New Content or Rinse and Repeat?
Over the weekend I finally finished the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. By which I mean I’ve completed the main story (and achieved the “best” of three possible outcomes) and all (allegedly) of the secondary quests. It’s hard to tell with this game; it may well still have surprises to spring within its open world. However pedantry aside, to all intents and purposes I’ve played through the game. This got me thinking about the thorny issue of game content because The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and all its DLC contains a lot. Playable content is a subject that frequently comes up when discussing games because there is no standard quantity. Furthermore the nature of content itself varies. Some is meant to be unique where other is specifically designed to be repeated. Whatever a developers approach to this issue, a game’s content is certainly a key selling point.
Both the RPG and MMO genres are very much dependent on the volume of content that they contain. New releases need to ensure that the player has a viable amount of content to work through. It’s the same with expansions and DLC. Players want to feel they are getting “value for money” although that can prove a somewhat nebulous term to quantify. However creating quality new content for both these genres, is both expensive and time consuming. It requires input from writers, programmers and a plethora of other creative artists. Furthermore regardless how much is produced, players always seems to burn through it too quickly. Consumption and demand simply cannot be met.
One solution to this conundrum is to encourage players to replay old content. This is common in the MMO genre and is also applicable to RPGs. With a game such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, due to the multiple story outcomes, there is a sufficient incentive to play again. Some MMOs will offer you a degree of new content if you play through old content with a new class or faction. SWTOR does this well, offering a bespoke central regardless of what character you choose to play. Guild Wars 2 also provides a similar degree of variety. Star Trek Online also does this to a degree, offering unique stories to each faction for the first third of the game. After that the remainder of content available is standardised. However Cryptic have cunningly devised ways to encourage players to repeat content. Last year saw the Delta Recruitment event and the current expansion, Agents of Yesterday, provides further incentives. Enhanced XP, bonus Dilithium, improved loot drops and account wide unlocks can encourage even the most reticent of STO players to do it all again.
Sadly there are many examples of games that are far from generous with their content. Star Wars Battlefront for example launched with a woefully poor amount of maps and game modes. Subsequent DLC has addressed this to a degree but that didn’t benefit those playing on day one of the game’s launch. Also many of the ageing MMOs suffer from a lack of new content. A declining player base means less revenue which inevitably means less frequent new content. LOTRO is a prime example of this. Since the game moved from paid expansions to free updates, most new content has just been variations on existing themes. It keeps the faithful quiet but does not bring new players to the game. Guild Wars 2 has also suffered from lack of regular new content. Last year’s expansion was aimed squarely at those players at level cap and the new content was far from universally well received. Beyond that the base game endured without any significant update for several years.
As a player, a simple solution to this problem is to not be an early adopter. Starting an MMO a year or so after launch often ensures a fair amount of content will be available. Once the game of the year edition of an RPG is released, twelve months after the initial launch, players often find the game bundled with all DLC and a lot of bug fixes. I tackled Skyrim in 2013, eighteen months after it’s release and as a result got over three hundred hours of enjoyment out of the game. However the issue of repeating content is a more difficult matter. Some players simply don’t like to play through material they’re already familiar with. It’s a position I have a degree of sympathy with as it’s not something I always enjoy. Certainly there is no incentive when it comes to older MMOs unless the games developers make it so. At present replaying through Rift, or Age of Conan: Unchained will not be significantly different experience to how it was five years ago.
Conversely music, books, films and TV can all be revisited at a later date after their original consumption, to varying degrees of success. This may be due to the respective depths of these mediums and the fact that content of these genres can be multi-layered and nuanced. Each visit can potentially yield something new or a broader meaning. The fact that we change with age and experience may also aid this process. Games may not necessarily follow suite. Gaming mechanics do not always offers such varied outcomes and unfortunately many games still suffer from poor narratives, especially the RPG and MMO genres. Overall I think that for the immediate future there is no long term solution to this problem. Content availability is still going to be a sticking point for both developers and gamers. Perhaps the future lies with games that side step this issue. Procedurally generated content is one option as is simply relying on non-narrative driven genres. Perhaps Pokémon GO and Overwatch ultimately offer greater longevity, due to their non-narrative nature. The content in these cases is the unique experience of actually playing the game. If that is the case we may need to rethink exactly what the definition of content is.