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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

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.

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2 Responses to “Web 2.0 and MMOs”

  1. I want to play an olympics MMO Browser game SO bad right now, like a world wide competition where you play for your countries. Anything like that?

  2. Many thanks, this website is very practical.|

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