Star Wars: The Old Republic expert Larry Everett proposed that "ownership" or perhaps the broader term "immersion" should be considered one of the real four pillars of MMO gaming instead of the four that BioWare picked (combat, exploration, progression, and story). This sounds like a fun mind-challenge to me too because I don't think combat is actually essential to MMOs, I couldn't care less about stock progression, and I don't think any MMO can run a good story from the top down unless it's run by gamemasters. Surely we can come up with some better pillars.
Stickiness would be my first pick; games need to keep people coming back because they want to come back, not because they feel they must. Community would make my list as something developers should develop intentionally rather than hope it happens offscreen. Setting to me is far more important than story since how seriously a studio takes its setting determines how invested players will be in their own stories. Customization would round out my quartet; our ability to take charge of our character's development, appearance, home, and activities is crucial to keeping us around. Taken together, those four echo Larry's column -- they're all about ownership in a game, something BioWare's pillars just don't address.
What about you? If you were tasked with coming up with the four pillars of MMO gaming, what would they be?
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