It's when the developers and their ardent fans gloss over the importance of the actual content these mechanics are applied to that I get annoyed. Mechanics are just a skeleton, and they can't do anything at all without some meat on the bones. Content matters, and good, fresh content will keep players interested long after the novelty of unusual mechanics has worn off.
Don't misunderstand me: New, or at least distinctive, mechanics are important factors in the success of an MMO. They draw in the curious and make fans of those who relish the gameplay they facilitate. Mechanics are what separate video games from movies, but content is what gives mechanics form. It is literally impossible to make a game that is pure mechanics without content; even Pong and tic-tac-toe have some limited content to them, in their visuals, concepts and competition. Content can entertain without mechanics, but mechanics are just an abstraction without content.
Content and mechanics are inextricable, but this doesn't mean they're equal. Mechanics should serve content, not the other way around and absolutely not in MMOs. Imagine a World of Warcraft that uses only mechanics that were in the game at launch but progresses the story and adds new content otherwise like the real version. It would be rather dull and weak, but at least the game would feel as if it were always in motion. Now imagine a WoW with a story frozen as it was at launch, with no new content to speak of, but boss fights constantly being updated with new mechanics. Those fights might be more fun, but the game would appear to have stalled. The developers would seem to be stuck in a rut of trying to perfect their game instead of really giving players anything new to chew on.
Let's take a look at something with a heavy focus on mechanics, albeit not truly an MMO. League of Legends, astoundingly popular as it is, seems at the surface level to have little content worth mentioning, yet the fan community is vibrant and active in celebrating that content. Leaving aside the "other players are content" argument, consider that Riot Games constantly works to add new champions to the game. Every champion impacts the game itself as a sum of its mechanics, but a glance around LoL fan communities shows the bulk of excitement and buzz tends to be for the character's persona. Fan art and shipping abounds in the game's community. Recent addition Jinx was launched to a huge explosion of popularity and discussion, particularly for her very own music video, yet her mechanics are treated to the same level of scrutiny as any other.
Sandbox features are not excused from this. Yes, a sandbox gives us the tools to make our own content, but the responsibility of the developer does not stop there. If you give us very little sand, replace the sand with sharp rocks, or give us insufficient or broken tools, we're not going to do very much with it. We can't. A sandbox without developers working on new content for players to build on and from will stagnate like any themepark game without anything new.
City of Heroes Mission Architect seemed like a great idea, a way of allowing players to generate novel content of their own. Unfortunately, it never caught on as a true pillar of the game for players because the feature was still lacking in content. The tools of the Architect system were insufficient for telling far too many stories, and even when a story could be told it was forced into the same tired old maps as everything else.
I understand that the team at Paragon had difficulty updating the system due to the original code being an impenetrable mess, but this only reinforces my point: If you're putting a new system into your game, you need to make sure you can and will add more content to it in the future. If you have a deadline that you simply can't extend, prioritize this over anything else. Maybe it won't be released in the best shape, but at least you can mold it into the best shape over time.
Systems in EverQuest Next such as the Storybricks technology sound ridiculously promising, allowing the developers at SOE to build a living world that players will truly affect with their every action. What makes me a believer is the studio's intention to continue developing that world, to add new elements and stage world-shaping events of its own design that make full use of the emergent properties of the game. The systems are awe-inspiring because of the potential they have for content unlike anything else we've seen.
Novel mechanics can help attract players, but they're not necessary. Story, setting, developer charisma, and name recognition can do the trick just as well. Novel content -- that is to say, fresh, well-made and interesting activities -- are what retains players. Mechanics play a part in that, but they're not necessarily more important than any other element of the content's delivery.
When I try a new MMO, my personal bellwether for continuing with it comes down to two things: Am I having fun and is this offering me something different from my current games? Mechanics contribute to these, but they're never the deciding factor. TERA's action combat is fluid and keeps me thinking, but I'm bored by the setting and story, irked by the character designs, and unimpressed by other mechanics like crafting and gathering. I've tried the game three separate times, but I can't see past my dislikes for the sake of my sort-of-likes.
Ultimately, solid mechanics are what makes for a good game, and it's solid content that makes for a great one. Novelty can make mechanics more interesting in the short term, but it doesn't affect how good they actually are. For content, novelty is a very important factor in the overall quality. Boil every story down to the barest essentials of its structure and you're left with only a handful of plots in total. It's the details, the twists, and the tone that make a story unique. The same applies to games; it's very rare for a totally new type of game to be invented, but there's no limit to the ways games can distinguish themselves.
Interesting mechanics are important. They're just not sufficient alone keep enough people playing. Every game has its obsessives who play it for years, but MMOs need more than isolated obsession; they need communities, and communities need content to keep them talking, else they'll drift away to find something they can talk about.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!