Behind the Veil #14: Avoid Malcontent

Avoid Malcontent

Alright, so you’ve thought up a brilliant computer game idea, written it down, realized you were on crack and thrown it out to replace it with another stronger, faster idea, and honed it in to a finely crafted machine. You know basically what the game’s about, you’ve drawn up a few prototype concept art galleries, and you’re feeling confident (cocky) enough to start deciding how to fill your world with game content. There’s only one question left to ask yourself:

What, exactly, is content?

With such a vague question set forth, some would say “content is stuff.” Unfortunately, the content=stuff equation doesn’t quite work, as it’s far too vague an answer for such a vague question. Having several dictionaries at my disposal, but being too tired to look through them, I looked it up on

2. The subject matter of a written work, such as a book or magazine. Often used in the plural.

So content would be what makes up the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to computer games it’s not quite that simple, as the proportions of everything must also be taken in to consideration, making sure the world appears to be balanced. This is, however what the Entertainment Software Rating Board looks at when determining their rating for your game.

4. The proportion of a specified substance: Eggs have a high protein content.

Perfect. Combining 2 and 4 gives us 6, which is the description of content within a computer game: the environment in which the player interacts with the world and other players, and the objects that fill the environment. Alright, so it takes a little creative thinking to get to there from 2 and 4, but for this column, it’s what we’ll go by.

Exactly what the content consists of is up to the developers. You decide how many types of tree, how many types of monsters and wild animals, what quests are part of the game, etc. The only real advice I can give for what makes up the content of your game is to be as creative as you can, while staying within the scope of your team’s skill, time and budget.

Some of that content will have to be ways for the players to create their own content. Runewords and crafted items are examples of player-created content. The players will create their own guilds, and sometimes even their own quests, so it’s up to you to give them the tools with which to do this. Player-made content, however, will be covered in a future column… probably the next one.

A much more difficult theory is how much of these things should go in to your game in the first place. How large should Fangorn Forest be? How many Rings should there be? Just how big should that nose actually be?

This is much more challenging to figure out than you might think. It’s very difficult to slap a generalization on content and not find a game that readily succeeds while breaking your rule. Instead, let’s look at the two extremes of bad content, and then use them to figure out something that might work a little better.

Let’s suppose you have a beautiful world for the players to explore. You’ve spent six months on your terrain editor alone, and want your game to show off how well the wind interacts with each individual tree in your world. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you don’t over-do it.

If your game involves long stretches of scenery with nothing to do, then there’s something wrong with it. Players should not be able to spend an hour in real time walking in a straight line without having to do anything. Just ask the fine people from Turbine Games, who filled Asheron’s Call in just such a way. The game was not very successful because players didn’t want to spend hours staring at beautiful scenery (and it is beautiful, believe you me), with nothing else to do but stare at the scenery.

Conversely, packing your world full of stuff is also a bad thing to do. This is commonly known as “just shoving too much crap into too small a space.” I have an exercise for you: take everything in your house and shove it in to the living room, and then try to cross it while enjoying the journey. I’ll bet you’re thinking “why would I ever do that? It’s such a stupid idea.” That’s exactly what you’re supposed to think. If there’s too much useless crap in the way, you’re not going to enjoy yourself, and a game world is no different.

So if too much space is bad, and too much stuff is bad, the ideal amount of content should be somewhere in between, right? Here’s my slant on it: If an in-game item doesn’t serve some useful purpose, and doesn’t help or hinder the player(s) in any specific way, then it’s not content. For a perfect example of this theory in motion, go revisit some random Sierra game.

One of my favourite games of all time is King’s Quest 6. Every single thing in the game has a specific purpose (or two), and is spread around in a world that’s just large enough to provide a reasonably long gaming experience, while at the same time being small enough that you always feel like you’re making progress. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that everything should have a purpose. Despite what some would have you believe, a patch of land that takes hours of real time to traverse, for the sole purpose of making you look upon the scenery, is NOT content.

Here’s what I think is another apt example of content, more specific to the MMORPG environment: Suppose you have a pre-constructed town, including streets and buildings. You could either have a bunch of “filler” buildings, whose sole purpose is to take up space for the players to walk past in order to get to something useful, or you could have them all be usable, letting the players set up shop in them. The first one wastes graphics card processing power, and server time, and causes latency, while the second is Ultima Online.

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “what about Everquest and its zones packed with stuff?” The difference between this and your living room is that each zone is radically different from the last one, with its own things to do. There is variety, which makes the zones new and interesting each time you enter one you haven’t seen before. Think about the Acts in Diablo 2. Would the game be as interesting if all four (five with the expansion) acts looked like the desert?

How much content you include must be based on how many players you expect to fill each part of your game’s world, and what you expect them to do there. If you think your town will see ten thousand users at a time, and it’s meant to be a giant marketplace, you will need room for several hundred shop booths.

The very challenging part of this exercise is that you need to continue watching what goes on in your game, and change the content level appropriately. If you find that your towns’ populations are larger than you expected, and the shops are getting bogged down, you need to open more shops. If there are too few NPCs and the players are getting bored, add more NPCs.

The goal of content is to keep the game interesting. If you want to keep your game’s player base, you cannot afford to include long, meaningless, but necessary actions that don’t accomplish anything. People don’t like having their time wasted. There should always be something to do, which will lead to other people hanging out for the players to interact with.

So that’s it for this column, a slightly didactic diatribe on what makes up content in a gaming world. Next time we will indeed look at player-created content, and what developers can and should do to promote its creation.

Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of

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