Massively Overthinking: The curse of player-generated MMO content

It's not particularly cruel.

The influx of new player-generated-content-oriented MMOs might make you think that PGC is on the rise, but if you’ve been around the genre for a long time, you’re just watching history repeat itself. Time and time again, we’ve seen games push their player-generated content tools only to let them fall by the wayside. Massively OP reader The_Grand_Nagus has a prime example:

Neverwinter was launched with the foundry as one of the flagship features of the game. But since launch, the foundry has gotten less and less attention and mention, and now it gets virtually no official acknowledgement or development, and NW is getting the standard content development that every MMO gets. What happened to the foundry? What went wrong? What changed the minds of the devs from NW being a foundry focused game? What about Cryptic’s other games, like Star Trek Online? Has Cryptic given up on the foundry in general?”

Let’s talk about player-generated mission content in general and Cryptic’s Foundry in specific in this week’s Massively Overthinking. Do we want these tools? Are they worthwhile? Why are so many games pushing for player-run content and servers when existing MMOs seem to suggest that content isn’t profitable?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m going to use world PvP in most themepark games as an example of player generated content for a moment here. Though it may be a bit sick, I often play on PvP servers because I like the sense of danger and the community that can sprout around it (when a game’s sticky enough). PvE servers are (no offense) easy mode in my mind because they reduce these games into the endless grind we know is really lurking beneath the pixels. When I’m looking at that grind, I leave the game. However, when I’m looking for “Urmom” to run over a hill and kill me while I’m trying to finish my quest, I’m thinking about ambush locations, holding back on cooldowns I need in PvP, messaging everyone I see to warn them that there’s someone aggressive nearby to watch out for, etc. As sick as that may sound, that keeps me in games longer, and developers know that when we can make our own content without them, it’s better for everyone (and often cheaper).

The problem is making us stay loyal to the game during the rough spots, especially now that the genre has expanded and influenced other genres. When developers make player generated content (PCG) an explicit in game system with rewards, it actually runs against the the nature of PCG. Look at the Animal Crossing series, for example. There’s no points for making your own shirt designs or choosing to not grow bananas. There are some point systems involved for certain things, but even with the less than stellar Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, which takes out most of the grind common to the series to focus on decorating, the focus is the same: The rewards for enjoying the game are mostly social. While I hosted player-run events in MMOs in the past, more often in recent games, I’m competing with raid and arena schedules. I don’t do this so much now because they take a lot of time, and most people (including myself from time to time) would prefer feeling like we’re making progress rather than just having fun.

What happens when you mix grinding with creative options is that the PCG becomes the same grind, but players now control it, and it often becomes a race to see who can make the grind the least painful, rather than who makes the most enjoyable stuff. I think that’s why games like Minecraft and Landmark work.Ensuring that these systems are divorced from an explicit grind does mean you’re possibly creating a niche market, but we’ve seen it can be profitable. When you mix it, like in SWG or Neverwinter, it largely becomes another grind that, once people are done with, will expect rewards to be updated at a later date, largely defeating the purpose. I think updates help, but a soft touch might be best.

That’s why I really enjoyed the Asheron’s Call series and even Horizons/Istaria. I didn’t need a ton of new art every month, though it helped. The stories that allowed players to actually impact the world (like the Shard of the Herald) were best. Simple things like villages being invaded, GMs coming to RP events, company blog entries on player activities… I brag about these to the world, even non-gamers, and they can understand these things much more easily than “I got better pants for killing the newest dragon.”

You made it sing, all right.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Back in the halcyon days of City of Heroes, I was a huge fan of the Architect Entertainment system that allowed players to design missions for each other. In fact, it’s what re-addicted me to the game for many years. But when I traveled to interview the developers, I got the distinct impression from that that the system wasn’t a priority in any way because players didn’t use it — but in reality, players didn’t use it because the developers didn’t love it. They nerfed it over and over to incentivize non-AE content until players obliged, and that justified letting the feature slide, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Neverwinter (and STO) seem to have suffered the same problems, and in Neverwinter’s case, the game’s success on Xbox One seems to have put the breaks on the Foundry’s development as PWE has said it has no plans to add the Foundry on console. I think it’s a shame because these systems could do well and do provide content to an underserved segment of MMORPG players, but the lack of follow-through by developers is being unjustly interpreted as a lack of player interest. I hope the upcoming games are able to prove the opposite.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Player-generated content is one of the big double-edged swords of player creativity. On the one hand, player-generated stuff can ensure that a game has an insanely long tail; rather than having new content coming out whenever the developers can finish polishing additions to the game, it comes out as fast as accomplished players can make it. On the other hand, there’s a whole hornet’s nest of issues associated with player-generated content that you don’t get with any other sort of content.

City of Heroes dealt with most of these issues when it introduced the Mission Architect system. There were spectacular missions on that system, some of them authored by people that I’ve gone on to befriend and others authored by people I didn’t have the good fortune to meet but who still crafted amazing stuff. That’s great. On the other hand, there were also endless variants on the Clumped Farming Mission, built entirely around providing a huge chunk of real estate for players to chew through packs of enemies with no distractions. That’s not counting the players who eagerly started mission stories that were far too ambitious for the toolset, or people who genuinely tried but just were not all that good at using the tool…

And therein lies the core problem: Providing the tools is not the same as providing quality control, and community voting doesn’t actually alleviate the issue. While many if not all games with player-generated content wind up avoiding the LEGO Universe pitfall of having to scrub content free of offending members (ahem), there’s still a lot of overhead involved in making sure that the content isn’t aimed at exploitation or otherwise circumventing the way the game is meant to go. You have to make the content rewarding (otherwise a large portion of players will never do it) but also keep it from being too rewarding (otherwise a large portion of players will never do anything else), you have to promote the good stuff, you have to continually update the tools while also making sure that the updated tools do not in any way break the tools which already exist. That’s without getting into the fact that maintaining the tool can take up as much effort as maintaining the actual live game, if not more, and you know that the functionality of the tool is entirely reliant upon finding players willing to make content instead of just play it.

Last but not least, player-generated content runs into some of the same problems that playing with LEGOs can encounter. I can make a lot of stuff with LEGO bricks, but fundamentally all of them have to be assembled from LEGO bricks. In a game like World of Warcraft, where lots of maps and areas are assembled from existing pieces stuck together, it makes sense to allow players to snap those parts together in new ways… but you’re still working from the same set of parts. I can make missions drawing from lots of stuff in Star Trek Online, but player-generated content does not allow me to model and implement a new class of ship that players will never have seen before. For some players, that lack of novelty is going to wear… and the more you realize that the game is snapped together from the same pieces used over and over, the harder it is to get excited about another batch of stuff to snap into place.

Speaking for myself, I love using content generation tools. It’s only time that’s kept me away from “games” like Super Mario Maker, which are as much as anything about making your own stuff. Give me the tools to make dungeons or levels in Final Fantasy XIV and I’d be all over it. But at the end of the day, it has a whole lot of issues with implementation, and I can understand why developers would want to focus on “make something new” rather than “give players the old stuff to assemble in new fashions.” Really, though, Square-Enix, bring back the 1.0 maps for player-made missions and dungeons and I’ll say so many nice things about you. I can think of about twelve scenarios without even trying hard.

Don't you wish your girlfriend was a demon of air and darkness like me?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): This is a symptom of a larger problem among MMO studios, which is introducing core features for their games only to abandon them instead of giving them continuous attention. I could probably name dozens of games and systems that have fallen among the wayside like this.

And particularly in the case of the Foundry, it’s a serious shame. Giving players tools to make content and share that content with others should be standard, rather than rare, in MMOs, and when we do get it it should be celebrated, promoted, and expanded. Cryptic never quite knew how to organize the Foundry and give players the tools — not to make modules, but to sift through them, rate them, promote them, and set the good stuff apart from the bad. I’m sure the Foundry subcommunity is strong, but it’s undoubtedly tiny because it doesn’t get any official attention from the studio these days. Again, that’s a crying shame.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Unfortunately, in most respects I feel like PCG is just a tacked on buzzword many games and devs are throwing out there to be part of the “in crowd” and fit in with the trends. Like if a game has PvP, it is somehow a bastion of player-generated content! Sorry, but PvP is the bottom-dweller of PCG in my opinion. That’s not to say I don’t like PvP at times and don’t participate in it, because I do. But it is the lowest and laziest form of PCG. What about economic play? Social play? Anything that isn’t decimate-another-person play?

Mission creators in particular are an awesome thing, bringing tons more story and content into games, and I wish more had robust systems to do it. I don’t know why the Foundry is being ignored so badly; I think it is a serious shame. I certainly want these tools, but I just can’t speak for all the gamers. I think these tools can be and are profitable, but the games we will see them really soar in are ones that are still developing and aren’t launched, so there is no real baseline to comment from. And I think the devs themselves have to actually really care about the style of gameplay and not just be using it as a buzzword to draw attention to their project and try to appeal to everyone. Because you can’t appeal to everyone! Build what you love!

Your turn!

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