How to create a world-beating MMO

How to create a world-beating MMO

By Jeremy Gaffney

August 3rd 2011 at 8:00AM

While the fortunes of the most popular MMOs have never been better, it's now harder than ever create one that succeeds. Jeremy Gaffney, executive producer at NCsoft's Carbine Studios, takes a look at the future of the genre, and offers some advice on developing a hit

MMOs have come a long way since the early days. The technology, reach, credibility, subscriber numbers and – let’s be completely honest – revenue from successful MMOs have exceeded all of our expectations.

When I was at Turbine working on Asheron’s Call back in 1994, our target was to reach 50,000 to 80,000 players using modems and paying by the hour. Now we have multiple MMOs with millions of subscribers worldwide; success that was nothing more than a pipedream 20 years ago.

MMO gaming is now mainstream; a shift that has in part happened virally and organically, and to some extent because the industry has matured and the experiences we are creating for gamers have improved. Thanks to both of these things, it’s now considered ‘normal’ and acceptable for a consumer to play MMOs.

From a development viewpoint, the success of this industry brings concern. I worry, for example, that mass market equals mass budget equals risk aversion equals conservative design. The great thing about the early MMOs – games like Asheron’s Call, Ultima Online, EverQuest and Lineage – was the fact they experimented; they weren’t afraid to take different directions. At NCsoft we recognise the importance of risk taking, not only with design, but with business models, genres and gameplay. The customer must always come first. And that means creating – and continually developing – quality experiences that they want to live in.

What’s really interesting as we approach the next wave in MMOs is how those experiences will change. Should we be developing for mass or niche markets? Is it time to add console and mobile development to the mix? Are social gamers the new MMO subscribers and, if they are, how do we attract them? What business model is the best one?

MASS VS NICHE?

It’s possible to make fun games in both areas. With a mass market model, the aim is to achieve a huge number of day one box sales and then worry about retention. For niche MMOs, this is turned on its head; don’t worry about launch, just make sure each expansion increases your subscriber base.

But the goal in the MMO space generally is to achieve a subscriber base that continually increases over time. This can only be achieved by keeping players happy in the long haul through quality content and gameplay, making it a very different business proposition to traditional box shifters.

DEVELOPING FOR CONSOLE AND MOBILE

When hitting a new market, it’s essential you let your originality be dictated by the uniqueness of the platform. For instance, mobile demands short stints of gameplay, and this constrains the design. You’ve got to ask what you can do that’s interesting in a  fantasy MMO on mobile. Can it take advantage of the fact that you’ve got a position in the real world? Is there really any fun gameplay to be found in that? The developers that answer those questions well will enjoy successes; ports and unoriginal titles will not.

LURING THE SOCIAL GAMER

Social gaming is interesting, partly because there isn’t an explicitly natural path for getting people from Facebook mass games into true MMOs.

The struggle for many is getting over the 3D hurdles – moving around with the WASD keys is a lot different than simply clicking on your crops.

There are a few games that have been able to surmount those hurdles, but it will be interesting overall to see how much that market moves into ‘deeper’ MMOs and how much the social games themselves become deeper to retain their existing fans.

Instead, it makes sense to target players who have left other MMOs, or who remain but are barely playing. This market is truly huge. What’s more, that demographic is predisposed to be interested in new games.

But, as the market matures, the best tactic is to attract your core fans who live with you for a long while – but also to be a good enough game to get in the ‘cycle’ of games that players return to when bored with other games, or when they put out a cool expansion or new bit of content.

When players do cycle out, don’t be tempted to make dumb moves on live development. Listen to them and work hard to keep them coming back.

At NCsoft we have dedicated community folks who spend a lot of time listening and have direct lines of communication to our development teams. Essentially, we have gamer geeks listening to our players and gamer geeks developing for them. This has been essential to our success. The desire to keep our players happy is high.

F2P OR SUBSCRIPTION?

I don’t believe that one model rules all. As with all elements of games development, you need to consider what the customer can and is willing to pay.

Some people are really cost or model sensitive – kids who don’t have credit cards yet, for instance. Others really don’t care about cost. MMOs are cheap compared to boxed games, so paying a small fixed fee each month for hundreds of hours of game time compares very favourably.

So what does the future hold for MMOs? Well, in my opinion, it holds massive opportunity. Over the next 20 years, as in the last 20 years, changes in technology and innovation mean we will be able to evolve the way MMOs are designed, developed, distributed, paid for and played.

But the common denominator will always be the gamer.
And with gamers comes diversity, especially now.

This means that despite the opportunities that technology throws our way, it’s unlikely there will ever be a one-model-fits-all approach to any of the above. That’s why it’s impossible to definitely say what the future holds for MMOs and also what makes developing them such an amazing job.

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Jeremy Gaffney is executive producer at MMO specialist and NCsoft division Carbine Studios. Previously Gaffney has served as founder of Turbine Entertainment, vice president of development for NCsoft North America, and designer of City of Heroes. Carbine is currently at work on an unannounced project.

www.carbinestudios.com