Tobold's Blog
Friday, December 18, 2009
Content and context

This week Syncaine made a remarkable comment on this blog, saying that "Aventurine has already released more content for Darkfall in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5". Having played both games (even if I obviously played Darkfall a lot less), I can say with certainty that this statement is completely untrue by any numerical measure of "content". For example in the first 20 minutes of your characters life in World of Warcraft you'll already see half a dozen different monster types, while in Darkfall you can play 20 hours and still not have seen anything else but goblins. But let's assume for a moment that Syncaine isn't just lying to increase the amount of money Aventurine pays him to promote Darkfall. Then the only logical conclusion is that Syncaine has a radically different definition of "content" than I have. What exactly is "content"?

I would say that any MMORPG has two fundamental parts: A repetitive part, for which the base rules are always the same, for example combat. And the non-repetitive part which creates the conditions for all those combats, which I call "content". Content can be quests, landscapes, dungeons, scripted events like boss fights, monster models, loot tables, lore, and many other things. So if I say game A has more content than game B, I'm talking about it having more quests, more different landscapes, more dungeons, more boss fights, more different monster models, more different items, etc. What I don't count as content is the number of square miles of procedurally generated landscapes, or the near-infinite number of randomly generated dungeons in games like Diablo or City of Heroes. In such cases I only count for example the number of different tile sets used to create those dungeons, because it is that part where the developers actually created something. In short, I would define content as things which are different because they were *created* different. And the amount of created content in World of Warcraft is certainly and measurably much higher than the amount of created content in Darkfall.

Where Syncaine is right is that created content isn't everything. Football (that is soccer, not American Football) is being played by the same standardized rules since 1863, and didn't have a "content patch" added to its rather sparsely decorated playing field in 150 years. Nevertheless players experience every game as different. That is because soccer is full of player-generated content (borrowing the term from Dr. Richard Bartle as being not the same as player-created content). Although the soccer field is always the same, the other players on it change the environment, and make it look different every time. And of course in a game like Darkfall, where other players have a much bigger impact on your virtual existence than in a game like World of Warcraft, there are far more possibilities for such player-generated content. Even if Aventurine only provides a much smaller number of soccer fields than Blizzard, or procedurally generates random landscapes which are mostly empty or contain only goblins.

But what a player experiences as being new and exciting is very subjective. One player might consider the thousands of quests of WoW to be all different, because they all have different quest texts and lead to different objectives. Another player might dismiss them all as just so many variations of "kill ten foozles".

It is also remarkable how much a change of context changes your appreciation of content. What many players in World of Warcraft experience since patch 3.3 is a massive amount of what feels like new content. In reality that content was already there before, only it was either impossible to find a group for it, or you had to get a level 80 friend to "boost" you through. A low-level dungeon you visit as a tourist, being boosted by a level 80 to get some quests done and some loot is a very different experience than the same dungeon you do with a cross-server pickup group you joined via the Dungeon Finder.

Thus creating content is not enough, you also need to create the context for players to enjoy the content. Apparently Syncaine enjoys Darkfall's content, and finds it subjectively a richer experience than World of Warcraft's. That is great. But the experience being subjective, other players enjoy WoW and patch 3.3 very much, which is equally valid, even if Syncaine dismisses it. Everyone has the right to subjectively prefer one game or another. It is just when you make untrue statements about numerically verifiable facts that you'll be called out. What's next, "Darkfall has more players than WoW"?
Your definition of content leaves much to be desired. It's an overly narrow definition. How would you define the amount of content in a D&D game when it completely depends on the way that the players explore and interact with the world (the complete opposite of how MMOs work now)?

Your definition of content as "whatever the developers have made" is entirely too narrow and short-sighted to apply meaningfully to even all games in the MMO genre, let alone all games. How do you account for content-generation methods like skirmishes in LotRO or the upcoming scenarios in GW2? You can't account for DFO, even, in its broadest sense. Your definition needs to have a better way to deal with algorithms that generate content instead of ignoring them. Clearly they provide more than 0 marginal content past the art assets assembled to create them.

Also, your football-to-CRPG comparison is quite weak. You're comparing a game with very little discernable strategic evolution (in MMOs, strategic evolution usually is the result of patches, i.e. new "content" in balance changes, instead of actual depth) to a game with over a hundred years of progression and STILL no clear optimal strategy.

Soccer has a small set of rules that can be followed while forming many different viable strategies, whereas MMOs have a huge set of rules (including all of what you consider to be content: raid bosses, quests, etc... these are just tacked on static game rules) but very few viable competitive strategies. The difference primarily is that MMOs are ridiculously easy in order to serve the market at which they are aimed, whereas football's difficulty comes from actual competition between players and teams, a self-renewing difficulty that shifts with the skill of the players.

Will you then suggest that football has less content than WoW? A game that people can play for 25 years of their lives has less content than a game that people cannot seem to play for longer than three or four years without being burnt out and bitter?

I guess you can consider content as how many rides are in the themepark, but that's not a particularly useful definition for comparing various games.

What you really should be talking about is the depth of games. That will lead you to a better understanding available fun than trying to quantify "content", a quantification that will most likely prove useless anyway.
Darkfall may have more player generated content but there is a reason I play on an RP server in WoW. Player generated content a la Darkfall is not fun for me because 99% of the time I wind up dead. Dead is not fun. Or at least hasn't been fun until very recently, see my next post :-)
Ok, Tobold, I have to ask, have you ever read The Art of War? If not, maybe you should, and if so, you should review the section where Sun Tsu says to always leave your enemy with a way to escape. Since it looks like you just backed Syncaine into a corner, this is at high risk of becoming... flammable. >.<

That aside, very well said, I totally agree.
Evizaer: Dungeons and Dragons still needs content. It is true that how a game goes is highly dependent on how the players interact with said content (i.e. whichever module you are going through) but when the players stray from the prepared path (something that CRPGs cannot handle well, if at all), it's up to the DM to improvise and pretty much generate content on the spot.

And Depth is not the same as content. It's not by a longshot.

What WoW is good at, is content.

What EvE is good at, is Depth (though the amount of content is not that big).

Complexity is not the same as content.

I used to play Advanced Squad Leader, probably the deepest boardgame ever (though Starfleet Battles comes close). The amount of content however is the scenarios and armies, not the rules. And yes, the interaction between scenarios or content and the rules or depth is where the interesting stuff happens.

But a game with little content will have trouble holding my interest (though EvE does it well, for now). A game that is somewhat less deep but has lots of content will have a somewhat easier time, I still want to see more of it. Whether my recent return to WoW will last very long remains to be seen, I doubt it will go beyond the end of Gevlon's experiment, but... I am seeing new stuff every day there, and that is a good thing. Even though actually playing is not all that hard or complex.
Pointless arguing.

Games are a set of tools. The tools are created by developers and given to players. Players build whatever they wish with them, within the limitations of what those tools are capable of.

You can use WoW to play tag with your friends. You can use Darkfall to create your entry for the Turner Prise. For a roleplayer in LotRO the most important "content" may be the buldings and streets in a town.

Discussing how we use the tools we are given can be interesting. Telling stories abiout how we have used the tools we were given can be interesting. Telling other people how they should use the tools? Not so much.
To play devil's advocate (in more ways than one), I think syncaine defines content to includes the rules that structure and govern your notion of content. The most important content for him are those longstanding rules of football, and to a greater extent chess, because those constitutive rules create the possibility for those games' existence. There would be little to either the EVE universe or Darkfall without well thought out systems that facilitate player generated content, content that is too often in the form of new systems. If I were to add three new pieces to chess and expand the size of the board, I would, assuming I hadn't wrecked the underlying purity of the game, hugely expanded the possibility space of play. To call such changes "content," strikes you, and me too to some extent, as unintuitive because what the developer is actually implementing are new rules and ways of interacting. Compared to the thousands upon thousands of man-hours that go into any given WoW patch generating art assets or constructing environments for raids, it's hard to see why we should call what each developer delivers by the same name. Maybe we shouldn't, and certainly we can't compare them in the naive way syncaine did, but each are potentially, equally as significant to the players of those games.
Sweet, blog war Friday, and I'm not the one initiating. I should have a reply up on my blog soon, but I'll be sure to link you to increase the odds of you getting more 'free' stuff from Blizzard :)
"What's next, "Darkfall has more players than WoW"?"

Heh, funny you should say that.

Regarding lying I don't think Syncaine is lying to get money from DF kickbacks any more than you're lying to get sent free games now and then (remember "Toboldgate"?).

It's just like so many forum warriors he loses perspective. Which ultimately hurts his case more than helps it, it's simply bad rhetoric to make claims that everyone can just laugh at.

@ Evizaer in the context of a discussion about the statement "Aventurine has already released more content for Darkfall in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5" it's not inappropriate to look at content as what the devs have made.
I have to say that statement really makes me question how much that Syncaine dude is getting paid by the DarkFall folks. Someone is trying way too hard to get people to like their game.

I find it very odd when people discount the possibility that there can be any 'player generated' content in WoW. Has anyone heard of Southshore vs. Tarren Mill PVP? City raids? Large guild events? World PVP? You can get very creative if you want to be. There is far more to do than standard quests and dungeons.

Not to mention a fairly deep crafting system and, while many of them may be trivial, there are a large number of odd achievements that certainly classify as content.
You overlooked the obvious explanation: that Syncaine is simply bat-shit crazy.
I don't think that really captures the essence of 'content', which to me is something that feels new and learnable.

Say three dev teams did three different things:

The first manually laid out a new dungeon, using mostly existing art assets, but new mob names, quests, scripts, and loot.

The second added some new options and tweaks to the random-dungeon generator button that, as in CoH or AO, players effectively get to push.

The third ran the random-dungeon generator 100 times, selected the five best results, maybe tweaked them a bit, then placed them in the world.

Assuming equal time spent by all three teams, who has added the most content?
I have never played darkfall, but I can say with certainty that although wow is filled to the brim with content, how much do you actually see on your way from 1-80? And then, once you're 80, how many instances do you actually get to do? You then get one instance that has four versions for current raiding content.

The pug tool was awesome for boosting content but I don't know if it's fair to claim wow has such a ridiculous amount of content. Sure new stuff is added, but that new stuff REPLACES old content.

Tobold I'm not sure why but you really do have something against people trying to make money from video games. I'm curious, where does this strong position come from? Did you get scammed or something by a subpar product in years past?
But the experience being subjective, other players enjoy WoW and patch 3.3 very much, which is equally valid, even if Syncaine dismisses it. Everyone has the right to subjectively prefer one game or another. It is just when you make untrue statements about numerically verifiable facts that you'll be called out.

I've never played Darkfall, nor do I currently play WoW, but I can say that this seems like a contradictory statement. Or, at least, that your definition of "content" is unnecessarily narrow and self-serving. You say the "experience" is subjective. Isn't the subjective "experience" content as much as something the developers specifically create? I played WoW off and on for years, and there were many parts of it I never saw and there were other parts I experienced over and over and over again. "Content" that I never experience is useless to me. "Content" that I can experience over and over again (battlegrounds, in my case) is always content, each and every time I do it.

I think what Syncaine is referring to is largely that Aventurine has released the TOOLS for players to make their own content, and in those terms, depending on the player, he's right. They have released "more" content than Blizzard in 5 years. Like you said, it's subjective, but to then follow that statement up with a claim about numerical verification doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
I think you're drawing a very very arbitrary line between what you call "created content" and what you call "player-generated content." You claim WoW has more of the former and thus WoW has more content, because you don't seem to consider the latter as content in the course of your argument, eventhough you use the very word.

How many raid bosses has WotLK released? 15 in Naxx, 4 Sanctum, 3 VoA, 1 EoE, 14+10 Ulduar, 1 Ony, 5+5 TotC, 4+4 ICC. Including hardmodes, that's 66 distinct raid encounters requiring 10-25 players. How many distinct raid encounters requiring 10+ players has DFO provided its subscribers since inception?
Baktru: Did you read my article about depth?

"Content" is merely one manifestation of depth. Content gives you more things to do--more content is how a casual players sees depth. Depth also--usually--means more things to learn. Once you learn more things in a deep game, you are capable of finding more things to do. So in a way, depth multiplies Toboldian content. The two concepts are deeply related.

Aside from that, Tobold's conception of content is extremely limited and doesn't give us a reasonable metric for comparing what matters: the amount of time a player can reasonably spend playing a game before it is no longer fun. Tobold's conception of content only measures linear, pre-ordained paths through the game--games that rely on such directly stated and static paths usually have fewer playable hours in them as games. MMOs just so happen to have a social aspect that sustains them when they would otherwise be completely boring as games.
So Tobold, is it conceivable that Pong with enough different graphic sets (but the exact same game rules) could have as much content as WoW? Seems so according to your definition.
Syncaine's own themepark (WoW) vs. sandbox (DF/EvE) analogy actually works against him in this argument.

A sandbox is filled with sand.

A themepark is filled with lots of complex, exciting rides.

Which has more content?

As I wrote on Syn's blog, no sane person would argue that the sandbox has more content just because you can make an infinite number and variety of sandcastles.
I don't know what the fuss is all about. For anyone who created any kind of computer software ever, it is like this:

Content = data = models + textures + (quest) lore + sound etc.

Rules = logic = PvP rulset + PvE ruleset + quest logic etc.

Player experience = (content + rules) * personal preference

Content is only one part of the equation. What counts is what the player makes out of it. Saying DF has more content that WoW is like saying that Berlin has a higher population than New York. What city you like best (player experience) does not change reality.
Tools and rules do not content make. If so, then we could replace the Library of Congress with Home Depot.

Perhaps I'll destroy my own personal library and just keep a dictionary and grammar manual around since with them I can generate all possible content.

And while I'm at it, I hate the alphabet. I have to keep reusing all those same letters over and over.

It's nice to see a post that can see both perspectives, rather than just the writers. Nice work :)
One also has to consider the 'degree of uniquess' of content. Every time you run an instance it is a unique experience but it is generally not considered 'unique enough' to count a distinct content. On the other hand running an instance as a tank can be much more different than running it as a dps or healer and thus be considered 'unique enough'.

Similarly every PvP encounter is different but might not be considered 'unique enough'.

So when you try to compare how much 'unique content' a game has you have to decide on the 'degree of uniquess' it has to have to be considered 'unique enough'.

WoW could add a hundred instances but if they all play out like Violet Hold few people will consider them 'real content'. Similarly, Darkfall could add a ton of PvP content but if the PvP still feels the same afterward, it's not 'uniques enough' to count.
Damn, I've been playing Dwarf Fortress all this time and never realized it had no content.

I am curious, do scripted encounters that change the application of underlying game rules for a period of time count as content? If so, how do you then prevent permutations within the base rule set from counting?

Thirdly, are we counting content in the base games, or only content added to the games in their expansions and patches? Does Wintergraps count as equal to one of the Sea Fortresses in Darkfall? Do all quests count for the same amount, or do longer quests count for more?

Certainly I find what SynCaine said hyperbolic, but your response hardly seems any better thought out.
I was intrigued by the differing views of what constitutes content between your article and evizaer. I was looking for a deeper discussion related to the various types of content. There is static art content and game play content like combat mechanics. The best MMOs employ a balance of all the various content in which fully immerse ourselves into. Static repetitive game action like AB is no more filled with content than an RTS. A beautifully hand crafted instanced dungeon is as much fun as going to a museum gazing at Renoir while sparing with my brother.

What matters to me is the synergy between static content, gameplay, dynamic content and the ability to shape the game creatively without too many rules and constraints. UO did this best until they ruined it with candy land. Still I am optimistic that a new game will come along that gets the balance right. Meanwhile I plan to go immerse myself in Pandora.
I more or less agree with Tobold. Sure his opinion is slightly... opinionated but it's his blog. The jist of his post is spot on.

I'm lucky enough to have played DFO and WoW. Just because DFO is a very dynamic game with it's openness doesn't mean it has more content.

WoW has more developer created places and features in the game than DFO does. To me that means it has more content.

Sid67 had a good analogy.
@ evizaer your argument can be summed at as "

When players talk about content, they usually are discussing, perhaps indirectly, the amount of time it will take to complete the game."

That's obviously nonsense, it would mean that by doubling the amount of exp needed you could double your content or that a horrible repetitive grindfest has more content than more playable rivals.
evizaer: If Pong had an infinite number of different levels (ie. different graphic sets with the same rules), then perhaps it does have more content than WoW. Or at least it'd take a long time to play through all of them, although you might get bored quicker.
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