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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Why MMOs Are Complicated

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on March 9, 2011

MMOs are notorious for exceeding schedules and budgets, then stagger through launch with missing features and fatal flaws. Many say making MMOs is complicated, but why? It’s been 12-14 years since Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999) launched. In my current MMO project, our operations chief has launched six different MMOs in his career. Most of the studio has worked on MMOs before. Yet we have difficulties, last-minute delays and surprises.

Why are MMOs still difficult to create?


The Gamer’s View

A gamer’s view of an MMO is simple and straightforward. The player installs the game (client) on his or her PC, then connects via the internet to a game server, as shown below.

Gamers understand that extra technology is needed to “split” the game between client and server. Nevertheless, why is it so hard to build and release MMOs?


The Developer’s View

MMO developers are generally aware of additional complexities.

Game server(s) must do a great  many things. Player-characters and their data must be tracked by the server. NPC enemies (mobs) are created and managed by the server, including their “arAI. This AI manages NPC movement, shooting and melee across the 3D terrain. Developers also know that databases are usually the weak link. The constant “writing” of new character status and possessions is exactly what is slowest in traditional relational databases. Better solutions require either costly hardware and software, or require exceptionally rare programming knowledge. Servers themselves are usually a group of specialized server boxes clustered to create one “conceptual” server or shard. The many different technical approaches to shard organization could inspire a series of different articles.

Game developers understand that the game needs an online presence to operate. This includes a website, login systems, authentication systems, downloaders and updaters. The game also needs good community management and customer service. Unhappy customers will soon migrate to a competitor. Finally, an MMO needs an operations team to install and maintain server hardware and software.



The Daunting Reality

A fully functional MMO has many more “moving parts” around the game than most developers imagine. This infrastructure for a MMO is its “platform.” A more realistic portrayal of this ugly underbelly in MMO development looks like this:

Notice that game and accounting web functions are separate. The “game” website needs constant updating of marketing and promotional information, while user account creation and management must be rock-solid to prevent hacking and fraud. In fact, the account system supports creating, renewing and cancelling both accounts and subscriptions. Most modern MMOs also include a microtransaction (MTX) system for purchasing add-ons, from character transfers to in-game virtual currency. Finally, the account needs to link or “hand off” to the game during login without allowing hacks or cheats.

Customer service systems aren’t any easier. Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) need to examine everything from player financial transactions to in-game databases and chat. They not only need tools to email customers, but also tools to “action” players inside the game. These “actions” range from compensation (“Here’s 50 platinum because our update destroyed everything in your in-game bank) to chat messages (“Cool it or you’ll be banned) to player removals (“You’re banned for the next 7 days). The CSR system needs internal checks and balances. More than one MMO has been hurt badly by CSRs doing everything from favoring certain players to accepting bribes from gold farmers.

Another platform function is game metrics. Game executives want to know many people are playing, when and how much money they’re spending. It is not humanly possible to play sufficiently on each server. Metrics are provide vital information about the game’s operation. Are the servers are crowded or empty? Are subscriptions are rising or falling? What microtransaction items don’t sell? In additional, the operations team needs a host of technical readouts related to server hardware and software health. If the server software crashes its hardware suffers a failure, the operations staff needs to respond immediately.

In recent years, game metrics have expanded to measure gameplay. Which quests do people abandon most? Which dungeons go unplayed? At what level are people most likely to quit the game? Does this vary by age? By gender? By in-game friends? By guild membership? Recording this level of information is potentially dangerous. The very act of doing it within the server cluster can slow down processing, fill up memory, and overwhelm databases. Metrics systems must be carefully crafted.

The bottom of the diagram has a subtle pink box, showing where the game development studio connects into the game’s operating structure. To insure smooth server operation, development studio engineers never program directly on the production servers. Instead, they write and test code on an in-house server cluster, then “promote” a version to various test clusters. Promotion to the “live” servers is the last step in a chain of activities lasting days to weeks. Managing this process, and deciding when exceptions are allowed, is yet another complicated process.


Underestimation & Solutions

Game developers frequently underestimate the effort and complexity of MMO platforms. In the early, dreamy concept days development teams say, “Hey, it’s just a website. A million games and companies have them. It’ll be quick and easy.” In my most recent project, the platform team of four to six engineers with two managers needed over a half year to build a platform. All were highly competent veterans. They used a variety of external systems vendors for major subcomponents, such as customer service, financial transactions, and game metrics analysis. Platforms are never easy.

The ideal solution would be a platform services company that provides a platform game developers could customize and “skin.” Unfortunately, I don’t know of any firms offering a well-tested solution currently used by larger-scale MMO operators. If someone does, please let me know!

Lacking the ideal, a first alternative is working with an established online game operator. This means the game will be presented within the operator’s platform. For example, Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) arranged for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) to be their operator. Today PotBS is so strongly associated with Sony that relatively few people remember the small, scrappy, independent studio that created it. Players must go through multiple Sony-branded website and software to reach the game.

In addition to losing “customer mindshare,” the game developer often needs to rewrite and rework server functionality to meet platform requirements. Successful operators do not rewrite their platform for each new game! The earlier in the project a developer can make a deal with an operator, the less rework is needed to integrate the game to the platform.

The second alternative is a developer making their own platform. Some difficulty can be avoided by using established companies to provide platform components. These companies do exist, such as Aria for subscription services, PlaySpan for microtransactions, Parature for customer service software, etc. However, these components are a far cry from a full platform A platform team is still needed to build the website and create the “back end” glue between systems. Platform development also means serious database work.

Ultimately, the only sure-fire way to minimize platform development effort is an agile approach. Only build the minimum necessary platform for successful operation. The surest way to incur extra cost and schedule delay is adding features because “it would be really nice if…” or because “our next game might need…” Accept that the platform, like the game, constantly evolves and improves throughout its lifecycle.

Posted in Production | 5 Comments »

Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on August 28, 2010

Realtime Worlds (RTW) now holds the dubious honor of being the world’s most spectacular MMOFPS failure. Baby eating was the cause.

Counting Noses

Sunday afternoon is normally a busy time for MMOs, especially in early August when school is out and summer vacation time is available for adults. APB had launched a month earlier (July 2, 2010). Its two English-language servers, Zombie and LaRocha, had a total of 1,970 players online, over 80% “paying” players (i.e., in pay-for-play regions). Six hours later, Sunday evening, the population was 2,334. Depending on play times and cycles, population in new games at busy times is 20% to 40% of total customers. This means APB probably had 5,000 to 10,000 English-speaking customers. APB supports French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish as well. Generously speaking, the game had 10,000 to 20,000 paying customers.

This customer base translates $1.2 to $2.4 million income per year (APB charges $10/month); but only if the game maintains its users. Checking two weeks later, population on Sunday afternoon on the same two servers was 1,221. APB had lost over 1/3rd of its active players! During that time RTW’s bankruptcy was announced. Gamers don’t abandon ship purely due to news from the financial pages. In fact, within the game a frequent sentiment was “Great! Maybe someone else will start fixing this!”

Experienced game industry veterans can read these tea leaves. APB was an abject failure – a success requires at least 50k to 100k customers. A game that took $80+ million to make at a studio that burns through $20 million a year needs over 200k customers to keep going and please the investors.

A 64-bit Technical Success

By technical standards, APB is impressive. If your PC is a 64-bit multi-core monster and your 1+ Mbps broadband doesn’t drop or reroute packets like hot potatoes, the game performs impressively. You run, jump and hurdle fences in a large city district with 79 other players and hundreds of NPC civilians. Far more impressively, up to one driver and three passengers can travel together in a fast car that spins, slides, bounces and rams into other vehicles, including airborne vehicles that can launch themselves from ramps, roofs and overpasses. All three vehicle passengers can shoot, be shot at, hit moving targets while in motion.

Some people complained about the server-authoritative cars, but with a decidedly mediocre internet connection I found APB cars reasonably drivable. Like Gran Turismo or GTA vehicles, or landing a plane in a flight sim, they require a gentle touch.

A 32-bit Windows XP box can run this game, but not well. What is an impressive game on a $3,000+ Win7 PC (2.8 GHz i7 930 quad-core with 12 GB RAM and an NVidia 480 GTX) becomes sluggish, with odd pauses, on a 4-year-old $2,000+ WinXP PC (3.2 GHz Core Duo with 2 GB RAM and an NVidia 9800 GT). I suspect this is the source of many complaints directed at APB.

Given the huge success of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, hard-core gamers with bleeding edge hardware “should” enthusiastically embrace such a technical tour-de-force. Unfortunately this didn’t occur. Steep technical requirements are just the tip of the iceberg. APB hit something far larger, well below the waterline.

A Design Disaster

In APB “Rating” level (R-value) is a key measure of progress. Win or lose, a character gains rating level in the game. In fact, losing a big fight with multiple players gives ten or twenty times more “rating” than winning an unopposed solo mission. The tutorial gets you to R20. After that a player gains about 2-4 rating points per hour to R100, then 1-2 pts/hr to R200, and less than 1 pt/hr to R300, etc. After six weeks only a handful of players were beyond R300. A $50 initial purchase gives you 50 hours of gameplay, enough to reach somewhere between R100 and R200 unless you use cheats and hacks for faster advancement. Grinding through enough gun battles for R-level is one of four disparate and confusing advancement tracks. It is as if the APB’s designers took the worst parts of Warhammer Online’s advancement system and made them even more confusing, something even the most cynical designer might have thought impossible.

Ultimately, all these advancement systems provide a character with personal improvements that add hit points, reduce incoming damage and increase the healing rate. Overall an R200+ character “with benefit” is about 30% more survivable than an under-R100 novice. Those same veterans also get guns with upgrades that increase damage, accuracy and rate of fire for about 30% more firepower. Combine both (1.3 * 1.3) and veterans are 1.69 times stronger than newbies. The practical effect is that in a face-to-face gun battle, veterans can’t lose unless they fall asleep. In fact, even if the newbie surprises them with a blast into their back at close range, the veteran can turn around and return fire so effectively that the newbie still dies first.

In addition, with 75 to 150 hours of playtime, R200+ veterans have experienced most missions multiple times. In the process they learned the best places to hide, the fastest routes to rooftops, the layout of multi-level shopping malls, and how to use this terrain to best advantage. There is little chance a newbie can find any position of advantage against a veteran. There is every chance the veteran will find a superior position and take the first shot.

Next factor in the various hacks developed by enterprising entrepreneurs during beta. These went on sale (through the black market) the day the game launched. Aimbot hacks let players automatically zero-in instantly on a target. Wallhacks allow players to see and shoot through walls. Most recently gunhacks give every weapon the longest possible range. Realtime Worlds never developed good software solutions for these. Instead, they relied on players making video recordings of hackers, which Realtime Worlds CSRs (customer service representatives) would presumably view and judge who as cheating. Needless to say, this is the slowest and most costly way to fight game-wrecking hackers.

All these problems pale against a truly vast design flaw. APB allows players of ALL levels and hours of playtime into the same instance. Guess what? Players at R200+, with all their advantages, constantly slaughter low rating players. Those lower players don’t just lose a match or two. They lose miserably, outmaneuvered and outgunned, hour after hour, day after day. At 2-4 hours per day it would take over a month to reach R200+ and be “almost” competitive.

The typical gameplay arc PC and console games, “try, lose, learn, win,” takes ten minutes to an hour or two. The gameplay arc of APB is “lose every match miserably for a month, and then win occasionally.”

I witnessed the effect of this is an APB guild during the first month. They began as an enthusiastic group of role-players. Then they lost miserably against seemingly “unkillable” enemies who regularly outmaneuvered them and insulted them. They moaned about hackers and developed a “celebrate each kill” mentality. They tried to ignore mission defeats. But it’s hard to lose most of the time. Within the month I saw groups tending to hang out, chat and goof around. They spent less and less time taking missions and shooting weapons. More and more members drifted away. Last time I looked participation at my regular gaming times had dropped to half, with one or two more vowing to quit that week.

Baby Eating

A game design is a “baby eater” if high-level players constantly defeat low-level players. APB is a classic example of this. Incoming “baby” players experience nothing but defeat as veterans tear them apart. Despite claiming that a special “threat” system would create “fair” matches, the actual system completely failed. Vastly unequal matches were commonplace in APB. This resulted in no positive word-of-mouth encouraging games to try APB. Instead, discouraged novices spread “bad vibes,” in the form of complaints about everything from real culprits (such as the matchmaking system) to irrelevant issues (a lack of “realistic” gun recoil).

In the final weeks before bankruptcy, Realtime Worlds desperately patched and “fixed” APB. Unfortunately these were minor tweaks to weaponry, outfitting and matchmaking adjustments that did nothing to prevent “baby eating.” Perhaps the senior RTW designers were so in love with the original concept that they couldn’t see the horrible reality. Perhaps there wasn’t the time and resources to make wholesale post-launch changes that fast. The inability of those designers to see the problem during beta was fatal. After launch they were reduced to rearranging deck chairs and conducting one last tune from the sinking fantail of the Titanic.

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, What Would You Do?

About 18 to 30 months ago, the proper decision would have been launching a preliminary version of the game with core gameplay. A small, simple game would have been appropriate: allow characters with guns fight on foot in one reduced-size city district. The subscription business model with very modest fees ($3-4/month, instead of $10 or $15) would encourage realistic user behavior. Such a game would quickly demonstrate whether players were coming back or more, or leaving in droves. If they were leaving, developers could experiment with everything from gameplay to matchmaking to business model until something worked. Until gameplay builds a proven audience, no amount of AAA “chrome,” from vehicular travel to character and vehicle customization, to UI polish, will make an MMO loser into a winner.

Unfortunately, outside the field of social network (“Facebook”) games, few MMO developers and publishers have the courage to perform real-world billable betas with “incremental” development. Management usually lives in the fading mindset of “big launch” boxed products. I’ve encountered innumerable game marketing managers and VPs claiming that sufficient budget can make any MMO a success. Similarly, I’ve met countless game designers convinced that his or her grandiose design vision will be a smash hit, if only they are given the time and resources to “do it right.”

Even if game studios and publishers avoid these traps, outside financial backers and venture capitalists may insist on it. The “money men” are not game industry experts. They rely on the advice of others. This source of this advice ranges from the teenage gamer next door to “industry experts” who “graduated” years ago from studios and publishing companies into the ranks of paid consultants. Sadly, too many of these experts remain in a time warp, believing that modern online games must be sold like “big launch” PC and console games of the 1990s.

Another pernicious influence on game development is selling investors using a “cult of personality” gambit. In this enthusiastic pitch-men (or women) puff the reputation and trot out well-spoken, well-known industry figures to give the company or game sufficient “gravitas” to land another $10 or $20 million in investment. Examples of this include John Romero at Ion Storm (Daikatana), Will Wright at EA/Maxis (Sims Online), Brad McQuaid at Sigil (Vanguard), Richard Garriott at NCsoft USA (Tabula Rasa) or Dave Jones at Realtime Worlds (APB). In reality, as some of these people quickly point out, it takes a dedicated, skilled and experienced team of 50+ to make a great MMO. A “front man” who spends most of his time with investors has little opportunity for more than a token influence.

The best road to industry success is to start with an honestly led, well-run, experienced development team. Release early and iterate toward success on a five year or more arc. If your business model relies on recurring revenue, like most MMOs, bet on gamer word-of-mouth and a slow marketing drumbeat over “big launch” events.

If faced with rescuing APB today, a different strategy is needed. My first move would be splitting development into two teams: ‘live’ and ‘relaunch.’ The live team would be tiny, concentrating on dealing with hackers and making tweaks to “maintain the faith” of those still playing. The great majority would go to the relaunch team. Their prime goal: find and execute the fastest possible solution to “baby eating” gameplay.

One possible path is an instance system that absolutely prevents higher-powered players from fighting lower-powered players. How? Segregate players into low, middle and high level instances. Absolutely prohibit higher level players from entering lower instances. Lower level players can “play up” into higher levels whenever they wish. As lower players advance, they are gradually “pushed upward” into higher level instances. Of course, this requires a good way to measure player ability, which never easy in a team-based FPS.

Another, easier path is overhauling the advancement and equipment system. Give novice players the absolute best single weapon at the start, as well as top-level character enhancements for the best survivability. As a player advances, give them access to alternate enhancements and alternate weapon options. Allow high-level players to explore different options. This is not a new idea. It was used with success by Planetside, one of the first MMOFPS games.

In either case, the new “baby savior” system would need a new server to test and ultimately house the new gameplay. A solid relaunch effort would require new “content,” such as a new region of the city, new character clothing options, new vehicles, and new weapons, to help interest previous players and hold onto existing players. Combating hackers and “baby savior” gameplay will not make APB an overnight success. The right fixes simply allow a profitable game to emerge from the current wreckage. Over time wise stewardship and a careful attention to gameplay and features could breed success, just as CCP grew EVE Online from 50k to 500k subscribers in seven years.

Posted in Design | 15 Comments »

Beyond Fantasies & Licenses

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on September 25, 2009

Overdosing on High Fantasy

Once I tried every new fantasy MMORPG eagerly. Lately, however, after a decade of such fare even my legendary patience is wearing thin. It’s a sad fact that too many MMORPGs are fantasy games. After about the fifth new fantasy world nothing is memorable, be it world setting, races or backstory. As I look back on dozens of fantasy games played in the last decade, often the worst are the most memorable, such as the stick-like semi-insectoid Tumeroks and squat, armor-plated Lugians, who lived in Dereth, a continent on the world of Auberean. Class options included “Hive Keeper” and “Feral Intendant.” (The game was Asheron’s Call 2, launched Nov ’02 and closed down Dec ’05.)

Fortunately creative directors appeared to have learned some lessons. Player races and classes now have exciting names and more visual inspiration in their appearance. Nevertheless, high fantasy themes with their predictable “kill ten rats” and “fedex” quests dominate. In close second are science fiction themes whose varied and fantastical premises are more confusing than Anarchy Online’s skill and equipment system.

The problem is that people financing games hate risk. Selling financial backers on overdone topics is easier than convincing them to consider something new. Glib marketers can point to the size of WoW’s fantasy audience (12 million) to justify any new fantasy game. The same marketer needs to work much, much harder to justify a steampunk game. There are no MMO success stories available (there is only one English language server for “Neo-Steam” and a handful of hopeful beta players wandering through “Gatheryn”).The glib marketer must work harder to make the pitch. His or her audience needs to already know Asian anime, where steampunk is strong, and how that shapes global pop culture. The marketer would need to show this influence appearing in places such as Disney’s “Atlantis” movie, “The Golden Compass” books and movie, and ultimately its penetration of into games, exemplified by the dwarves and gnomes in “WoW” and “Warhammer,” or the orks of “Warhammer 40,000.” In short, a simple “sell” suddenly becomes very complicated, with many potential “points of failure” throughout the pitch.

Most of this difficulty and uncertainty is avoided with a license. Once financial backers buy into a license they effectively commit to the game also. In essence, the license justifies the game’s funding. One result is staggering budgets: an estimated $80 million for “Warhammer,” over $100 million for “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” In addition, licenses are a two-edged sword for developers. A licensed IP (Intellectual Property) not only forces design constraints and production complexities, but also brings core audiences that might not match the developer’s game, or any game for that matter. Eric Heimberg discusses this in detail in “Designing For An IP” and  “Star Trek: The Hardest MMO IP Ever?”


Ingredients for Successful New Topics

The alternative to licenses is creating an original Intellectual Property (IP). Maximizing the success of an original IP has its own pitfalls. It is important to select topics with potential as movie, TV, book and toy properties. However, insuring attractive character visuals, or transferable and extendable storylines, puts the cart before the horse. The first goal is to maximize the IP’s success as a game. After all, movie rights to a hit game are worth infinitely more than movie rights to a failure. Having worked on more than one successful original IP, as well as some that weren’t so memorable, I have the following suggestions, followed by a series of examples.

1. Pop Culture Familiarity: The average consumer of movies, TV shows and/or popular fiction should understand the topic before they start playing. For example, in a pirate game a player expects to fight sea battles, have swashbuckling swordfights and acquire chests of glittering treasure. In a superhero game a player expects iconic characters in spandex or power-armor fighting larger-than-life villains who never quite die.

The combination of title and cover art must resonate with the pop cultural knowledge of the target audience. The more people who “instantly” understanding the topic, the broader the potential audience. Incidentally, I cannot claim credit for this insight. It was Sid Meier who explained it as we worked on the original “Pirates” game twenty years ago.

2. Play Expectations Meet Deliverable Gameplay: The game must deliver a play experience that satisfies and delights fans of the genre. Everything from common gameplay activities to visual style to world setting must “feel right” to those familiar with the topic. Cryptic/NCsoft’s “City of Heroes” is a classic example of how a superhero game meets fan expectations.

Gameplay failures are not always obvious. A significant problem in “Pirates of the Burning Sea” is the need to understand how sailing ships behave in relation to the wind. Maneuvering is well neigh impossible until a player learns, after which they must grasp broadside gunnery tactics (i.e., you cannot shoot in the direction you’re traveling). Perhaps this was self-evident to the designers, but it’s not obvious to gamers unfamiliar with naval warfare between 1650 and 1850. Even more unfortunately, this hard-won knowledge becomes increasingly useless as you advance in the game. Why? Because once you master the PvE AI, all PvE battles are increasingly easy. Meanwhile, PvP fights are won by whichever player best matches up the latest redesign of high-end special skills with costly end-game ships and their add-ons. In other words, newbies must learn complicated historical realities first. Then they gradually must put aside this knowledge as they “game the system” against AIs and in PvP.

3. Flexibility: Part of the value in making a new IP is its potential for licensing to other entertainment mediums, such as film, TV, books and toys. Of course evocative names and iconic visuals for characters and settings are needed. But even more important is sufficient creative scope and flexibility. Creators in other entertainment mediums also need  “working room” for their own characters, story, setting, theme and/or tone to achieve hit products.

4. Learn from the Past: Avalon Hill released the first modern board wargame in 1958, TSR released the first RPG in 1973, and sophisticated Apple II computer games appeared in 1980. During this last half century game makers have tried all sorts of topics. Hits of yesteryear are useful reminders of what can work, while failures provide insights into what to avoid. Members of computer gaming’s “old guard” (20+ years of experience) can be invaluable consultants or advisors. A few are even available for hire in various capacities!


Original IPs for MMOs


Contemporary Supernatural Fantasy

This is now a hot, mainstream category everywhere except gaming. What began with Anne Rice’s books in 1980s and the White Wolf paper RPGs in 1990s has become a staple of the SF&F bookshelves (Hamilton, Harrison, Meyer, Armstrong, Butcher, etc.), movies (“Blade” series, “Underworld,” “Twilight,” etc.) and TV shows (“True Blood,” etc.).

The opportunity and challenge of this topic is making a game that appeals to its original core audience: adult women. All but one of the successful authors in this field are female. They write about strong female lead characters whose magical/supernatural abilities lead them to face even greater supernatural threats. The truly evil ones are defeated while other “less bad” opponents become ongoing romantic complications. Depending on the tastes of the writer, the books range from sexy and sensual situations to near-pornographic sex scenes. All such material is invariably written by and for women, not men.

Novelists in the genre are varied and creative. Vampires and werewolves are just the starting point. Laurell Hamilton’s famous heroine, Anita Blake, is a necromancer who hunts vampires on the side – her “day job” is raising the dead to testify in court cases! Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan is a white witch who works as a supernatural bounty hunter. Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld series includes a female werewolf journalist, a young witch from a “traditional” New England family, a necromantic medium who does semi-fake séances for tacky daytime TV, warlocks who run secretive mega-corporations, and a half-demon tabloid reporter who thrives on chaos.

Only a few major MMO efforts are tackling this topic, leaving plenty of room for competitors. The best known effort is Funcom’s “Secret World,” rumored to focus on story-driven solo-play typical of immediate successors to WoW. In fact, the varied character types of contemporary novels beg for team play. It is easy to imagine supernatural versions of the classic MMORPG archetypes: tank, damage dealer, healer, nuker, backstabber, crowd controller, kiter, etc. The topic is custom-made for great storylines and creative encounters in urban, suburban and rural environments. Asset construction can be cost-effective on multiple levels. First, the contemporary setting permits use of cheaper “off the shelf” assets. Second, action generally occurs in dark settings, reducing the need for detailed distant scenery. Finally, many supernatural opponents are nothing more than colorful variants of different player types.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Huge, hot topic.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Feasible if designers are well-read in the field.
Flexibility: Moderate.
Lessons from the Past: Gory games that ignore the core audience (adult females) will fail.


Historical Fantasy

Korean and Chinese developers have successfully mined Asian historical periods for hits such as “Silk Road Online” and “Westward Journey.”  Rooting a fantasy game in a specific historic period can be refreshing, especially when traditional RPG classes, equipment, enemies and setting are subtly adjusted to fit an historical period. This approach made the solo RPG “Darklands” successful fifteen years ago. Set in 15th Century Germany, the game used conventional RPG features to represent an era of witchcraft, robber-knights, alchemy and religious miracles. For more on the game and its setting see the wikipedia description and a summary at Game Downloads, an abandonware site.

What makes historical fantasies different from ordinary fantasy is the accumulation of subtle details to invigorate the game. Everything about the game, from character abilities to settings to opponents reflects the realities and myths of an historical era. When done correctly, the game feels fresh and unique to players, yet the historical setting offers familiarity and logic missing from pure fantasies (such as the unfortunate Asheron’s Call 2 noted above). Finally historical fantasies are easy to learn because they reuse many core game mechanics of classic fantasy MMORPGs.

The Dark Ages: In Europe from the 500s to 700s AD, amid the decaying wreckage of the Roman Empire, a fragmented mess of “barbarian” kingdoms slowly and painful arose. Early Christian missionaries and saints alternately accommodated and competed with older beliefs. It was an age of mythic heroes in epic sagas who fought for civilization and order. This era saw the actual historical characters who became Siegfired in the Nibelungenlied (source of Wagner’s famous “ring cycle” operas), “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland,” not to mention the historical “King Arthur.” 

All these heroes were struggling to defeat chaos and create order – an ideal setting for a “sandbox” MMORPG. Innumerable realistic adventures and opponents can populate the game. Furthermore, all is not lost. By 800 AD Charlemagne formed first great medieval empire, uniting France, Western Germany and Northern Italy. The Carolingian struggle for unification offers many more story and plot opportunities.

Military technology of the dark ages was not unsophisticated. Warriors used iron swords and bows while wearing leather or metal armor. Magical powers can be represented by the miraculous acts of saintly Christian missionaries, of Celtic druids and Germanic shamans calling upon earth, animal and ancestral spirits, or scholars invoking ancient knowledge.

Late Medieval Germany: As “Darklands” demonstrated, the later middle ages in Germany, circa 1450, has many strengths. Although the game’s copyright is ensnared in legal tangles typical of fallen game companies, no copyright exists on ideas. Anyone is free to use 15th Century Germany as a setting for a new MMORPG.

Swashbucklers – The Three Musketeers: Another historical period with possibilities is the swashbuckling Elizabethan era (c.1600 AD). Gunpowder weapons were single-shot affairs, which meant fencing with a sword was essential in a fight. Pop culture expectations, formed by The Three Musketeers, yield fine opportunities for engaging design and stunning visuals. The world really can be full of desperate secret missions, with double and triple crosses amid ancient rivalries and new world treasure. Costumes range from elaborate court dress to the classic back-alley swordsman (or woman) with a feathered hat, long cape and high boots.

In addition to the famous works of Alexander Dumas, a recent series of swashbuckling novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte has gained an international audience. The latest volume in this series arrives this fall in bookstores around the world (volume 5 for English readers, volume 6 for Spanish readers).  It takes very little game design creativity to adapt classic fantasy character classes to the era. Early modern researchers and inventors can have “magical” devices, while Catholic and Protestant clerics can work miracles of faith. If literature alone isn’t enough inspiration, game designers can also look to a little-known 70’s paper and pencil RPG, “En Garde,” still in print today. It has a numerous creative ideas for jaded designers.

The Bronze Age: The end of the Bronze Age (circa 1200 BC) has potential similar to the European dark ages. In this era the “palace” style of civilized kingdoms backed by chariot armies collapsed spectacularly. In this period Troy was besieged and destroyed, the Mycenaean Greek kingdoms fell, and the great Pharaohs of Egypt entered their final decline. Historians cannot agree on what caused this – theories range from economic overspecialization to new military technologies to mysterious “sea people” invaders. Despite this, the great monuments, epics, gods and myths from the era remain with us, from the ruins of Egypt, to Greek myths, to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Innumerable “sword and sandal” movie epics have mined this period, not to mention the long popularity of the “Xena” TV series. The biggest drawback is that despite multiple valiant efforts, solo games set in the era, like “Titan Quest,” have not succeeded.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Varies, Three Musketeers has very good recognition.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Good – expectations aren’t too high.
Flexibility: High.
Lessons from the Past: Darklands succeeded; Bronze Age games repeatedly failed.


Covert Operations

A great MMOFPS/RPG hybrid could be made from Rainbow Six style clandestine military teams. The concept of small, convert military teams performing everything from surveillance to counter-terrorism “hits” is as old as military institutions themselves. Most western countries field such groups, such as the American Delta Force and SEALs, British SAS and SBS, Russian Spetsnaz GRU, etc. While a licensed approach is also possible, it is quite likely that Ubisoft’s “secret” re-entry to MMOs will use the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six license that proved such a strong earner in the past.

There are already numerous MMOFPS gams in development, starting with “CrimeCraft” released earlier this year. These products appear to emphasize traditional shooter gameplay: fast movement with quick, accurate shooting. They also emphasize PvP over PvE and generally use fictional urban jungle crime (“CrimeCraft,” “APB”) or science fiction (“Global Agenda,” “Huxley”) settings. To stand out from this crowd a successful Covert Operations MMO must emphasize character development, teamwork and tactics. For longevity as well as originality it can emphasize PvE over PvP.

In real life proper military covert operations are rehearsed in advance, then executed on a strict timetable. An MMORPG can be handle this by giving teams a missions with a practice area before they enter a challenging PvE instance. Conversely larger battlefield environments similar to conventional MMORPG “zones” can represent wartime environments with solo fighting and pickup groups. The real world today has such environments in Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, to name a few.

Military-style teams offer numerous opportunities for character roles and abilities. Area-denial weapons like machineguns perform a unique type of crowd control, while standard infantry arms (assault rifles and sniper rifles) are classic single-target killers. Combat medics who patch wounds and dispense “keep ‘em going” drugs are healers. Grenades and rocket launchers are AOE attacks. Flash and smoke grenades “debuff” enemy attacks. Choosing your body position trades off between speed (running) and defense (prone).

Best of all, the topic of covert military action is well understood and perennially attractive to the prime demographic of online MMO players: males between 12 and 35. A successful game has obvious opportunities for licensing into other entertainment mediums. However, dealing with conflicts straight from the daily news runs the risk of hostile attention from “special interest” political groups.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Challenging – many other MMOFPS titles.
Flexibility: Moderate – real world military themes have limitations.
Lessons from the Past: PvP-oriented MMOs have great difficulty holding large audiences over the long run.


Secret Agents

Secret agents fighting clandestine wars, from James Bond to Jason Bourne, offer many possibilities for MMOs. I only know of one such game in development (SOE’s “The Agency”), whose development as been long and ill-starred (see a Wired news report for its difficulties earlier this year).

Unfortunately, secret agent games have technical issues. Vehicle chases and combat are an intrinsic part of the genre, including motorcycles, cars, boats and helicopters. Many of these mount weaponry, from smoke screens and tire-slashers to machineguns and rockets. In addition, stealth is a critical part of the game and difficult to portray well via game mechanics. The game settings need a “real world, globe trotting” feel. As a result, game development means expensive design and engineering work combined with a great many art assets for worldwide locations.

Enemies in secret agent games can be agents of hostile government, mega-corporations, international mafias, or terrorist groups. The beauty of secret agentry is that players cannot fight all-out battles. The goal of a secret agent is to remain secret!  Players can be penalized for too much carnage by escalating police and military NPC intervention. Players need to be rewarded for stealth and silent fighting, such as hand-to-hand combat, silenced guns, etc. The mission-oriented nature of secret agent activities is ideal for PvP play: PvP missions can be rigged so players or teams of equal level are pitted against each other.

While MMO secret agent games are extremely rare, innumerable licensed 007 console games have come and gone. Those which concentrated on shooting failed, while those with good stealth mechanics were far more successful.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Excellent – many famous movie series.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Technically difficult; expect large design, programming and art costs.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Great gameplay is vital, as many failed 007 games demonstrate.


Alien Invaders

A variant approach to conventional secret agents is “X-Files”/”Men-in-Black” style secret agents, who defend the Earth from alien invaders. The “X-Com” solo PC games of the early 1990s had a very attractive contemporary rationale. Small fast-response teams were dealing with alien invasion scouts landing around the planet. Operating from secret high-tech bases, their goal was to capture aliens and their technology as well as kill them. As characters gain knowledge of aliens and their technology, they acquire new weapons and equipment.

Alien technology can be cast to fit all the needs of MMORPGs, not just shooting weapons. For example, defense “force shield” technologies could reduce damage from various attacks, rapid medical reconstruction can “heal” wounds and even resurrect the dead. Various forms of mind control permit the equivalent of “mez,” “fear” and “charm” magic. As characters advance they are sent on more challenging and important missions. Later they can engage in large battles against aliens on earth, on board invasion motherships, and ultimately on other planets.

In the past the primary cause of “alien invasion” games failing is uninspired gameplay. Innumerable action and “shooter” titles bear witness to the truism that nothing sinks a game faster than no game to play.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Fairly easy – but do not insult the intelligence of fans.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Deep, engaging gameplay is vital to success.


The Role of Originality

“Original” Intellectual Property (IP) is never totally original. Familiar pop culture provides “boundary points” beyond which originally hurts rather than helps a product. The art of designing within this medium lies not in total originality, but rather evoking what people already understand in new ways. A successful “original IP” begins with a well-known topic rarely or never portrayed in MMOs. The game translates that topic into well-understood play mechanics, with careful attention to “realistic” details. The resulting “new” game world is easily understood, yet seems novel to gamers who have fought too many dragons with broadswords and fireballs.

Posted in Design | 4 Comments »

Selling MMOs

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on September 18, 2009


This is a long article on a complex topic. An outline may help you skip to the “good parts.”

  • Big Launch Fever – Why boxed game marketing is inappropriate for download MMOs.
  • Product & Pricing Strategy – The F2P model and its essential components.
  • Customer Management – The centerpiece of MMO marketing, and how it starts with CRM.
  • Customer Acquisition – Customer segments and targeting, promotional approaches, social network strategies and continual acquisition.
  • Customer Development – Understanding customer types, meeting their needs, promoting community, eliminating community-breakers and professionalism.
  • Churn Analysis – The importance of analyzing customer departures.
  • Retrospective – Additional thoughts and references.


            Big Launch Fever

I recently spent a few days with a startup online studio working toward their first product. The president, who had no prior experience in MMOs, arranged for a consultant who marketed some famous console hits. The consultant discussed planning for launch, how to promote launch, meshing the game schedule with print media timetables, etc. They even described a strategy for maximizing launch volume for a weak game. Great stuff if your company is trying to sell a boxed game. However, this startup’s game would be distributed by download (no box) and monetized via F2P (free to play), freemium or subscription. Furthermore, time and budget constrained the product to modest launch features, after which online revenues would fund additional growth.

What is wrong with using a big launch? Industry veterans will immediately recognize the problems. Spending most of the marketing budget on a big launch means the game will get a burst of initial customers with little or no continuing acquisition effort. A single big launch allows no “feedback loop” for tuning the marketing message, no ability to experiment with alternate messages or audiences. A big launch strategy also requires a large investment in download and login infrastructure to support the new-user activity on launch day and launch week. A month later that capacity will be collecting dust and burning money. Most of all, the plan failed to understand that MMO customer acquisition is not a one-time event. Actually, MMO customer acquisition is continual, and but one aspect of a customer management strategy.

The Success of F2P: Today the world of download-and-play MMOs is dominated by F2P (Free to Play) games supported by microtransactions. True, boxed titles with subscription plans still exist (for example Champions Online, Aion and Fallen Earth, all launching this fall). However, in the download-to-play world the F2P is so common that alternatives can’t get traction. “The Chronicles of Spellborn” is a salutary example. This highly original MMO launched in spring 2009 using Runscape’s “freemium” business model (low level play areas are free, a subscription is needed to access higher level play). Player response was so under whelming that the development group went bankrupt and the North American publisher hopes to change the business model to F2P (see “Chronicles of Spellborn redeveloped as F2P”). Even mainstream operators are using F2P to revitalize flagging products. Turbine just converted its 2006 release of DDO (Dungeons & Dragons Online) to F2P.

What better ways exist to sell MMOs? Companies like Aeria, K2, Acclaim, Frogster and Gala-Net clearly have a formula that they tweak and reuse for game after game. What are these strategies, and how can they incorporate the best from new communication platforms such as Facebook and MySpace?

A Marketing Plan for No-box MMOs: Any marketing professional will tell you that each marketing plan is different, depending on variables like corporate strategic goals, situational and SWOT analysis, and the specific product to be marketed. For the sake of argument, assume a small startup has a single MMO well into development. The plan for financial success envisions a download-only product with no boxed product on brick-and-mortar store shelves. What are the salient ingredients of a marketing plan for this product?


Product & Pricing Strategy

I believe a diligent marketing situational analysis covering the last half decade of download-only MMOs will demonstrate that F2P is the correct approach in most situations. The F2P model can be enhanced by a subscription offering for high-end customers. I suggested this in “Subscriptions vs Microtransactions.” Coincidentally three months later Turbine’s F2P program for DDO included a subscription-style VIP level almost exactly matching what I theorized.

Given a F2P approach, the next step is a product and pricing strategy. The tried and proven technique is to build a system that allows paying customers to (a) advance faster, (b) shortcut tedious gameplay, (c) have a wider selection of appearance and equipment, and (d) have faster access to the best game items. In general, successful games avoid giving any obvious advantages to paying customers. A good F2P game design incorporates item sales opportunities throughout the game. Below are common examples of item sales.

(1) Faster advancement: A player could buy an item that increases their experience point gain for the next day, week or month. A 1.5x or 2.0x multiplier is common. This means the player levels-up 50% or 100% faster during the time period.

(2) Tedium shortcuts: A player could buy “instant resurrection” items to avoid the normal death penalty, or a “fast transport” ability that moves them quickly between “base camp” towns and an adventuring spot.

(3) Appearance Selection: When a player gains an in-game reward (from a quest, defeating a boss, etc.), let them select not only the specific award, but also its appearance. Simple systems offer “vanity clothing” or the ability to adjust clothing colors.  A more advanced systems exists in “Runes of Magic.” Here players can  “transfer” stats of a newly acquired weapon or armor into any other weapon or armor. For example, if a player’s bikini-clad elf acquires +99 Plate Armor, the player can move the +99 armor stat onto the bikini, giving them the benefits of the new item while allowing them to continue dancing around in a skimpy bikini.

(4) Item Access: In many games the very best equipment is acquired in stages, first by advancing to a high level, then by acquiring the armor or weapon, and finally by getting various objects that upgrade the item to its “ultimate” status. In many F2P games the objects for this ultimate upgrade are available only through purchase. In other cases upgrade objects can be acquired via game play, but only through long and very tedious activities.

The difficult part of pricing is computing play time and purchase scenarios against disposable income of the expected player base. Some F2P games use low price points and try to maximize volume (such as Joymax’s “Silk Road Online”), but most select higher price points to maximize gains from the minority of players able to spend somewhat larger sums. Larger list prices also set the stage for monthly “special offers” and “bargain discounts.”

Virtual Currency Systems: Most F2P MMOs, as well as Social Network RPGs, use a second “virtual currency” (VC) of “game points” (actual names vary).  The playermust spend real-world money (typically through a credit card transaction) to acquire VC, whose sole purpose is to purchase monetized items. This allows the game operator to sell a wide variety of items, some at very low prices, without suffering exorbitant per-item transaction fees.

Virtual currencies are entirely separate from in-game currency. Most games also have an in-game currency, which players earn through gameplay and spend on non-monetized game items. Only a few games (such as EVE) support using real-world money to purchase in-game currency. Obvioiusly games that do support purchase of in-game currency have no need for virtual currency.

To my knowledge no MMOs* support redeemable VC, and few permit VC transfers. In other words, players cannot sell back VC to the game operator for real-world cash, nor can they transfer their VC to another player. These limitations are deliberate: they give game operations greater control and flexibility over the issue and use virtual currency.  (*Note: Virtual worlds often do support redeemable and transferable currencies, such as Second Life, Entropia Universe, etc. Some consider this a distinguishing feature between virtual worlds and MMO games.)

An additional benefit of a virtual currency is that the game operator can reward players with this currency for third party transactions and in special promotions. Companies like Offerpal Media and Playspan can provide links to companies who pay for qualified web referrals. To see an example of this, start up the Facebook game “Mafia Wars” and click on “Godfather.” That page demonstrates how a player can get in-game “reward points” for everything from signing up for the Netflix service to answering an online survey about which Pepsi they prefer.


            Customer Management

A traditional marketing plan has a “promotion strategy” that deals with advertising reach, frequency, flights, themes and media, publicity, PR, media visibility, etc. Online products are slightly different: marketing isn’t just promoting the product to customers, it’s about managing the entire customer lifecycle. This lifecycle starts with acquisition, continues with customer development, and concludes with customer churn analysis. This is because the longer a customer remains involved with a game, the more that game can earn. Once a player leaves a game, enticing them back for a second try is extremely difficult. With so many new MMOs arriving each year, it’s very easy for a disaffected customer to experiment in dozens of potentially greener pastures.


The software system used by MMOs to support this effort is generically known as CRM (customer relationship management). An MMO CRM has four central characteristics.

(1) Front Office: This is the website supporting customer activities. This allows customers to see information about the product, download the client software, create an account, sign in for play, spend money for the virtual currency, and see what that currency will buy (and sometimes buy the item on the website, rather than within the game). Access is often provided to outside-of-game community features, often including forums and occasionally a wiki.

(2) Back Office: This billing and operations system maintains customer accounts, including game login, “second currency” holdings, game character data, in-game customer status, and customer financial status. Financial status is helps support fraud detection and prevention. This is vital because fraudulent credit card use is a major threat to online commerce, including MMOs. Maintaining customer status data is also important to proper management of the game community (see “Eliminating Community Breaks” below).

(3) Customer Analysis: Customer analysis tools track numbers of new accounts, active accounts, paying accounts, etc. Cross-referencing this data with in-game status reveals things like number of active accounts at each level, percentage of paying accounts at each level, purchase amount distribution over player history, perhaps annotated by level, etc. This builds a picture of who spends money, when, and in what amounts. Daniel James offers some useful advice about building or buying CRM analytics for games in “Metrics for a Brave New Whirled.”

(4) Business-to-Business Support: A good CRM system interacts with other companies for additional income and business relationships. Turnkey systems like Offerpal Media and Playspan provide a package of such relationships and the software infrastructure to monetize it via the game’s virtual currency.

An MMO operator need not build their own CRM system from scratch. I do not know of a one-stop provider of all CRM needs for MMOs (with the limited exception of Metaplace), but many key needs are available through service companies. Billing providers can handle the payment part of the front office and back office (Aria Systems and Vindicia are leading game-oriented services). Providers that offer virtual item management include FatFoogoo, PlaySpan, Offerpal Media, Live Gamer, and Aria’s Velocity system. These systems include some very useful pieces of customer support and analysis, typically related to customer financial activity and monetized items rather than game activity. For details about the economic side of CRM operations, I highly recommend a stroll through the thoughts of Jamy Nigri.


            Customer Acquisition

The first step in running an MMO business is acquiring customers. Customer acquisition starts by recognizing the desired goal: customers visit the game website, create an account, download the client and begin play. Therefore, it is critical that the website inform and invite players into the game quickly and easily, with minimum fuss and confusion. Client download and installation must be quick, easy and painless. This is why new MMO developers are trying to turn away from big multi-gigabyte downloads to seamless web launchers (as in SOE’s Free Realms), or as software completely within the browser (as in Jagex’s Runescape).

Customer Segments: How to get customers to the game’s website? Traditional marketing thinks in terms of age, gender and socio-economic demographics. Those were the dividing lines for offline media advertising such as print, radio and TV. Unfortunately, MMO gamers have peculiar age distributions that make age-based promotion difficult (see “Gender and Age Distribution“). The only “traditional” categorization that really matters is gender. About 80% of MMO gamers are male, and fully 2/3rds of the females are there because they followed a partner into the game (see “Playing With Someone“). This is the reason why male-oriented sexual imagery is used to sell online games (see Sanya Weather’s “Booby Prize”). Although I don’t have data to confirm it, I believe that more and more females have sufficient MMO experience that they select games for reasons other than being with a partner. The “Booby Prize” era in marketing may be waning.

Targeting Gamers: The most relevant customer segment to approach is existing online gamers. Is the game similar to previous games? If so, promote the game to players of those games. Is the game generally similar to a certain category or style of MMO? If so, promote the game to that category. Most games are about a specific topic: fantasy, science fiction, military, horror, etc. Promote the game to players of that topic. What are the hardware requirements for the game, especially the graphical requirements? Titles with older graphics can be advertised to gamers whose systems can’t handle the latest high-end whiz-bang products.

These examples illustrate that promoting to people who already play games has more many possibilities. The least productive audience is people who have never played online games. Even if a new game is the first on the planet to truly inspire a non-gamer’s interest, their lack of experience will make product comprehension, downloading, installing and learning to play large obstacles. Inevitably a larger percentage of customers will be lost during this process.

Once the game begins beta or “early live” (see “Customer Development Strategy”), current customers become an excellent source of information. The next round of acquisition can target similar potential customers.

Promotion Isn’t Just Ads: Promotion itself can take many forms. Web ads on targeted sites, or site categories, is just the start. A good public relations consultant or firm can suggest a variety of additional campaigns. Supporting one or more professional fansites (such as Ten Ton Hammer) can be very helpful. Even more helpful is a viral marketing campaign that encourages players bring in friends as players. Promotion to guild leaders can encourage entire groups to try the game. These viral campaigns can be reinforced by giving participants in-game rewards and/or virtual currency.

Promotion via Social Networks: To date no MMO has fully exploited the power of social network sites likes Facebook or MySpace to promote their product. Building a simple “app” that displays a player’s current character name(s), stats, server(s), and currency status is not difficult. Next enable players to display one or more of their characters and/or accomplishments on their “wall.”  This is just the start of a good social network viral campaign. A friend referral system can be set up. Virtual currency purchases and related offers can occur at the social networking site.

Continual Acquisition: Customer acquisition is not a one-time event. It is a continual process that adapts to the customer landscape and the game’s position within the competitive landscape. The overall lifespan of an online game depends on customer acquisition, customer lifespan and earning power. When customers churn out faster than they can be cost-effectively acquired, the game is headed toward a sunset.


            Customer Development

This is the art of converting a newly acquired customer into a devoted player, a proportion of which are spending money to enhance their enjoyment. Obviously great gameplay really helps. However, even a modest “B” title translated from Korean or Chinese into English can be a solid money-earner, a fact proven by multiple MMO operators in North America.

The first step is to analyze the players, in aggregate, to determine who is providing the majority of a game’s income. The CRM’s analysis tools are critical to discovering the patterns in player spending. Here are some potential patterns to look for:

  1. King-of-the-Hillers: These players push to reach max level as quickly as possible, then acquire the very best gear to be “king of the hill.” A strong PvP component encourages these players. They expect their top-level, top-gear status will advantage them in fights with other players. It is important to compare, at various instants in time, the number “king of the hill” players to the number of players churning out. It may be that existing king-of-the-hillers are discouraging future king-of-the-hillers, who drop out rather than make the increasingly large investments to reach “king of the hill” themselves. 
  2. Status Seekers: These players want to be seen as successful within the game’s community. They happily spend to have the latest outfits, gear and other signs of successes. They are easily distinguished by their high level and consistently high spending. They are every game operator’s dream because they willingly spend large sums to maintain their status within the community. Many of these players also have non-monetized status positions within the community, such as being a guild leader or officer.
  3. Casual Players: These customers advance more slowly through the game. As they play, they make minor purchases that cost-effectively support their gameplay. Individually they spend less than the above categories, but collectively they may provide a significant source of income.

Matching Customer Development to the Customers: Any vibrant MMO continually offers new deals, play opportunities, and game-related events to engage its players. Game expansions are costly and infrequent. Game item additions are much easier, as they are just appearance and/or data variations on existing items. Game events can recognize player accomplishments, individually or in aggregate. The exact nature of new offerings, item additions, and special events are tailored first to existing customers. A more daring marketing strategy may include attempting to acquire different types of paying customers with offers catering to their needs.

For example, if the game is dominated by “king-of-the-hill” players, a steady stream of new “top gear” items gives them something to acquire every few weeks. If fewer and fewer king-of-the-hillers are entering the game, the website needs to prominently display links to advancement guides that make it easier for new players to reach top level status. “Leader boards” of top players and guilds are very important.

If the game has numerous “status seeker” players, then “vanity item” outfits in new colors or appearance, new pets, etc., can be offered to encourage them. Players can be encouraged to send in screenshots, the “best” of which are displayed on the website to give the senders additional status.

If the game receives significant income from “casual players,”  events and items can be offered that reward players who level-up. This encourages general advancement regardless of a player’s ultimate goal. Guilds can be rewarded for adding new players, or having low-level players steadily advancing upward. Community managers are especially aware that policies which support “casual players” may be considered unfair by “king-of-the-hillers,” and vice versa.

Promoting A Positive Community: A significant proportion of MMO players like to share their knowledge, experience and opinions with other players. A game’s forums are the mainstay of this activity. Vibrant forums allow players to advise and help each other, and incidentally reduce customer service costs. Forums can be mined for player insights into the game (but see “Churn Analysis” below for important caveats).

Game operator posts on the read-only “official pronouncement” forum thread are the primary “official” communication channel to players. Each new update, item release, pricing change, or game event must have an accompanying official post, explaining the action in detail. Maintaining a policy of “prompt, full information” is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, no update or patch, no matter how small, should go live until an approved announcement is ready for simultaneous posting.

Eliminating Community-Breakers: Every game has trouble-makers. What constitutes “trouble” varies with the nature of the paying audience. For example, PvP bullies who make life difficult for lower level players can badly hurt a game supported by “casual players.” However, in a game supported by “king of the hillers” they become part of the gameplay. Conversely, software hacks will enrage and drive away “king of the hillers” rapidly, but have far less impact on “casual players.” Finally, all MMOs that permit free chat must deal with hate-mongering, sexual stalking and similar egregious behaviors.

The “back office” CRM system must include a method for adding “trouble reports” to a player’s account. In addition to manual notes by customer service staff, better systems include an automated reporting mechanism tied to an in-game complaint system. Advanced trouble report systems weigh complaints based on complainer characteristics (such as how much they spend and/or how long they actively played) to give valuable customers a greater voice. Server-side “red flags” reveal signs of client hacking or excessive financial activity. Trouble resolution of problem player accounts is normally done manually, with senior customer service staff working through the complaint queue by dealing with the most serious cases first.

Professional Staff: Community management is a special skill somewhat different from game development. Sanya Weather’s column “MMO Underbelly” provides many useful perspectives. It is valuable to remember that her past experience was in subscription games that most maximize long-term play experience for the broadest possible customer group. Her comments about announcements (“The Evolution of a Patch Note”) and organizing customer service (“Inside the Pit”) are universally valuable.


            Churn Analysis

No game can expect all their players to play forever. In fact, all customers have a spending curve over time. After a certain point both play time and spending decline. For example, “king-the-hill” players may have a lifespan of three to six months. However, those months may be very profitable, as the player spends heavily to achieve and maintain top status. Trying to develop more game content, giving them another hill to climb, is a losing proposition. Even if development funds are unlimited, it takes 6-12 months to build a balanced expansion to any game. King-of-the-hillers will consume it in just a few weeks. Only an open-ended “sandbox” MMO like EVE might satisfy such customers.

Analyzing the departure patterns of players can be very instructive. Exactly what are players doing, and not doing, when they quit? Character data mining can provide some answers. However, probing deeper is valuable. An apparently logical decision can have unexpected consequences only visible when community management truly digs for the answer. Eric Ries’ IMVU only discovered a major blunder when “…we finally had one of our community managers start talking with real customers on the phone. Then the reality of our problem hit us.” (See “The cardinal sin of community management.”)

Churn Mitigation: After the reasons for player departure are understood, community managers and game operators can implement mitigation strategies targeted at specific causes. If players frequently churn out at specific levels, there probably exist gameplay obstacles that discourage them. Game-play changes or player aids can help mitigate this.

Secondary factors may also affect gameplay. For example, the game might force players to group at higher levels, but goldseller ads so deluge chat channels that player-to-player communication has all but stopped (as happened in “Rappelz” a couple years ago). Prohiting all but local chat to low-level characters, automatically blocking certain types of messages, and immediately banning higher-level chat spammers is a common mitigation strategy. An additional option is to make a profitable business deal with one preferred gold-seller (EA/Mythic almost certainly did this with Another option is for the game operator to sell in-game currency (“gold”) themselves, as CCP does in EVE.

Sometimes causes of churn can be immediate. For example, a certain hacker tool might give some players unreasonable advantages. The game may hemorrhage valuable customers faster than a software fix can be implemented. Community management must deal with the problem immediately. Choices include working to identify and ban hack-users immediately (i.e., within 24 hours), transferring all detected hack-users to special “hacker servers,” and/or making the hack known to the entire player community along with the risks of using it (i.e., the potential of installing worms, keyloggers and other malware often found within the hacker tools).

Positive Experiences & Customer Longevity: The Eric Ries IMVU example (above) makes a larger point about community management. Gamers, just like IMVU’s virtual worlders, become personally involved in the product. They need to believe that the “game company” listens to their needs. It is the job of community management to listen and separate the chaff of typical complaints from the wheat of important issues. Community management then helps prioritize the response and communicate it to the community. This is not easy, as Sanya Weathers points out in “The Customer Is Not Always Right.” Nevertheless, when expert community management maximizes a positive game experience, customers remain involved for longer periods and the game often earns more money.



One of the big questions regarding F2P MMOs is income expectations. Calculations are available for the casual end of the market. Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed suggests $1-$2/month/customer (see “Successful MMOGs can see$102 in monthly ARPU”). His analysis was based on Second Life, Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel and Runescape. Puzzle Pirates volunteered that its income was also in the $1-2 range.

Virality has been a hot topic and concept in marketing for the last year. Andrew Chen explains it well in “What’s your viral loop? Understanding the engine of adoption.” His Web 2.0 background also results in very interesting insights on web-based marketing (see “5 steps towards building a metrics-driven business”).

I am still looking for in-depth information from the leaders in the F2P MMOs, such as Aeria, Acclaim, K2, Gala-Net (Gpotato), IGG, Frogster and Perfect World International. A great many MMO products launching in the next year or two will use the F2P model. I look forward to hearing from MMO marketing professionals, especially those working with Freemium or F2P products.

Posted in Production | 6 Comments »

A Customer Development Strategy for Building Online Games

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on August 10, 2009

The MMO Waterfall to Failure

The traditional process is a sequential “waterfall:” concept > prototype > pre-production > production > beta > live.  In MMO development the full cycle typically takes three to four years. Gameplay assumptions and decisions made during concept and prototype aren’t “field tested” until years later in beta. Even the most gifted designer does not have an infallible crystal ball. Even if they did, limitations and compromises creep in during development. Occasionally everything aligns correctly to allow a great success like World of Warcraft. Far more commonly well-funded teams, led by industry veterans, end in resignations and layoffs. In just the last few years the roster of defeat is long: Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online. Each of these long, well-funded efforts failed to meet its financial goals. In each case purges swept aside everyone from famous leaders to the obedient rank-and-file.

I suggest the problem is not in the people but the process. MMO developers may be using better methods for executing their work, such as Scrum, but the overall strategy of game development remains firmly rooted in the 1990s. Below is a diagram of that traditional approach:

 1 Traditional Waterfall MMO Development

The  2-3 year time lag between concept and first customer exposure (beta) is the fatal flaw. Prior to beta the only player feedback comes from within the development team, perhaps some publisher representatives and possibly “friends and family.” Are these people the product’s target audience?

Even worse than the time lag, 80% to 90% of the game’s development budget is consumed before beta test data reaches the development team. The “waterfall” strategy insures that game development becomes a gigantic bet placed years in advance.

A half year ago Eric Ries penned a very insightful article titled “Achieving Failure.” He described how an all-star team achieved near-flawless execution of a product intended to surpass major competitors. The team spent years of time and millions of dollars executing an extremely well-thought-out design. Unfortunately, the designers lacked perfect crystal balls. In addition the marketplace slowly changed during those years. Only at launch did the true scope of their failure manifest. The company madly scrambled to reorganize and exploit what little success it found. In the process the original plan was quietly forgotten and most of the staff laid off. That story parallels the many “waterfalls to failure” in the MMO industry.


Customer Development & Games

Finding a Better Way: This “waterfall to failure” pattern inspired Silicon Valley thinkers to ask “Why wait years to find out if something new will succeed?” From this was born the idea of  “Customer Development Engineering.” This philosophy meshed nicely with the evolving philosophy of continuous development (see “Continuous deployment and continuous learning).

Customer Development as a philosophy is simple. Put a minimally viable product into the customer’s hands as soon as possible.. Monitor customer reaction to determine what succeeds and fails. Adjust and expand the product based on that information. Obviously, an initial vision is needed for creating a “Minimum Viable Product.” Nevertheless, the emphasis is on learning from customers as soon as possible.

Today the Customer Development strategy has born fruit in one corner of the games industry. Companies like Zynga and Playdom use it when building social networking games. Of course that genre is ideal with its rapid development cycles and small teams.


Building an MMO Using Customer Development

How can Customer Development be applied to MMOs? Isn’t it impossible to apply small, quick, lean development to gigantic MMO projects? Actually it is possible, but the traditional multi-stage development process must be restructured into an iterative process with constant customer interaction. Here is a vision of the Customer Development MMO project:

2 Customer Development for MMO Games

Concentrating on the Core Game: The Customer Development game project gives a rudimentary working game to players quickly. Obviously a team must acquire a platform, engine, and/or tools. They also need to conceptualize system design and create some concept art. However, this is directed at one immediate goal: building an initial level of core gameplay. This “initial level” has just enough characters, enemies, terrain, and advancement to provide the minimal core game experience.

For example, a Customer Development style team making Warhammer Online would build an “initial level” for the first 8 levels of play. They would concentrate on one race, three basic character types (melee, ranged and healing), framework quests (title and objective, minimal prose) and the enemy “mobs” to go with them. A team making Age of Conan would build the newbie zone Tortage (levels 1-19) with a similar mix of character types, framework quests and enemies.

Early Live: The very next step brings the core gameplay to players. This is “Early Live.” The entire game infrastructure to support a few hundred to a few thousand players must function. Rudimentary customer support, community management, and financial transactions must exist. The game will actually charge money according to its business model (subscription, microtransaction, etc.).

The goal is real users paying and playing for the core game immediately. Nothing measures player behavior better than their spending. Free games don’t pay salaries or please stockholders. The amount charged in “Early Live” need not be “full freight.” A subscription game might have a “founders club introductory offer” of just $3/month instead of $15/month. A microtransaction store might regularly offer a 75% discount to “Alpha VIPs.” The existence of actual user spending, so later development work can measure comparative gains and losses. The absolute amount earned is secondary. Do not expect Early Live income to support the development team.

The length of time needed to reach Early Live varies. A startup studio with a new staff busy selecting an engine and tools could take a year. A veteran MMO team at a studio with solid tools and an operational infrastructure might need six months. What nobody needs is spending a half year on a 500-page design document with a 500-illustration “creative bible” of concept art and backstory. Instead the development team should focus on actually making the core game.


Development During Early Live

Adjusting the Initial Level: When gamers start playing the initial level, the development team evaluates what works and what falls flat. If the game under development is a cookie-cutter fantasy MMORPG, discovering that nobody wants to spend money on the initial level might be expected, but still must be addressed. Obviously something more is needed. The team might try making the game really easy to learn (like WoW), or have really challenging PvE team play (as Vanguard once promised), or be really violent and sexy (like the topless babes and beheadings in Conan).

Within a month or two a revised version goes to Early Live customers with a spiffy new feature. Player metrics are examined and dollar volumes observed. The customer support team supplements this with forum post summaries and in-game player observations. Metrics might show that players frequently purchase and use the sexy new outfits despite no stat benefits. The metrics might also show that the beheadings rarely occur. The team can investigate to see if game mechanics make beheadings too hard to achieve, or players are simply min-maxing their combat moves without regard for the “gore level” in the graphical results. Conversely, the team might discover that nobody bothers getting the sexy outfits but customers are clearly working hard to behead their opponents. Success depends on finding and fostering each game’s specific audience.

Building the End-Game: Once the initial level is deemed successful, the next step is to “bracket” the game by constructing an end-game level. What will players do once they reach the highest level, get all the skills and/or get the best weapons? How well can the game hold these players? This problem must be solved. If it is not, players will leave in droves once they reach the game’s level maximum. One solution might be stretching out leveling so that nobody will achieve max level, as in EVE Online. Another solution might be guild vs guild PvP territorial play (as in Lineage, Lineage II and the recently deceased Shadowbane). A third might be RvR play (as pioneered by Dark Age of Camelot).

Testing this endgame in Early Live is critical. Does it maintain player interest for an acceptable period? If not, the development team must experiment with changes or alternatives. Endgames are notoriously tricky to build in MMOs.

Building the “middle levels” must occur after the initial level and endgame are validated through customer testing. How can anyone create a player growth path until the start and end points are known? Furthermore, once you know the endpoints and have preliminary measurements of audience type, customer engagement and churn, the business types can use “return on investment” and “time to market” calculations to determine how much time and money is available for building those “middle levels.” Armed with this information, the development team can move forward with confidence.

Systems Lockdown: Early in the development of the additional “middle” levels a “systems lockdown” must occur. This is the point where key gameplay decisions, progression curves and data ranges become fixed. All future work must conform to the lockdown standard, or else invoke a formal “change control” process to judge the cost-benefit of a change. Lockdown facilitates speedy content creation by giving designers, artists and programmers a framework for future work.

Systems lockdown also allows the development group to address “technical debt.” After lockdown the team can reasonably estimate the benefits of refactoring code, documenting design data and algorithms, writing up pipeline procedures, settling on coding practices, etc.

Curiously, systems lockdown is not specifically identified in the traditional “waterfall” game development process. While it should occur by the end of pre-production, failure to lockdown is a common source of failure (see “An Intervention”).

Platform Improvements: Throughout development weakness emerge in the engine, tools, pipelines, build speed and processes. Instead of having a separate “tools team” trying to either catch up with development or guess in advance what development needs, let the development teams judge when a sidetrack into tools improvement pays off. For example, a level-building team learns from experience that current tools mean four weeks per region layout. The programmers on the team estimate that two weeks work improving the tool will save everyone one week of time per region. Therefore, if three or more regions are still needed, the sidetrack into tool improvement will save time.


The Benefits of Early Live

Early Live will be controversial. Publishers and development teams are used to making their own decisions about a game. Designers and producers have strong personal opinions about what customers really want, passionately held beliefs concerning what is “best.”  These beliefs are still valuable – they fuel the initial concept for any game. The mistake our industry makes is insufficient testing and refinement with actual gaming customers.

Train As You Fight: A generation ago the US Army adopted the slogan “Train As You Fight.” The goal was simple: all training should be applicable to real combat, and imitate combat conditions as much as possible. Soldiers should use the same equipment they would have in real battle, receive orders the same way, move as they would in combat, over terrain and in climates similar to real-world battlefields. Soldiers train for Iraq in the desert, for Afghanistan in the mountains. In recent wars the US Army learned once again that sending troops into combat without these benefits resulted in less successful missions and higher casualties.

An MMO’s Goal is Live: The goal of building an MMO is to run it “live,” just like the ultimate purpose of having an army is to fight a war. Early Live insures that all necessary functionality is present. It highlights what is still missing, and quickly demonstrates what is overkill.

Making a Functional Product: An MMO needs solid code that doesn’t regularly crash client or server software. It needs a comm infrastructure that routes data quickly and efficiently between players and servers. It needs a load-balancing system that prevents too many players from piling onto one server and a design that discourages players from clumping up in the same spot. It needs a regular deployment cycle with a rollback option for fatal bugs. It needs an offsite backup system to minimize data loss if a flood/hurricane/tornado/earthquake destroys the data center. It needs a metrics system that tracks what players are really doing in the game. It needs a customer service to deal with customer problems and community management to mediate between developers and gamers. The list goes on and on. It is just as easy to over-plan and over-support these requirements as to forget them or under-provide for them. The only way to achieve truly cost-efficient operation is through experience.

Find & Fix Early: An Early Live philosophy places high demands on code reliability. Subtle memory leaks and nasty bugs become painfully evident when a thousand players suffer client lockups and crashes. If the comm infrastructure cannot scale the team finds out immediately. If designers accidentally create a “nexus point” of excessive player concentrations, stalls and slowdowns reveal it. If artists overload the graphic engine everyone sees it.

In the past it was easy for members of a development team to ignore a problem. They could assume that “someone else” would fix it later… during beta, after launch, whenever. The Early Live philosophy prevents that. Now the development team is constantly balancing the need to fix problems with the need to push forward development. They constantly decides what’s important enough to fix now.

Integrating Development with CS & CM: Early Live brings customer service (CS) and community management (CM) into the process of development much sooner. Properly handling customer problems and building a positive customer community is essential to an MMO. A development team needs to work with the CS and CM groups to guide and prioritize future development, just as CS and CM rely on the development team for their product and tools.

Financial Snapshots: Early Live provides financial data on actual operational costs, from bandwidth usage to operational staffing. It takes time to find the delicate balance between maximum earning power and maximum customer support. More than once A game development team “assumed” impossibly large amounts of customer support. Early Live reveals these assumptions and helps prevent “fatal financial flaws.”

Marketing Benefits: Early Live is a marketing department’s dream. Instead of guessing about potential audiences they can examine information about hundreds to thousands of players who are paying customers! Initial growth and churn rates can be extrapolated to better predict potential income levels. Early Live should prevent marketers from estimating a million subscribers with 5% monthly churn before launch, only to discover three months after launch that over half the purchasers dropped their subscriptions!


Yes But…

Questions arise about how applicable the Customer Development process is in certain situations. Here are some questions (Q) and answers (A).

Sidetracked by Live   Q:  What if a horde of players flood into Early Live, forcing the development team to concentrate on polishing the first level or two? Won’t that prevent forward progress? What if everything falls down in a heap because we don’t have enough hardware, the software isn’t robust, or the support staff is too small?

A: First, if operational resources are limited, you can meter players coming into Early Live via keys; as players churn out you release additional keys. Second, if your software and staff can’t even handle one server’s worth of players, you need to work on the operational side of your business. The longer you postpone making “massive” functional, the riskier the whole project becomes.

The Minimum Viable Product  Q:  Customer Development talks about a “minimum viable product” (MVP). Our MVP is a fantasy MMORPG with at least 20 races, 30 character types, 50 regions, 500 monsters, and must support PvE, PvP, guild vs guild and RvR. If we don’t have all this we’ll fail.

A: The Roman Empire wasn’t conquered in a day. It began small and grew, piece by piece. A successful MMO must do the same. Within that vast shopping list of features you need to identify the core gameplay that will attract and keep customers playing your game. You are being distracted by grandiose visions with lots of “chrome.” Chrome in games isn’t necessarily good. It can create complicated interfaces and confusing options that become obstacles to enjoyment. Blizzard’s greatest successes were simpler and easier than other games of their day. Diablo was easier to play than any previous fantasy RPG. WoW was easier to get into than any previous MMORPG. It is important to “find the fun” early and mitigate risks by constantly evaluating the ability of gamers to learn, play and enjoy your product.

Fear of Competition  Q:  If we reveal our product in Early Live, our competitors will steal the idea and benefit from our work. Even if they don’t, we’ll have competition far sooner than if we kept everything secret.

A: Customer Development brings the product to customers within 6-12 months. Even if your competitors follow in your footsteps with a process just as efficient, they’ll be a half year to a year behind. More importantly, you gain invaluable knowledge about who the customers are and how to sell to them. Use that advantage to build customer loyalty. Your would-be competitors are just imitating your success. You know the reasons for that success. Exploit your knowledge to insure competitors are left with crumbs from the table. Best of all, if your competitors aren’t using Customer Development they’ll spend years developing something that’s outdated the day it ships.

Licenses & Product Secrecy  Q:  Our game is linked to a movie (or TV or book) license that prohibits us from revealing characters or content in advance. We can’t go live early.

A: Yes you can, with stand-ins for the confidential material. Replace specific licensed names with generic equivalents. For example, replace “Enterprise Class Starship” with “Galactic Exploration Cruiser”, or rename “Mordor” as “The Dark Wastes.” Certain object may need alternate textures and/or concealing geometry during Early Live. You can still test all the play mechanics of the final game. Your development team is forced to pay attention to gameplay, which greatly improves the chance that your licensed title will be one of the rare few that’s actually fun to play.

Customer Exhaustion  Q:  Enticing players to come back to a game is much harder than acquiring new ones. Early Live will “poison the well” by giving a weak, incomplete game to our best customers.

A: If the potential customer pool is so small that one server’s worth of players represents your key audience, it might be wise to pick a different audience! However, if that audience is wealthy enough to support your product, invest heavily community management. Make them fell like well-informed, heavily-involved partners in the development process. When you reach “launch” you can promote the game as Version 2.0. Alternately you could make cosmetic changes and attach a new title for a “fresh” PR campaign.


Scrum and Customer Development

At its core Scrum is a day-to-day, week-to-week development methodology. Customer Development is a long-term strategic philosophy. Nevertheless, there are many parallels. Customer Development is “Scrum writ large.”

Scrum sprints (iterations) concentrate on delivering a shippable increment of functionality – customer development concentrates on delivering increments of a playable game.

Scrum requires review and process examination after each sprint – customer development uses customer metrics and buying patterns to guide future work. 

Scrum expects plans will be adjusted from sprint to sprint – customer development expects that both designs and gameplay will change as the team learns about player preferences throughout Early Live.

Given a choice, I would use Scrum exclusively in a Customer Development project. Scrum principles such as backlogs feeding multiple teams working in 2-4 week sprints is a perfect way to monitor and control game creation before and during Early Live. It allows you to balance the needs of live operation with the needs of new development through frequent reprioritization. Scrum “releases” match up perfectly with periodic updates to Early Live players. A philosophy of Customer Development ideally matches the Scrum process.

Posted in Production | 3 Comments »

The Next Generation of Social Networking Games

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on July 9, 2009


Approximately two years ago a variety of social gaming companies geared up to build and operate a new generation of products: social network games. The most famous is Zynga, whose representative title “Mafia Wars” can be found on Facebook  and MySpace. These games are not delivered on disks, nor via downloads, nor by visiting a website. Instead a player can access the game directlyi from their Facebook or MySpace page. The games have been wildly successful, with 3-4 million people logging in to Mafia Wars every day. The game has been tried by over 12 million people.

Many of these games share common elements, including the same core gameplay mechanics. For example, Zynga’s Mafia Wars, Fashion Wars, Vampire Wars, Pirates, Street Racing, Special Forces and Dragon Wars are all very similar. Some distinguishing characteristics of these games are listed below.

(1) Instant Play: Games are accessible and often entirely playable within Facebook or MySpace. Players can enter the game instantly. While server loads and page refresh times occasionally cause freeze-ups, it’s a minor frustration that tends to plague advanced players doing a lot quickly.

(2) Solo Play: Core gameplay mechanics are entirely solo-able. A player selects actions that make them richer, stronger and more experienced, yielding a level-up. This in turn unlocks new actions that make them even richer and stronger, so they can level up again, etc. You can play whenever you want, but pace of gameplay is controlled by the time needed to recharage your action points. Initially a full recharge of action points takes less than 30 minutes, but as you level-up the time grows to hours and ultimately days.  “Constantly win, constantly advance” play distills to its essence the core element of traditional RPGs.

(3) Competitive Play without Losers: Most games allow players to “attack” other players, but the potential opponent list is randomized from all other players of the same level and the amount any player loses is trivial. Actual combat is never face–to-face. It always occurs while the defender is logged out. Competitive players build a won/lost record while non-competitive players can ignore these attacks.

(4) Involves Social Network Friends: You can “include” people from your friends list in your game. Each friend you “invite” becomes an automated henchman. If the friend also plays the game and levels up, their higher level means your henchman is stronger. Having such henchmen not only increases your strength but also unlocks special activities and equipment. Friend involvement allows the game to advertise itself in a regular stream of gifts and wall postings.

(5) Microtransactions & Advertising: Each game has its own microtransaction currency, which can be purchased with real-world dollars (typically via credit card). In addition players can acquire game currency by agreeing to various “trial offers” for everything from Dish TV service to Netflix. The game currency allows players to acquire powerful equipment and levels faster. There are also opportunities for traditional web advertising within and around the game.

(6) Gameplay Familiarity: Many games use the same “action points” mechanic. Players familiar with one game can easily learn a new title. In fact, the similarities are so great that customer cannibalization is already a problem.

(7) Graphical Limitations: Great static webpage designs are vital to these games. Both current status and game options are presented through a combination of static images, text titles, short phrases and key numeric values. A few titles use simple side-scroller or isometric graphics with simple animations.


Retaining a Competitive Edge

The main problem with the current generation of social network games is the ridiculously low barrier to entry. Building these games takes at most 1-2 man-years. Of course, nurturing an online game to large and lasting success requires careful attention to customer needs. The most successful developers all follow the “Continuous Development” and “Customer Development” methods preached by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. (For the strategy, see Blank’s book The Four Steps to Epiphany; for practical implementation in software development, see Eric Ries’ blog “Lessons Learned”)

To remain competitive, forward-thinking firms are increasing their gameplay sophistication. For example, Playdom’s Sorority Life incorporates paper-doll style dress-up avatars. Some game actions go beyond a simple choice and result. These actions invoke puzzle or hidden object minigames. A player’s success in a minigame affects the result of their chosen action. Other Playdom games incorporate strategic maps, with different actions available in different map locations. As a player levels up, they unlock new map locations with new actions. Meanwhile Tyler Projects is experimenting with animated combat sequences.

The larger companies in social network gaming are moving to the next level of development, operation and sales. Zynga is literally flooding social networks with advertisements for their products, above and beyond the “viral” advertising inherent within the game. Leading companies are plundering traditional computer game firms for talent. In June 2009 Mike Verdu, GM of EA-LA, became Zynga’s VP of Game Development while Brian Reynolds (of Civilization & Rise of Nations fame) became a Chief Designer. In the same month Playdom announced that EA’s COO, John Pleasants, became their CEO.

Games following “traditional” social network design formulae have already graduated from a “New Market” (as defined by Steve Blank in his Stanford lecture) to a “Resegmented Market” where niche customer identification, branding and marketing play major roles in company success.


The Next Generation of Social Network Games

The game business is one of continual invention. It takes just one or two very different and very successful games to create a “New Market” in Blank-speak. The design concepts of that game can be refined and improved in successive titles to create market blockbusters. In online gaming there is no need to create a new title – customer metrics can guide expansion and/or revision of an existing title.

Highly creative game designs are frequently built from gameplay features found in earlier products. For example, EverQuest’s gameplay is a combination of solo computer RPGs and online MUDs, both of which owe their origins to the paper game “Dungeons & Dragons.” EQ’s graphical approach was  borrowed from first-person shooters.

When recently asked what I would suggest for next generation social network games, I adopted a similar approach. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I elected to draw upon the vast treasure trove of great past games, suitability revised, improved and adapted for the social network environment. Curiously, games from  the golden age of paper gaming (1970s) and the early days of computer gaming (‘85-‘95) provide many paradigms of elegant, successful mechanics to inform social network game design.


Exploration Games: A little-known but greatly beloved boardgame, Source of the Nile, had players take the role of European explorers of Africa. The map started 99% blank, with just a few known areas along the coastline. A player drew cards and rolled dice with each move to discover the terrain in front of them, which was then marked on the map. The party could move by boat upriver or overland on foot. Natural disasters, disease and hostile natives slowly took their toll on manpower and supplies, requiring fine judgment regarding how far to push into the unknown before returning to civilization, getting credit for various discoveries, and financing their next expedition.

Dani Bunten’s masterful The Seven Cities of Gold for 8-bit Apples, Ataris and Commodores took this “move and discover” motif to the conquistador era of the 1500s in the New World. I seem to remember Dani saying that she’d been influenced by SPI’s Conquistador boardgame as well. In any event Seven Cities generated a different unknown “new world” each time for endless replayability. Explorers gradually uncovered terrain, made discoveries, met friendly or hostile natives, etc.

A social network exploration game titled, say, Christopher Columbus would make each player a global explorer seeking lucrative trade connections in distant places, yielding everything from spice to silk. Each expedition that returns home contributes toward leveling-up, allowing players to command bigger expeditions with a wider range of options for discoveries, diplomacy, trade and combat. Successful expeditions also earn profits that can be spent on better equipment, ships, caravans, etc. Naturally some of the best items are only available via the microtransaction game currency.

Socially players can share discoveries and trade connections with friends, or use “dirty tricks” attacks to hinder rivals. Technically the overall world map needs to be vast – more than any one player can ever discover. Each player only sees a scrolling window into the region around their current expedition. The remainder of the map is nothing more than a server-side database. Early versions of this game can metric various mixes of discovery, trade, diplomacy and combat. The game can be adjusted to target player preferences. If players enjoy overland exploration over sea travel,  expand land travel and simplify naval movement. If players prefer founding colonies and fighting natives or each other, the game could be slanted more toward European conquest and colonization around the world from 1550 to 1900.


Data & Function-Driven Adventure: Back in 1981 I was surprised when a small solo boardgame I designed won the industry’s Best Fantasy Game of the Year.  The game was “Barbarian Prince.” If you don’t want to follow the link and paw through its myriad details, in this game the player starts alone in the wilderness as the exiled “Barbarian Prince of the Northlands.” The player tries to survive and acquire sufficient strength to reclaim his throne. Each “day” the Barbarian Prince can try to travel to a new square (hex). Assuming he doesn’t get lost on the way, he will forage for food and frequently has an interesting random encounter. Part of the game’s charm was the wide variety of possible encounters and events, all based on which square was visited and how the dice rolled. For example, if the Barbarian Prince moving along a road encountered a swordsman, this might occur:

e003 Swordsman

You meet a swordsman adventurer. He is mounted on a horse with combat skill 6, endurance 6, and wealth 7. Sitting there on his horse he takes an active interest in your party. Your options are:

  die roll talk *evade fight


converse r341 escape mtd r312 surprise r303  


converse r341 escape r315 attack r304  


looter r340 hide r317 attack r305  


hireling r339 bribe (5) r322 attacked r306  


hireling r333 pass r325 attacked r307  


bribe (10) r332 pass r325 surprised r308  

* if your party has winged mounts and/or flying ability, you can use escape flying (r313) instead of rolling the die for the evade option.

Each “r000” reference above is a different rules section that explains how to resolve that action. For example, a bribe is successful if appropriate gold is given. If the bribe fails, a fight may result. Ownership of certain items may modify the results, e.g., owning a mount (horse, etc.) makes escape easier. In effect the entire game is a data-driven design supported by multi-variable result functions.

Obviously significant design changes are needed to make something like “Barbarian Prince” successful in a social network environment. Dice rolls need to be replaced by player choices. Random henchmen are replaced by friends from the player’s social network. Random encounter characters are other players in the game. A player could select “be a bandit today” to attack other players of a similar level.

Games like this require an over-arching storyline to engage and push forward the player. Quests work best if tied to the player’s level rather than map locations. Additional random encounters are still needed to make the game world seem alive and the player’s travel choices meaningful.

Another requirement for bringing such a game to a mass audience is evocative graphics. A good illustration for each encounter is infinitely superior to lengthy hunks of text. Simple pencil sketches are adequate starting for a first release. If the game is successful, they could be replaced with more polished and costly artwork.


Driving Games: The core of a next-generation driving game would be a 3D Flash application for driving your car around a racetrack. Lliterally hundreds of “indie” developed Flash driving games demonstrate that this is possible. If Flash proves unsuitable, there are other lightweight 3D platforms available.

The critical technological issue is that competiting cars cannot be driven by other players live. This cannot be a head-to-head realtime racing game.

Why? First, internet lag makes head-to-head driving very problematic, especially when cars are very close. There are no good ways to handle collision detection. Second, even if enough opposing drivers of similar skill can be assembled to start a race promptly, during the race drivers can and will drop out while others may “grief” via collisions, road blockages, etc.

The best solution is an AI drive for all opposing cars. These AIs operate best if they know a “perfect line” to follow through the racecourse. From this it is a small step to recording each player’s path through the course as they drive it. This enables a player to race “against” their friends after all, with an AI following that friend’s path and car on the course.

A satisfying car driving experience is not the entire game. Customer-driven development can determine which of the myriad gameplay options and rewards from other race games appeal most to social network players. These options are pre-race choices such as type and model of car, mechanical adjustments to engine, suspension, tire selection and more. Post-race rewards are equally important, and may include rewards for just finishing the race, placing better than the last race, beating a specific rival driver, or beating a specific team. Racing points can be accumulated toward a “level-up” license that unlocks new tracks and cars. All these pre-race and post-race activities can be done without recourse to special Flash applications.


Risk and Reward

It is easy to imagine grandiose visions for a social network game. Unfortunately, big ideas and big games take vast efforts to develop. This leads to the tens of millions needed for AAA console or MMO PC titles. Customer-driven development doesn’t happen during the traditional phases of prototyping, pre-production and production for such a big title. When beta finally arrives18-36 months later, major gameplay choices have been ossified by vast investments in 3D assets and level design. Most of the development money is spent, reducing beta inputs to tweaks and minor adjustments.

The social network game business allows invest in a much larger number of easier, faster games like the three ideas above. Whichever game proves most successful is rewarded with additional investment for gameplay improvements, expansions, graphic upgrades and interface revisions. In the continuous development world of online games, instead of big gambles on potential success 2-4 years away, a company can try out many cheaper games and build on a proven winner within the year.

Posted in Design | 3 Comments »

How MMOs Designed Away Social Gameplay

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 26, 2009

In the heyday of EQ and DAoC players were incredibly loyal to their game. They logged in every day for hours.  They forged Long-term friendships. They often had a gaming schedule based that meshed with their “regular group” in their game of choice. Some RL marriages resulted. Care was exercised in what a player said, and to whom. A bad reputation made it hard to find groups or stay in a guild. Getting kicked by a GM for bad behavior was a real punishment.

From a business standpoint this was pure gold. People played EQ for years. Yes, it was possible for a solo character to advance. However, as EQ Necromancers undoubtedly remember, the painful difficulty drove many to seek groups whenever feasible. In this first half-decade player longevity was so common it became assumed. The game industry businessmen learned to equate major, successful MMOs with long term subscription income.

In November 2004 WoW introduced solo-able content. Aside from certain quests, instanced dungeons and endgame encounters, no grouping was required. Of course, one could group, and many veterans did so. However, given the time needed to find a group, and the significant chance it would include players with no group skills, min-max players correctly concluded that soloing was most efficient than grouping.

MMO designers around the world sought to imitate WoW’s success and made significant parts of their game solo-able. Conan and Warhammer were built on that philosophy, along with a significant number of quests in Lord of the Rings. Bioware’s The Old Republic appears to be built around strongly story-driven quests that vary by class, which implies highly solo-able content. Even Vanguard, supposedly an “old guard” game in the spirit of EQ, had more solo than group content.

Game players responded predictably. They tore through the solo-able content, reaching top level in a few months. The only remaining gameplay for them was PvE or PvP raiding. These required both character abilities and human teamwork skills very different from soloing. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t make the difficult transition went on to another game. Games that sold a million boxes struggled to maintain 300k subs at the six month mark. The business side of game publishing was in an uproar – this wasn’t the long term subscription income they expected.

Recently my wife and I were playing through the higher-level PvE zones of Warhammer. We consumed all the quests and saw virtually all the sights of a region in a half dozen hours or so. All that world-building, mob-building and quest-building for a paltry half dozen hours of play? In the “bad old days” of EQ, not to mention the various Asian MMO grind fests, we spent dozens of hours getting to know a zone really well before moving onward and upward. The extra time gave us a chance to notice other players in the same area. We chatted, grouped up, and evaluated them as potential long-term gaming friends. In solo-able games you will go weeks without seeing anyone answer a tell, waves hello or ask to group.

Others noticed this phenomenon: see Wolfshead’s “Why Players Should Be the Ultimate Content for MMOs.” What is the design lesson? Obviously the level-up curve must be stretched out and take longer. But more importantly, games seeking long-term “stickiness” must make grouping vastly more rewarding than soloing. For example, greater rewards compensate players for the trials and tribulations inherent in grouping.

Exceptions or Enhancements?

An exception to this rule may be MMOs aimed at non-western markets, where play normally occurs in Internet Cafes. Teaming there occurs via real world encounters as players look over each other’s shoulders. Casual conversations and offers of help occur in the real world, completely independent of gameplay mechanics. Of course, gameplay that fosters grouping will inevitably foster these real-world encounters as well.

A similar exception may be forming around the new “social gaming” milieu. Here players enter the game via social networking sites like Facebook. Gameplay mechanics encourage a player to recruit friends. A player’s game awards are automatically displayed to those friends, and players can “gift” others with useful or even critical gameplay items. Within a year or two I expect social site “wall” links will connect players to larger downloaded games, with games reporting back to the social site a player’s activities, gifts, awards and standing.

But are these cases really exceptions? Internet cafes and social networking sites facilitate casual, friendly contact. They don’t facilitate cooperative gameplay per se. Only the game can do that. In effect, the cafes and social sites really serve to help people FIND compatible “game buddies” for groups or raids. Once people are together within the game, group gameplay must cement those bonds in the “test of battle.”

Posted in Design | 3 Comments »

Project Management for Game Development

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 15, 2009

Game developers often abhor project management when making games. The battle cry of “It shouldn’t ship until it’s ready” sounds great to gamers, but projects managers and businessmen cringe. How do you know if the changes, the extra features, will really generate enough extra income to compensate for the extra cost? Veterans from game publishing are especially gun-shy because they’ve heard it dozens of times about games that went on to weak sales despite the extra effort – if those games even finished at all (Duke Nukem Forever, anyone?)

 The sad tale of Tabula Rasa is a case in point. Despite a star-studded development team and deep-pocket backing from one of the strongest MMO publishers in the world at that time (NCsoft), six years of development yielded about one year of live operation before shut-down. Some reports suggest that translated into $106 mil in development for less than $20 mil in income (see “Tabula Rasa took Too Long”).

This is not a new problem. In the business world “projects” are business activities that have a clear start and end – like developing and running an MMO. There are well-established methods for organizing and running projects to keep them on schedule and on budget while achieving a certain level of quality and profitability. These methods are called “project management.”

The Project Lifecycle

According to the “bible” of project management (the PMBOK 4th Edition, published by PMI in 2008), projects have lifecycles. Here’s an overview of the major “Process Groups” in the project lifecycle:

 07i.Project Lifecycle v2

Initiating: Project startup, charter, initial scope, initial team formation, etc.

Planning: Defining work breakdown structure, determining resources, defining activities, scheduling, risk planning, communication planning, etc.

Executing: Resources perform the planned work, including QA.

Closing: Product acceptance, recording results, performance analysis and postmortems, release of resources.

Monitoring & Controlling: Oversees the other activities; typically concentrates on scope, cost, schedule, quality and risk issues; reports status to management and customer; insures proper business administration occurs.

As the diagram illustrates, “monitoring and controlling” occurs most heavily during “planning” and “executing” activities. In my experienc, “monitoring and controlling” is typically the most difficult activity, especially during “executing.” A well-understood development process helps, but a skilled producer who wisely manages development tradeoffs is invaluable. Sadly, the industry still has some producers who can’t monitor progress quantitatively. Without such tools informed tradeoffs are nearly impossible.

Notice that multiple planning-execution cycles are possible within a project. Methodologies such as scrum actually formalize this into 2-4 week sprints, with each team planning at the start of a sprint and then executing during the sprint. In fact, a miniature of that process occurs each day, with planning issues surfacing (hopefully) during the 15-minute daily status meetings.

Game Development Lifecycle

Game developers frequently talk about “continuous development” and the need to iterate and refine for good gameplay. Merging this with the business needs of games resulted in a commonly accepted lifecycle for MMO game development. A version commonly used for MMOs is:

 07i.Game Lifecycles v3a

Prototype: Select, test and use engines, tools, software languages and build processes. Define design concept and art style; create initial design outline & first draft design doc; create initial concept art, gameplay prototypes and 3D art/animation prototypes.

Pre-Production: Build two to three fully playable zones (levels) including rewards and advancement. Build one zone using the same methods used in production – its the only way to accurately gauge production costs. Complete key concept art. Finish design doc. Complete production specifications (for programming, design, art, sound and QA).

Production: Build all other zones and gameplay so the game is code complete, including all data entry and scripting for AIs, quests, tables, art assets, sounds, etc. This typically involves additional resources (often via outsourcing) all working simultaneously on various tasks pre-production specifications. Create specifications and prototypes for billing, CS tools, and update systems.

Beta: Tweak the game for better gameplay, find and fix bugs, operational chokepoints, resulting final software stabilization (i.e., “no more fixes unless it’s a show-stopper crash bug”). Finish the billing, CS, update and other support systems. This beta does not end on the launch date, but when the day promotional “open beta” begins

Live: Game operates 24×7, typically starting with a promotional open beta. This is supported by at least two tiers of “live team.” The short-term tier handles day to day operational issues for the weekly patch. The long-term tier builds monthly updates and longer-term expansions.

            Mapping Project Processes to Game Lifecycles

First, avoid the “noob” error and listen to the wise old Jedi (PMBOK 4th edition), “Process Groups are not project phases.”  Do not equate the “Initiating” process group with prototyping, planning with pre-production, etc.

It is possible to map the project lifecycle against the game lifecycle, with Project Initiation at the start of Prototype and Project Closure at the end of the Live. This could work for small projects such as casual games. However, for traditional solo games (with or without multiplayer components) and almost all MMOs, the nature of the work in each phase is different. Furthermore, entering a new phase without finishing important bits of the previous phase becomes the road to disaster (see “An intervention”).

For example, scrum methodologies work extremely well for prototype and pre-production. Here scrum’s backlog priority system is ideal of tackling the mass of disparate possibilities, needs and goals. Scrum is wonderful for combining creativity and flexibility into tangible results.

The production phase is different. Now the development group must manufacture literally thousands, often tens of thousands of small items (art assets, quests, mob layouts, AI scripts, UI components, etc.). Each item has a multi-step process for construction, approval, QA and testing. Scrum struggles with vast numbers of small tasks. It really struggles if each is a multi-step activity. In large games the wise course is traditional tracking tools, from spreadsheets and databases to the oft-maligned MS Project. Similar issues can apply during beta if thousands of inputs and bugs must be prioritized and appropriately handled.

I advocate viewing each game phase as a separate project. In PMBOK-speak the game is a “multi-phase project.” This reinforces the need to finish one phase before starting the next, thus preventing the “intervention” situation described above by Eric Heimberg. Starting a new project for a new phase allows a clear, clean “change in how we work” for the development team. Finally, a clean exit for each phase improves the developer-publisher relationship.

The diagram below illustrates this mapping of  multiple projects with their process groups to game phases.

07i.Game Lifecycles with PM v3

The multiple project iterations during “Live” represents a series of game updates/expansions, each treated as a project.

The diagram also shows that initialization and planning for the next phase starts during the later part of the current phase. For example, during pre-production the producer might need to find and qualify an art outsource subcontractor to help handle the mass of art assets needed during production.

Irrespective of my preferences and the above examples, professional project management methods can coexist with almost any development process, be it scrum, agile, iterative, waterfall, with or without attention to CMMI “levels.” The important goal is how the general rubric of project management, applied intelligently, can prevent games and dev studios from experiencing another “crash and burn” event. 

Posted in Production | 3 Comments »

Web 2.0 and MMOs

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

The End of Extravaganzas

The era of big-budget WoW-beaters is coming to a close. Yes, I know there are a number of would-be contestants still out there. Some may be profitable even if they fall short of 5+ million international users or 2+ million North American at the end of their first year. Any game that reaches and stays above 1 million subs in North America, or the income equivalent in microtransactions (MT), will be the success Conan and Warhammer tried to achieve.

The recent unhappy experiences of those two games illustrate the incredible difficulty of sustaining 500k+ subs in the North American market. A microtransaction (MT) model won’t solve this. In fact MT often obscure success measurement because MT operators do not reveal dollar income per month. At best they report total unique users and peak concurrent users from which income might be guesstimated. It is extremely revealing that most Asian MT MMOs have less than a half dozen servers for their North American market.

Everyone who loves MMOs, from Executive Producers down to lowly assistant associate junior game designers, will happily offer The Great Idea that will Sell Millions and Beat WoW. Industry professionals can assemble great IPs, veteran teams and big bucks behind plausible business plans for their Great Ideas. Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that most of these products will not meet plan because there is no way to guarantee a successful game. Look at the landscape of broken-hearted publishers: Ubisoft expected more from Shadowbane, Sony hoped for more from EverQuest 2, Lucas demanded more from Star Wars Galaxies, NCsoft need much more from Tabula Rasa, EA wanted more from both Earth & Beyond and Warhammer, Funcom promised more from Age of Conan. Microsoft has cancelled every MMO since Asheron’s Call 2 because they couldn’t make the business models work. I’ve got three shelves full of MMO boxed games going back a decade. Only a handful achieved or exceeded their financial expectations.

The problem, of course, is that people dream big. The “sweet spot” of achievable success for North American MMOs is 100-200k paying customers for the first few years. Two million paying customers in the USA is not really achievable, nor is ten million worldwide. City of Heroes/Villains (CoH/CoV) is a classic example of success without “gold plated features.” The game launched with no PvP, no economic system, no crafting system and minimal guild support. It didn’t even introduce capes for superheroes until after launch! However, it handled an innovative topic extremely well, offered enjoyable core gameplay, looked nice and had a reasonably slow advancement path. Almost nobody hit max level in first two months. This was a perfect match for the audience, many of whom were either non-gamers or solo gamers. Who were these newcomers? Fans of the topic, of course. Players have fonder memories and greater loyalty to their first significant MMO experience than almost any subsequent MMO. As a result CoH/CoV did well for years.

Modding Web 2.0 for MMOs

Social networking / virtual world sites like IMVU didn’t spend vast amounts of time and money creating an elaborate product that saw a half year of beta testing before launch. They got core functionality online quickly, saw what people liked, and modified/expanded from there. Obviously this has its limits, since that first incarnation affects subsequent audience potential. An underwhelming offering may fail with customers who would play a more polished product.

I do not believe successful MMOs can be built like web 2.0 sites. Maintaining 24×7 server stability is more complicated. Competition from well-crafted competitors is much greater. However, I do believe you can Just Say No to $50+ million extravaganzas. There IS a happy medium somewhere in the $10-15mil range for MMOs. That amount will buy competitive assets and gameplay. That amount is small enough to focus development on core features. Hard decisions will be made about what to include and what to leave for upgrades. There is no budget for vast worlds, extra races, optional classes and alternate monsters. Forget spending a half million dollars on an animated intro and E3 trailer.

If such a game achieves an audience of 100k+ paying customers it generates a healthy ROI that easily justifies expansions, sequels and upgrades. If the game meanders along with 30-40k paying customers break-even and modest profit scenarios exist. Meanwhile the developer and publisher can try something new the next time.

MMO development on this scale allows up to a half dozen projects for the price of one WoW-killer. If the dev cycle can be kept to 30 months (6 months each for prototype, pre-production, production, beta, and reserve) winners will be on the market and new games in progress before that huge WoW-killer launches to underwhelming responses and fiscal disaster.

Pitching this sensible grow-the-business approach is difficult to the venture capital “gang” on Sand Hill Road. They prefer elevator pitches for innovative technology that could be the next Google. Fortunately we are in an age of increasing fiscal conservatism where reduced risk has its own appeal.

Matching Topics To Philosophy

What kind of games are possible with a $10-15mil dev budget? Personally, I believe the best opportunities lie in games with new topics married to established game mechanics and gameplay. A new topic has design challenges, to which devs can apply existing MMO design concepts, art methods and software technology. It’s much harder to invent entirely new technology platforms, or make desperate dice-throws on untried game mechanics (“Let’s do an MMO without combat…”). If you concentrate your originality on the topic, designers can apply a their bag of tricks to the new environment, engineers can work with off-the-shelf engines, and artists will enjoy new challenges. Best of all time and budget restrictions give producers that invaluable mantra: “A cool idea, but beyond our scope.”

Another advantage of innovative topics is that you don’t necessary need a costly license. Again, CoH/CoV is a great example. They did a topic-defining superhero game without spending a dime on a license. In fact, as many designers know, licenses can be a burden (see Eric Heimberg’s “Designing For An IP”). All the project requires is translating what gamers love about the topic into an MMO.

The trick to picking good topics is to avoid the obscure ones. Sid Meier pointed out to me years ago, while we worked in the first Pirates game together, that popular culture informs player concepts of a game topic. For example, when making a pirate game, make sure it has fun ship battles and sword fighting, with plenty of loot to win. I could add all the historical accuracy I wanted about the Caribbean in the 17th Century, but without those prime ingredients the game would fail. If an MMO topic is so obscure that no pop culture conception exists, or gameplay doesn’t map to that conception, then a new topic must be found.

Finally, don’t be afraid to cancel the project if problem solutions exceed allocated reserves. Some projects simply will not be successful. The sooner failures are identified and eliminated, the more time and money is available for creating a success. However, one missed milestone is not a failure. Every development project should have a “reserve” for unanticipated problems. Finally, when a baby is stillborn, don’t shoot the parents (i.e., dump the developer). Good developers learn from their failures and often “rescue” useful bits for future projects. Remember, Blizzard built WoW from the wreckage of an earlier RPG project.

Posted in Production | 2 Comments »

Subscriptions vs Microtransactions

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

Wars of Religion, Redux

The argument between subscription and microtransaction (MT) proponents reminds me of the old PvE vs PvP debates years ago. Each side had passionate proponents. Each insisted their approach was better than the other side. However, business realities encouraged game developers to create titles that supported both PvP and PvE, although typically one must be emphasized (for example Warhammer emphasizes PvP while Conan emphasizes PvE).

Some people believe that MT is already the victor. However, cogent cases are still made for subscriptions. The always insightful Eric Heimburg has interesting arguments in Don’t Throw Out the Subscription Model. He argues that MT-based games require game operators to ignore the majority of players in favor of the minority who actually pay. However, looking under the hood at MMOs like Silk Road, Rappelz, Perfect World, or Runes of Magic reveals that the benefits of using MT-acquired items requires a deep understanding of the game’s systems. To land those wealthy MT-spending “whales”  the game casts a wide net of WoW-ish gameplay, hoping enough players stay long enough to learn the game well enough to buy things.

Another plus for subscriptions is their relative simplicity. Simply performing a microtransaction can be a gigantic headache. A player must alt-tab from the game to a website, there the player must jump through various credit-card or paypal hoops to buy “Diamonds” or “Silk” or “gpots” or “Zen”, only to find that can’t be used for anything obvious like a coveted +5 fire sword. Instead the player must alt-tab back in the game, figure out how to recover the recently purchased diamonds/silks/gpots/zens, take them to the auction house, sell them at a constantly floating rate for game gold, then exchange that gold at another constantly floating rate for the +5 sword. If it’s still there. So much for instant gratification, or even simple understanding.

On the other side. MT proponents justly point out that players are ready, willing and able to spent more than $15/month for a better gaming experience. Especially if this helps them look cooler, do better or advance faster. If the game operator isn’t ready to fulfill those desires, gold-sellers will happily take up the slack. The business logic is impossible to refute.

From a game development standpoint, it is much easier to design a game for MT at the start than to add it afterward. Retrofitting MT into a game designed for subscriptions is possible. Alas, getting a subscription-oriented design department to perform the necessary rework can be a hopeless endeavor, not to mention the potential for customer revolt. In fact, as any significant play of Asian MT MMOs will reveal, even a game designed for MT can have difficulties.

A New Peace of Westphalia

In 1648 after more than a century of religious persecution, bloodshed and depopulation, Europe ended constant Catholic-Protestant warfare at Westphalia. How? By setting up a system where both sides could peacefully coexist. In MMOs, it’s simply a matter of time before the business side forces designers to make subscriptions and MT coexist. There are hints of this in Free Realms. Like PvP and PvE, there is no reason why both can’t exist. The design tenants for such an accord are as simple as those at Westphalia. Of course, like Westphalia, there are a million nitty gritty details just as complicated as the various territorial realignments of 1648.

Personally, I am all for making MMOs as profitable as possible. Otherwise I might have no games to develop or play. Therefore I advocate a Westphalia for subscriptions and MT as soon as possible. Here’s my vision for it:

(A) Design games so that in-game gold can be purchased with real money without disrupting player advancement or core gameplay.

(B) Design a subscription plan that is a superset of the MT system.

(A) Design Adjustments

New game designs are already simplifying the MT purchasing system by eliminating intermediary limited-use currencies. Players can now buy the main game currency, the in-game gold. Better still, when the game operator sells gold they will eliminate black market gold farmers and sellers. This is because it costs the game operator nothing to “coin” more gold, while the gold-seller must pay farmers to “harvest” gold.

Of course, directly selling gold in-game does require design adjustments. Some items critical to advancement must be unbuyable. Acquiring gold can no longer be a factor in character advancement. But after all, shouldn’t XP, skills and levels be the proper “currency” of advancement? Didn’t WoW prove the value of limiting advanced equipment to characters of a higher level? Challenge the design team to create a game where a filthy-rich level 40 warrior (who spent the max on the best stuff) can enjoy grouping with a poverty-stricken level 40 priest (who spent extra time grinding or crafting to get equivalent equipment). Why even try to “balance” in-game economies that are inherently hyper-inflationary? Instead, make sure the fun and pleasure of the game don’t depend on how much wealth players have. The original design of City of Heroes and City of Villains is a great example of how to do this.

(B) Subscriptions in an MT World

Most MT systems have “package deals” where a player gets extra and/or bonus items for buying a higher dollar-value package. It’s simply good business sense to codify these “packages” into a “recurring monthly package deal” Of course, this “recurring monthly package deal” must be too sweet to ignore. Anyone who enjoys the game and has the spare cash available will want to get this deal. This makes MT a way station on the road to subscriptions.

How to make such a deal lavish without unbalancing the game? Does the game requires players to use ammo and/or heal pots (like Silk Road)? If so, offer players 30-day access to a special NPC with unlimited, free, non-transferable stacks of ammo. Character inventory limits still apply, so profligate shooters will need to return for their free reloads. Next throw in a non-transferable 2x experience multiplier potion that lasts 30 days. On top of that, give the players 500x their current level in gold pieces every 30 days. Oh, don’t forget to give players a few non-transferable pots of a unique clothing dye so they stand out from the crowd.

The actual deals included in a “recurring monthly package” will vary from game to game. Obviously it’s best if the game is designed around this possibility from the start. This maximizes the chances of players moving from F2P to MT purchases to recurring purchase (subscription). Even that isn’t the end. Remember to preserve a few reasons for subscribers to make MT purchases.

Posted in Design, Production | 4 Comments »