Arguably, the number one challenge that faces each and every developer in the MMO genre is the problem of creating quality content faster than players can complete it. At the end of the day, it’s simply not possible. A number of solutions have been tried over the years to varying degrees of success. EverQuest had an extremely robust alternate advancement (AA) system. Dark Age of Camelot had a continually shifting realm versus realm (RvR) system and later a faction-controlled contested dungeon. World of Warcraft utilized a heavy gear progression system in an attempt to keep players entertained and playing until the next expansion could be released.
With the advent of new tools and technologies, could player-generated content be the next logical step on the road to long-term player retention? It may very well be. And while the concept isn’t necessarily new, the time may finally be right for this to become the new path of developers everywhere.
Ever since the early days of Ultima Online, developers have provided players with the tools to own and decorate an abode of their very own. Some players choose to ignore this aspect of their given game, but others have discovered their normal bedtime hour has long since passed while they were obsessing over the exact placement of a particular statue or painting. Don’t judge me! The point here is that whether gamers think of housing as content generated by themselves or not, it really is.
In 2009, City of Heroes (may it rest in peace) took the concept of player housing even further by introducing the ability for people to create and publish their own custom mission arcs. While simple in its execution, players loved it. Up until this point, gamers everywhere had been crying for the ability to create their own content, but had never been given the chance to do so on such a grand scale. At the time, the decision to give these tools to the players seemed like a fluke. They were still rudimentary and a far cry from the tools available today.
EverQuest 2 released an expansion near the end of 2011 entitled, Age of Discovery. One of the main features of that expansion was a complete dungeon building system. While there were a number of freely provided layouts and monsters, players could find more out in the world as they were hunting and playing normally. The team at Sony Online Entertainment realized that providing their players with tools wasn’t enough. Those tools had to be intuitive, simple to use, and powerful.
Just today, in fact, I decided to finally put the system through its paces and I will freely admit I was amazed. In less than 10 minutes, I had a dungeon with numerous monsters, including a boss with special abilities, wandering mobs, mobs on patrol, and some static (but nasty) surprise encounters set up. A few minutes later, it was published and I was running through it with my character. Not only did everything function flawlessly, but at the end of it all, I was rewarded with a good amount of experience and dungeon tokens – an alternate cash system to buy even more dungeon building materials just by playing in dungeons created by players. This is the type of self-looping positive reinforcement system that developers need to cultivate in their games to ensure players want to keep coming back for more.
Continuing where the EverQuest 2 team left off, the team at Cryptic Studios pulled out all the stops with their release of Neverwinter this summer. On more than one occasion, I’ve talked about how much I enjoy the game, but the highlight of it that matters to this piece is a system called the Foundry. City of Heroes allowed players to create small missions. EverQuest 2 allowed players to create their own dungeons. Neverwinter allows players to create full blown adventures (modules).
When I say all the stops have been pulled out, I mean it. With the Foundry, players can create adventures indoors, outdoors, underground, in castles, in dungeons, inns, and everything in between. They can place monsters, NPCs, décor, and loot. They can even create quests and speech text for the NPCs they place. For the first time in an MMOG setting (if you don’t count BioWare’s Neverwinter game or Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption’s multi-player aspects), a player can create nearly any adventure they image. Even so, they are restricted to the available décor.
The path of player generated content has not yet reached its peak, but it may be there soon with the imminent release of EverQuest Next: Landmark and then later in EverQuest Next. As we’ve seen more and more footage of Landmark released, it’s clear to see that players will have an exorbitant amount of control over the world or at least, their portion of it. Rather than being restricted by the confines of pre-rendered objects, players will now be able to create and shape their own lands and their own buildings.
The world of MMOGs is changing and it’s an exciting time to be a part of it all. As Director of Development for the EverQuest franchise, Dave Georgeson, said in a recent interview on our sister site, EQ Hammer, “We're really excited about the idea of thousands and thousands of players building stuff on these persistent worlds. We just have no idea what that's going to be like, but we know it could be amazing if we set up the right structures.” It certainly could be.