Ah, yes, the old MMO moniker, “theme park”. A derided term, not worn as a hardcore badge of honor, like “sandbox” MMOs. A “theme park” MMO has rides. These rides are designed by developers to give the player an experience, that will not much derivate from the ride’s rails. This is not bad game design, especially seen with the way gamers line up for the latest console rail shooter. It can be a lot of fun to quick-time event through a game.
However, the term “theme park” gained its dark stain because it was used as a crutch. Repetition turned the rides in to a necessary activity for the reward’s punch card. The rides lost their thrill as players needed a normalized X more rides to get the shiny they so desired. Rides were populated because of reward carrots, and not because they were necessarily enjoyable activities.
What did players constantly demand? More content. Some updates offered a span of new content, but for the most part the significant content heaps were left to expansions. The theme park’s content would remain stagnant until officially expanded at a press-released ribbon cutting ceremony. I felt MMO players assumed this status quo after a while.
A year or two ago, I would have told you that the future of theme parks was incorporation of sandbox elements, such as scaling events or content with some procedural randomness. I did not expect that the MMO developers would actually embrace the theme park nature, and advance it.
WildStar head, Jeremy Gaffney, puts it best in his recent WildStar Q&A luncheon (the whole thing is worth watching):
“The industry has moved forward. In China, you know, a bright group out there were like ‘let’s update every two months’, and more users started coming over there. Someone [else] said ‘screw that, we’ll do a month’. And so, the big games in China, many of them now update on a weekly cycle.”
The Korea-based NCSoft is already doing this with ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 on a weekly cycle, which has seen some “these updates are too quick”-backlash. I would assume that with the amount of times I’ve heard Gaffney give high praise for the Eastern MMO dev culture on content cycles, I would assume that WildStar will have a very aggressive post-launch update cycle too.
In more conventional times it always felt like the excitement for an MMO happened before the content. What is coming? What is in the expansion? What will change? When the content finally launched that excitement would peak for a day or two and dwindle down. With the bi-weekly updated in Guild Wars 2, it seems that every other Tuesday has this launch energy within the MMO community. It’s amazing how much different the game feels when I see players running through lesser-traveled roads because of the latest update.
The future of theme park MMOs is a Dark City where the dev Strangers change the landscape so often there is always something new to see. And just like Rufus Sewell taking out the Dark City masters with newfound psi-powers, Gaffney warns that it can be very easy for a developer working this quickly to shoot themselves in the foot. There is also the issue of the game having gone forward too far for players to comfortably come back after a couple-months-long sabbatical.
I feel that this is going to be a thing of permanency in the MMO culture. Like Gaffney’s anecdote of the Chinese MMO market, Western developers that stick to a longer content update cycle will likely see their players flock to the more exciting, quickly updated games. Theme parks that feel stagnant, by comparison, will start to feel like a ghost town too.