The measure of success when it comes to MMO content is surprisingly simple IMO (the longer the content holds your attention, the better), yet rarely mentioned much less accounted for directly. Both players and developers talk endlessly about many aspects of content, yet when was the last time someone directly stated that piece of content X is fantastic because it’s been reused/rerun countless times?
The absolute worst form of content from a retention perspective is strictly one-off content, yet the most expensive MMO to date based its entire sales pitch around just that, and both players and other devs ate it up for years until launch happened and poof it all went.
People then repeated the same song and dance with GW2 and its personal story, though at least in this case Anet had no illusions of retention and just wanted to sell you a box and perhaps a hat on your way out. (Or at least, said as much and then added resist gear ‘raiding’, but details blablabla)
And at some point we will have a proper name for online one-off games with others around like SW:TOR or GW2, where the bulk of what you pay for is set to be consumed once, while those who REALLY like the theme/setting can still stick around with the other diehards in various attached mini-games (battlegrounds, WvW, hard-mode dungeons, etc), and more can come back to purchase DLC/expansions and one-off that content.
But that genre aside, if you really are designing an MMO, or you really are looking to play an MMO, reusable content is the key. Raiding works for those into group-based PvE in a themepark. It’s hard to argue against the merits of Molten Core or BWL in early WoW when you consider the number of hours poured into them by players at that time vs the amount of dev time spent creating them. And if you don’t think WoW’s early success is tied into that end-game design, I’m guessing you worked on SW:TOR and still think it’s the business model that screwed you.
How Blizzard later handled raiding also helps explain WoW’s more recent performance. About the only thing that ended up being more accessible seems to be the cancel account button, but hey, at least you’re not selling hotbars. (Yet?)
Raiding or themepark-based design aside, it’s easy to look at what EVE does in terms of content and see why a game that’s 10 years old is still a genre leader. Missions are generic and not thrilling content, but given the choice of running 100 missions or one of GW2’s single-player storyline 10 times, which would you choose (factoring knowing the end results/rewards/impact)? Exactly. Plus in EVE you decide when to increase the challenge. You can move to low-sec for your PvE, get into Incursions, or even WH space. And at some point you are going to come across PvP, either because you are seeking it out or it found you, which will open up a whole new can of replayable worms.
But at the heart of replayable content lie the players. Doing the same actions with others (and ‘others’ can’t be easily replaced by silent bots) is just more fun, not to mention somewhat random thanks to human nature. It’s also why focusing so much of your design on REMOVING said random factors is MMO suicide, yet we continue to see developers try to ‘limit the frustration’ and ‘steamline’ things. ‘Groups’ without knowing who is in your group, zero-effort group creating with one-off randoms, rewards for failing, achievements for playing poorly (naked, in joke specs, not causing damage, etc); the list goes on.
Yet during all this trending on attracting… someone… with all this accessibility and single-player online whatever, MMOs that have followed the core principles have continued to do well. With indie-funding on the rise, and quarterly-reporting publishers being minimized, would it surprise anyone if the next wave of MMOs look a whole lot more like MMOs, and less like online sRPGs?