One of the hottest topics with respect to MMO gaming is fun. It is also one of this genre, if not all genres of gaming's greatest enigmas. What is fun? How can we capture fun in a bottle and then turn it into code and infuse it into a computer or video game? What characteristics of fun are most universal such that we can grab the attention of the most gamers and hold them?
Admittedly, I don't have the universal answer for this as if I did I'd be a rich man. I do very ok, but rich I am not. What I do want to talk about today is what I believe to be a key factor in the equation that equals fun. That variable is player generated content.
What do you mean "You people"?
The topic of player generated content often comes up when discussions of themepark vs. sandbox games take place here on the forums. Inevitably when it is referenced some of the first replies are "You people don't know what you're talking about. Player generated content is never as good as developer made content!". Well, I'm not going to argue with that assertion when talking in context of yout typical Go to the Misty wood and kill 10 Blood Frogs type content. In the frame of an MMO I doubt players would have the range of freedom to make NPCs cheer and herald the player as a hero like the developers could.
When I and I'm sure many others reference player generated content and being able to tell your own story it most certainly is not in reference to the action listed above. Instead it is in reference to an MMO having a well-developed toolset and set of systems and mechanics through which players can take a long hard look at the game's background or setting and then put into play a particular vision of a character that they would like to see develope in the gameworld. A large part of MMO gaming draws upon one of the key elements ofthe pencil and paper world that it spawned from in great part: imagination.
Now, this imagination is not the "oh, well, you can just imagine you're a doctor or a general store owner in game" type. In truth if such a limitation were the end all, be all then why even have the game in the first place? Why not just have a chat room where people type out their actions and imagine they are PvPing each other or imagining they are banding together in a group of 40 to take down a raid boss? The reason this isn't so is it's more fun, more rewarding to imagine that you are going to do this and then log in and visually see it happen. That's the kind of imagination I reference. Players love to imagine a role that is fun to them in a MMO's setting and then to actually watch it come to be whether you are slaying dragons or selling the adventuring gear to that budding hero. Heros, afterall, come from all walks of life.
The stories behind this great men, one real (Masamune) and one fictional (Q or Major Boothroyd) could hardly be played out in most modern MMOs.
So what do I mean when I use the term Player Generated Content? Well, the term means to me the ability of the player to utilize in-game systems and mechanics in order to bring about almost any role they can imagine and introduce that story into the game's background. Should a player have dreams of making a character that starts out a lowly soldier in some federated army who serves his contract and gets out and decides to start a mercenary unit it should be possible in game. Most games have a guild system, which would cover the mercenary unit portion, but that guild system should be robust enough to handle various command structures. It should be well-planned such that it allows a guild to be flagged as hired by another guild, thus forming an alliance and applying the appropriate "Friend or Foe" targetting in combat.
Suppose our intrepid hero wants to secure an area of land for his mercenary group. The game should possess a system of claiming land space. There should be full crafting trees devoted to the creation of a variety of buildings to support a base, from barracks to turrets to motorpools/stables. It should be equally viable for another player to make a career out of producing and selling such items. This is the crux of what is meant by having all gameplay mechanics and systems interwoven such that they make sense and make all these roles viable. This allows for a great deal of different sotries to be told and thus player generated content.
We often see developers complain that players skip through the launched content in 2-3 months, the kill the 10 frogs variety, that they spends 4-5 years creating. That does not seem very efficient in terms of resource use for a developement effort to me. It seems as though it would be alot less taxing to provide a platform or a stage and let the players become the actors, the story-tellers. The challenge then becomes to adjudicate systems that allow the great emotions of the human condition to play out and drive conflict and companionship, love and hate, prosperity and pauperism. It is these attributes, I believe, that reach deep down in a player such that at the proverbial "end of the day" generate a sense of being vested in the game world's events. Give them something to build, to own, in the world such that they don't want to lose it. Whether it is losing a base or losing a lucrative building contract if they have reason "to care" then fun will happen.
I dare say it will be a more intense fun because the events, at their core, were imagined by the player and brought to life by their actions. That experience is truly theirs.