There's no going back
Ah, the conveniences of modern MMOs. If you grew up on World of Warcraft instead of EverQuest or Ultima Online, you'll never know the pains of permanently losing your equipment in a raid wipe. Or permanently losing experience points, enough to regress in level. Or having to literally run from one end of a continent to another because the only way to fast travel was if you were or wizard or druid--or, at the very least, knew a wizard or a druid (or had the money to temporarily befriend one). You think spending 40 hours a week in a modern MMO is a commitment? Pfft, at least half of those hours weren't spent waiting for a monk to drag a raid's worth of corpses--one by one--into an area they can be safely resurrected in.
See, MMOs continue to improve. Their features are streamlined, making them more accessible to the average player without sacrificing the unique social experience that we play these games for in the first place. And now that there are so many MMOs to choose from--the recently released Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and The Elder Scrolls Online among them--there's never been a better time to take a look at some of the features that we'd have a hard time playing without these days. Starting with...
There was a time, not so long ago, that running instanced dungeons meant manually searching for people to do them with. Meaning: Spamming the various far-reaching chat channels in hopes of finding 3-4 other players your level who also wanted to run a specific dungeon at that exact moment in time.
Sometimes that wasn't so bad; you could assemble a group in a few minutes for an MMO's more popular dungeons, particularly endgame ones. Nowadays most MMOs come with a built-in group finder, which acts as a sort of matchmaking system. You simply select the role you'd like to play (tank, healer, DPS), join the queue, and bam--you'll be matched with other players without having to copy/paste the same LFG message in chat over and over again.
This might sound like a no brainer now, but old-school MMO players will likely agree: some sort of fast travel system is a godsend. In most MMOs from the late '90s and early 2000s, there was no way to quickly warp from one zone to another. And if there was, only certain classes could enable it (the aforementioned wizard and druid in EverQuest, for example).
Now? Usually you can find transportation hubs (flight paths in WoW, wayshrines in ESO, aetheryte crystals in FFXIV:ARR), pay a small fee, and you'll reach your destination in no time. You're often still forced to explore the world--you can only unlock these hubs by finding them--but you won't have to retread the same expansive zone just to meet up with your group to run a dungeon, turn in a quest, or head to the auction house. Speaking of...
The scenario: You're almost at level cap for one of your crafting professions. You only need to forge a few more swords and you'll finally be done. Problem is, you need a few more ingots of whatever metal it is you're using, and you're feeling too lazy to go farm up some ore. So you need to buy what you need from another player.
In the '90s, that would require you to head to an agreed-upon zone (EQ's East Commonlands comes to mind), stand there, and parse chat spam in hopes of finding out who was selling what. Which, let's be honest here, still happens in most MMOs today. BUT! You can also just head to a nearby auction house (an in-game eBay) to quickly find what you need.
For me, one of the things I really enjoy about playing MMOs is being able to tailor my experience to my liking. At the bare minimum, a game should allow its users to unlock user interface elements--all of them, if possible (kudos to FFXIV:ARR in this regard)--and move them around as they see fit. Considering you'll be staring at a screen for so long, it makes sense that you should be able to make it look how you want.
Even better is when MMOs embrace player-made add-ons. MMO developers come up with some really neat ways to make playing MMOs more intuitive, but I find that players are often the ones that innovate best when it comes to UI (plus the most popular add-ons are often adopted as actual mechanics, as so many were in WoW). The more customization options the better.
The ability to have multiple specs on a single character
I've always been a DPS guy. Tanking and healing? They're fun enough, but not something I'd want to do all the time--which is problematic because exclusively playing a DPS role means it's harder to find a dungeon group. DPSers are a dime a dozen. That's why giving players the option to swap between multiple specs is a fantastic feature.
I'd gladly take on a healing or tanking offspec. Not only does that give me a change of pace every now and then, it means I'll quickly find a group during the times that tanks and healers are impossible to find. Best of all, I can do so without switching to an alternate character that I'm not very invested in.
Dynamic events / public quests
Know what's awesome? Running through a zone as a magical portal to the netherworld opens up right in front of you, seemingly out of thin air. From this abominable tear comes legions of demons, eager to destroy everything in their sight. Suddenly dozens of other adventurers come to your aid. You all work together to defeat the monsters, earning XP and rewards. You just experienced a dynamic event.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning had its awesome public quests, Rift had its Rifts, FFXIV:ARR its Fates, and ESO its Dark Anchors--they're all pretty similar. These events, which often spawn at random times in the game world, provide an extra little touch that encourages group coordination. Not only are they fun ways to get more XP, but they imbue your playtime with a bit of spontaneity that spices up exploration. Keep 'em coming!
Fact: MMOs are especially fun when playing with a group of friends. However, doing so usually means only playing when your friends are playing, which kind of sucks when they can ONLY play for five hours a day. But if you continue on and out-level them, it's also not much fun power-leveling them through quests you've already completed. Unless, that is, the MMO in question has a good mentoring system.
Games like EverQuest 2 and Guild Wars 2 do a good job of temporarily scaling your level with that of your friends so you can still get decent rewards from completing lower-level content. That way, you can satiate your addiction by playing for 13 hours every single day, and still be with your friends during their far-too-brief sessions and still make progress.
A small feature, but a lovely one nonetheless. It's pretty cool seeing the bodies of your fallen enemies emit a strange glow, a dead giveaway that they've got something to loot. Whether that something is vendor trash or an epic drop, you gotta click the corpse to get it. This becomes somewhat time consuming when you're grinding enemies for a quest or just for the hell of it.
But thanks to area loot, as seen in Rift and ESO, you only have to click one corpse to automatically pick up all the item drops any nearby corpses might have. Multiply this tiny time-saving measure over the course of dozens of days in play time, and you'll practically add a month to your life.
Seriously. If an MMO lacks this simple necessity, why the hell are you even playing it?
Fully voiced NPCs
And finally: fully voiced NPCs. Now, this may be a controversial inclusion in a list about must-have MMO features, but hear me out. Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online have made me a believer.
With those games in particular, NPCs that requested my aid by actually talking to me made it much easier to get into the story. I was far more likely to pay attention to what was going on in the lore than I would if I had to read a wall of text, as voices are able to convey a sense of urgency and emotion that written text just can't. I won't blame you for preferring easy-to-skip text, but for me, voice-over in an MMO makes me feel more invested.
There are plenty of other features we all look for in an MMO: interesting quests, a solid crafting system and player economy, great music--stuff that's more or less a given. But what about specific features? Do you disagree with any of the ones we've included in this list? What other sorts of things do you absolutely have to have before you'll commit to an MMO? Let us know in the comments below.