I am but a simple coder, so I haven’t actually been responsible for content design, unlike Dundee and Ubiq. So I tend to agree and disagree with both.
Dundee says that content should drive your systems. To use a generic example, if you are playing Widgets Online, you should first write an experience for your Widgeteer Primes to follow, and then once that is mapped out, you should then write how your players should create Red Widgets and Blue Widgets.
As a game player, I read Dundee’s post and thought “Cool! That makes sense. I want to do fun stuff.” As a coder, I shudder deep inside. During DAOC’s last 2 expansions, I was one of the guys that wrote the code to make the stuff the designers came up with work. A lot of my time was spent telling them “You can’t do that. No, really. You can’t do that. You are on crack. Well, we could theoretically do that, but it will make the server roll over on its back and waggle its legs. Did I mention the crack thing?” The retort was always varying degrees of “But I designed it this way!” Words cannot express how helpful that is.
So, ideally, you have designers who are aware of what your friendly coders are capable of doing (or, as deadline approaches, become ready for the inevitable “OK, this is how we make our stuff work with what support we have NOW” meeting). Or producers that sit on both and say “I want it to work THIS way. Oh, and make it green. I like green.”
These anecdotes, while hopefully amusing, also illustrate that in the barely disguised battlefield that is an MMO production environment, you really do have to come up with content and systems simultaneously. You don’t have the luxury of saying “Hey, we’ll design this, and someone will make it work magically later”, and you hopefully are not forced to say “Well, we get these systems and nothing else, ever, so let’s make it work with what we have.” The art of production is in meeting somewhere between those extremes. Unsurprisingly, Ubiq, who has been on more production teams than Jesus, hammers this point home pretty hard. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Be aware of what your guys are capable of. Etc. Etc.
Ubiq’s final point, which Anyuzer had a problem with, is that players are the true producers of an MMO’s content. Well, yes and no. If you have an MMO with no content, people aren’t going to be content with “well, you guys roleplay having fun”. I mean, you can only give a kid a cardboard box and expect him to play with it so many times. Eventually he’s going to want an upgrade to a stick and some leaves or something. You can’t just abdicate completely the process of content creation (and I don’t think Ubiq is advocating this, either). Anyuzer’s problem is more that he doesn’t want to rely on other people for his MMO experience because, well, other people kind of suck.
This is true (and why every successful PVE MMO allows you to solo at least some of the time). But an MMO without people is, well, Morrowind. People are the X factor that makes MMOs what they are. If you ask a person what their favorite MMO is, you will get many different answers. But asking them to describe why will cause those answers to veer back towards shared experiences with others. Friendships, raids, battles, what have you – the shared experience of working through a problem, whatever it is, is what makes MMOs different from Fallout or Planescape: Torment. And this is why MMOs have, to date, gotten away with content and systems that generally would be considered sub-par in single player games. Because you’re not relying on the content solely.
And this is a good thing, because players will ALWAYS burn through whatever content you provide them as quickly as possible. And usually they will resent it, if you place it as roadblocks to the “end game”, because players want to get to where their friends are – which more often than not, is the end game, whatever it is. They want to get to the X-factor, the shared experience. The first time they play your MMO? The first character they make? Then yes, the content you create will be noticed, and hopefully enjoyed. But the fifth and sixth character, created 2 years after your game launched? Yeah, they don’t care any more. They want to catch up to the rest of the guild. NOW.
So the answer, as always, is that you have to do everything. Now. Please. This is why people who work on MMOs tend to go insane and post these long debates on blogs. Hey, it created content for your web browser!