Redefining MMOs: Player developers!

A few weeks ago, we at Massively started the weekly "Redefining MMOs" series, a collection of articles examining how the MMO genre has been redefined during the current generation of games and where it's headed in the next. So far, we've looked at the terminology we use to refer to MMOs, how the art of storytelling has changed over the years, and the rise of the "massively singleplayer" online game. In this week's article, I examine what happens when players are given the reigns of an MMO or have a hand in part of its development. If you have something important to say on the topic, feel free to post a comment on page 3 or even write your own "Redefining MMOs" blog post and leave a comment with the URL.

Traditionally, all content for an MMO is designed by the game's development studio and players have no direct influence on its creation. The idea of handing the reigns of an MMO to its players is considered heresy and we shudder to think of what horrible quests and areas players would construct if given a chance. But is our aversion justified or is it something developers should strive to overcome? Certainly Second Life has successfully capitalised on letting players develop almost every aspect of its virtual world but could successful mainstream MMOs make use of it too? City of Heroes, EVE Online and even World of Warcraft are prime examples which suggest they can. All three of these games have handed at least some part of the game's development over to players, with incredibly promising results.

In this article, I look at these three successful examples of players being allowed to develop aspects of an MMO. I then go on to explain why this works and how the next generation of MMOs could learn from these pioneering feats.

City of Heroes - Mission architect:
Back in April of this year, City of Heroes released what they called the "Mission Architect" system. Originally designed as an in-house mission development tool, this system allowed players to create their own missions and storyline arcs. Rather than only spending developer effort creating more missions, they spent that time adapting their in-house tool into something simple enough that all players could use it. The results were astonishing, in just 24 hours players had created more content than the developers had made to that date. Contrary to what our common sense was telling us to expect, much of the new content was on par with the quality of professional development. It wasn't long until players were almost dominating the mission scene, producing work that was arguably better than some of the game designer's attempts.

A rich community has now begun to develop around the creation of missions, with competition between rival architects and sharing of tips and guides. The level of quality is maintained by including a robust rating and reporting system. Inappropriate missions, such as those with swearing or racist text, are reported by users and removed from the system. A robust rating and search system allows players to find the best player-made missions but more importantly to hide the poorer ones in a place where no soul dares tread. It's an elegant system that is performing extremely well but it hasn't been without its downfalls.

In May, a number of bugs and exploits were found in the mission architect system and some players began abusing them to farm rewards. A wave of bans later, the problems didn't end. Players still found ways to create easier missions with good rewards and continued to legitimately farm the system. In late May, most of the badges were removed to prevent farming and keep the system as an entertaining content creation tool. Players still gain full experience and other rewards for the missions but they can no longer use the system to farm large quantities of badges.

Read on to page 2, where I look at how EVE Online and World of Warcraft have both had successes in letting the players develop parts of the game.

This article was originally published on Massively.