Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Themepark MMO Design: The “Content” Problem

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?

The Problem

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]


Nils said...

Same things can be said for real life. Which brings me to one of my favourite quotes:

Pursuit of happiness is a distraction from doing nothing.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I've never quite bought the "you've done nothing" bit for playing MMOs. You could say the same thing about watching TV or movies, reading books or magazines or even websites. Very few things we do really matter in the long run, particularly any sort of entertainment. The cardinal sin of MMOs is that many include a "/played" command so that people can see up close and personal how much time they've spent.

Perhaps this is justification for how I make my living. Seeing as how I'm an avid player, too, I might have a deep case of denial. I'd like to think I'm introspective enough for this not to be the case. I think the big problem is that MMO playing isn't quite as socially acceptable as throwing your life away watching TV or chugging beers at the bar.

That said, I do think that MMOs could do things improve things. One idea would be to follow Richard Bartle's suggestion to give MMOs a real ending. If you can eventually "finish" the game then come back to it on your own terms, I think that would ease a lot of feelings of people who enjoy themselves up to the point that they "suddenly realize" that they "wasted their time" in an MMO. Having a definite end would also eliminate some of the content problems.

evizaer said...

Re: But EVERYTHING is meaningless!

Not really. The problem I find with themepark MMOs is that playing them isn't meaningful even in the context of simply playing the game. You're rewarded for nothing more than perseverance. The reward sets you up to persevere through yet another set of tasks that are only time sinks. The game doesn't justify itself through the player doing these tasks.

It's not like a single-player game where playing the game is justified by the ending, or for the fact that you've completed it and mastered something new. Even in this limited view of justification and meaning, themeparks fall short. Since content-reliant MMOs aim to never end, they're clearly telling us that the journey should be the focus. But the journey is drab and uninteresting! The reasons why we pursue the journey mainly source in social interaction--without that external factor, a themepark is a nice diversion, perhaps a good place to meditate for a little while, but it doesn't justify itself as an activity.

You can enjoy the scenery for a while, but anyone who likes games will eventually see through the pretty changing scenery and understand the patterns that constantly show their faces and rob the game of meaning.

Kenny said...

"...content-reliant MMOs aim to never end, they're clearly telling us that the journey should be the focus. But the journey is drab and uninteresting!"

This is because players view the leveling process as an obstacle to overcome in order to access "real content" (courtesy of Blizz). Problem with this is they view leveling as an obstacle to overcome and then they view raiding and equipping their toons as... Well, mandatory treadmills, obstacles to overcome.

Quite some time ago there were a few changes on the market (forced grouping, permadeath, xp loss/deleveling, "life begins...", quest treadmill, etc), for the better or worse, but they definitely killed the soul of the "journey". We can debate day and night whether we have better games now than we had 5-10 years ago (if that debate makes sense at all) but it's not going to change anything.

I also strongly agrre with Bartle's and Brian's view about an end, see my previous server reset comment somewhere on your blog. :]

But there's one more thing: what about players who set intrinsic goals for themselves and reached them? I know these are an absolut minority, but their case merits some close look as well - if you can encourage intrinsic goal setting by the set up of your system and/or game world, then you have a huge win.

Kenny said...

Whoops, first paragraph is somewhat redundant lol.

The Lost said...

After reading this article and some of the others on the site, I can see the problems with themepark MMOs. I am looking forward to someone setting up a decent sandbox to play in. I think the closest I've come to finding one was Shadowbane at its release. We chose where to build our town and we focused our playtime on doing what we needed to do to build and protect our city. It was definitely the best time I had in a game at that time.

The problem now is how to setup your sandbox to get players who are used to being spoon fed content to instead take the initiative to create their own "productive" content. I put productive content in quotes because players already make their own content, unfortunately it's generally bored players doing something that has a negative effect on others. Interrupting someone's ingame wedding, trying to kill NPCs that other players need for quests and so on. Granted these same things could be done for role playing reasons, but "because I'm evil!1!" shouldn't be enough. Perhaps the time saved on producing hand drawn content could be used to develop a system to reduce the enjoyment these negative actions bring on, for example, a serious reputation system or some other consequence that can't be easily circumvented.

I'm thinking that the traditional tutorial used in single player games would work, but it's not an elegant solution. I'd enjoy it better if the player's character started in a town and was led to various activities by listening to the NPCs in towns(then given a small tutorial on the activity), if not scooped up by other players in the town looking for people to join them in game

Green Armadillo said...

"It's not like a single-player game where playing the game is justified by the ending"

Two comments:
- I would put the Mirkwood epic quests, yes, including the kill ten rats stages, head to head with any single player game out there. In fact, I'm currently not playing Dragon Age because I'm working on LOTRO instead.

- I'm puzzled by the implication that the pre-WOW MMORPG was somehow less Potemkiny. If EQ1's gameplay inherently justifies the experience independent from players' social ties then Bioware is wasting a lot of time on dialog trees that could be replaced with "go grind the same camp of mobs for hours on end".

Anonymous said...

What about "skill" and the development thereof? Maybe that's what these games need the application of actual mental or physical skill towards the development of prowess.

Addendum: if you want to go assigning nebulous definitions to the word "meaning" that will get you nowhere. Meaning is personally, subjectively derived. I find meaning in narrative...others may find it the comfort of repetition...long story short...cry and you cry alone.