Chewable Content

The average lifespan of an MMO subscription is 18 months. Compared to other types of video games, that’s a long time. Aside from the Diablo franchise and some of the more popular sports and FPS titles, the majority of video games don’t have that kind of longevity. Considering that a decent number of players keep their subscriptions going for even longer (for example, I used to hear regularly from folks who have played EQ constantly since its beta), MMOs have pretty impressive player retention.

But compared to a TV series, 18 months isn’t a very long time. A successful series can run many years with tens of millions of viewers every season. WoW, currently the most successful MMO, boasts seven million players after two years. That would be a failure by network TV standards–not counting the CW, of course.

Needless to say, the content delivery models for MMOs and television shows could hardly be more different. The typical MMO is based around having a lot of static content available 24/7, with significant chunks of new content available via expansions every six to twelve months. The average TV show offers at most 26 content updates (episodes) per year. Though on-demand television programming is clearly where the industry is going, the initial delivery of that content still comes at a very measured pace.

So given that TV gets so many more eyes on it than MMOs do, would trying a new type of content delivery be a benefit to game developers?

Even the most challenging of TV fare (plot-heavy series such as Lost or Battlestar Galactica) requires an hour a week from its viewers. (Though a daytime soap opera might offer five hours, the plotlines are stretched so thin that there’s really only an hour’s worth of stuff happening at most.) Television excels at offering bite-size chunks of content that are easily chewed by viewers.

Most commercial MMOs try to provide enough replayable content so that if someone wanted to play 40 hours a week, they’d be able to do so. The emphasis in the previous sentence is on “replayable;” there is no team of content providers in any industry that can deliver 40 hours per week of non-repetitive handcrafted content. MMOs are like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord in which some of the entrees have been sitting under the heat lamp longer than others.

Perhaps MMO devs have become victims of the genre’s relative success. Because there are so many people who play 10, 20, 30, or more hours a week, devs feel that in order to be successful they have to deliver enough content to satisfy those kinds of players. Typical MMOs are built to require lengthy character advancement so that the die-hards don’t consume all the content in a week and unsubscribe. Conversely, that very delivery model alienates many potential players because they see the amount of content as too daunting or believe that too much time is required to achieve real advancement and fun.

A new content delivery paradigm is possible, though it wouldn’t come without risks of its own. So here’s my question to you: If an MMO was centered around the notion of delivering small, chewable bits of content on a weekly basis, would it be enough to hold your attention?

There is already some precedent for this type of MMO content being successful. Holiday events in EverQuest II and WoW are extremely popular amongst players, even though the content itself doesn’t take very long to consume. The events are fun, easy for any type of playstyle to complete, and leave the player satisfied at the end.

Another example of concise content is the newbie experience. It has become standard in MMOs to begin with a (usually) brief tutorial based around a controlled, carefully crafted flow of content. Though the newbie experience is designed to lead players to the bigger and more free-form sections of the world, the tutorial usually has a sense of completion on its own. In fact, there are many players who enjoy rolling up new characters more than advancing to the perceived endgame.

Way at the other end of the spectrum is traditional raid content. This is event-based as well, but is usually designed to be completed over and over again. The catch is that no matter how well it is done, the player’s goal is not to enjoy the content; rather, the emphasis is on replaying it as often as necessary to obtain the rare loot drops for a sufficient amount of the raid force. After one or two times through, the content is all but forgotten as the loot becomes the real source of enjoyment.

Imagine there was an MMO dedicated to providing a fresh hour of content every week that was available to every style of player. This would absolutely be doable by a dev team built to provide that kind of content stream–heavy on writing and events, light on new gameplay features. Granted, you’d probably want to mix such crafted content with replayable stuff as well, whether that comes in the form of static adventure content or other outlets that are more sandbox oriented (tournaments, contests, PvP, house decoration, etc.).

One might posit that a big reason TV shows can attract tens of millions of eyeballs is that they’re free to watch. Would American Idol be such a phenomenon if viewers had to pay $15 a month for it? No, but on the other hand there are plenty of people who subscribe to HBO solely on the strength of original shows like The Sopranos. HBO gets them to pay because they want a specific show, then provides a lot of other content to keep viewers coming back.

Many players of current MMOs would likely see what I’m suggesting as the ultimate “casual” MMO. But remember, casual play should not be defined as a factor of time invested. A show like Lost has both casual and hardcore viewers, yet they all watch the same hour each week. The hardcore fans analyze the show more deeply and spend more time discussing it, while the casual viewer tunes out of the world after the hour is over.

Maybe for it to work to the same degree, such a game would also have to get rid of conventional MMO trappings like raiding, slow level progression, and the concept of rare loot. Jettisoning such tried-and-true formulae could very well turn away fans of this traditional content, many of whom are the loudest voices of today’s forum communities. But even so, if the content you were providing had enough depth, you could very well build a whole new kind of hardcore playerbase regardless of the time necessary to consume your content. 

All of this would be a big change, and likely one that is scary for a lot of MMO devs to think about. But the potential for attracting a huge audience is there, even if you risk turning away the traditionalist who wants a complicated game with a lengthy path to uberdom.

Bloggers keep clamoring that the MMO genre is hungry for innovation. The question is how far people are willing to go to achieve it.

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