Themepark PvE MMOs are content-reliant. You can only play the game as long as the game has pre-ordained tasks for you to complete. Once you’ve reached max level and done all the instances available, you’ll soon suffer burn-out. Themepark PvE MMOs take the single-player RPG, water it down, and add in some “group” content. CRPG devs would usually make people pay for expansions to add new content to their games, but their MMO brethren don’t have such a problem:they can make enough content to keep players playing primarily because the subscription model provides a continuous stream of money to fund new content creation.
A Brief Look at Content
It’s not easy to nail down a definition for content that most people will accept. But I think I can give us an operational definition that will at least allow us to use the word meaningfully.
When I talk about content in themeparks, I’m talking about stuff that the game gives you to do. Themepark devs codify “things to do” in quests most often. The content of a quest is how you pick it up, where you go to when you complete it, and what you’re doing to complete it. If you’ve done the same thing before or been to the same exact place before, the quest is still content, but just worse content.
We don’t have to deal with procedurally generated content here, because themeparks don’t care about it and rarely if ever implement it. We’re only concerned with the static tasks that the game gives the player. These tasks constitute the vast majority of the gameplay, so calling them “content” makes sense.
The Rides at the Themepark
The guiding paradigm in the themepark model: players consume content and are granted character power. The more content the player consumers when playing a character, the more powerful that player’s character should be. Since completing content is the central activity in the game, it makes sense that the act isn’t difficult. Content is engineered to be present a variety of experiences that are usually superficially different and rarely mechanically different. Content usually takes the form of quests that ask the player to interact with a series game entities in a certain order and return to the quest-giver or report to some other NPC.
Completing content pushes you through the geographical area just as it advances your character in power.
If You Build It, They Will Finish It
But with a surfeit of easy content, the player’s bound to finish it all sooner or later. A game’s most loyal and interested followers will tend to finish the content fastest. If a game’s relying on hand-crafted content to keep your players playing, as soon as the content runs out, players evaporate.
In a single-player game, this isn’t much of a problem because the profits come as soon as the player buys the box. There’s no marginal gain from the player playing the game any amount of time.
MMOs have persistent worlds. What’s the use of a persistent world if, well, things don’t persist? Who cares if the world persists if there are only ten hours of content? The point of persisting the world is to allow the player to embark on epic journeys in the same world as thousands of other players. The devs benefit from your continued adventuring because you pay them every month you continue to play, so devs are incentivized to stretch your epic journey as long as possible.
But in a themepark devs have to hand-craft every hour of content. They have to write text for it, they have to program event chains, they have to come up with rewards that make sense and storylines that (hopefully) make sense. They have to write reams of flavor-text no one will read—they have to justify a million kill 10 rats quests.
It stands to reason that a designer won’t have difficulty writing and designing another kill ten rats quest. Expanding on that, designers and artists wouldn’t have much trouble designing a new dungeon of kill ten rats quests and a few new boss encounters. How hard can it be to design easy content for the masses? Just slap that new dungeon onto the game world and repeat the process every few months to keep players playing.
You could conceivably run a game like this forever.
Last Stop: The Potemkin Village
This content is cheap, though. it’s nice to run once or twice, but grows tiring. Multi-tiered incentive structures keep players repeating this content for a while, though eventually they wise up and see that this is just a grind. There is no light at the end of this tunnel—the end of the game isn’t some glorious moment of euphoria and catharsis, it’s the disappointing instant you realize that you’ve done it all and your massive time investment amounts to a void smack-dab in the middle of the last year of your life.
What have you done?
You made some friends and have a few memorable tales. You have a few magic moments. But you spent thousands of hours for this.
And you’ve done nothing. The whole time you’ve been running on a treadmill as the devs put up a series of cardboard cut-out scenes next to you. They kept fans in front of you, blowing in your face to give you the feeling you were moving forward. Sometimes they sprinkled water or little bits of ice into the fan so you thought you were undergoing hardship. Sometimes they propped up the front of the treadmill so it felt like you were pushing hard to get to the glorious peak of a mountain. You were so interested in seeing the “mileage” number tick higher on that treadmill that you forgot why you were doing this.
Eventually there will be no more cardboard cutouts and the fans will spin to a halt. You’ll step off the treadmill and wonder: “What happened?”
Once there was a world full of content ahead of you. The world was open and the air was crisp. Now what you thought were vistas turn out to be cardboard cutouts; what you thought was crisp air is actually the recycled air from a nearby air-conditioner. With the cardboard cutouts removed, the room is poorly lit and unadorned. You’ve slaved through all those trials, you’ve persevered for so many hours… for this?
Themepark MMOs are games where only the journey itself can be the source of meaning because the in-game rewards are only useful on the journey; they will only move you forward on the next leg of your journey. The nature of static content dictates that this must be the case. Unfortunately, themepark MMO design subordinates the journey to the rewards, because if we didn’t want the rewards, why would we embark on the journey? Such a subordination of the meaningful to the meaningless is untenable.
A themepark MMO doesn’t justify itself. It’s a Potemkin Village where no one really lives or works. The only justifications are the relationships you form and foster, the friends you make and the good times you share. No amount of static content will change this reality.
[Don't bother with the "But everything is meaningless!" argument. I'm not saying that themepark MMOs are meaningless in the context of the world and real life, I'm saying that they render themselves meaningless through subordinating what should be meaningful, the journey, to what otherwise would be meaningless, the rewards. In this way, Themepark MMOs are designed in a self-defeating way. -Ev]