Players build communities:
If there's one thing MMO players do well, it's building communities. Even the smallest common factor or shared experience will cause ad-hoc coalitions of players to form around them. The evidence is all around us in the sprawl of forums and wikis that can be found online dedicated to any topic you can think of. This is the primary drive behind using players to develop portions of a game. Give the players a feature that inspires discussion, competition or interaction and you can be sure that a self-sustaining community will coagulate around it. In situations where sharing information and researching are key, people demonstrate a remarkable ability to self-organise, find ways to collaborate and disseminate that information. In all three of the examples presented in pages 1 and 2, the commonality of developing part of a game they love pulled players together into rich, cohesive communities.
For an MMO, this is the best possible scenario as the high player retention rates all MMOs want are linked intrinsically to players feeling like they belong in the game community. Whether it's an outpost you helped assault with your corpmates in EVE Online, a mission architect group you're in for sharing tips or a WoW add-on forum you discuss UI development on, it feels good to belong to a group. Getting players to collaborate on development of their favourite MMO may be the ultimate catalyst for the formation of the type of communities to which people will love to belong. This in turn will promote significantly higher player retention and it's perhaps this factor more than anything else that developers should be latching onto.
Games with a high player retention rate, such as EVE Online, show consistent growth in the size of their player-base due to players leaving at a slower rate than they sign up. After years of steady growth, EVE Online has gone from a niche little sci-fi game with under 40,000 subscriptions to one of the kings of the western subscription MMO market with over 300,000. A slow, steady growth pattern is a very healthy position for an MMO to be in but perhaps if developers of more mainstream MMOs were to learn to increase their player retention rates, they could do even better. Imagine if Age of Conan had been good enough to hold onto more of those 800,000 launch subscriptions or if Warhammer Online had kept most players for six months or more. It could be that in the race of the tortoise versus the hare, the winner will be the tortoise with a rocket strapped to it.
Of course getting players involved in the development of an MMO isn't the only thing that will affect player retention but in today's market developers need to press any advantage they can get. Anything that keeps players interested for longer and any unique gameplay that draws players in is as valuable as gold. It could be that in the future games will be as much about designing the game as playing it. Upcoming city sim MMO Cities XL is taking a large step in this direction by having players design and run cities in a shared virtual world. Part of the game is about running the city and part is about exploring other people's cities to research design ideas.
In the current economic climate, anything which reduces production costs is a big boon to game development. Rather than spending cash developing mountains of content or better user interfaces, it could be cheaper to make a framework for players to develop them with. The game then gets a large value of content for much cheaper than the typical development costs.
The traditional design paradigm keeps the development and playing of a game entirely separate, but it's been shown that giving players the ability to develop portions of their game can be an incredibly positive influence. From Second Life and City of Heroes to EVE Online and even World of Warcraft, many virtual worlds and MMOs have directly included players in their development processes and turned it to their advantage. In the future, we may see even more of this as players continue to become not just consumers of content but also its producers.