For CCP Online senior game designer Matthew Woodward, building MMOs solely around hand-crafted content is a losing strategy. "Trying to be the next World of Warcraft doesn't work," Woodward said during at GDC Online, "Content is expensive."
Woodward's talk, "The Other White Meat: Design Architecture for Sandbox Games", explained the three pillars that CCP relied on to make EVE Online into a compelling sandbox MMO -- and thereby keep players coming back to play for years without having to worry about them running out of things to do.
"Social" not just Facebook
"Everyone knows the social aspect is important, but it's taken me five years to actually find out how important it is," Woodward said. "Social is not just about friends. Social is everything to do with other people, every time it matters that a character is a person, not an NPC. We want to hit this as much as possible, we want our game to be about this."
Woodward explained how designing a game to encourage socializing had certain pitfalls, as well. "If you push people into playing in groups, that will often backfire. It doesn't always deliver the value you're hoping for," Woodward said. "And what happens when you try and get a friend into your game and you've been playing for six months? "In EVE, our power curve is really flat -- you can still be useful to a five-year veteran player on day one or week one. In traditional MMOs, if I play over a weekend and you don't, we can never ever play together again."
One cardinal social sin Woodward pointed out in most major MMOs was the guild model: "The traditional guild model is done horrendously badly -- and EVE Online does this too. In my opinion, because it assumes that each player has only one circle of friends. That does not reflect how people actually socialize and play a game."
Woodward also made sure to point out that even if your game encourages socializing, players will naturally ignore those aspects if it interferes with the most optimal grinding methods possible. "In a lot of cases, extrinsic motivators optimize social aspects out of the game," Woodward said, "If I want my numbers to go up as fast as possible, I'm not going to talk to you."
Low-impact activities that also reward players with buffs or other in-game elements, like EVE Online's mining aspect, can encourage socializing in other ways: "Mining is boring; mining with friends and beer is fun because you can sit there and do nothing and have fun."
Goal-driven players good for business
"We want our goals to be long-term for grubby business reasons -- we want to drive retention," Woodward said, "This also smooths over bumps -- if you have a setback of three hours' work in a goal of six months, players are more reasonable about that because it's less work relative to the goal."
Giving players something to aim for over the long haul can keep them around longer, but if the paths to those goals need to be carefully designed or they'll have the opposite effect. "Avoid dead ends," Woodward said, "If the players find out they have to throw away work, that's the point at which they decide to take a short break, which turns into a long break."
Emergent gameplay is cheap
Developers simply can't build game content fast enough to keep players in their games -- and when you make a game based on a subscription model, that just won't work. "The big win is that emergence is cheap," Woodward said, "A lot of emergent gameplay discussion is about the One Big Moment. in EVE, the big heist that happened six years ago, in Ultima Online, the assassination of Lord British. They're great because they make players feel like that could be them, but the big win of emergence is that it lets us keep players cheaply."
Of course, EVE's meticulously-tuned PvP design is central to its long-lasting appeal. "Make it so that every action a player takes affects the world state -- preferably in a negative way for someone else," Woodward explained. "That gets them to push back. That gives you a world where everyone is constantly pushing against everyone else, and you get a world that is in constant flux because of other players."
"If you do this well, people will play your game forever. People will pay for it forever."