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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: Content Design

Each week she looks behind the curtain at how MMOs are made. This week, we learn a thing or two about the reality of Content Design.

When people imagine getting a job at a game company, and picture themselves hard at work, what they imagine is usually some kind of content design. The most senior content design, the fun stuff that is frankly entirely hogged by the people who founded the company and their chosen lieutenants. Seriously, people go and start their own studios in order to do the stuff you’re imagining when you think of content design, because it is easier to design, eat ramen, and starve, than to wait for your own shot at joining the primary design team. But I digress. As usual.

Content design and quest design are closely related, but considered to be different teams. Well, that’s true at the MMO studios that haven’t completely given up on telling stories with “words.”

But don’t take that the wrong way. Telling stories with words is important, but content people are telling stories, too. In the last two days, I’ve played LOTRO, Free Realms, and watched someone play a little WOW. All three of those titles use animations, text, and pathing commands to create a sense of a living world, with NPCs interacting with each other in natural, interesting ways. As Mike Finnigan, a former content lead (now a QA lead) told me, “Quest designers usually have to be good writers and can fashion a story with text. Encounter designers fashion a story with the tools they have, [and they] know how to manipulate the tools to make things look cool.”

What might you do as a new member of the content team?

You will set up the towns, villages and cities. You’ll lay out the location of the NPCs, and put in the outlines that the quest team will color in. (There’s some overlap here, obviously, which is a less snarky/more fair reason why some companies have done away with the distinction between quests and content.) You’ll populate dungeons. You’ll set up the random encounters, with monster spawns and loot tables, that aren’t part of anything in particular. (Big encounters tend to have dedicated teams, and you, entry level person, will not be on it.) Quests might send you to an encounter, but an encounter is there whether you’re on a quest or not. You might do some writing, but for the most part you’re scripting.

Scripting: You’re using a variety of tools to tell each individual monster where it will spawn, where it will wander, how big that range is, what path it will take, what loot table it will use when it is killed, how large its aggro range is, whether its actions are connected with another monster’s, how often it will respawn, whether the spawn trigger is a timer or an event, what animations it will use outside of combat, and whether it is a placeholder for another creature. Players will be able to tell if you give up and slap fifty bears in one spot that are standing around waiting to die, so even at the most basic entry level content job, you’ll need to make use of creativity and vision every single day.

Sounds great! What’s the catch?

If you’re working on an established title, you will find yourself updating loot table formulas in thousand line spreadsheets, or running pathing tests for hours. If you’re working on a game that hasn’t launched, you might be designing your work in Excel, on a paper map, or on a whiteboard, with no clue as to the final dimensions and scale of the world.

If you have ever wondered how on earth a sane developer can send you on a forty five minute walk for bat wings at level two, the answer is probably that on paper, the bat spawn was next to the main castle, not the outer rim of darkness. Why isn’t this kind of thing caught in play testing?

Well, it usually is, but fixing it takes a backseat to finishing the last 25% of the game in the last 2% of the calendar. That’s the big dirty secret of entry-level content design on a brand new title. As I said, during preproduction, content people are often working on paper. Before they can work in the game, the zones must be designed by the senior people, objects must be built by the artists, and programmers must get everything running before the placement tools, loot tables, and script tools are implemented at all.

One entry level content person, who worked on what would have been a triple A MMO if it had launched, told me that in one year, he spent only six months working directly with the game.

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