Not the horrible hairy kind you find in your belly button (well, if you are a man of a certain age at least), but rather the kind you get in some of the better MMO games. Perhaps I'd better try to define what I mean by fluff (or fluff content, or carebear bait as it is sometimes called). It's not a well defined word, so here's my take on it so you know what I'm babbling about.
Fluff is game content that you can experience or obtain that does nothing to improve your character's stats, raid potential, abilities or game-beating prowess. It can be found as quest rewards, game systems, faction rewards, through exploration and in many other ways. But why should developers spend valuable time building fluff content instead of new dungeons, raid, mobs or loot?
I believe that content makes the gameplay come alive, but fluff makes the world come alive. It's what players do when they are tired of grinding mobs and crafting. The best designed fluff can bring together players and even create sub-communities dedicated to that particular system.
Housing systems are typically good examples of fluff content. The system in Everquest 2 is probably the best that I have come across, with an incredible amount of furniture items available from merchants, quests, collections, and so on. The system has grown over the years and is very flexible, allowing items to be placed just about anywhere rather than on pre-situated item hooks. Indeed an entire subcommunity has sprung up around EQ2 housing, and some players make good plat (in game cash) by hiring out their services as virtual home decorators. It's a system that does nothing to effect the performance of your character but adds a lot of depth and fun to the game
One of the best fluff content systems I've played with is the player music system in Lord of the Rings Online. It's a system that allows you to play various musical instruments in game, and even form bands, allowing you to synch up your music. The music can be original compositions or covers of real songs, played live or from abc notation files.
The impact of this type of system was highlighted to me recently when I was adventuring in Bree with Adurj. We entered the Prancing Pony inn to find a live performance being put on by a band. This kind of unexpected event is the kind of thing that fluff content can bring, drawing large crowds of players together. You can see a video example here and read Adurj's original thoughts on the matter here.
Most big MMOs now have some kind of in-game festivals and events. Whether it be Frostfell in EQ2, Bilbo's birthday riddle games in LoTRO, or the Midsummer Fire Festival in WoW, these events again bring players together in shared experiences without effecting the ability of the characters to complete content.
Other common examples of fluff content include costume systems, mini-games like tag, fishing or football, and instanced session play like LoTRO's chicken play system.
The shared characteristics of all this type of content is that it brings value to the community and offers alternative gaming content. They make the world of the game come alive in a way that most regular content cannot.
So, why have I been thinking about this? Well, one of the things that struck me about the recent Rift beta tests I have taken part in is that the game had no fluff content whatsoever, and this may be part of the reason why I didn't connect with the game world. Of course, fluff content may arrive with the launch of the game but it was conspicuous by it's absence in the beta tests.
I'm looking forwards to Star Wars: The Old Republic with great anticipation, and I'm really hoping that we will see some good fluff content in the game at launch. I believe that it can be just as important as the progression content common to most MMOs. The question I've been asking myself is what kind of content might we expect to see. Here are the ideas I've come up with so far...
- Housing. This has been confirmed in the form of customisable spaceships for each character. The ship will serve as a base for the character and their companions, as well as allow some customisation. The extent of this system remains to be seen however.
- Character costume system. I think this is unlikely, at least at launch, to be in the game, based on comments the devs have made. I hope this is something that may be added post launch as it has become a staple of most successful MMOs, and all players like the opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
- Festivals - I think this has a possibility of being in game at launch, probably on planets such as Coruscant. However I don't know enough about the lore to see how they would fit this in. The devs have said that they will remain true to the lore of the IP, so we'll see.
- Mini-games - I think (though it may be wishful thinking) that there is a good chance we will see some min-games at launch. Both pazaak and pod racing were present in Knights of the Old Republic, and we know that cantina's will play a big part of the quest hubs on some planets. This screenshot shows a game of Dejarik in progress, though whether it will be playable or not is another matter.
I hope that Bioware have spent some of their huge budget on incorporating some fluff content into the game. It's one of the things that sets the more rounded MMOs
May the Fluff be with you!