I've been toying with the idea of a system that would offer the player backstory options based on the player's previous actions. This way, the backstory would develop gradually over the course of weeks, or even months.
Honestly, I'm not sure yet if I like the idea myself, but it seems worth consideration. A good and individual backstory helps significantly to attach players to their characters. Blank slates, however, like the empty chat box in SWG, are just as likely to intimidate players as to help them. Even an experienced, professional writer will probably give you a questioning stare if you give him nothing more than a blank sheet of paper and say "write something." People generally need more guidance than that. So I've been thinking...
How can the developer guide players toward backstories that feel truly personal, but without expecting the players to write the stories themselves?
Backstory quests would be placed on the server, but not assigned to any particular NPC. The game would categorize player actions over time, and occcasionally offer the player a backstory quest (or other type of experience) related to those player actions.
For example, if the player demonstrates a fondness for bandits, an NPC might inquire if the player has any experience with police duty and (if the player confirms interest in the subject) offer that player a chance to retrace his law roots through some sort of quest.
Which NPCs can offer which backstory quests would be determined by relevance (a humble sailor's not likely to be familiar with your royal upbringing), but many NPCs would be capable of offering each such quest. That way, the player is likely to run into it, no matter which city or which part of town his adventure passes through.
The gist is: (1) the developer offers a quality backstory through NPC dialogue or similar content; (2) the player determines his or her own backstory options -- indirectly through natural gameplay choices, rather than being faced with a mess of stories at the character creation stage that the player may or may not be interested in at all; and (3) the player has the final say, accepting the screened and personalized story offered or holding out until the next story offering.
OR LET THE PLAYERS WRITE IT
All of this, of course, isn't meant to exclude the possibility of the developer guiding players to stories which they write themselves. Certainly, more could be done toward that end.
And I've learned to expect admirable creativity from just about any person, given the right guidance and a little luck; even if that person is certain he or she is completely incapable. Years ago, I read a very interesting and inspiring book in which an elementary school teacher had his students write their own poems after reading famous, complex works (including Shakespeare)... poetry everyone thought only adults could truly appreciate. The results are astounding. As I'm sure anyone with children knows, "out of the mouths of babes..." doesn't just refer to faux paus. Some of these child-written poems are profound.
Anyway, that book is one reason I'm confident that MMO players are capable of writing good stories for their characters, if developers could only figure out how best to inspire them.