Thursday, December 17, 2009

Content and context

This week Syncaine made a remarkable comment on this blog, saying that "Aventurine has already released more content for Darkfall in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5". Having played both games (even if I obviously played Darkfall a lot less), I can say with certainty that this statement is completely untrue by any numerical measure of "content". For example in the first 20 minutes of your characters life in World of Warcraft you'll already see half a dozen different monster types, while in Darkfall you can play 20 hours and still not have seen anything else but goblins. But let's assume for a moment that Syncaine isn't just lying to increase the amount of money Aventurine pays him to promote Darkfall. Then the only logical conclusion is that Syncaine has a radically different definition of "content" than I have. What exactly is "content"?

I would say that any MMORPG has two fundamental parts: A repetitive part, for which the base rules are always the same, for example combat. And the non-repetitive part which creates the conditions for all those combats, which I call "content". Content can be quests, landscapes, dungeons, scripted events like boss fights, monster models, loot tables, lore, and many other things. So if I say game A has more content than game B, I'm talking about it having more quests, more different landscapes, more dungeons, more boss fights, more different monster models, more different items, etc. What I don't count as content is the number of square miles of procedurally generated landscapes, or the near-infinite number of randomly generated dungeons in games like Diablo or City of Heroes. In such cases I only count for example the number of different tile sets used to create those dungeons, because it is that part where the developers actually created something. In short, I would define content as things which are different because they were *created* different. And the amount of created content in World of Warcraft is certainly and measurably much higher than the amount of created content in Darkfall.

Where Syncaine is right is that created content isn't everything. Football (that is soccer, not American Football) is being played by the same standardized rules since 1863, and didn't have a "content patch" added to its rather sparsely decorated playing field in 150 years. Nevertheless players experience every game as different. That is because soccer is full of player-generated content (borrowing the term from Dr. Richard Bartle as being not the same as player-created content). Although the soccer field is always the same, the other players on it change the environment, and make it look different every time. And of course in a game like Darkfall, where other players have a much bigger impact on your virtual existence than in a game like World of Warcraft, there are far more possibilities for such player-generated content. Even if Aventurine only provides a much smaller number of soccer fields than Blizzard, or procedurally generates random landscapes which are mostly empty or contain only goblins.

But what a player experiences as being new and exciting is very subjective. One player might consider the thousands of quests of WoW to be all different, because they all have different quest texts and lead to different objectives. Another player might dismiss them all as just so many variations of "kill ten foozles".

It is also remarkable how much a change of context changes your appreciation of content. What many players in World of Warcraft experience since patch 3.3 is a massive amount of what feels like new content. In reality that content was already there before, only it was either impossible to find a group for it, or you had to get a level 80 friend to "boost" you through. A low-level dungeon you visit as a tourist, being boosted by a level 80 to get some quests done and some loot is a very different experience than the same dungeon you do with a cross-server pickup group you joined via the Dungeon Finder.

Thus creating content is not enough, you also need to create the context for players to enjoy the content. Apparently Syncaine enjoys Darkfall's content, and finds it subjectively a richer experience than World of Warcraft's. That is great. But the experience being subjective, other players enjoy WoW and patch 3.3 very much, which is equally valid, even if Syncaine dismisses it. Everyone has the right to subjectively prefer one game or another. It is just when you make untrue statements about numerically verifiable facts that you'll be called out. What's next, "Darkfall has more players than WoW"?

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