Stay Tuned.

posted: July 25th, 2006

I admit, I suck. It’s been nearly a week since I published anything. Reality 1.0 has been consuming a lot of my attention lately as I’ve been trying to complete a ‘Work’ quest before the timer runs out. As a result I haven’t had time to write a post concerning the Mark Rein’s comments about episodic game content until now, which means that the topic is slightly dated.

After reading Mark’s comments the first thing I thought was “How odd. I’ve been doing something for the past five and a half years that’s a broken model and which can’t possibly work. I suppose that like the bumblebee which has been informed that it violates the rules of aerodynamics and which can’t possibly fly I should now plummet earthwards.”

Of course when Mark Rein is speaking of ‘Episodic Content’ he isn’t thinking about MMO’s at all, but rather than weakening my position I think that strengthens it. Mark Rein isn’t thinking about anything at all other than publishing ‘Episodic Content’ in the exact same fashion that stand-alone content has been published for years. This is sort of like assuming that ‘Episodic Television’ can’t succeed because you can’t produce and market it the same way you produce and market a feature film. Yes, it is true that you can’t do that but that hardly means the product concept is doomed. ‘Episodic Content’ is similar to the big stand-alone games that are produced but isn’t identical. Likewise its market is similar (game players) but isn’t identical. It just means that since you are bringing a different but similar product to a different but similar market you have to use different but similar techniques (as opposed to simply using identical techniques).

So why is this such a big deal to me? Because about a year or two ago I started thinking about the feasibility of producing an MMO that had a lot more episodic content than what traditional MMO’s have done. Such an MMO would still have lots of static quests, mob spawns, dungeons, and all the typical accoutrement that are associated with an MMO so players wouldn’t be giving up anything but in addition it would have evolving story-lines that were updated on a weekly basis.

Just as a quick example in EQ2 there could be a large area that is contested between Qeynos and Freeport. Each city has built settlements upon the area. At the outset characters could be given missions to spy upon the other settlements. The Freeport settlement could begin the construction of war machines to attack the Qeynos settlement. Freeport characters could be given quests related to the building of the war machines while Qeynos characters are given quests related to stopping the construction. Once the machines are built and ready the Qeynos characters would have quests to find items to assist in defending against the war machines while the Freeport characters have quests to try and stop such attempts. As conflict looms nearer an underground movement is discovered in the Freeport settlement. Freeport characters will receive quests to try to root out the underground while Qeynos character will receive quests to aid them. Frustrated by the lack of progress in taking over the Qeynos settlement through military means Lucan devises a plan to infiltrate the settlement and poison the food stores.

Rather than releasing the content all at once as is typically done for an expansion the storyline unwraps a bit at a time. During the first week there are only quests to develop the settlements. The next week more buildings are added to the settlement through an update and quests to find out what the other side is up to become available. The week after that a few more buildings are added and construction of the war machines begins while at the same time the quests to develop the settlements go away since there is a shift in effort.

While all of this is going on there is an orc settlement out in the hills and an ancient tower. Some story-lines may bring activity to them but there are plenty of self-contained quests for these zones similar to the quests in Runnyeye or Stormhold.

By doing this an environment could be created where players would ‘tune in’ just to see the latest developments, just as people watch television series week after week to see what new things happen. It would create a world that felt much less static and if the story-lines were written in certain ways it would even become possible for characters to see the effects of their actions echoed in the world. What if the Qeynosians aren’t able to destroy the war machines before they are completed? What if the Freeportians succeed in poisoning the food supply?

Such a tactic would have a lot of difficulties. Story-lines and alternate story-lines would need to be worked out weeks in advance. The constant creation of new quests and art assets would require extra personnel. It would not be possible to fully test the quests on a test server so the quest engine would need to be rock solid and there would need to be better tools for testing the quests before they went live.

On the other hand the benefits could be immense. If the story-lines were well executed it could strengthen customer retention as well as draw in new customers so that they could watch as the story-lines unfold, as opposed to hearing about them second hand.


Be careful, though… some people might feel unable to “jump right in” into the middle of the conflict. They like seeing the story’s start, middle, and end.

Thinking back, I also recall the “Fragments of Alderran” storyline event in SWG- they wanted to have episodes that lasted for a month, then led on to new content. I loved the idea, but I could see their problems: art and code for limited-time events is content for a small segment of your potential market… not necessarily efficient use of your time.

But, with the technology developed to support it, and a large art asset library to build from, perhaps everything’s in place for a more successful effort.

Comment by Chas — July 27, 2006

Yeah, the danger of people feeling unable to jump in is a constant problem, but hardly one that is insurmountable. Television production companies are faced with the same difficulty whenever they produce a series like Lost. Granted they have some ability to recap before the start of a particular episode and the occasional ‘clips show’ but these are probably more of additional methods to help people catch up rather than primary methods. They also have the limitation of having to do all this within an allotted time frame, something that doesn’t really effect MMO storytelling to too great a degree.

Utilizing the earlier example I gave players would be pretty much able to jump into the storyline at any point as long as there are some ‘lore’ NPC’s around to talk about what happened in the past. In fact I think you could probably pick just about any point in the storyline above and easily envision as just being the more typical static quests that a zone would have. The difference is that in the case of the static quests the characters would be unable to participate in the back-story leading up to the current state and the current state would never move forward, leading to such storytelling abnormalities as a fiendish plot to poison the Qeynos food stores that is constantly thwarted (or worse, that constantly succeeds but with no visible effect) over and over again for years.

I don’t think the burden on art would be too heavy either, as long as it is properly done. Just like a television series a lot of material is reused from episode to episode. Using the above examples again the only asset that doesn’t currently exist in Everquest II would be the partially constructed war machines. You might also generate a little extra work for your environment artists since they have to build multiple versions of each settlement. Since the artists would know from the beginning what the plan is, however, it probably would not be too much additional work since they could simple lay out the original buildings of the settlement, then add the next set of buildings as the settlement grows.

Probably the largest work increase would be on the part of the quest designers who would have to generate new quests every week as the storyline advances. This might be slightly mitigated by the fact that when normally placing the quests for a zone the quest designers have to place enough content to last for weeks with people rushing through the content at whatever pace they choose. In the case of episodic content the quest designers would only need to provide enough quests to support the storyline until the next episode. People who rush through the storyline would fill the remaining time until the next episode with static quests or other activities.

I’m not saying that the concept is a simple one to pull off. It does involve a great deal more energy that the typical ‘release and move on’ method of content production. Story-lines would need to be blocked out in advanced with elements refined and scripted as their release date draws closer. The ‘small’ amounts of extra energy that has to be expended does still add up increasing the overhead. Keeping things on schedule would be even more critical since slipping a release date would have a cascading effect and as mentioned above quests could not be pushed out to test servers four weeks before release to make sure everything is working properly.

However I’ve got a gut feeling that making something like this work could really pay off.

Comment by Evan — July 27, 2006

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