Examining MMO content

This might be another post on the nature of MMOs, which I seem to be good at writing and the readers seem to enjoy them. So more of that then. I was listening to Van Hemlock podcast and a sentence stuck in my head and reverberated ad infinitum, until I tore out my spleen in madness and wrote “MMOs are the playground, players are the content” on the nearest wall in my own blood. Or something like that anyway. The statement was “socialisation is absolutely core to the retention of your MMO”, said by Tim (I think) when discussing Blizzard’s recent tank “bribe” move.

I’m sorry to say that everything else said in that podcast will be pretty much irrelevant for this post (although there is some interesting stuff in there) and that the sentence itself only served as a trigger to throw me into a loop (of madness).

As a warning I should let the reader know that this post might contain a bit of philosophy. Which isn’t to say that I’m actually a philosopher (not in the least) or that there might be actual, real philosophy in this post. It’s just that I’ll be asking a few questions about the nature of things. Oh to hell with it. You know what, read on and if you don’t like it you can always stop. Deal?

The start

It all started with me following this “socialising is the soul of MMOs” thought. Every avid MMO player should know that the whole purpose of MMOs is to offer gameplay that you can enjoy in the company of other players. The question is though, how much of the game is actually composed of gameplay that is created and defined by player interaction and how much of it is composed of things that are designed by developers and can’t be influenced by players.

This question is important because its answer can show us how much of any MMO is actually created by developers and what part of it is a product of the player’s interaction. In addition, it can show us what’s actually left of the game once you take out all of the players.

The obvious answer to the last question would be the husk, the shell of a game. If that is true, then whatever was removed from the shell must have been its content. Which would in turn mean that players are most of the content of any MMO.

To verify this it is necessary to first define what content and what this “shell” is.

Content and structure

Content is that which fits into something, it’s its insides. With the outside, the thing that holds content, being the structure. In more general terms, content would be the essence or core of something, with structure being what enables the content to exist, function or be accessible within it. This definition works universally and I don’t think you can really dispute it.

Which meant that I only needed to figure out what exactly the content and the structure of an MMO is.

1.) The first stage in my thinking process was trying to filter everything that isn’t influenced by players as structure. Structure was everything that the developers coded and players had no effect on, with the rest being content. But then I realised I’m doing things the wrong way around. I was trying to fit the facts to my idea of the player/developer-content/structure segmentation, instead of doing it the other way around.

2.) So instead I tried dividing every single thing in an MMO according to whether it is a technicality — something that is programmed, coded and can be summed up by numbers and scaling, or if it’s something that is designed or created and can only be summed up with a description that will paint an approximation of the object. For example: quest text is content, the metrics and programming behind it is structure. Boss lore and behaviour is content, but its hitpoints, the power of its abilities and programming behind it is structure.

This latter segmentation looks pretty accurate. But there are several problems with it. The first is that the definition is shaky at best. Almost everything can be summed up and represented with numbers. It won’t necessarily make sense (translate a picture into a 32 bit color palette and you can represent it with numbers, or by the color specter, or whatever) , but you can do it.

The second problem is that it’s flirting with the idea of separating mechanics from art. But then you run into a problem of defining art and you have a whole clusterfuck on your hands. Even if you could divide an MMO into those two groups, you couldn’t extract a usable definition out of it. At least I can’t.

And the last one is that this separation is dividing the game into two parts, both of which are developer created and influenced. Which would mean that there is no need for player input for the game to function, that the content of an MMO is simply there for the taking, whether the player input is present or not. But we know that simply isn’t true, as MMOs in general are shitty games when you play them by yourself (even if you say, insert bots, MMOs just won’t work). Player interaction and content in an MMO are clearly connected.

It also feels a bit forced. There is no real explanation behind this particular separation of developer created objects as structure and player created ones as content.

3.) By now, what I thought was a solution, started dawning on me. I started out by comparing RPGs with MMORPGs. I did this exactly because one of the core differences between the two are the player numbers. The first is created as a singleplayer experience and functions perfectly well within that constraint, therefore the content isn’t tied to player interactions. The second is arguably similar to the first in everything but the target player numbers, but doesn’t function without player interactions. Clearly examining this design difference between the two can provide an answer.

By doing that you see it all eventually boils down to the fact that, while RPGs are created and designed with the intent to have the player enjoy them one time, or a few times at best, MMORPGs need to be created so that a multitude of people can enjoy its content hundreds of thousands of times over at any given time. It seems that the one common denominator in everything MMOs do, and that which is different from the singleplayer games, is replayability – uniqueness.

If you consider things that are unique in an RPG and those that aren’t, you’ll generally find out that the two balance out. You have repetitive enemies, fighting, textures, models, situations, etc… But then you also have a lot of unique areas, quests, lore, conversations, NPCs, situations, etc… So it balances out most of the time. And even if it doesn’t, the important thing is that the ratio between the two is mostly independent from the player’s actions.

But in an MMORPG, the balance seems to be tipped heavily into the repetitive side’s favour. Unless you account for the players that is. Take the player population away though, and you’re left with mostly repetitiveness. Which suggests that replayability and uniqueness in an MMO is highly dependant on the players.

Furthermore, if you examine an MMO in the absence of players and you see the objects and features in it are mostly recurring, you see that a void exists. A void that is otherwise filled by the players, who bring most of the spontaneity into the world.

All of this seems to suggest that the players are the essence, the content and the MMO the thing that holds everything together, the structure (by content — structure definition). But the problem is that you can’t just claim that there is nothing unique in an MMO in the absence of players. In addition, players aren’t doing unique things all the time. Many of the social interactions will be relived in one form or another. They can’t possibly be all the content. So obviously players aren’t all the content and the game itself isn’t only a structure.

You can order everything by uniqueness though — by how many times it is designed, intended or is usually the norm to be experienced. If you do that you can grade objects and features and find out in what part they are content and how much of them fits the description of structure.

Putting it into practice

Now that we’ve arrived at some sort of conclusion and a way to establish what content and what structure is, how about some examples.

Say you want to find out what a taxi service is. Is it content or is it leaning over to the structure side of things? You try to approximate how much usage this feature will get and you can clearly see it can be filed under structure.

Say you want to grade player interactions, for example banter in a dungeon. You’ll say “oh I do that plenty of times, obviously it’s mostly structure”. Well, if you are content with that, go ahead. But you might want to break that feature down into something that isn’t an all-encompassing “You’re a dick because you suck at tanking and are a lootwhore” and you’ll notice that banter mostly doesn’t repeat itself. So file it under content.

At this point people will notice that you can break the taxi service down aswell. “What about the view?”. Well is the taxi route a set one or will you experience different sights each time you use it? Probably not, at some point the experience will be rehashed, and again and again… File it slightly more to the left of pure structure then. It certainly is structure, but it has some content in it, since you sometimes get to see a different view when flying, which equates in some variation in the experience of it.

One more to drive the point home: We want to analyze NPC combat in a dungeon. How many different mobs and different ways to fight them are there? Don’t forget to factor in different group compositions. Now how many pulls? The resulting number of different unique combinations you can experience is clearly quite high, but so is the number of the pulls. Now approximate how many times you are going to do the dungeon. Does it feel like the whole ordeal will repeat itself so much that you won’t be able to call it an experience anymore by the second run? If that’s so, it clearly must be filed under structure.

How about boss fights? Consider how many abilities the boss has, all the possible group compositions, all the viable tactics in which you can kill him and all the possible outcomes. Is it a unique experience? Not in the least, but it’s still better than other NPC fights. File it a unit or two to the left of trash pulls.

By the way, if there is anyone still confused by me not providing any scale or units of what I think is structure and what is content, you must understand that, while I could make a diagram that would work for me, a universally true graph on which to rate features on is impossible to create. Here I am talking about a purely theoretical idea, an exercise you can attempt when you are wondering what the MMO you have before you, or all MMOs in general, are actually like. Which is exactly what I’m going to do next.

The revelation

The reason for all of the thinking (or arsing around with fancy words) done above is the need to be able to determine what is content and what is structure of an MMO. And we need that because it is the fundamental ability which we need before we can make any kind of claim about the player/developer created content.

Now if you take everything you have in a living, breathing MMO, and I mean everything, and order it on the scale, you’ll notice that most of what the developers create is sitting to the right, because it’s designed to be repeated, with most of what players create sitting on the left, because that is mostly unique and spontaneous. The diagram will tell you that everything player created, sitting on the left, is mostly content. And everything developer created, sitting on the right, is mostly structure.

What this means is that developers and designers create and maintain a world that the players fill with content. That quest text, boss fight or area that you might consider content at first will turn out to be structure the more you are forced to revisit and relive it. And because the things that players do of their own accord are rarely rehashed and relived, it’s clear that the interactions and experiences they create themselves are the purest content you can find in an MMO.

This is why MMOs without player interactions seem like empty husks. This is why no one wants to play on deserted servers. This is why developers need you for their game to work.

The above is hopefully just the basis of something more and a post that helps player realise this idea that’s deeply rooted in the back of their mind, but never at the forefront.

This sucks (disclaimer)

Basically, I feel like this idea I’ve worked on has more holes than swiss cheese, I probably got my causality on the wrong way around and created a slew of strawman arguments (which I’m too dumb to see) in that post. I really wanted a definitive proof and something that I can back my ideas of player created content on, but despite thinking about it quite a bit, this is the best I could come up with. But then again, I’m not the best of thinkers. Perhaps with time and maturity more wisdom will come.

The fact is that this whole system of ideas seems to work and fit. If I’ve got my facts wrong or tried to achieve something in reverse order (bending facts to ideas, not ideas to facts), please let me know. Also let me know of any holes you can find. Any and all discussion and criticism is good (unless it’s unconstructive).

I’m also very much aware that putting my thoughts into writing can make for quite a confusing read, since I don’t have a great amount of experience with it. I’ve revised the post several times after letting it “simmer” and tried to make it as coherent, simple and clear-cut as possible. I realise it’s still a very confusing and difficult read, so if there’s any clarification needed don’t hesitate to bonk me over the head with questions.

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