Dynamic Content Will Not Save Us All
I couldn’t tell you exactly why – something in the water, I’d guess – but MMO fans seem to love two things. The first is proclaiming that MMOs are suffering from a massive design rut, which is something I can hardly disagree with. The second, however, is determining exactly what will fix everything and usher us into a new age of magic and unicorns. I mean, different sorts of unicorns. We already have some unicorns.
Currently, the savior of MMOs is generally assumed to be dynamic content, a word that’s thrown around with a great deal of vigor as the solution for bland, repetitive questing gameplay. Instead of going to quest hubs and being told what to do, you’ll just see what’s going on around you and take part in events without being told! Immersion will be preserved, and the game experience will be ever-changing, like a real dynamic world. It’ll all be so beautiful, especially if you listen to the marketing folks from RIFT and Guild Wars 2.
Unfortunately, the odds of dynamic content actually accomplishing these lofty goals is another matter altogether. I don’t think dynamic content is actually going to be what designers and players are hoping it will be, for a number of reasons.
1. These events aren’t totally dynamic.
RIFT makes a big deal out of the fact that it has dynamic events in the form of rift invasions… but the events themselves aren’t all that dynamic. They’re essentially staggered spawns of enemies with AI instructions to seek out certain locations. The dynamic nature comes from the interaction of spawns and other NPCs conflicting with one another… which is neat to see, and it creates a changing environment, but the fundamental events themselves are hard-coded. (More on that changing environment in a minute.) Similarly, Guild Wars 2 has been talking about a robust flow between the various events in a given zone, but there is still a flow. Someone has to sit down and script out how everything goes.
What we’re left with is the illusion of dynamic events,where separate scripted elements play off one another in interesting fashions. But the events aren’t truly dynamic – sure, you can come into a centaur raid on a town at different points, but the fact is it’s always going to be centaur attacking the town. It’s never going to be a rival band of players, and the centaur are never going to develop a new strategy or set up an ambush or find a way to isolate the players while they take the town from behind. Studying the triggers and the scripted events will take time, without a doubt, but it can – and will – be done.
2. All events are not created equal.
You know how quests are invariably figured out pretty soon after a game reaches launch? Sure, there’s some margin for error, but by and large you can check most reliable online sources to find out that some quests just aren’t worth doing from the standpoint of rewards. And in a system of dynamic events, the correlation between effort and reward is going to become much more evident.
This’ll work in both directions – some events might very well get skipped because they result in fewer cool zone-wide events. Sure, stopping the centaur from attacking the town is a priority… but if you drive them out of the forest you have to wait forever in order to get another chance to fight them, so it’s better to just let them retreat and leave them alone. Players will start figuring out how to maximize useful events, because as we mentioned, the events are scripted rather than being truly dynamic all around.
3. No stability means no sense of permanence.
Remember how I mentioned that the dynamic system will mean the landscape is always changing? Well, that’s not always a good thing. Sure, taking part in big sweeping events with uncertain conclusions can be nice… but what happens when you log on to level a bit and find out that your zone is embroiled in a war zone that won’t be over until who knows when?
Some nights, it’s nice to be able to log in and know that something in the game will be stable and present despite outside tumult. Stability is reassuring at times, even if you don’t want everything to be forever the same. Unfortunately, a truly dynamic system means that you never know what sort of environment you’ll be inhabiting, something that Tabula Rasa tried and found out the hard way. And don’t tell me that the non-presence of quest hubs will mean that Guild Wars 2 won’t suffer the same problems – if you’re a completionist, how many times can you log on to find that the one event you have left to complete is seven steps away before you start cursing?
4. Inertia is going to be a real bitch.
Tipa had a great post about inertia in games that touched on a point that should be cut out and framed on every designer’s wall. Games can be either high or low in inertia, and if it’s the former, a player will tend to keep playing… but a player who leaves will tend to stay gone, because every day out of the game makes it harder to catch back up. Dynamic games have a really funky relationship with this.
On the one hand, if you leave for a week, you come back with no pointers about where you’re going or what you’re supposed to be doing. Your memories of what’s going on in the zone are fuzzy at best, and you don’t know where you need to go next – and striking off in a random direction is going to make you feel more lost rather than clearer on your overall goals. On the other hand… well, it’s not like the stuff you’re doing is going to stick with the server, right? So taking a week off makes all the more sense, because instead of running down a list of things to do, you’re just sort of doing whatever’s available.
Oh, and you could always log in to find out that nothing interesting is going on. That will get you logging in again like clockwork, by gum.
5. There’s no natural flow.
I’d be the first to say that there are elements in World of Warcraft that can be used as a biotoxin. But the game goes out of its way to make sure that there is never a point where you’re standing around asking where the hell you’re supposed to go next. Aside from billboards in every major city pointing you toward level-appropriate zones, most zones will give you a quest to head to the next area when you’re getting toward the end of the level progression in one spot. Meanwhile, in a game based around dynamic content…
Well, I guess the enemies will start getting too weak for you to gain any meaningful rewards, but that’s about it. Or you’ll get a very specific event pushing you into the next zone, in which case the whole experience will break down. Instead of feeling as if every hill hides an adventure, you’ll feel as if you’ve been left to wander in a cage until the game tells you to move to a different cage because you’ve been there long enough.
6. It’s not a new idea.
The fact of the matter is that the whole concept of MMOs was predicated on dynamic content. The only difference was that this content was truly dynamic, rather than being scripted. It was entirely based upon what players decided to do to one another, and… yeah, do I really need to spell this one out any further? Ultima Online was certainly a success, but pretty much every MMO since then has decided to move away from its model, because as it turns out the possibility that your house would be walled in by the houses of other players waiting to gank you isn’t actually all that fun.
I’m not saying that a game built on dynamic content is bad. I’m saying that if we’re waiting for dynamic content to fix all of the ills of modern MMO design, we’re going to be waiting an uncomfortably long time. There are some definite issues, and a lot of those issues are either killers for earlier games or examples of why the modern model is what it is.