MMOs are everywhere, aren’t they? MOBAs and class shooters may be the current trend, but the number of MMOs fighting for supremacy is staggering. These games are still popular, and there’s still money to be made for an ambitious studio.
But I think we can all agree the genre is stagnating.
So many of these games rely on tired, over-used mechanics. Promises of “action-combat” and “massive worlds” fall on deaf ears. When a dozen games feel the same, it’s hard to get excited about them. In light of this, a lot of people wonder what’s next for MMOs. How do you breathe life back into the genre?
The answer is dynamic content.
A catch-all term for variable, organic gameplay, dynamic content puts the power in the player’s hands. For example, instead of forcing the player down a specific story or path, the developer may introduce a set of tools and story elements and let the player interact with them as they wish. It’s a way of fostering player creativity, community engagement, and emergent gameplay. These features are most commonly found in sandbox games: games that focus on player freedom and expression as opposed to pre-set scenarios.
These features make good on the promise of an MMORPG. Since the beginning, they’ve billed themselves as living, breathing worlds where players can tell their own stories and forge their own experiences. Dynamic content can turn this fantasy into reality.
So, why is dynamic content so crucial to MMOs? What’s the best way to implement these mechanics? What can we learn from past attempts? Well, let’s take a look!
Freedom is a common selling point for MMOs. The freedom to explore a massive world, to choose your own character and your own play-style. This all sounds good on paper, but in reality, these games can be pretty restrictive.
In the average theme park MMO, any sense of freedom gives way to linear progression, a pre-set story, and repetitive end-game content. Because of this, the player lacks a sense of agency, an ability to truly express themselves in a meaningful way.
Nothing the player does affects the world. Every heroic thing you do will be erased so the next player can have their chance. If you save a village from a monster, it will just respawn a few minutes later. This is why they’re called theme park MMOs. At the end of the day, you can’t really do anything.
But what if the game focused on what the player could do? What if the game was built from the ground up with player agency in mind? This is where dynamic content comes in.
A Player-Driven Experience
In the upcoming ASHES OF CREATION, player agency takes center stage. In the game, players enter a (mostly) abandoned fantasy world, and work to bring civilization back to the mysterious planet. Each region is divided into a series of “nodes.” These nodes keep track of player activity and allow them to build small campsites in the wilderness.
Eventually, as players interact with this campsite, it will grow into a small village. Depending on what players in the node are doing (fighting, crafting, exploring, etc.), the village will begin to change. If there’s a lot of combat going on, the village will become militarized, spawning NPC guards as opposed to vendors and tradesmen.
Players can become citizens of the village, building a small house and paying taxes. As the village develops into a city, these small houses grow, encouraging players to help small struggling nodes, as opposed to jumping on the bandwagon later on.
Eventually, a town could grow into a massive metropolis, one of several allowed to exist in the world. These cities provide instanced apartments, markets, and any number of features depending on how the city grew.
Not only that, but the players actually govern these cities. A militarized government chooses its leader in an arena, a more scientific city elects a mayor, and the wealthiest players run an economic city. These leaders control tax rates and determine what services a city offers. Unhappy with your leaders? Organize enough players and fight back, politically or otherwise.
Emergent Gameplay In MMOs
Along the way, any number of things can stifle this evolution. Towns can degrade if the community isn’t careful, so it’s important to keep them well-funded and defended. If a rival city gathers enough players, they can lay siege to their enemy, damaging or even destroying your town if successful. This is what player-driven content looks like.
So here we have a single feature with enough content to provide endless amounts of varied, unique experiences, all while allowing the player to change the world. This is just a sample of what dynamic content can do.
But player agency is only one part of a sandbox game. In order for this freedom to have any weight to it, you need a world that truly feels alive.
Most MMO worlds are static. Barring a few exceptions, the state of the world will remain the same regardless of where the story takes it. Without a world that truly evolves, player agency becomes meaningless.
Organic systems drive the perfect sandbox. Systems the player can witness, improve, or disrupt. NPCs from opposing factions should attack each other in the wild, encouraging the player to take sides. The weather and time of day should determine which monsters spawn and how strong they are. Over time, the state of the world should shift dramatically, as monsters destroy cities, enemy strongholds are left in ruin, and the accomplishments of past heroes leave a lasting impact on the land.
You can do all of this without forcing a linear story down the player’s throat, without railroading them down a series of pre-made quests taking them on a theme park ride around the world.
It’s no easy task to create a living world. Even so, it’s considered the holy grail of sandbox gaming. Several MMOs have attempted to do this, with varying degrees of failure. EVERQUEST NEXT is probably the most infamous example. The game’s “Storybricks” AI system gave each faction its own personality and motivations. These factions would then be let loose upon the world, and their interaction would determine the events in the game.
For example, orcs love gold but hate civilization. Because of this, when a group of orcs spawn in the world, they’ll inevitably wander to poorly guarded trade routes far from towns and cities. When the orcs attack lonely players on the road, they’ll have a natural motivation to stop them.
The longer the community ignores the problem, the more entrenched the orcs will become in their location, starting as a small band of miscreants, and eventually evolving into a fortified camp. At this point, an entire team of adventurers would be required to take down this growing threat.
Supposedly, the entire game worked like this. Unfortunately, Sony sold the development team to a Russian holding company. They canceled the game a year later.
Why This Matters
This system alone would have revolutionized the industry, creating a game that never ended, driven by persistent, organic events in the world. A world like this could keep the player engaged indefinitely. No longer are you slaying dragons because the developers told you to, or for the promise of shiny loot. You’re doing it because the dragon is actually threatening the world you’ve helped build.
EVERQUEST NEXT failed, but none of their ideas were impossible, or even improbable. You can have an organic, systems-based world that morphs and shifts as the player interacts with it. If anything, it’s the next logical step for MMOs.
In a world driven by player agency and organic evolution, you may be wondering how a game like this could remain balanced. Well, you’re not the only one.
MMOs have toyed with dynamic content for decades, only for their mechanics to backfire. The most infamous example is ULTIMA ONLINE. One of the first MMOs, ULTIMA featured a living ecosystem where ecological events would alter animal behavior, presenting the player with a new set of challenges. However, the developers couldn’t account for player behavior, and the community was simply killing the monsters and animals before they could appreciate the effects of the system.
In the end, they removed the system entirely, lamenting that no one would experience the fruits of their hard work. There’s a reason developers are wary of dynamic content.
Modern sandbox games have improved upon these issues, putting just enough safeguards in place to keep things from spiraling out of control. Still, there’s always a degree of chaos in these games, and they often become imbalanced and unwelcoming to new players. Put simply: when the player is given too much power, they’ll inevitably exploit it, and when automatic systems control the world, it will inevitably be thrown out of balance.
Bringing Back The Dungeon Masters
So how do we balance free-form, dynamic content with balanced, hand-crafted gameplay?
Put simply, we need dungeon masters.
Just like a D&D session, a sandbox MMO needs someone at the helm. In order for dynamic content to work, it needs to function under the watchful eye of an active development team. The team needs to monitor every server. They need to account for unexpected variables ruining the system; they need to be aware of how players are interacting with the world, and be willing to tweak things if necessary. The creators should allow the story to develop based on what the community is doing, and even implement new challenges to keep players on their toes.
It may seem unfeasible to “DM” a game on such a large scale, but this sort of thing isn’t unprecedented.
The best MMOs foster a bond between the player and the developers. In RUNESCAPE, it’s not uncommon for the moderators to show up in the game world and help players directly. In larger MMOs like EVE, members of the team will even fly around and fight with the players. More importantly, they’ll talk directly to newcomers, giving them tips and advice to help them get started. This level of “on the ground” engagement can go a long way, improving community morale and giving the developers a chance to see how the players are interacting with the game.
If we take another look at ASHES OF CREATION, we can find a more hands-off example of developer involvement. Rather than create a linear narrative, the developers decided to let the story unfold differently on each server, based on what the community is doing.
For example, if a city develops near a particular mountain, eventually miners in the city will “dig too deep,” releasing a giant monster ready to destroy the city if the players don’t stop it.
Not only is this a perfect fusion of player agency and organic worldbuilding, but it’s a handcrafted scenario carefully designed and balanced beforehand. It’s this middle ground between total chaos and rigid linearity that every MMO needs.
The Dangers Of An Unregulated System
On the flip side, games like ArcheAge suffer greatly from un-monitored freedom and permissive developers. On paper, this game is the perfect example of dynamic content: it’s a massive world where you can build a house, a castle, or even a sailing vessel. There’s a jailing system for outlaws, a war between two continents. There’s even a caravan system that encourages players to ship goods around the world while avoiding bandits. The community drives each of these systems.
And that’s the problem.
Without any sort of developer control, ArcheAge has become rife with griefers. Organized guilds abuse the economy, a small group of elites control everything, and the community is absolutely toxic, making it impossible for new players to get involved.
ArcheAge is a microcosm of everything that can go wrong with a sandbox MMO, but it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right team controlling the chaos, you can create a dynamic world without sacrificing quality.
At the end of the day, how does dynamic content improve the gaming experience? Why is it so important? Well, it’s pretty simple:
Dynamic content makes a game come alive. It makes it feel real. It’s the only way to provide a truly personal, engaging, player-centric experience. Everything takes on a new level of significance when you can give yourself to the game-world. The stakes feel real, and you’re fully immersed in the experience.
Dynamic content fuses immersion with mechanics, creating a game that truly sucks you in.
When the player has the agency to create their own stories, when the world around them is shifting and changing organically, the game becomes real on its own. Suddenly, a sense of investment comes naturally. Suddenly, you care about a story you made in a world you built. All of a sudden, those buzzwords about “living a life in a virtual world” become a reality. This is the power of dynamic content.
A lot of people are cynical about the future of MMOs. It’s pretty hard not to be when you consider the state of the genre. But there’s still room to grow. With dynamic content, games come alive. Communities form. Challenges become real. MMOs are brimming with untapped potential. It just takes an ambitious team willing to think outside the box, and truly deliver on the promise of an MMO.