I recently started playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - the latest in a video game series that is a pacesetter in the single player Role Playing Game (RPG) genre. I found myself wondering whether the distribution of content in virtual worlds - were it as sugar - is better lumpy or sprinkled...
Beyond horse armor and other evolutionary innovations, Oblivion appears faithful to its genre and the history of the RPG formula. As disclosure, I have always loved the idea of the single-player RPG but am forever finding myself short of the ideal. I loved Morrowind (the predecessor to Oblivion) and its expansion packs for all the 100 times I started and restarted but never finished them. The formula of deep and intricate quests and Player Guide-driven play structures eventually got in my way.
Whatever you may think of its genre, Morrowind (the predecessor to Oblivion) was notable for - amongst other things - superbly crafting and embedding its tutorial and character creation process into the opening narrative of the game: you were a prisoner on a ship slowly remembering your land legs and soon to be confronted with a release into a gradual mystery.
Oblivion goes one step further. I found the opening drama involving the doomed emperor seductive. I found its tutorial and character creation process so cleverly woven into the tense fabric of the emperor's escape that I quickly became drunk on "For The Win" (FTW!): long live the emperor!
I'm not sure how my Oblivion experience will end, but at least to now, I find myself so jazzed by the opening segment and its flow into the main-line quest that I can easily overlook the lessor irritations of min-maxing and cranking skills, levels, money - the grind stuff. A lump of sugar in a long afternoon of watery tea-sipping goes a long way.
A long while ago I saw the "Making Finding Nemo" documentary (DvD). I recall a discussion on the strategy they used to maximize the impact of their water special-effects. Given the limitations of resources the choice they made was to focus most of their budget on a single scene and skimp everywhere else. They found it more efficient to sell the audience once, do it really well, and then abstract elsewhere.
Sure. Literature and characterization in general works like this. All media does: any successful presentation is unlikely to be equally deep in all places. The art is picking the right spots.
However, to bring this back to MMORPGs and the virtual world experience. Are there places where MMORPG content could be improved to move players forward with disproportionate effect? Or have I got this wrong. Is the lumpy strategy relatively less useful to MMORPGs because of their emphasis on a longer and more socially-driven experience? Should MMORPG developers work with lumps or focus on sprinkling the sugar all about?