game, if none of the stars of your game stand out then why would (or should) anyone care about your game at all? Remember: PbP games must be read; most people don’t bother reading things that they don’t find interesting; PCs that don’t stand out aren’t interesting; PbP games with no interesting characters aren’t interesting either and will not be read; PbP games that aren’t read, die. Simple as that. Reward your players (though not necessarily your PCs – the PCs might be the stars of the show, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing for them ). In an MMORPG your PC typically accrues XP as you play; in a tabletop game you typically receive it weekly, and in chat-based games it’s often the same. In PbP games, unfortunately, GMs will often withhold any sort of OOC rewards (XP or otherwise) for weeks or months at a time. This, again, goes back to the poorly thought-out decision to treat a PbP game like a slow-moving variant of a TT or chat-based game. When a player is creating their character, every new rank of a trait that they give to their PC tends to cause them to start thinking of what they want their PC to do with those ranks – it gets them thinking and planning creatively. This phenomenon does not suddenly cease once the game starts, and every award of XP gets players thinking about where and how to use it and in what ways their PCs are going to be able to use whatever new traits were just purchased with that XP. In short, it keeps players interested and involved. I recommend awards once per month, personally, but don’t hesitate to come up with periodic one-off contests or even just random excuses to pass out some rewards to your players. Also to note, it doesn’t have to be XP, either: it could be nifty gear that players are allowed to use and keep in-game. Communicate with your players. If they’re putting up lots of great posts, contributing a lot to the game, and helping you in continuing to move it forward, then give some praise for that. If a player is in some way holding up a game, however, let them know and offer help and suggestions to get them moving again (but be nice about it, of course). I do recommend, however, that most such feedback be kept to PM-threads. Whether praising or scolding a player, it’s often best to do it private and not out in the main OOC thread where everyone can see it. Don't take things personally, and don't try to resolve interpersonal conflicts with a player in-game. You will always turn out to be the one in the wrong. Try not to settle such things in an open OOC thread either, but mostly, just don't settle them in-game. As I told Dawn some time ago, and as she has already pointed out here, make sure you always give your players something to respond to. The GM must lead their players, and that includes putting up posts with ‘leading’ questions, comments, or descriptions. Nothing will stymie posting or stall out a game faster than GM-posts that leave nothing for players to respond to, participate in, or interact with.
Players, too, can either contribute to or hinder continued, sustainable interest in a PbP game, and I would recommend the following for contributing to interest:
This will sound almost exactly like the first point for GMs, above: Make sure you have a strong concept for your character. A ‘neat idea’ doesn’t qualify, and if you can easily sum up your ‘strong concept’ in a single sentence then that probably doesn’t qualify either. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t be able to sum up your character in a single sentence – it just shouldn’t be easy to – if your character is so awesome, then you should find it difficult not to go on for pages and pages about them!) Don’t be afraid to make your PC interesting. Too often there is a Harrison Bergeron-like tendency to want everyone to be equal and no one to stand out. Frankly, I think this comes down to a fear on other players parts that if another PC stands out, that must mean that theirs doesn’t and that that’s just not acceptable. Don’t let this fear get to you, and don’t let the fear of others stop you. If you want to play the world’s greatest swordsman, gunslinger, or short order cook, then do so, and don’t be shy or half-assed about it. On the other hand, if you want to make a perfectly normal everyman, then do so, but don’t forget to give him/her something that will keep those reading your posts interested. Regardless, make your PC amazing. Do accept help and (constructive) criticism in your efforts to do so. Don’t ever – ever – apologize once you have succeeded in doing so. Not even to your GM. Remember: it is OK for the other players to have awesome characters too! This is not a threat to you; rather it is a guarantee that the cool new game you’re a part of will be just that much more awesome. Also remember: even though the PCs are (or should be, at least) the most important element of the game you’re playing them in, your particular PC is not the only PC in the game! The GM is not the only person who should be making an effort to give the other players their moment in the sun – you should be as well. And if you don’t want to, fine, but realize that by taking this attitude you also forfeit any right to be upset if some other PC upstages yours. If I’m starting to sound like I’m contradicting myself and saying that all of the PCs should be the same, I’m not. And if you’re having a hard time picturing how an entire troop of PCs can all be awesome and all stand out, then try taking a look at what many consider to be one of the greatest ‘getting-the-team-together-for-a-mission’ movies ever: Seven Samurai. All seven main characters are awesome, all seven stand out, and all of seven of them are completely unique and have strengths (as well as weaknesses) that none of the others have. Far from hurting the story, having so many amazing and interesting main characters instead turned the film into one of the most influential movies in the history of action cinema. It is also helpful to note that all seven of the main characters in Seven Samurai were (coincidentally enough) samurai and all seven of them were primarily sword fighters and all seven of them had heavily-overlapping skill sets, and yet – somehow – managed to not step on each others toes as unique characters or otherwise suffer from violation of ‘niche protection’. Said ‘protection’ is, in my opinion, one of the single most harmful RPG traditions still extant in today’s gaming world. Barring certain exceptions that only serve to prove the rule, if your ‘Bruiser’ or ‘Brain’ or ‘Face’ (or whatever) will feel threatened if the team has another ‘Bruiser’ or ‘Face’ (or whatever) that’s one thing, and will probably only contribute to the game’s drama factor (usually a good thing), but if you would feel threatened by that all it really says is that you’re not confident in your character’s concept. If so, see point number one. While you do want your PC to be amazing in some way, you should avoid making them too amazing. If the character is a walking ‘I win’ card, then there’s no drama, no suspense, and no excitement. In short, your character will be boring. If your character is the world’s greatest swordsman, then obviously he isn’t going to be losing too many fencing duels and that’s fine, but perhaps the world’s greatest swordsman can’t get a date to save his life? Flaws can be, and frequently are, more interesting than strengths. Know the rules of the game you intend to play your PC in (or at least try very hard to). I know for some players the dice don't matter and neither do all the statistics on their PC's sheet, but you still have an obligation to know what they are and to understand them! If you plan on writing your character like they're an amazingly insightful individual with powerful reasoning and deductive abilities then their character sheet should reflect that - and you should know if it does! Failing at this leads to situations where a player finds out - mid-game - that their PC isn't capable of some, most, or even all of what they thought their PC was capable of. The typical reaction to this is frustration, which in turn is usually followed by the player losing interest in their PC and, thus, the game. While the GM should strive to only put up posts that can be easily responded to, so should you! As a player, you owe it to the GM, yourself, and your fellow players to keep the story moving forward in an efficient, productive, and (above all) entertaining way. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that interaction between players doesn’t always happen the way it would in a TT game. A thirty minute tangent in a TT game typically takes thirty minutes and isn’t a big deal. A thirty minute tangent in a PbP game can days or even weeks and does nothing to further the main story (usually, at least), which is a very big deal. I personally, tend to become annoyed with fellow players who constantly insist on holding up the story just so that they can have ‘fun’ by engaging in ‘witty banter’ or ‘a dramatic confrontation’ with other players, and then go on for pages at a time with it. Seriously, take it to a short fiction thread where it belongs. Keep things light and don't take things personally. Remember that it's just a game, and what happens to your PC is not what's happening to you. If you do have an issue with another player then it should be handled somewhere outside of the IC threads, and never, ever in an IC thread. If someone does something you feel is uncalled for (in-game or out), and you handle it by trying to have something unpleasant happen to their character in-game, all this does is make you out to be the dick, not them. Mostly though, just don't take things personally.
And that's all I've got. Thanks for reading.