This week, I asked the Massively writers to assume that basics like "chat" and "combat" are givens and then select the one completely and utterly essential gameplay mechanic or element that they think an MMO should really have at launch. Here's what they told me.
@ceruleangrey: I can't think of any features that are out-and-out dealbreakers for me if a game lacks them at launch, but if social features and RP stuff look like they're way off on a back burner for some nebulous post-launch future update, it's pretty discouraging. Players insist that games need a lot of endgame content at launch, and to some extent that's probably true, but I feel secure in saying that at least 90% of games will probably have those things as a priority for post-launch updates. Quality of life issues -- especially if they don't have anything to do with combat directly -- can easily slide into "We'd like to take a look at that in the future, but" territory.
The "whatever, it should have been in at launch" attitude has always seemed kind of petty to me. I'm sure there are some truly egregious cases where it's justified, but unless you've discovered time travel, it doesn't do any good to try to rub it in. In my experience, players aren't any more forgiving of delayed launches or extensive hotfixes.
@nbrianna: Economy. I'll echo Jef (below me, but blame that on the alphabet) and say that an economy (with all the systems an economy entails like crafting and gathering and currency balance and interdependency) is fundamental. You cannot tack it on later as an afterthought because all of the other systems in the game need to be built on top of it. That's not to say that a game without an economy or crafting is an instant fail, just that if you think you're going to put it in eventually and you want it to really matter, you have to be willing to totally gut your game to do so and risk ticking off your fans or accept that it will be limited and superficial.
@jefreahard: I can't think of any immediate dealbreakers, either, since I pretty much play everything that launches for at least a little while. In terms of titles I'd like to play long-term, though, lack of housing and meaningful crafting/economy at launch raises red flags in terms of whether the devs are interested in a virtual world vs. yet-another-combat-progression-grind.
@Sypster: Robust. Guild. Support. I'm so serious: Just about every MMO drops the ball when it comes to giving guilds support, tools, and in-game progression. Some do parts of it very well but totally fail in addressing others. Every game should have a guild bank, period. Every MMO needs an in-game calendar for guild officers to use and players to read. Forming a strong community that lasts and will stick with you game should be one of the studios' top priorities, and guilds are the way that happens. If you give guilds mere scraps from your development table instead of a feast, you shouldn't be surprised when they feel unwelcome and take off for more verdant territories.
@Shaddoe: Can I just scream "Chat bubbles!!!" and be done? Oh wait, I can't because then people won't know from which direction I'm shouting or whether I'm shouting at them. Why is it such a big deal to put them in? There's all sorts of other flying text on the screen of most games; how hard is it to add a little bit more?
What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.