Massive Growing Pains Volume 3: The Content War
Part I: An Introduction
There is little doubt that the MMO or MMORPG genre is the biggest new genre to hit the gaming industry since the Real-Time Strategy game. It's a genre that, like most new genres, has boomed and is now stabilizing. The unique thing about the MMO genre itself is that the especially long development times of MMO titles has slowed down the evolution of the genre allowing us to analyze its growth across a much larger scope than would typically be possible.
The purpose of this series is to do just that: to take an academic look at the MMO genre as a whole and see what we can learn about this growing genre and gaming as a whole as well. Backed by academia, through the The Guildhall at SMU, and built on a foundation of in-depth interviews with the developers down in the trenches making these games, this article series is both an intellectual exercise and learning experience, as well as an attempt to offer something back to the development community that is, unfortunately, in limited supply: a source of discourse on game design.
The last article explored the dangers and risks of development and what veteran and up-and-comer alike could do to mitigate risk and what ideas and techniques would provide the greatest chance of success within the genre. On hand to answer the question was a round table from NCsoft including Starr Long, Jeremy Gaffney, Paul Sage and others.
You can see the entire article here:
Throughout this series we have explored the issues that a developer faces when launching into the MMOG genre. Throughout these explorations there has been one topic in particular that has come up time and again: Content.
Part II: The MMO Cold War
MMORPGs started out as big huge projects and as the genre grows so do they. Not only are feature sets ever increasing but with every year the content bar rises in a way that is almost unique to the genre. When Ultima Online and Everquest shipped they were big games. Now, with years of expansions behind them, they are gigantic. Is their current status what developers need to compete against? Is that even possible? And how long can it last? Here's a recent quote from Starr Long:
The purpose of this article is to examine this feature race, this content war, and attempt to determine the impact it is having and will continue to have on the genre and the industry as a whole.
Part III: A Virtual Meeting of Minds
Is the genre climbing an impossible mountain soon to find that there is nowhere to go but down? Are the developers prepared for this Content War? Or is it just business as usual? I am not qualified to directly answer this question. And so, once again, I have sought out those who are.
Jeff Butler and Mike Wallis are my guests for this article. These two men are both calling the shots and deeply entrenched in the production of some of the largest MMOGs currently in production.
Jeff Butler is the Vice President and Executive Producer of Sigil Games Online and is currently hard at work leading the way with Sigil's first title: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. After climbing the ranks of Everquest from a simple tester and volunteer to the VP of Sigil, Jeff possesses a level of insight to the total production of a game that few can match.
Mike Wallis is a senior producer for a tiny little project known as Middle Earth Online. He is a veteran producer with nearly 20 titles under his belt including serving as senior producer of EVE Online before coming to Turbine. He is also a published author, contributing to the recently released book "Massively Multiplayer Game Development 2".
They are both men with a strong eye for production and great experience in the day-to-day business of creating worlds. Who better to answer the challenge? And so we ask them a complex question: Content War, death knell or melodrama?
The ground rules are simple. Both men were presented with the same questions blindly. While both were informed that other industry professionals were participating, neither were given names or specifics in an effort to keep their answers absolutely pure. Note that this was done entirely for scientific integrity. I don't believe any of their answers would have changed had they been aware of the entire arrangement. But it's always better to operate in a controlled environment.
My role is to play the part of interviewer, translator, and analyst. I will present the questions, provide their answers, and then attempt to forge from their responses a coherent divination for the issues facing the genre. Everything associated with their names below can be directly attributed to them. Now, on to the questions:
Part IV: An Essay of Escalation
Question 1: Do you agree that the "content war" exists? If so what effect is it having on development? Has this enormous need for features and content caused any changes in development since those early titles? Or is it just an issue of more time and more money?
It would seem "content war" was not the best title. But the fact of its existence is in little doubt. In fact it's the same issue facing every developer as gaming develops over time; it is only amplified in the MMO space. The core solution quickly becomes clear when viewing both Mike and Jeff's responses: pre-production work and middleware. Massively multiplayer games are the largest endeavors being undertaken in video games today and the management and costs associated with that should not be surprising. A mix of solid middleware, smart experienced management, and powerful tools are absolutely key.
Mike's cautionary remark about developers building their own games entirely from scratch and avoiding middleware is of particular importance. Simply put the days that a company can get away without middleware are over, at least where the massively multiplayer space is concerned.
Further, it's absolutely true that a new game on the market must compete with a title like Everquest as it is right now. What this doesn't mean is that the shear bulk of content must be larger than Everquest or Ultima Online which have nearly two decades of development between them. Rather it's important to get at the middle ground between Mike and Jeff and understand that it is important to provide more features than your competitors. The amount of content is one feature, and, much like graphical quality, a critical one. Thus, if you create a game, like World of Warcraft, that's engaging to the audience and provides a great number of popular features, you can win big in the "war" even if your content is not as massive as the older games.
Yet, in a massively multiplayer game, the battle is not over when the last patch ships. In fact there is no last patch. Already we're seeing a minor backlash at the speed of updates within World of Warcraft. It's been seven months since launch and an expansion has not even been announced. This is all but unheard of in the massively multiplayer space. Combine this with WoW's fast leveling curve and could WoW crumble under its own success? Could WoW become a victim of this feature race even after such a phenomenal start out of the gate? In the end that's unlikely. History would state that retention should be reasonable enough to maintain WoW as an incredible success. But there is no doubt in my mind, after interviewing Jeff and Mike, that World of Warcraft could have been an even bigger success if Blizzard had had a better plan in place for growing World of Warcraft after launch.
There are three things to take away here: 1) Yes, the war exists and the bar for entry is rising with each new game. 2) However, there are many paths to reaching that bar, and 3) long term planning, stretching from day one of pre-production into months and years beyond release, is critical to the long term and ultimate success of an MMO product.
Question 2: What's in the future, can the genre support a continuing escalation? If so, for how long? And, presuming that growth cannot be maintained indefinitely, is there a solution, a new evolutionary path either gameplay or development-wise that can be followed? Or will we simply see a plateau effect as the genre hits a relative maximum for content?
Jeff makes a very solid argument for why development can support the genre more or less indefinitely. Realized with some of the middleware solutions that were discussed with the last question I find myself swayed and forced to agree.
What's more interesting are Mike's thoughts on the direction for growth within the genre. Are massively multiplayer games approaching or even at the complexity saturation point? There's certainly something to be said for that, I vividly recall discussing one of the new upcoming MMOs and the strides it's made to improve combat with an avid gamer. Her response caught me completely off-guard. Her first thought was not "That sounds cool" or to ask for more information/clarification but rather "Great… now I won't be able to play anymore." The advanced combat system was, at first glance, overwhelming enough to actually be a turn-off instead of a great new feature. Now this is a specific, anecdotal example, but it brings sharp, personal support to Mike's argument.
And I think he also hit the nail on the head as to where this will drive things. Players, instead of being given more complicated ways to do things and to interact, will be given more things to do and more different, largely optional, ways to interact. Be it cities to build and manage, political systems to involve themselves in, or just a more open ended experience in general. What this will do is drive development teams to grow in a different direction than they have so far. Perhaps one could consider it a lateral move rather than a vertical move.
What's most interesting is how this will stratify the genre further. There will be more big games made but each increasing and expanding iteration will create more and more opportunity for smaller games, catering to a niche of players on a lower budget, who will work to refine one simple aspect of the genre rather than attempt to deliver the world (literally!). We've already seen this very thing with titles like Puzzle Pirates, A Tale in the Desert, and Shadowbane and it will only continue into the future.
Question 3: Character customization is an area where we've seen wildly different takes with the more recent releases. What will we see in the future? How will a player's ability to shape their character alter and improve in the third generation? Conversely what's the minimum?
It's hard to argue with World of Warcraft at this point. So are all these customizable details a requirement? No, it would appear not. But they are a big selling point and as graphics improve we'll see more and more through shear necessity. Jeff hinted at exactly why this is. Four million poly models are expensive in man hours. Eight, ten, sixteen, and wherever the eventual point is where polys will no longer be relevant (which we're not too far away from) are harder still to achieve. At this point in the development we need the "most bang for the buck" approach which Mike so fervently, and rightly, supports. And in this case that bang will come through solutions that are a mix of art and software, much like the one for Vanguard that Jeff describes, which allows the player to, effectively, alter the artwork themselves, within limitations, rather than forcing the developers to spend what would, eventually, become an effectively infinite amount of time.
But there's more here than the transition of the very foundation of the character art pipeline. And that is human nature. Why WoW succeeded is an important lesson in both character and game design. Players must be able to find something that they can become invested in. The big icons, be it silly, heroic, bad ass, scary, whatever are your minimum bar. Hit them and you should be able to avoid annoying your player base. However, the more customization the more investment. The more investment the more retention and, ultimately, the healthier game.
This can be carried through the whole play experience. How long would a player be able to play a game that only had, say, a goblin for an enemy? Some goblins are big, some small, some green, some red, but in the end people will be quickly annoyed and check out. However you hit a point, maybe at 10, 20, 50 whatever enemy models where players become content. More is a value add but not a game breaking feature.
So is there a trick? Absolutely. And that's in picking exactly the right point to draw the line relative to your game. Variety is an asymptote, at least as a selling point. The more you have the closer to perfection you come. Sticking to character customization, if there were an infinite number of available looks then you'd have the "best" selling point possible. Players would always have absolute control and look exactly like they want (presuming the tools are solid) and it would be a hugely successful feature. That said, is it really much better than a million different looks? A hundred-thousand? Ten-thousand? A thousand? Yes and no. Certainly there's a huge difference between a million options and a thousand. But how much will players care relative to the amount of work involved? Correctly identifying the appropriate target on that curve towards perfection, in relation to both the game you're trying to make and the capabilities of your engine and team, is the key to success in character customization and variety in general within an MMO.
Signs certainly point towards a company that can nail down the science of game development and blend it smoothly with the art of game development as being the ultimate winner in the MMO space.
Question 4: Always a hot topic, what's the future of player impact and dynamic worlds? Will we move towards games where the players and worlds interact and impact each other or is that beyond the scope of the next generation? What sorts of interaction might we expect to see out of third generation MMOGs? Is this going to become a "required" feature or a unique selling point?
A world where everyone's actions can leave a mark without disrupting the play of others in more than a minor way is the holy grail of MMO game design. I largely believe that it is an issue that will be toyed with but not fully embraced for some time. Mike suggests a possible solution but not a total one. And we've seen games attempt this previously in a number of ways. (For example, Shadowbane which allowed players to both build their own cities and destroy the cities of others.) However I believe, simply, that with current technology a truly interactive world is beyond the scope of any project, massively multiplayer or even single player.
As time goes on this will undoubtedly change and we're beginning to see it as we see more complex physical and social simulations in games, both online and off. But I suspect it will be at least another decade if not significantly more until we see anything that approaches the holy grail. Why all the difficulty? Because what we're asking for, if you boil it down, is reality. And reality is unbelievably complex and took a few hundred million years of development time to get to its current state. It'll take some significant breakthroughs in both technology and design to make modeling such a system possible within a finite scope.
So what of now? Again, it's all about features. Mike's quite right. A game with the instancing system he mentions will definitely set itself apart. Just as the game with infinite character variety will set itself apart. Just as the game with the most content will set itself apart. Until we hit greater processing power and targeted middleware solutions, interactive features will remain in the realm of an interesting and, hopefully, memorable feature but not the totally game altering experience offered up as the ideal.
Question 5: What's really required to succeed? Is there truly a laundry list of "must have" features? Is there truly a list, be it races, pets, housing, guilds, or whatever, that Triple A titles must hit? Or is it more of a generic level of features that are required?
The moral of this article is quickly becoming this: the content bar exists. But what you use to reach it is largely irrelevant. There are a few, utterly fundamental features (persistence, some means of creating and resolving conflict, avatars, etc) that are just as critical to the genre as being in first person is critical to an FPS. But beyond that the door is wide open.
Your goals, as a developer, are two fold: 1) Can I provide enough content for the player to keep themselves occupied with and 2) can I make it entertaining. The better you answer those questions with your game the better, and hopefully more successful, it will be. Fulfill that promise and at the end of the day it doesn't matter if you've created Everquest III or the most awesome bug collecting game of all time. If it's fun people will continue to play it for as long as there are things to do.
Allow me, however, to also disagree with Jeff here on one point. I think the success of World of Warcraft points at bit more towards the success of formulaic designs rather than against it. Definitely games that experiment and expand our knowledge and technology are great for everyone and have been hugely successful. But World of Warcraft seems to be a game with none of this. Their graphics technology is old (although their art style and direction amazing), their gameplay is nothing that hasn't been done before, their factional PvP system also nothing new, they were not the first to instance, they were not the first to offer raids, they were not the first to offer quests. What they did is an excellent job of looking over the games that came before them, identifying what worked, and bringing it closer to the point of perfection in almost every area than had been done before. In doing so they very much used a "formula" or "recipe" to build World of Warcraft. Renowned IP + extremely polished but tried and true gameplay + highly polished content = the best selling MMO in the US.
Is this bad? Quite the opposite. World of Warcraft has helped the genre as a whole significantly. But to argue that it was anything but formulaic I believe goes against the facts.
So can we solve the content/feature issue by just continuing to refine what works? Yes and no. Certainly there's proven room for titles that do this. But the market also seems to have enough room to support those who truly attempt to push the genre in new directions. Everquest was wildly successful not only because of how it incorporated tried and true designs (primarily from the MUD space) but also because of the ways in brought innovation and helped define the modern genre. It could be argued that Final Fantasy XI was largely successful on the basis of IP alone. Guild Wars has just launched with a quasi-single player, quasi-multiplayer business model. What this shows us that different approaches work from even the most fundamental levels. Target your strengths, avoid your weaknesses, and plan well enough to hit the content/feature bar and there is an opportunity in the market to make a successful game regardless of any particular setting or mechanic.
Question 6: What is your personal opinion? Ignoring design and business sense for just a moment, is there anything you personally find a must have in a game?
This is the designer Rorschach test. It exists primarily to tell us a little bit about the two individuals we've been interviewing. In this case they have, interestingly enough, picked answers that would illustrate a pair of classic Bartle archetypes.
Jeff is an "achiever" at heart and Mike a "killer" and we can see this throughout their responses in this article. Mike tends to worry about what specific gameplay will make a game fun. Jeff is primarily interested in content and making sure that a game has enough entertainment to last not just hours or days but months and even years. Certainly both are interested in all the aspects of a game and really portray very similar arguments throughout the article, but their different, base perspectives have also certainly flavored their responses.
The useful gem of information here is that even developers are divided on what makes a good game and this is healthy for the genre. But, unlike single player games which are almost disposable, an online game is a commitment, and almost always an exclusive one, by a player. Few can manage to play multiple MMO's at once. And therefore the hope is to create a game that delivers to all kinds of players. Do this and do it well and you've "won".
In the end this is largely what World of Warcraft did. Instead of being bogged down in details they attempted to hit all the bases, all the different kinds of players. There's something for casual and hardcore. There's a game and advancement for both PvP and PvE. There's trade skills, there's exploration, there's quests, etc, etc, etc. On top of their obvious financial success, Blizzard also did a favor to the genre as a whole in the processes. By appealing to such a vast market and using the following they'd built up over years with their other titles, they brought in many players from across many boundaries, not just "achievers" and "killers" but large numbers of people new to the genre. It can be expected that, for some time at least, and perhaps forever, that each new large scale and highly inclusive title will continue to grow the genre and benefit all developers.
Part V: In Conclusion
The Content War is real and will continue to grow. Each new game, which wishes to challenge for the top of the pile, will have to deliver more and more relative to the games that come before it. But there is hope. The genre will continue to grow. Gamers will continue to get better games and developers who can prove themselves good at both the art and science of game design will continue to be successful. Development skill, planning/management skill, and middleware solutions will all be pushed to the limit to fuel the insatiable twin fires of content and feature. Competition will be fierce as these games cannot, in most cases, share a user base. But despite all this the future is bright.
Additionally, as the competition continues between the Triple A titles the genre will expand and room will be created for smaller, specialist titles to emerge to greater and greater success. There will be a space for small developers to cut their teeth and refine the important skills that are at the core of the science of MMO design. And it is from this space that both the largest innovation and the best new developers will come to drive the juggernauts that are the Triple A titles.
And, finally, specifics matter little as long as you can meet that content bar. The barrier for entry is strict, difficult to reach, and unavoidable. However if you have the persistence, time, budget, and know-how you can succeed in an almost infinite variety of ways. The only rule is that your game must be good and must offer enough to be comparable to the best. The true freedom of the MMO genre is that it is a genre about play styles rather than game rules. You cover the basics and the infinite variety of gameplay is open to you and, if driven by excellent execution, has a strong chance of success.
This marks not only the conclusion of this article but also the conclusion of the Massive Growing Pains article series. By the time anyone reads this my time at the Guildhall will be over and the empowerment offered by academia will be gone. But I would like to thank not just Jeff Butler and Mike Wallis but Sigil Games Online, NCsoft, Turbine, GameDev.net, and the Guildhall for bending over backwards to make this series possible. I can only hope that people have enjoyed the outcome that a combination of academia and industry produced and that there will be someone who comes after me to continue to bridge the gap and provide the sort of useful thought, discussion, and learning that such combination can bring.
Thank you for reading.