I want you to picture a nonexistent MMO in your head right now. Not one that hasn’t released yet; one that hasn’t even been announced. A totally fictional game unrelated to anything that’s currently out, one original and unbound to anything else. If you desperately want it to be part of a franchise, fine, but you get the idea. I want you to just picture this MMORPG and picture a list of basic features that you expect to see in the game by default.
Now… did that MMORPG include player housing?
Lest you think that you gave the wrong answer, rest assured, there isn’t actually a right or wrong answer. But it is worth noting that at one point, the answer would have been “yes” because of course there’s housing, every MMORPG has housing. Then there was a stretch where the odds were quite good it didn’t. The pendulum has swung a bit more in the other direction in the years since then, but I think it brings to mind something that’s worth considering when you talk about expected systems in MMORPGs through the ages.
When Ultima Online first hit the scene, it had a number of systems based on what the designers wanted to be in the game from a combination of previous titles in the franchise and what seemed like it would make an interesting game. Some of those were important from other online titles like MUDs and MUSHes, to boot. But the point is still that the first game set down expectations for systems that future games would need to have, things that are just part of MMORPGs… even though they by definition do not have to be.
For example, back in the day, EverQuest expected you to run back to your corpse to pick up all of your stuff when you died. But here’s the thing: There wasn’t much of a reason for it. Oh, sure, it made dying a penalty, but why is the penalty that strict? The game has largely removed that mechanic now by giving you a different reason to run back to your corpse, but you no longer lose all of your stuff. Why was that in the game?
Because it was in UO, mostly, and that set the template. The difference was that UO was not a game in which you were expected to have spent a month at minimum farming for the Breastplate of Awesome that you would wear forever. You could replace most of your gear pretty quickly if you lost it all to mobs or players, which was the whole point of potentially losing it. UO included the mechanic because it was part of a larger set of mechanics about item loss and dying; EQ included it in no small part because that’s just how MMORPGs worked.
My point here isn’t to say that these mechanics are bad or even that the designers were making a bad decision by including it; that’s for people who have way more skin in the game for these particular titles to argue over. (Preferably to argue over somewhere far away from me, I would like to add.) Rather, my point is to say that there are certain expectations that you just put in any design document, things that you know should be there or are always there so you just don’t think about it. Of course our game will have housing. These games always have housing, right?
Of course, some of this is also deformed as certain MMORPGs become more popular. Back in 2005, the expectations for what was a “default” MMORPG was quite a bit more expansive than it was in, say, 2015. That wasn’t because everyone suddenly forgot that having a house was fun; it’s because we went from a place where the market leaders had housing to a place where they didn’t, and so if you’re trying to figure out what your MMORPG needs to have to be launch-complete, you don’t need housing as much as you need a stable raiding endgame. That’s what the kids really want these days.
“But that just incentivizes making lukewarm and bland MMORPGs that just regurgitate what the market leader is doing without adding on a whole lot to make your game stand out.” Yep! That’s definitely a thing, and it is a real problem! In fact, a lot of games have learned over the years that by making sure you have all of the same stuff the existing market leader has, all you’ve really done is make a clone rather than a competitor, and that’s a business model that only really works if the game you’re cloning is done in 20 hours or so rather than still being played actively years later.
Except that it’s not just developers who get brainworms about this. It’s possible for players to also get upset when, for example, a game doesn’t feature a robust endgame raiding scene despite the developers not designing their MMORPG to feature that. If the players expect to see it, no amount of explaining that it’s not actually mandatory will convince anyone.
This can cut both ways. On the bright side, it’s possible for the developers to hear from players that they really want housing, or more crafting, or more story, or whatever. More is added and everyone walks away happy. On the down side, it can also lead to players expecting something that not only has never been promised by the developers but would actually be kind of damaging to the game as a whole, and no amount of explaining “this would actually be kind of bad” will move the needle at all.
It’s easy to see assuming that an MMORPG needs certain things to survive as being somehow lazy, but it really isn’t. When you get right down to it, every MMORPG is a fantastically expensive project, and most of them start limping pretty early on. Your launch numbers do not indicate your long-term health, unfortunately. Before you spend that much money and time on a game, you want to make sure that you are at least starting from a good place… and yeah, that includes starting from mechanics that you know work. It’s just logical.
But it’s also logical to look at why those systems did work (or perhaps even didn’t work) in their original game. And it’s interesting to consider how our expectations for what an MMORPG needs to succeed has shifted over time. Heck, it’s interesting how we still are not entirely sure what a game actually needs to be successful beyond a long-standing development team and enough budget to keep delivering regular content updates of some degree of quality.
Considering that degree of quality can include stuff like two out of World of Warcraft’s last three expansion, I’d say even that isn’t wholly certain! Yes, that was your joke about Shadowlands being bad for the day. Please clap.
There’s no formula you can follow to make an unfailingly popular MMORPG. It doesn’t exist. So we’re all doing our best to guess at what needs to happen, and that means considering what we expect by default. I remember when “mounts” weren’t considered a given but “grouping to level” was considered the default. And that hadn’t always been the case, nor would it always be the case. This stuff changes.