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Bill Murphy: Content Locusts Aren’t the Problem

Column By William Murphy on November 28, 2012

One of our forumites, JPNZ, recently posted a thread that gained a lot of traction.  In it, JPNZ posits that what we’ve come to call “content locusts” (people who devour a game’s content and move on to the next thing) aren’t such a bad thing after all.  He thinks that the nature of the industry, with so many games coming out, is driving the problem because players should feel okay about playing one game for a bit and hopping to the next.  The issue with that is that if no game can retain players, no game thrives.  But there are two things brought to mind with JPNZ’ post: the plight of a crowded marketplace and a market that’s not being supplied with what it really wants. 

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There’s a part of me that completely agrees with JPNZ, at least as far as the “content locusts aren’t a bad thing” part of his post.  They’re just another type of MMO gamer. There are quite a few folks who will stick with a game for years, despite the “new hotness” around the corner.  One need only look at WoW’s staggering retention rates to see this (yes, I know it’s an anomaly).  In addition, as someone who often has to play multiple games a time to make a living, I quite like the variety.  I have a favorite game most of the time, but that doesn’t preclude me from dipping in and out of others. 

No, I don’t think that the problem we should be talking about is some mythical gamer beast known as the “Content Locust”.  The problem is that many games are so rigidly designed around the consumption of content that they simply can’t hold up to the pace of delivery they need to in order to retain subscribers or player-interest.  Games designed around the notion of content and only repetition of that content often cannot hold the interest of their players for long without an influx of new things to do at a frequent pace (again, WoW is the anomaly).  This problem is what smacked SWTOR right in the face just a few months after its high-profile launch.  Even Free-to-Play (or Buy-to-Play) games that are designed around content have to keep players coming back with more content that drives them to spend time and hopefully money.

If this sounds like it’s going in the “sandbox over theme-park” direction, you’re partly right.  I enjoy a good theme-park MMO as much as anyone.  I’m of the mind (with many of you) that developers need to stop trying to keep such strict control over their content, and instead turn some of that over to the players.  If you’re going to build a theme-park based MMO, be sure to have systems in place that enable players to entertain themselves while they wait for new content.  I said it before, and I’ll mention it again: Cryptic’s Foundry in Neverwinter (and other games) is perfect for this. It unleashes a steady stream of content made by the players and adds to the community. 

But that’s just one type of system that helps players stay in a game longer.  Others such as housing, strong economy and crafting, competition between players that involves more than just “battleground combat”, towns, shops, progression that doesn’t end with a flat level cap… I could go on.  But it’s not a secret that MMOs are difficult and varied beasts all around in development.  They’re one of the few game types that need to have something to offer just about everyone if you hope to build a vibrant community.  But maybe that’s a problem too?  Should more games do exactly what Planetside 2 is attempting (offering a game that’s for one type of audience, and not all of them at once)?

I think it’s safe to say that we’d all like a game we could stick with over years the way we once stuck with titles such as Everquest, Ultima Online, or Dark Age of Camelot.  And indeed while those days may be over, I believe that some semblance of longevity can be achieved by a studio that stops trying so hard to deliver all of the endless content on their own and instead puts some of the power in the players’ hands.

Are you afraid of the content locust swarm, or are these bug-like players just the symptom of a larger problem? 


William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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