This afternoon at the GDC, Rich Vogel, producer of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, as well as Star Wars Galaxies, shared his thoughts on finding the right balance between static and dynamic content when designing MMOGs.
Vogel began by stressing the importance of building theme parks, not sand boxes, to attract and retain players for very long periods of time. He went on to explain that static content is content that is handcrafted and designed to direct game play. Classic examples of static content would be roads, signs, rule sets, conditions for level advancement, and other sorts of designer controlled elements. Dynamic content, on the other hand, is content generated by the players, PvP events, and so on.
In the past, killing was the main activity in certain types of games, according to Vogel. However, in MMOGs, killing, making, entertaining, organizing, and trading are typical player activities. These games are skills/level based, whereas "kill games" were simple monster bashing. Drilling down to specific games, Vogel described Ultima Online as being focused on ownership; Dark Age of Camelot as Realm versus Realm; Everquest as revolving around gathering "Fat Loot"; and Star Wars Galaxies as being about experiencing galactic civilization.
Vogel went on to describe the pros of static content. He explained that it is essential to establishing a sense of place, creating predictable settings, and providing the context on which players build emotional ties.
The downside of static content is that it gets old quickly. It takes inordinate amounts of resources to create it. It's difficult to change once it's in place. And you need lots of it. Vogel explained it's not uncommon for a hardcore gamer to power through under developed worlds in no time, so it's essential for designers to build plenty of content into their worlds at launch.
The pros of dynamic content are that it's easy to change, it can be automated, and it provides unpredictability. Vogel warned, however, that some players don't like unpredictability. Other pros were that dynamic content refreshes your world and provides a living ecology that is constantly changing.
The cons of dynamic content: If you allow your world to be dominated by random events, the play experience will become generic and boring. Players will also form no emotional attachment to the game. In short, the game will have no soul, no sense of place.
Vogel quoted some interesting demographics. For example, half the people playing MMOGs work full time, half of them have kids, and the typical male MMO gamer is 18-34 years old. On the other hand, female MMO gamers are in their mid-30s and usually take a lead role within the games they play.
Finally, Vogel revealed his recipe for the right mix of static and dynamic content: 70% static, 30% dynamic.