Steps Forward for Content

Massively has the best kind of article up today, the kind that asks a question which in turn made me consider something else entirely. The question asked is: “Do you prefer content celerity to quality?” “celerity” coming to us from the Latin celeritas, meaning “swiftness.” What’s better, content that comes out quickly or that takes its time arriving but is higher quality?

What’s unasked is what we mean by words like “quality,” “polish” and “content.” These are words that we commentators throw around very glibly, saying that game x has a lot of content or game y is more polished than game z. Everyone has a general sense of what we mean when we say those kinds of things, but how do you really define them or quantify them?

I’m not sure I’m equipped to provide an answer, but it bears thinking, and we’ve got to start somewhere. So, what is content? Does EverQuest II have more content than EVE Online? If “content” is “stuff to do in-game,” then it’s not at all obvious that it does. Does EVE’s breadth of options count for more than EQ2’s huge quantity of activities in a relatively small number of dev-designated tracks? Does EVE’s capability of dynamically creating “stuff to do in-game” make it one of the games with the most content? Or do we only mean activities designated by the developers? And how do we count procedurally generated content, like many City of Heroes missions?

To many of us “content” means “quests” or some rough equivalent. But that’s a mighty broad word applied to something pretty specific, and often applied in such a way as to mean the sum total of available activities in a game. Some day a game is going to bring us a new kind of “content” that shows questing as the disguised grind that it really is. Some of us are hoping that game will be Guild Wars 2, but we’ll see.

Personally, what I would like to see is a type of content that flows more organically from the virtual world instead of being something obviously constructed to give players something to do. GW2 may end up feeling that way, but the title that I think of immediately is Tabula Rasa, which did dynamic events well before Rift and incorporated a tiny but very noticeable innovation in the way mobs spawn, also borrowed by Rift. I’d call an interactive, immersive ecology “content” even quicker than I’d apply that label to EVE’s functioning economy. Players could affect it but it’d also run pretty much on its own. It’s even easy to playtest, and you can build dials into the code so that things can be tweaked this way or the other depending on the metrics and how player activity affects them.

I’d also like to see an end to what we might call “character exceptionalism,” the notion that player characters should naturally have a different range of activity than NPCs, an idea that’s been used to justify all kinds of stupid stuff since the early days of D&D. I’m not saying that players’ characters all ought to be shopkeepers and accountants; quite the contrary, a game like WoW has to go well out of its way to make characters feel like just as relevant as Thrall or Jaina Proudmoore, and rarely does it well. I was delighted with the Catacylsm quest that let me be a quuestgiver for a little while, but it also made me wonder why I couldn’t create my own quests that other players could pick up. This kind of thing is made possible (sort of) in EVE via the contracts system; why don’t we see it elsewhere?

Those would be a big steps toward the living, breathing virtual world that a lot of us talk about. Yet although we’ve been promised such things in the past, they’ve seldom seemed to come to pass, and it could be that I’m underestimating the difficulties involved. But in at least some limited cases, we have seen steps forward like this. It’s kind of aggravating that we often don’t recognize them.

One response to “Steps Forward for Content

  1. EQ2 has more content than any other MMO I’ve ever played. You may not have noticed it, though. Like the proverbial iceberg, almost all of it is invisible. It’s behind the doors of all those houses. I started going on about it here but it got a little out of hand so that’s probably going into a blog post instead.

    I too would love to lose “character exceptionalism” (good phrase). Having to be the hero really ticks me off. i want the opportunity to be a non-entity, just some joe. I’d like to be able to kick around the village or town I arrived in from character creation and work my way up in the world just by doing stuff that needs to be done. Not quests. Just stuff. Let me work out what it is that needs doing all by myself by watching what’s going on. Hang on, I’m describing Guild Wars 2…except that I just bet that within minutes of stepping out into the GW2 world my character finds himself being gently pushed into the slot marked “hero”.

    On the original point of “celerity vs quality”, by the way, I go for celerity every time, but that’s partly because I see finding and experiencing bugs as content. It’s frequently much more fun when things are going wrong than when they are working properly.