Massive Growing Pains Volume 3: The Content War
by Rick Luebbers


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:

"…we're in this sort of feature race now and it's kind of what happened to simulation games; if you look at flight sims, they ended up in this sort of escalating feature war. I have 40 kinds of planes and every plane can have 10 different kinds of load outs and then you can modify, blah, blah, blah. And we're kind of getting into that realm now with online games where you have to have pets, and you have to have guilds, and you have to have parties, and you have to have some sort of social system, and you have to have housing, and you have to have multiple races and if you don't have that minimum feature set you're perceived as a lower end product even though, if you look at regular games, there isn't anything like that except in simulation."

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 Procedure

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?

Mike Wallis: "There is a war, but rather a "feature" war, not a content war. When referring to games, "content" means how much stuff there is in the game—how many quests, how many races, the amount of pretty art, the number of zones, etc. "Features" refer to the gameplay mechanics that Starr is referring to—the social mechanics (in-game mail system, ability to structure a guild, how easy is it to find a group, richness of the chat features), housing, vendors, auction system, depth of the combat system, etc. It is the feature war that is in constant escalation. Every game developer measures the game they are working on against other, comparable products out on the market—and those developers are always looking for ways to "one-up" their competition. More features, flashier graphics, deeper story, bigger license. This is a battle that has been going on since the days of the Atari 2600 vs. Intellivision.

Development is affected by this feature war by calling for increasingly larger teams to build in every feature under the sun in order to try and outshine the competition. EVE Online was built with a team of 43 people (including QA). Have you looked at the credits for WoW or Everquest II? Almost 3 to 1 in terms of sheer number of people on the projects—not even counting QA! Developers often see "more content" as the answer, but also try to capture the much more elusive "casual" player market with ease-of-use interface and hand holding play mechanics (like WoW).

The need for more features and greater content has understandably caused developers to look for ways to streamline production processes, such as using a middleware solution for major components like the game engine (as Mythic did with Dark Age of Camelot). However, despite what a huge savings using middleware would be for a developer, there is a feeling that creating their own engine from scratch will give their game a more unique look and feel. While this is partially true, it is often a costly misuse of a developer's time and resources. Building a complete game engine, with the appropriate graphics and rendering capabilities, physics, and network layer, is out of reach of all but the largest and most well-funded developers. Small and independent developers think they can do it, but production and resource reality dictates they are much better off going with a middleware solution."

Jeff Butler: "I agree that it exists but I'd characterize it as a more of a content competition. Ultimately I think it boils down to an issue of execution and quality of approach before you even begin to put content in a game. So the tools that you design and the experience you bring to the table that grants you insight into how to best create tools so that you can put more content into the game are critical. Whether that's building wonderful templates that can be customized or making data entry easy for your designers. The experience that you bring in shipping a massively multiplayer title is extremely valuable.

We've seen it in games, the first MMO from a publisher or developer either hits the nail on the head or falls short in content and then you can see post-release how long, in some cases, it takes to put additional content into the game. All these are key points in the competition and you've got to make sure that you're hitting every nail on the head if you want to succeed.

A lot of times we draw the analogy of the amusement park. You want your amusement park to be entertaining for a certain period of time. If you're going to spend millions of dollars building all these rides you want someone to spend the appropriate amount of time experiencing each ride, it's all part of the overall amusement park experience after all. And of course you have to build your park in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable amount of money and you have to keep expanding it to keep giving people a reason to come back in six months or a year.

The same thing is true of massively multiplayer games if not more so because it's a service instead of a one day long piece of entertainment. So these products have to keep people interested and coming back. I think true success lies with long term subscribers. At least that's our business model."

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 Butler: "In that regard I would point to movies. We could go back to the days of the original Star Wars. I remember when I was a little kid watching the news casts and they were talking about the amazing amount of special effects that were incorporated into that movie. You know years afterwards people were saying how much more? How many more millions of dollars can be spent on special effects without a movie just becoming one long special effect? Where's the limit there? And ultimately we've found, as the years have gone by, that the movies have supported in many cases every dollar and every dime that the producers have been willing to throw at the project.

Recently the current Star Wars movies, Lord of the Rings movies, and non sci-fi/fantasy movies that have huge special effects budgets seem well supported by people's willingness to indulge in that form of entertainment. The movies have become more expensive to go to but still the movies make a LOT of money.

Games are analogous on a one to one ratio. As long as we keep making entertaining games, or more entertaining games, as long as we continue to raise the bar and make them more engaging with every iteration, or every sequel, or every new IP that comes out I think that people will be willing to subscribe or buy and spend more time in the game and budgets will go up.

In all honesty that's one of our goals, to bring the creation of massively multiplayer games closer to the science that is creating a movie with the understanding that the budget for technology and research into things like shaders and graphics technology is considered a separate part of the risk. Much as it is in making movies. I mean we should know how long it takes to make a certain amount of content at a certain level of complexity for a certain amount of money just as a movie producer can tell you how much it's going to cost to film over a certain amount of time.

I think there's a million complications, we could probably sit down and categorize them all. But the bottom line is: Yes. Developers can keep up."

Mike Wallis: "The genre can escalate, but there are only so many features a player can keep track of at once. I absolutely don't have a crystal ball into the genre, but as a developer and an avid player, I believe we are fast approaching that limit. Perhaps with this third generation of MMP's (WoW, EQ2) we will see the last of the feature bloating. In truth, how many players actually use all, or even the majority of all, the features in Everquest 2? My guess would be only a few. Thus, it becomes a battle internally for a developer to get the most "bang for your buck." There are a finite number of features you can choose to work on, therefore which ones will you prioritize? What main gameplay mechanics do developers believe players want?

I believe the evolutionary path will shift to see more and more of the gameplay moving to a sandbox-type of system, less so from the scripted event driven play mechanics. The original Ultima Online was a great example of this—virtually a wide open area that let the players do almost whatever they wanted, without constraining them to certain areas based on their levels. Since then, however, the MMP's have moved to more of a channeled experience. For example, in Everquest Live if you are level 20 you can either hunt in Unrest or Solusek A. If you're level 40 you either hunt in Lower Guk or Sol B, etc. (There are a few other places as well, but you get the idea.) I believe players, and therefore developers, are looking for more of an open ended experience, thus the sandbox. If I look at the console market as an evolutionary guide, the most successful game is a sandbox game (GTA), and developers are moving to build upon that success other sandbox games (True Crimes, Spiderman, etc.)."

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?

Mike Wallis: "We've definitely seen some great character generation features that can drive a game. City of Heroes is by far the king of that hill. But in that theme, a comic book world, it makes sense to have that amount of depth for character generation for those characters have unique and distinct looks.

As developers, we agree that players form attachments to their characters and the more ways a player can alter an avatar's look, generally the better. But again, as developers, we have to look at what is going to give us the most bang for our development buck. For example, does it make sense to spend days or weeks developing technology for eye movement and visual look of the pupil? Probably not, since typically the eyes are so small any uniqueness there will be lost.

In terms of second and third gen MMP's, if we take City of Heroes as the top end (in terms of variations and ability to create unique looks), then probably WoW is toward the bottom end. WoW has very few options for players and thus while playing the game I often run across other characters who look extremely similar to my own avatar—maybe only differing in one way. It's clear that Blizzard chose to focus on gameplay and left character generation as generic as possible. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it limits character uniqueness among the player community."

Jeff Butler: "I believe that you're going to see, within the third generation, a lot more customization than you've seen in the past. With Vanguard we've got a pretty amazing approach to bone scaling and movement that's going to allow avatars a more unique look then you've seen in the past. Up to date Everquest II and Star Wars Galaxies have both had pretty customizable player characters, I like them both in that regard, but I've found that most of avatars look like the brothers or sisters of my other avatars. And that's one issue that we've tried very hard to break away from.

What makes a human unique from another one, other than the color of their skin and hair color, is the distance between their facial features. Things like the distance between your nose and mouth, how far apart your eyes are, things of that nature. And by and large those were things you could not change in either Star Wars Galaxies or EQII. Of course you could make your chin larger, maybe make it a little bit lower, you could make your lips larger, switch your nose around or make it a pug nose but you couldn't really move the distance between those features on your face. You couldn't give yourself a longer neck. You couldn't give yourself a pot belly without making yourself outright fat everywhere else. And that's one area where we're kind of pushing the envelope with Vanguard.

In the third generation ultimately, not with Vanguard but later on, you'll see things like displacement mapped characters, such as the technology that's in the Unreal 3 engine right now, you'll see those characters as customizable in shape, form, and scale with the movable bones etc, etc. And that's going to be really exciting when you see a character derived from a four million poly model with all the tiny little straps and details such as stitching on their clothing and that's when it's really going to rock.

But of course with massively multiplayer games it's going to be a little while before computers can support any large number of characters on screen who are outfitted in such a fashion.

And to answer the second part of your question, 'What is the minimum? What is the minimum acceptable bar today?' I hold it as World of Warcraft. From my perspective I enjoyed the game immensely, I was a fan, I have always been a fan of the Citadel Miniatures style, which is where Warcraft drew their style of characters and art because they're a miniatures game in effect, they're a top down perspective war game and a lot of the exaggeration that's present in the miniatures game, like the Games Workshop stuff, needed to be present so you could really tell what your units were. The fact that your orcs had swords or bows or whatever the case may be. And that style carried over into World of Warcraft so that people would be familiar with it. But it is fairly simplistic. It's very stylized. Some people have some pretty negative reactions to it. But in general you can tell by their subscriber base that they've been able to overcome any of those reactions and they've made a game that a lot of people enjoy.

It's one of those things. In effect, if you build a good game you can ask people to put up with a lot. It's all a matter of 'if you make it, they will come' and World of Warcraft certainly proved this out. Some of the avatars are more appealing than others. I know a lot of people who like the alliance characters better than the horde characters. But in terms of customizability that's probably the absolute minimum somebody would be able to deal with.

I can't think of a game at this point that will be shipping with less customizability than World of Warcraft in the third generation. It would still be tough to say they made the wrong choices. I think they pretty much gave you the range. You could be an ugly character on either side. You could be a cool looking character. Both the female and the male avatars were heroic. They covered enough bases to reach people and that's really what maters in a massively multiplayer game.

Giving players choices and making sure if they want to look silly they can create a silly looking character, if they want to look bad ass or scary, if they want to look heroic, you name it. If you can fit all the paradigms then you give people the ability to realize their avatars in ways that they find satisfying. As long as you have enough diversity I think you're good to go."

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?

Jeff Butler: "I think you're going to see two classes of games. My expectation is that some will be developers who know the linear, let's say the Final Fantasy RPG-esque, progression of character advancement and storyline. You're going to see developers who know that and do it very well bring their skills to massively multiplayer games as we have in the past, very successfully.

And then you're going to see the more open ended, pie-in-the-sky, no more ground hog day, living breathing dynamic world experimentation. Ultimately I think the most successful games are going to be a combination of the two that give people a choice of a directed gaming experience or an open ended one. Then that touches upon some of your early questions about the overall complexity and the depth of content that's being generated for these worlds today and the competition to make more content.

Ultimately you can define content as a roster of choices. The more content that exists, the larger the roster of choices. And so I think, that said, the most successful of these games will offer the most choices. Some people like a linear experience, some people are more comfortable with it depending on the time that they have to engage. Certainly solo gameplay can be more directed and linear since you have a complete understanding, based on the level range of the character, how to balance that content. There are very few variables in that equation so it makes it pretty easy to approach.

But again it is a competition for how much content can be put in these games now-a-days. And what it boils down to is the quality of execution, building tools, the size of the budget, the length of the development cycle, how much time the developer has on target to create content and how quickly it can be created. So ultimately it's going to be a test of how successful developers can be putting all these features into their games. These features and more on a go forward basis."

Mike Wallis: "There have been quite a few leaps in technology as well as creative implementations for instancing. As an example, let's say we have a town. In this town the player receives a quest to fend off an orc raiding party. While fighting the orcs, perhaps a scripted event happens which has several buildings in the town catch fire. Ultimately, the player successfully fights off the orc raid, but the town lost those buildings to the fire. Using instancing, we can now have that same town shown to the player, except that from here on out, those same buildings in the town are now piles of burned wood and stone.

By using that simple example, it shows the power of instancing and the ability to create terrain-altering events that are influenced by the actions of the player.

Instancing has typically been used to drive story-related events. We'll start seeing instancing drive terrain altering events as well. By using both in conjunction, we can truly create the immersive stories players participate in. Will it become a required feature? I don't believe so, but games that use it well will definitely be set apart from those that don't."

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?

Mike Wallis: "There are 3 key things that every MMP must do well in order to succeed. They are:

  1. Combat—the combat system must be easy to use, but deep enough to master. It must have a strong group dynamic, in which every class has an established role. Players who master their roles within a group will optimize the efficiency with which that group kills mobs.
  2. Questing/Missions—this provides an alternative way to advance your character outside of combat. These can range from the typical FedEx delivery quests to the very involved and multi-stage epic quests. Rewards range from items to status to experience.
  3. Social—the economy, vendors to buy and sell goods, guild management features, chat features, and the crafting system all fall within this bucket.

While every successful game must have a strong #1 and #2, the features within the social bucket can vary widely. What does crafting bring and is it absolutely necessary? Probably not, but it does provide a nice diversion from combat and questing, while at the same time giving non-combat focused players a key area to specialize in and therefore feel as if they are contributing to the overall community."

Jeff Butler: "I think that's what makes working in this business exciting. That there is not necessarily a single recipe for success. Depending on the individual title, the IP, the genre, fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, what have you, then that list is completely different. There are some basics, but they are so fundamental to this form of gaming that they go without saying. Things like persistence, an avatar, the ability to feel good about your avatar, to achieve and to be able to share that experience with others and to be able to compare your successes and failures with others. Those things are so fundamental to the core of the genre itself that I don't include them.

I think it is different for every game. It's different for every sub-category of the genre. It's what I find most exciting looking at the games coming down the pipe. We've got more hardcore games. We've got more adult oriented games with serious themes, like the new Conan game coming down the line where if it gets a teen rating it'll be surprising because it shares themes with the stories, you know heads are severed and there's all sorts of carnage and mayhem as part of the storyline. So it is going to be a different laundry list for all of these different games that are coming down the road to us. And as gamers there's no question that we're going to benefit by that. Not only is the genre going to evolve, but it's going to evolve in different and diverse directions depending on the game. Clearly World of Warcraft shows us that a formulaic approach to massively multiplayer games is not the key to success."

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?

Jeff Butler: "I'd have to say the cool factor of collecting. What really drives me nuts, I'm playing Star Wars Galaxies again after a nine month long break and what drew me back was all the different space ships, how customizable they were, the new armor and outfits. I'm all about having all the goodies. Having a really fast, really cool looking ship. Outfitting my character with a purple lightsaber and all sorts of unusual things. That's what really causes me to gravitate towards these games. You know in World of Warcraft hunting down the coolest looking pet and taming it as a hunter. Those things were huge on my list of priorities. I would take a pet that wasn't quite as good as the others and keep it because it was cooler. It was the collecting factor. Having cool looking stuff. Wielding a cool looking weapon. Having a cool looking pet. You name it. That's what really drives me in these games."

Mike Wallis: "For me, I would say a strong PvP system. I reminisce about the days of Ultima Online in late 1997/early 1998 before all the crazy UO nerfs to player killers (PK'ers). While out hunting monsters or crawling through a dungeon, I remember the anxiety building whenever a player who I didn't recognize would approach. Was he friendly? Maybe he was a PK? The sheer excitement from those encounters was amazing. I think it was one of the most open systems available to players, by allowing players to police themselves without having to whine to customer service reps. Back then, if somebody PK'd you, you would gather a vigilante mob of your friends, hunt down the PK, and enact justice on him the old fashioned way. Brilliant!"

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,, 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.

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Date this article was posted to 7/14/2005
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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