How Should MMOs be funded?

The collapse of 38 Studios, combined with the massive layoffs from SWTOR, have sent the MMO world into a spiral of confusion.

Today, two bloggers are paying close attention to the state that MMORPGs find themselves in – and ask how future MMOs will ever be developed.

First up, Green Armadillo at Player vs Developer wonders if maybe current MMORPGs don’t have the entire thing backward

“Let’s say that you wanted to go forth and start a new chain of ice cream shops. You would not go to the State of Rhode Island for $75 million with which to develop new ice cream technology for a simultaneous worldwide launch. Rather, you would get a loan and open one shop with as few employees as possible. Then, if you are reasonably successful, you’d go back and ask for money to open more shops. At this stage, you might be told that you’re still too big a risk, but that the investors will buy you a cart from which to sell ice cream made at your existing location on the local beachfront.

This feedback loop is critical because the requirement that you demonstrate success before taking on additional debt helps keep you from getting in over your head. If, for whatever reason, someone gives you more loans than you can repay, one day your employees are all out of work, your company is gone, and the State of Rhode Island is suddenly the proud owner of $1.4 million in R.A. Salvatore Amalur fanfic and a game that could be a hit if only you had 300+ employees for at least a year to finish it. ”

GA is advocating an iterated development approach, something which has successfully produced hits like Minecraft. It’s, interestingly, also close to the approach that the Pathfinder MMO developers have chosen to take (something that he mentions in his article, along with numerous other interesting examples).

I’m a bit more confident than him that the technical overhead of running an MMO will subside – middleware solutions already exist and some people, like Eric of Elder Game, are already developing indie MMOs. Given that, GA may have just hit the nail on the head of MMORPG development’s future.

Meanwhile, Ravious of Kill Ten Rats goes on a journey through the heart of the problem, comparing MMOs to BBQ cooking and wondering if what we’re actually seeing is the death of content-first MMOs

“The pattern you see here, says my umpeenth lozenge wrapper, is the MMO product as content. Rift was very much an MMO built around the current World of Warcraft conventions with some nice hydraulics and flashy paint job. They’ve continued to build many different game mechanisms that stretch away from quests-and-dungeons, but much of it still feels like World of Warcraft. In my opinion, Trion succeeded at repackaging the vanilla MMO with new content.

Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR), apparently did not succeed, at least for the bottom line. This disconnect between a profitable repackaging for a brand new IP and an MMO still making up red numbers from a mammoth IP amazes me. On white paper with Rift’s views in mind, SWTOR should have been printing money by now. BioWare took the conventional MMO ruleset, tweaked it a little, and repackaged it in the money-making Star Wars IP. How did they do this at a loss?”

This is an interestingly optimistic editorial in a pretty dark time, and Ravious makes some excellent points. Particularly telling, and particularly important, I think, is that MMORPGs can be considered as a model of gaming closer to our human instincts than any other – and for that reason, we should expect them to survive.

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Should MMORPG developers build social media into their games?

Gazimoff starts today off with an intriguing proposal. He’s arguing that in order to counteract the “MMO nomad” phenomenon, MMORPG developers should be giving serious thought to integrating social media into their games – not just a equivalent, but allowing Steam messaging, Twitter, even Facebook, live within the game environment

“The problem with this approach is that MMOs tend to be developed as islands, with a dedicated community team working with journalists and fansites and building interest. I’m not sure this is a great idea, as publishing houses and developers can generate their own fanbases as well. While getting as many people as possible to play a new release might be a short term goal, the longer term has to be focused around creating a fan-based market for every new release.

So what would this longer term goal look like? It means developing social tools that connect the in-game social experience with the wider internet, but in ways that help to promote a sticky relationship with the developer. How many of us would like to be able to take chat beyond the smartphone, with desktop versions available? How about being able to link to Twitter in the way that Rift does, allowing you to send tweets and pick up messages while playing? What about using your Steam account to chat while playing Rift or Rusty Hearts?

I think that expanded social messaging, both instant and asynchronous, is one of the cornerstones of helping to build social experiences that go beyond one single game. I also think that it’ll become crucial as publishers move to a multi-MMO approach.”

This is a short but thought-provoking post. In a lot of ways, Gazimoff’s echoing and expanding on Cynwise’s recent musings on social networks and MMOs , but Gazimoff’s taking a very focussed, practical approach to the benefits that social media can offer both gamers and developers.

It’s an interesting vision of the future. Of course, the network effect could work both ways – whilst peers playing a game might push you toward it, they could also push you away from another game. I was strongly reminded of the theoretical future Charles Stross proposed in Halting State, where an entire infrastructure exists to allow players to “emigrate” between MMOs. But on the other hand, one of the most frequent complaints in MMO-land in the last year has been about the destruction of community – and a really robust social setup could allow communities to regrow.

Of all the social media, Google+ looks like probably the most appropriate setup for a multi-MMO social network to me, probably followed by the ancient social media site LiveJournal. Both offer the ability to segment your contacts by how and where you know them – offering a built-in way to include people in specific “guild” circles. Because, let’s face it, if games companies do go this way, one of the most important questions is not how to contact people, but how to avoid being contacted by them…

What do you think of Gazimoff’s vision of the MMO future?

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How can limiting the Pathfinder MMO to only 5k players be a good business plan?

Everyone knows there’s only one way to launch an MMO, right? And that’s BIG. SWTOR big. 5 million players on launch, crashing servers everywhere, massive influx and immediate floods of cash. Anything else is a disaster!

Well, no, it isn’t. Bubbling under the MMO surface there have long been games that operate on a completely different model – Pot favourite A Tale In The Desert, for example, which only ever has a few thousand players. And today, the developers of the upcoming (and eagerly awaited) Pathfinder MMORPG have posted a fascinating commentary on their intended approach – which involves a low development cost, and tiny numbers of players – by design – at launch

“Lisa’s challenge to figure out how to make the game on a lean budget led me to the realization that the last thing we want is a huge spike of players followed by a rapid decline. What we want instead is a slow, steady growth of players—the same kind of growth that EVE Online has experienced almost every year since its launch. Since Goblinworks won’t have to pay off a huge theme park mortgage, our focus will instead be on making our virtual world as engaging as possible and sustaining that virtual world as the population grows over years of time.

But a sandbox needs a critical mass of players to interact with each other, or they may as well be playing a solo game. One part of the design that helps determine the amount of interaction is the density of the world—how big is it and how many characters are in that space?

We believe that we’ve solved that equation in a surprising way, which led us to what we think is a revolutionary plan.

At launch, and for the first seven months following, we will cap new paying players at 4,500 per month. Four thousand five hundred new paying players monthly. We expect to keep only about 25% of those players on a long-term basis, so after we factor in attrition of each month’s signups, we end up with 16,500 paying players at the end of that seven-month period.”

The blog post’s a little bit “corporate speak” – one gets the sense that there are facts being spun pretty hard as you read – but other than that, it’s a really fascinating read. As someone who has been involved in the games industry myself, I’ve long wondered why there aren’t more games exploring the “modest number of players / low development cost” space, and I’ll be very interested to see how they do. I’m a bit dubious if their optimism toward middleware (pre-written game components) will play out – my experience is that middleware, whilst great, doesn’t work nearly as “out of the box” as promised – but we’ll see. And obviously, as a sandbox fan, I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how their developer blog develops – whether it ends up basically being a PR bugle, or whether we get to see real insights into the development process a la sites like Elder Game. But for now, have a read, and enjoy seeing the start of another possibly-great, possibly-doomed MMO adventure!

What do you think? Could the “only 5k players, please” approach be revolutionary?

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