Designing MMO content is, IMO, far different than designing gaming content, primarily because MMO content has to last, while other gaming content has to be as fun as possible. It may sound odd, but I don’t think you should try and make all of your MMO content as fun as possible. Allow me to explain.
We generally play MMOs far longer than we do other games. If you get 30 hours out of a ‘normal’ game, that’s considered pretty good. If you only get 30 hours out of an MMO, you likely quit long before hitting the level cap or seeing the majority of the game, which in turn means you didn’t really like it. The business is built around this as well, especially the sub model. A happy customer who only played your sub MMO for 30 hours is not a good customer.
As MMO players, we are odd beasts. We will do things we don’t really like/love (dailies, farming, travel, etc) to allow us to do the stuff we do like/love (main quests, PvP, beating raid bosses, etc). Not only that, but we will continue to do this for far, far longer than we would tolerate in a normal game. Imagine if you had to hit rocks in an sRPG for 50 hours before you could craft a half-decent weapon? You would quit that game in short order, and it would get ridiculed in reviews. In MMOs though? 50 hours to level up a crafting skill/profession is considered rather short, and in many games that timeframe is orders of magnitude longer, with thousands and thousands of players participating and accomplishing that goal.
To return to not making your content fun, I believe MMO content should be designed on a scale. On one end you have rewards, and on the other end you have fun. The more fun said content, the less rewarding it should be, while the less fun something is, the more rewarding it needs to be to stay viable/relevant.
Some MMOs already do this well. PvP in EVE is considered the fun stuff, and not only is it not directly rewarding, it’s in fact neg-sum. Sticking with EVE, mining is perhaps one of the least fun things you can do in any game, let alone an MMO, but it’s highly rewarding (not just for the ISK earned, but also because the reward comes with so little effort). Travel in an MMO is generally not fun gameplay, but it’s again easy to do and the reward is easy to see (you arrive where you want to be). Raiding is hard work with little reward initially (but learning encounters and seeing new content is fun), while farming a raid isn’t all that fun, but it’s highly rewarding.
“Syn, why not just make content rewarding AND fun?”
Content has to be balanced, in that it all should be viable to the average player. If one bit of content is ‘the best’, it not only ruins the other stuff but also gets your players into bad patterns and ultimately sees them out the door quicker. As a designer it’s important to remember that one of the worst enemies of your game are the players themselves, and it’s your job to protect them, even if that means being the adult and telling the child that he can’t have yet another candybar.
Take FATES in FFXIV for example. Many players will form groups and grind nothing but FATES. This is because fundamentally, FATES aren’t well balanced. They are a bit too rewarding for what they are; decently fun group content. It would be hard to tone down the fun of FATES (I guess you could make them longer/more grindy), but lowering the rewards would be easy. But why would SquareEnix want to do this? Because you have a lot of other great content, and the more you can spread people out, the longer it will take for someone to get bored of your game, and keeping people around is what the model is all about.
Note that this only applies to content which is expected to last. A one-off piece of content, like a story quest or special event, should be as fun as possible, and so long as the rewards don’t spoil the rest of the game (like giving you the best weapon or a massive amount of gold), all good. Those little bits of content should be highlights for the player, something to look forward to and further motivate you; a bit of long-term ‘reward’ let’s say.
Far too many MMOs get this all wrong IMO, where a lot of developer resources are spend on imbalanced content, and one or two pieces are left unchecked that everyone rushes to, consumes, looks around, and leaves because everything else seems to lacking in comparison.