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The Devil's Advocate: Content Stagnation in MMORPGs

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on July 18, 2012

It's a well-documented notion that I am a game hopper. My gaming blog entries are indicative of it, and my personal Twitter account is filled with my ramblings on a new game every week or two. I prefer jumping in and out of game worlds I fancy, whether it be Middle Earth, Skyrim, high-security space, or elsewhere. In some cases, one can simply say that I get bored easily or burnt out quickly.

While my fickle nature allows me to have fun wherever I please, I'm probably not what most companies would like to have in a customer, as my money goes where I go. To maintain people like myself as a paying customer, companies work on providing steady streams of content to keep folks paying and playing.

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My question, however, is this: is providing people with more content enough in the long run of the industry? That's the subject of today's Devil's Advocate, and one we'll be discussing with the help of a variety of game examples, both online and off.

Stuff to Do Versus Stuff Worth Doing

Developer-made and user-made content both happen to give people stuff to do. It's a new story, or a new quest, or a fruitful economic endeavor, or it's just good fun to stand in front of a pond and catch a virtual coin instead of a fish.

The issue I have with content, whether it be developer-made or user-made, is that if there isn't a lack of content available for people to do, there is a general sameness to most of the content created for players to conquer that makes it hard to want to do them for their intended, awesome purpose. 

There are many examples of this particular issue of not wanting to do stuff that is present in the themepark side of the MMO fence.

RIFT, for example, is a technically sound game and one which I think can boast of the most frequent content updates this side of the galaxy. Moreover, RIFT's content updates usually come with something new, and in the case of the Storm Legion expansion, it will even get housing. The issue I take with RIFT (and yes, with other themepark-type MMOs) is that the template on which some content is created is very limited. The developer-made Instant Adventure feature of RIFT is indicative of this problem, as you are saddled mostly with killing things, escorting people, or interacting with static objects.

Star Trek Online (which, by the way, is now on Season 6!) has an impressive thing called a Foundry, which lets players create missions of their own for people to play and rate. There are plenty of available Foundry missions for people to do, which include roleplaying missions, space combat, or ground combat. The thing is, the player-made content is also starved for variability, mostly because of the technical limitations of the Foundry. Furthermore, people have also made (and therefore use) five-minute “click on X” missions that can be done in triplicate to quickly receive rewards from repeatable dailies.

Sandbox MMOs are also susceptible to this very same problem, and are perhaps worse off when a player is hit by a dearth of things worth doing.

Let us use Darkfall as an example. Aventurine, the developer of Darkfall, is working on Darkfall 2.0, which is supposed to be either a revamp or evolution of Darkfall. To reintroduce people to the game and drum up more business, the company recently promoted the game by multiplying skill gains and loot drops, lessening the subscription cost, and waiving the box price for purchasing the client.

Now, I applaud the savvy with which Aventurine did their promotion. The issue, however, is that Darkfall suffers from a lack of things to do when you've maxed out the skills you want to use on enemies and there's no one online to fight. Simply put, if you're not killing NPCs, you're killing players. If you're not killing anything, you're probably not doing much, and when you're not doing anything in a game, you're eventually going to regret playing that game.

Variability is Key

One of the reasons why certain games end up being more fun than others is because is we derive a sense of useful purpose that aids in enjoyment. You play a game because you want to achieve a goal, or win something, or just keep going for the sheer joy of persisting.

The fear, excitement, and tension of surviving a week in Arma II's DayZ modification (a modification that was made by one of the developers of Arma II in his spare time), for example, trumps repeating the same raid weekly for the chance to earn a drop you might need so you can do further raids to get even more statistically powerful gear. The reason for this is that the variables of play change daily with each moment you're in the game. What you scavenge off one house you've visited on two separate occasions can be different depending on who's been there, what's transpired in the time between, and whether or not there's a camper waiting to stab you from behind the door when you get into his sights.

That said, having a diverse range of things worth doing - of having variability in play - is what makes people want to stay in a game longer. It'll have to come from developers providing people with new things to do, whether it happens to be the creation of new types of quests, such as the investigation and sabotage quests in The Secret World, or the creation or further refinement of player-made content creation systems for MMORPGs, such as the Foundry of Star Trek Online.

Having a complex quest or robust content creation system in an MMO frees up additional time for developers to get more creative with their future content, and lessens the need for constant developer-made content. The best example of this just so happens to be non-MMO based, and is currently epitomized in the Steam Workshop. For those who don't normally play non-MMO games, the Steam Workshop is a user-made content development and delivery system that ties in with the Steam store and client. Developers allowing users to modify their games to further extend gameplay adds length to the game's shelf life and allows developers to make longer, less shoddy future content.

What the Front-Runners are Doing

Speaking of variability in play, there are sandbox and themepark MMOs that provide this sort of variability. These next two games I'll mention are not without their own issues, but whether their content is developed by the game makers or by the players, they are still arguably the most popular themepark and sandbox MMORPGs available to gamers today, and will have implications on whether or not variability of content becomes something important for developers to take note of.

With the largest subscriber base in the realms of massively multiplayer online gaming, World of Warcraft has needed to try and be a front-runner in a lot of things to maintain dominance. In addition to tweaking combat and statistics to allow for streamlining and accessibility among more casual gamers (gamers may treat this as nerfing, but it depends on perspective), each new expansion of this game has attempted to add to previous work. This tweaking is usually done through a class or race addition, a new tradeskill, an achievement system, or even the power of flight.

While WoW is perhaps in a state of decline, it is working on maintaining a strong subscriber base by providing something that most other games do not have. One of Mists of Pandaria's big draws is a pet battling system that appears to tie into other activities that allow for the earning of pets. My personal leaning is that it's a cool bit of fluff to have that will drive collectors to stay, which is good for the game, but it's not exactly player housing.

EVE Online is the front-runner in the sandbox space, and it tries to earn its reputation as a serious gamer's sandbox by building horizontally and creating new things for people to try and shoot for, and at, in the game. The game has undergone graphical upgrades and the addition of other gameplay mechanics, such as planetary interaction and faction warfare, to allow people to tell the story of their adventures as capsuleers who cannot die, but can lose everything anyway.

Between WoW and EVE, I'd say EVE has the right idea by allowing for newcomers and veterans to be able to play their own way, make their own tales, and contribute to the struggles of their fleets. Of course, EVE might benefit from more quest-like content such as the COSMOS mission sets but there's still plenty to do and strive in EVE than in WoW.

The Bottom Line

It's okay to feel contented with the content available to us as gamers. Companies would have trouble if everybody always wanted something new in their games all the time, as that would force a horrible cycle of development that would make the prospect of making games hellish nightmares. Even I'm happy with the way MMOs are available to many people and in varying forms.

What I don't want is to be satisfied by the way the offerings available are presented to me. I don't want the industry to stagnate in terms of what it offers within its games by creating clones of the raid-grouped, kill-ten-rats escort quest.

In order to remedy that, developers ought to work on finding ways to shake up the usual formats. This can be done by allowing people to make their own content, by making the game focus on allowing day 1 players can to be just as viable as day 1000 players in certain contexts through horizontal progression, or by adding new gameplay elements in content updates that allow for more fun outside adventuring or progression in a different manner (such as the Adventuring-Tradeskill-Diplomacy triumvirate of Vanguard).

Such a thing is difficult to implement in certain games by virtue of how they were built, but I'm hopeful that toolsets like Storybricks and hybrid themepark-sandbox games like ArcheAge and Pathfinder Online will become more popular and provide a third path to take when it comes to providing meaningful experiences for players.

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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