17 November 2004
by Mike Rozak
When I began my effort to design a virtual world, I wrote "The trouble with explorers". While attempting to determine why adventure games turned into MUDs, I came up with the following thought experiment:
The problem I quickly came up with was that the adventure game that took me one year to write, was completed in 40-50 hours by most players. Because virtual world players spend an average of 40 hours per month in the game, most players would finish all my content within the month, some sooner.
At that point, they'd start whinging that there wasn't enough content and I'd need a way to create content quickly to stop the whines. The solution was to add automatically generated content, which usually amounts to combat with randomly generated monsters.
At that point, a MUD is born, and the adventure game dies.
The cost of content
The problem that online adventure games face is that content is too expensive to produce. A text adventure takes approximately 1 man year to produce 40-50 hours of content. A graphical adventure like Myst IV takes approximately 1-2 man years to produce 1 hour of content.
CRPGs are somewhat cheaper to produce per hour of content (since they are more amenable to automatically generated content), and they have a larger audience, so online games quickly turn into online versions of CRPGs. (This is not always the case, though.)
But, even an online CRPG is too expensive to create content for.
Here's why: The average virtual-world player is online for 40 hours a month. That's equivalent to completing an offline CRPG every 1 to 2 months. However, the virtual-world player is only paying $15/month, while a new CRPG every month costs the player $50/month.
Of course, this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison:
Basically, if the content were kept up to CRPG standards, players would have to pay $25 - $50 per month for their online CRPG. Since they're paying $15/month, the content either has to be of lower quality, or it will run out.
There's another problem with providing that much content. If a CRPG is 50 man-years of work, then producing 12 CRPGs a year is 600 man years of work. 600 people all developing one world is a logistics nightmare. Even if each team is given a different region of the world to own (which will happen), items from one region can and will be carried by PCs from one region into another, causing all sorts of game balance issues. And what about conflicts in shared backstory that are created as one team invents some backstory for its corner of the world that invalidates the backstory from another part? Even if you could get players to pay the $25-$50/month, a full-content online CRPG would still be a no-go.
Consequently, the virtual world developer cannot provide enough content. Most users will reach a point where they have consumed all of the content, and the content-flow eventually dries up.
What happens when players run out of content?
Players do one (or more) of the following:
The last four bullet items correspond to Richard Bartle's player models in "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs", (http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm).
No developer likes their players leaving or whinging, so they do what they can to make the other activities more fun, perhaps as a stopgap measure. After all, the players decided that's what they wanted to do, so provide them tools that allow them to do what they want. The solutions are:
The developer soon finds himself spending most (or all) of his time producing and improving sub-games to keep the players occupied, and little (or none) on content.
The MMORPG is born from the ashes of the online CRPG.
The "fun" in a MMORPG mostly comes from the sub-games that allow players to interact with one another, with only a small amount of fun coming from the content, in the form of quests. Some MMORPGs, such as Everquest II, are more heavy on content, while some are almost entirely content-free.
The instant replay
Did you see what just happened? An online CRPG (which may have originally been a online adventure game) morphed into a MMORPG. It's like a state change where ice suddenly becomes water. Or rather, a structured entertainment suddenly turns into an unstructured-entertainment, a sand-box.
In the TV-world such a state change is equivalent to a TV-series, which can only be produced at a finite rate no matter how much money is thrown at it, trying to fill in the 6 days and 23 hours between the next episode with stuff that is vaguely related to the original content.
Such filler doesn't work for TV; viewers have to wait a week before seeing the next episode. Why should it work for games?
It apparently does work... kind of. Millions of people play MMORPGs, and while they whinge about the grind (aka: fillter in-between the content), they keep on playing.
What if MMORPG players are an atypical subset of the general population? What if the majority of potential players are turned off completely by the grind, and want their content back?
Personally, I think that most people would take content over the grind. I know I would.
The other choice
When players ran out of content, the developer consciously decided to reduce work on new content and create PvP code, economic games, fishing, automatic content generation, improved chat, and other grindy things. What would happen if the developers didn't pander to their players' demands, but instead said, "Don't bother us, we're working on content. Come back in a week or two."?
I can tell you exactly what would happen. The players would leave and never come back. There are a few reasons for this:
Therefore, the first thing that would have to change would be the payment method. Payment would either be one-off, or based on advertising.
The virtual world would also need a less-rude means of telling the user to leave, something along the lines of, "You have just completed all the quests. We're working on a new one titled XYZ, which will be available next Friday. You can continue to play the game of course, either replaying old quests or hanging out with friends." When the quest is available, players waiting on it could be automatically E-mailed, although the E-mails should be staggered so not all the players show up at once.
If the company is large enough, it may have several virtual worlds and could recommend the user try one of the other virtual worlds while waiting for new content. The company could even sell subscriptions to several of its virtual worlds in a package, much a set television shows are all "packaged" into each TV channel.
Would this work? I don't know. Television does it all the time, but I haven't found a virtual world that attempts it.
For the purposes of this document, I will call the developer's "other choice" an anti-MMORPG. A MMORPG is what results when players are encouraged to stick around once the content (quests) have been used up. An anti-MMORPG is what happens if the players are encouraged to leave (temporarily) when the content has been used up.
If this anti-MMORPG model did work, it would radically change the virtual world's experience. Here's how:
Both a MMORPG and an anti-MMORPG
Another possible configuration is to combine both a MMORPG and an anti-MMORPG. This configuration is commonly done, whereby a few hundred quests are provided for "newbies". When they graduate from the quests (aka: run out of content) they join the rest of the experienced players in PvP.
The combination seems to work, but there are problems:
As the number of virtual worlds increases, will players naturally segregate themselves into quest-oriented (anti-MMORPG) vs. PvP-oriented (MMORPG) worlds? Will a mid-point like Everquest II still exist?
How many MMORPGs can there be?
As a programmer, I like the MMORPG sand-box concept, since it means that I can put all my effort into writing code that allows players to interact with one another in fun and interesting ways. There is no content to develop either. (MMORPG developers will call a larger landscape, more monsters, and new spells content. I suppose they are, in a sense, but I see them more as elements upon which the quests, the real content, can be built.)
Looking at virtual worlds from a business POV, I don't like sand-boxes. The problems I have with building a sand-box are:
Virtual world as platform
A virtual world is internally subdivided into several modules, each one built (more-or-less) on top of a lower module. The internal structure of a virtual world looks like this:
Actually, most virtual worlds are not divided this way because most developers don't have the mental bandwidth to see more than a couple years down the road. Most virtual worlds are developed as a one-off system, so all the modules as interwoven; this is a huge design mistake. A few companies, such as Turbine, have isolated the world-independent code from the rest. Ultimately, I think the best solution is to divide the modules as shown because it provides for maximum flexibility.
When an online-CRPG development team gives up on producing content and instead decides to produce a MMORPG, with PvP, economics games, players with building abilities, etc., the development team stops working on the content components of a virtual world (blue) and instead puts work into MMORPG-specific portions of the virtual world (yellow).
At the moment, virtual worlds are all MMORPGs, which means that not too many are built annually. As a result, almost every MMORPG has its own home-grown world-independent code, genre-dependent code, world-dependent code, content, and MMORPG-specific code. A few companies are trying to sell world-independent code, but I don't think they're being too successful. (I could be wrong.)
If, however, virtual worlds shrink in duration (as described in this whitepaper) and hundreds of them are produced every year, companies that sell the world-independent components will do well. After all, if a virtual world is short (100 hours), there's no need for home-grown technology at the world-independent level.
Furthermore, there's no reason that the same companies couldn't sell a genre-dependent component for fantasy vs. science fiction worlds. They might even sell a world-dependent component, containing a nondescript and generic fantasy/sci-fi world. Then, any company producing a virtual world could modify the generic world to their needs and spend more of their time on content.
This is why I think of a virtual world as a platform. Everything in grey (world-independent, genre-dependent, and world-dependent) can be licensed to companies whose strength is producing either the content, or the MMORPG-specific code. Alternatively, one company could write and keep the grey modules in-house, while providing dozens or hundreds of independent virtual worlds by changing the content or MMORPG packages.
MMORPGs are the way they are because designers de-emphasise content (quests) and emphasise automatic content (monsters), chat, and PvP interactions. They do so because content cannot be cost-effectively produced at a fast enough rate to keep their players occupied.
If a virtual-world developer were to tell users to take a break once they had used up all the content, the nature of the virtual world would change dramatically, including a reduction in size from a 1000-hour experience to a 100-hour experience.
Would a virtual world designed to provide a mere 100 hours of entertainment work financially? I don't know.
Copyright 2004 by Mike Rozak. All rights