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Redefining MMOs: Player developers!

A few weeks ago, we at Massively started the weekly "Redefining MMOs" series, a collection of articles examining how the MMO genre has been redefined during the current generation of games and where it's headed in the next. So far, we've looked at the terminology we use to refer to MMOs, how the art of storytelling has changed over the years, and the rise of the "massively singleplayer" online game. In this week's article, I examine what happens when players are given the reigns of an MMO or have a hand in part of its development. If you have something important to say on the topic, feel free to post a comment on page 3 or even write your own "Redefining MMOs" blog post and leave a comment with the URL.

Traditionally, all content for an MMO is designed by the game's development studio and players have no direct influence on its creation. The idea of handing the reigns of an MMO to its players is considered heresy and we shudder to think of what horrible quests and areas players would construct if given a chance. But is our aversion justified or is it something developers should strive to overcome? Certainly Second Life has successfully capitalised on letting players develop almost every aspect of its virtual world but could successful mainstream MMOs make use of it too? City of Heroes, EVE Online and even World of Warcraft are prime examples which suggest they can. All three of these games have handed at least some part of the game's development over to players, with incredibly promising results.

In this article, I look at these three successful examples of players being allowed to develop aspects of an MMO. I then go on to explain why this works and how the next generation of MMOs could learn from these pioneering feats.

City of Heroes - Mission architect:
Back in April of this year, City of Heroes released what they called the "Mission Architect" system. Originally designed as an in-house mission development tool, this system allowed players to create their own missions and storyline arcs. Rather than only spending developer effort creating more missions, they spent that time adapting their in-house tool into something simple enough that all players could use it. The results were astonishing, in just 24 hours players had created more content than the developers had made to that date. Contrary to what our common sense was telling us to expect, much of the new content was on par with the quality of professional development. It wasn't long until players were almost dominating the mission scene, producing work that was arguably better than some of the game designer's attempts.

A rich community has now begun to develop around the creation of missions, with competition between rival architects and sharing of tips and guides. The level of quality is maintained by including a robust rating and reporting system. Inappropriate missions, such as those with swearing or racist text, are reported by users and removed from the system. A robust rating and search system allows players to find the best player-made missions but more importantly to hide the poorer ones in a place where no soul dares tread. It's an elegant system that is performing extremely well but it hasn't been without its downfalls.

In May, a number of bugs and exploits were found in the mission architect system and some players began abusing them to farm rewards. A wave of bans later, the problems didn't end. Players still found ways to create easier missions with good rewards and continued to legitimately farm the system. In late May, most of the rewards were removed to prevent farming and keep the system as an entertaining content creation tool.

Read on to page 2, where I look at how EVE Online and World of Warcraft have both had successes in letting the players develop parts of the game.
EVE Online - Player owned structures:
In the beginning of EVE, the only stations to be found were those built by NPCs. Apart from space owned by NPC pirate factions, the valuable 0.0 security rating systems had no permanent stations for players to use. Due to the rewards to be had there such as high quality ore, players sometimes treated this space as somewhere to launch expeditions into and accepted that they would be far from a base of operations.

Before long, the game's developers CCP Games released several conquerable stations in the midst of the chaos. Players would lay siege to these stations in order to capture them for their corporation. Using them as a base of operations, living in nullsec was a lot easier and became incredibly profitable. Owning them became a matter of both profit and pride, with corporations fighting over them fiercely. As EVE's population grew, a need for more conquerable stations appeared. But rather than simply magic some new ones into existence, CCP took a rather unusual stance - they gave players the reigns.

The first player owned structures to be released were starbases, expensive control towers that could be anchored at moons. They extended a large shield bubble around themselves, making everything inside untargettable and safe. Although they didn't provide the same services as a conquerable station and players couldn't physically dock at them, they performed the role of a base of operations amicably. A corporate hanger module allowed the storage of loot, equipment, ammunition and ore while a ship hanger allowed corporations to store all of their ships. Additional modules such as ore refineries and weapons were available and the towers could be used as part of the tech 2 advanced material production chain.

Not long after, CCP topped their previous effort by releasing outposts - fully fledged stations that players could construct. Rather than creating conquerable stations wherever they thought was best, CCP let players decide where to build them and what space they wanted to claim. There are now hundreds of player-made outposts, each with a rich history behind its construction and the battles fought over it.

World of Warcraft - User Interface:
Blizzard don't do anything by half measures and World of Warcraft is no exception. When it was being developed, a lot of care and attention was put into designing a good user interface. Understanding that they may not have made the most effective user interface possible, they released a UI add-on system that let players tweak their interface or even develop an entirely new one. Communities rapidly erupted around the creation of UI add-ons and several key products emerged. Ideas that Blizzard had never considered came pouring forth from add-on developers keen to make a name for themselves and the game as a whole was enriched as a result.

Popular add-ons like Auctioneer, Enchantrix and Carbonite gave players integrated tools that weren't available in the game, pushing the limits of UI add-ons almost into the field of game design. Since then more complex add-ons have been developed, with game studio Popcap even developing one to play Bejewelled or Peggle in-game. With all this development, Blizzard has used the most popular player-made UI modifications to learn how to design a better user interface. It's been a win-win situation for Blizzard and WoW's players but more recently it hasn't been plain sailing for WoW's add-on community.

A recent policy change banned the sale of add-ons for cash and the use of donate links or advertisements in them. Many of the game's most popular UI developers have to spend a considerable amount of time updating their modifications with each game patch and relied on the income from sales, donations or advertisements to compensate them for that time. To some, UI development simply isn't worth their time unless there's money involved. With the high quality of some of the add-ons the community has come up with, that stance may well be justified.

Read on to page 3, where I explain why handing players the reigns in an MMO's development is often a smart move and suggest what game developers can learn from it.
Players build communities:
If there's one thing MMO players do well, it's building communities. Even the smallest common factor or shared experience will cause ad-hoc coalitions of players to form around them. The evidence is all around us in the sprawl of forums and wikis that can be found online dedicated to any topic you can think of. This is the primary drive behind using players to develop portions of a game. Give the players a feature that inspires discussion, competition or interaction and you can be sure that a self-sustaining community will coagulate around it. In situations where sharing information and researching are key, people demonstrate a remarkable ability to self-organise, find ways to collaborate and disseminate that information. In all three of the examples presented in pages 1 and 2, the commonality of developing part of a game they love pulled players together into rich, cohesive communities.

For an MMO, this is the best possible scenario as the high player retention rates all MMOs want are linked intrinsically to players feeling like they belong in the game community. Whether it's an outpost you helped assault with your corpmates in EVE Online, a mission architect group you're in for sharing tips or a WoW add-on forum you discuss UI development on, it feels good to belong to a group. Getting players to collaborate on development of their favourite MMO may be the ultimate catalyst for the formation of the type of communities to which people will love to belong. This in turn will promote significantly higher player retention and it's perhaps this factor more than anything else that developers should be latching onto.

Future development:
Games with a high player retention rate, such as EVE Online, show consistent growth in the size of their player-base due to players leaving at a slower rate than they sign up. After years of steady growth, EVE Online has gone from a niche little sci-fi game with under 40,000 subscriptions to one of the kings of the western subscription MMO market with over 300,000. A slow, steady growth pattern is a very healthy position for an MMO to be in but perhaps if developers of more mainstream MMOs were to learn to increase their player retention rates, they could do even better. Imagine if Age of Conan had been good enough to hold onto more of those 800,000 launch subscriptions or if Warhammer Online had kept most players for six months or more. It could be that in the race of the tortoise versus the hare, the winner will be the tortoise with a rocket strapped to it.

Of course getting players involved in the development of an MMO isn't the only thing that will affect player retention but in today's market developers need to press any advantage they can get. Anything that keeps players interested for longer and any unique gameplay that draws players in is as valuable as gold. It could be that in the future games will be as much about designing the game as playing it. Upcoming city sim MMO Cities XL is taking a large step in this direction by having players design and run cities in a shared virtual world. Part of the game is about running the city and part is about exploring other people's cities to research design ideas.

In the current economic climate, anything which reduces production costs is a big boon to game development. Rather than spending cash developing mountains of content or better user interfaces, it could be cheaper to make a framework for players to develop them with. The game then gets a large value of content for much cheaper than the typical development costs.

The traditional design paradigm keeps the development and playing of a game entirely separate, but it's been shown that giving players the ability to develop portions of their game can be an incredibly positive influence. From Second Life and City of Heroes to EVE Online and even World of Warcraft, many virtual worlds and MMOs have directly included players in their development processes and turned it to their advantage. In the future, we may see even more of this as players continue to become not just consumers of content but also its producers.
Категория: MMOG articles | Добавил: Khazad (28.07.2009) | Автор: by Brendan Drain Jul 23rd 2009
Просмотров: 1273 | Комментарии: 1 | Теги: coh, mission outposts, eve-online, blizzard, communities, addon, ui, Redefining-mmos, city of heroes, pos | Рейтинг: 0.0/0 |
Всего комментариев: 1
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