One no exception rule in MMO content (by content I mean missions and quests), players consume it faster than developer can produce it. Unfortunately, I believe content to be the best way to create new, maintain current and re-engage inactive subscriptions (and by subscriptions I mean revenue). New gameplay systems can certainly help but a large and fresh content library is the best.
There are several ways to work with content and consumption:
This is best demonstrated with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft’s raids. These are challenging, multi-part missions which require significant teamwork. These missions should never be completed successfully by a random assortment of players on their first attempt. A powerful reward is received upon successful completion. The rewards for this content are diverse and limited forcing players to complete the raid multiple times.
Large, Diverse Content
Simply having more content available than a player can experience in a single run through the game is another possibility. Most games achieve this over time or by having multiple factions that have exclusive content. Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is aiming to accomplish this by having content for each player class that is loosely linked to the other classes’ content.
Pseudo-random content falls is the main way to accomplish this. Raids can also be included. Paragon Studios’ City of Heroes’ newspaper/scanner missions and Cryptic Studios’ Star Trek Online’s exploration missions are the pseudo-random content. They take pre-made maps and mission objectives and glue them together to create missions.
Of course, new content is, in my opinion, the best way to keep players engaged. New mission objectives, maps and enemy groups keep the game fresh. Gamers of all types will want to explore the new content for the story, the challenge and the general newness.
But when creating new content for players it becomes a question of how fast can the content be designed, produced, tested and delivered.
Paid expansions offer the developers a chance to see a direct cash injection into the game for the content that is produced. However, since players will be paying in addition to the standard subscription cost, this content is expected to be larger, diverse, finely tuned, very polished upon release. Expansions will greatly expand the content library but can take months or years of development.
Free Episodic Updates
Also referred to as patches, these episodic updates occur on a somewhat regular basis. They are free updates provided to subscribers of the game. They contain bug fixes, ability adjustments, avatar updates and new content. This new content is typically packaged in groupings, so a new quest area with five to ten new missions. Since they are free updates, the content is typically not as large as expansion content but still significant.
Paragon Studios’ City of Heroes add the Mission Architect (MA) system last year. The MA system gave players a polished version of the mission creation tool used by Paragon Studios. Players can craft arcs that contain up to five consecutive missions. Players can write all the mission text, customize the enemy groups, quest giver and many other aspects. The MA system allows for nearly unlimited amounts of content for players to consume. But as Paragon discovered, it is nearly impossible to predict and prevent all possible abuses of such a system.
I’m not an MMO developer but I am an avid player (I’ve played or tested over 15 MMOs), so here’s how I would approach it. I would enlarge the level design team by half and then split them into two teams. They would work in month cycles. Team A would be responsible for designing, implementing and testing new content in the course of a month. Team B would be responsible for fixing current mission bugs and working on content for the free episodic updates or the paid expansions. At the conclusion of the month, Team A’s work would be published and the two teams would swap responsibilities. This allows the teams to remain fresh and deliver exciting content more frequently and get a sense of accomplishment when their hard work is published at the end of the month. I feel that this will appeal to players because new and fresh content is being delivered on a consistent timely basis.