Rebuilding the MMO Theme Park

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.


15 thoughts on “Rebuilding the MMO Theme Park”

  1. I saw a lot of critics about the temporary living world content from GW2 and I will repeat my point here: no one make a fuss about sandbox have ONLY temporary cotent.

    Take note that both Anet and Carbine are under NCSoft. So, no surprise if WildStar too have temporary two-weekly content in the future. I guess too Carbine will need the same learning experience that Anet had before set 4 teams working for develop the diferent weekly updates.

  2. I’m not sure I’m again “not the target group any more”, but I’m very wary of constant updates and special events. I actually avoid some games during their seasonal events and only come back afterwards. I feel that if a game goes overboard with its special events, you get into a hectic mindset that always tries to chase the current new stuff for fear it’ll be obsolete or even removed soon, and you never get the chance to actually do the slower, main stuff that’s here to stay.

    Not to even mention that if I have to live through one more thinly veiled Christmas-lights-on-pine-trees impression in a game that has absolutely nothing to do with ours, I’m going to be sick. It’s just so badly tacked on in every game I’ve played so far that it detracts from the world that game is in to the point that it makes me feel like I don’t want to log in any more.

    Come to think of it, that’s probably the second reason I avoid special events…

    I can see this work, maybe, if every update is very incremental and gradual, and neither distracts too much from the rest of the game nor leads to everybody flocking to one area and leaving everything else devoid of life. Those “event zergs” are more harmful than helpful to a game world.

  3. Not convinced or impressed. The content drops in GW2 are formulaic, as they were in Rift. Yes, it does create hot-spots of interest but at the expense of most of the things that made MMOs involving, thrilling and memorable to begin with. I’m not pretending it isn’t fun, but fun only gets you so far.

    Moreover, if all MMOs are dropping content every other week, why would that make players more loyal to any one game? Aren’t the ones who like that sort of thing going to hop even more often and even faster while the rest of us move quietly back to MMOs with development teams that understand the value of downtime?

    Plus, I want my expansions. Continual free content drops just don’t begin to compare with the excitement and anticipation of a full expansion I have to pay money for.

    1. Mmm…. I’ll say that some of the recent GW2 updates haven’t been my cup of tea. And I can see that if the current trend of “lots of jumping, not much MMO” continues, I might depart. But I’m actually quite happy with the constant, rotating content drops. And, much to my surprise, I’m really quite happy with the “temporary” part.

      Here’s the real surprise for me on the “temp” nature of Living World. I’ve had two or three guildies rejoin us in the last few weeks, not really drawn in by hearing about it, just coming back to see what is here. And they could just jump right in. Think about that for a moment — they didn’t have to run old stuff, we didn’t have to get a group to “gear them through this and that”, they *just joined in*. Directly.

      I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I have. But having the “hot zone” be something that you don’t have to be “keyed” for (in gear or formal keying) means that you really *can* come in and out as your outside interests and responsibilities dictate. And the constant flow forward means that you don’t really run out of stuff. Downtime? Go take it! You don’t miss anything really important. You don’t “fall off the path”. You just come in and go out as works out best for you.

      I’m… rather pleasantly surprised. This really, really works for me and my friends. Big thumbs up from me.

  4. Currently the issue with the living world updates is that even though there is one over-arching story, every update introduces new tokens to earn. If they found a way for previous achievement progress to roll into the next installment of the living story, there wouldn’t be this current ‘log in and grind or lose out forever’ vibe that makes these frequent Living Story updates more of a pressure to log in then something to look forward to.

  5. Asheron’s Call initially had monthly content updates. Didn’t save the game from irrelevance. Rift had a very aggressive development schedule as well (generally six weeks between updates, most of which brought some new world event and/or more permanent content). Didn’t the game from having its player base gutted when SWTOR launched.

    Quite frankly, I don’t think most companies can provide significant updates at such a frantic pace without quality ultimately suffering.

  6. Speaking as someone who works entirely too many hours, this trend towards rapid-fire development and short-term events is a steaming pile of DO NOT WANT. Back when I was unemployed, sure, because I was playing games for 40-80 hours a week, and I got bored easily. Lately, I’m getting 5-10 hours a week, and the implied “requirement” to spend most of them grinding out the latest pile of temporary currencies and achievements is a big part of why GW2 fell by the wayside. I’m already ambivalent about Wildstar (early previews look amazing, but *boo**hisssss* NCSoft after what they did to CoH). If they’re going to be apeing GW2 with the rapid-fire content, I’m going to give the whole thing a pass.

  7. I had no idea that “theme-park” had a generally negative connotation for MMOs. Are you sure you’re not conflating it with “WOW-clone”?

    1. It’s tongue-in-cheek derision (that I have commonly found), but repetition seems a core feature to prolonging an MMO theme park.

      1. IMHO, the MMO theme park need change from the wow-clone or the genre will die.

  8. Wasn’t the reason that we casualled up (totally a word) raiding because most people missed the content because they had too little time to commit to MMOs.

    I don’t have the time to keep up with GW2 anymore, they ask too much from two weeks. As I approach the completion of this stuff, as often as not, it just disappears like vapour. It felt like a relief when I decided to knock it on the head. Like dumping a needy girlfriend.

    1. I really don’t understand this. They barely ask anything unless you NEED to fill the achievements. Most of their bi-weekly content can be experienced in an hour or two. Filling the meta could be easily done in a few sessions of an hour or two.

      I don’t understand the sentiment that some players NEED to do it all, or nothing. Aren’t there casuals out there that just enjoy checking out the new stuff every week without feeling the pressing NEED to do it all?

      1. Sincerelly, players will need choose some events or achievements to miss if they have not enough time. No one need have ALL skin gear Anet give us with these events, for example I missed the monocle because I never completed the dungeon. Next event will have other backpiece, but I don’t want one more backpiece, I have 5 toons with “cool look” backpieces and I don’t want create a new toon while we do’nt have a new race.

        Anyway, it is only skin gear, no stats. Go after what you think will make you look “cool”. My asura elementalist is a lot cool with the fire book backpiece, the molten gloves and I want that hell shoulders, it is going be a very “cool” fire elementalist mage.

        Too take note the events have two kinds: one that stay one full monthly and other one that stay only the last two weeks of that month. So, it will be possible to complete the cliffs achievements while we vote for new council member.

  9. Sure, but discontent people are much louder.

    I really enjoy the fact that the world changes and evolves in more “meaningful” ways. I haven’t even been able to play GW2 properly since…February?…simply because my computer can’t handle so many players in one place..Hell, I tried to participate in the event this month and I couldn’t keep my framerate high enough to properly get past the “wind” part of the climbing event.

    And I’m okay with that. There will always be more new weapon/armor skins, more achievements, more *stuff*. I get excited just reading over the update notes and hearing second-hand from people finishing the content. The fact that I can check out whenever I want (or upgrade my computer, as will be the case in the next week or two), then come back and find that there’s something to do that wasn’t there last time I played, that doesn’t require me to work my way up to it? I don’t even have a level 80 character yet, and everything is open to me to participate!

    I may not like everything about GW2, but I can’t help but get excited for where it has the potential to go.

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