Here are the two most common, critical issues of game developers in the MMORPG space:
- They’re unable to contain scope and go “big game hunting”
- They’re lagging behind broader industry trends
I’m going to unpack these in detail. The good news is that there are signs that some key players in the industry have come to the same realizations that I have and are trying to sort things out.
For full disclosure, I’ve never worked for a game developer. In 2012, I did interview with BioWare, a studio that I have immense respect for.
My opinions are informed not only as an MMORPG gamer of 8 years and my experience as an online host and content provider for GAMEBREAKER and this blog, but also as a 17-year veteran of the online/digital industry, including extensive work as a software developer, systems architect, large-scale project/program manager, and now product manager. I have led the delivery of rich experiences that users love through huge multi-disciplinary teams in meaningful timeframes. You want to design and deliver a kick-ass product and get it out the door on-time and on-budget, I’m your guy.
They are unable to contain scope and go “big game hunting”
Let me share an illustrative personal story.
Just over a decade ago right after the “Dot Com” implosion, I joined a well-funded startup company in the location services space. That startup was developing IP (algorithms and code) to solve the location services (GPS) problem for mobile devices.
Despite the rest of the startup market tanking, we secured $15MM USD in funding, because everyone expected that location was the next big thing (it was, but we were 3 years too early). What did we do with all that money? We tried to solve a problem that was $15MM big, or as my mentor liked to call it, we were “big game hunting” – trying to catch the biggest fish in the lake, instead of trying to land smaller wins and gaining feedback on real products that spurs incremental development, a la the Agile methodology. Simply put, we were trying to do too much.
Our company tried to develop both a mobile chip and a server product for our GPS solution. The chip and its algorithms were the secret sauce. The server product, which my team designed and built, was just the supporting product.
As it turns out, our startup bit off more than we could chew, and we burned through a lot of cash. I left the GPS startup to start a small business, and afterwards the GPS startup was acquired for $10MM. The kicker? We were acquired because our server product was a common need; the acquirer paid ten million dollars for something that my 4-person development team cranked out in 5 months.
Our startup failed because we went after scope that was too big and difficult to deliver. We were big game hunting. This is the #1 reason why Triple-A MMORPGs have struggled in recent years. There has not been a single AAA MMORPG launched in 2008-2012 that has meaningfully grown its subscriber base post-launch. The list of these games includes Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Guild Wars 2.
These games all tried to deliver too much, including multiple of the following:
- PVE leveling content
- PVE endgame content
- PVE raiding content
- Battleground PVP
- Arena PVP
- World PVP
That’s a crapload of content and systems to design, code, and test, let alone (try to) deliver with polish. On top of that, a game with so much scope has many different audiences with dissimilar needs and desires, and you can’t please everyone.
I do believe that it is possible to design a system that supports balance for both PVE and PVP, such as implementing abilities with context-specific coefficients, durations, diminishing returns, targets affected, etc. However, even if a developer were able to implement perfect balance, the players would perceive imbalances. So it may be a losing battle to even attempt to solve it.
While PVP content tends to have high replayability (witness the success of MOBA’s such as League of Legends), the customer expectation for PVE content is that a developer will continue to release new content regularly: quests, zones, instances, raids, etc. It’s not scalable. The ideal product or service for a business is one you build once and customers use a long time. That doesn’t exist in the MMORPG space for PVE content.
Emily Rogers talked about this in her insightful writeup on the rising costs of game development, and former Trion Exec Producer Scott Hartsman said that the traditional AAA style of development and distribution is broken. The root problem is the inability to define and maintain a sufficiently bounded scope that delivers a sticky MMORPG experience without taking on undue implementation or financial risk.
They both use an analogy that I’ve used before: the gaming industry is pursuing the same high-risk/high-reward model as the movie industry. However, the catch is that with a movie, you build once and re-sell forever, whereas an MMORPG has to be evergreen or the players will leave.
There are signs that gaming industry execs are learning, e.g.:
- Mark Jacobs of City State Entertainment has said that Camelot Unchained will focus strictly on RVR (Realm versus Realm, or World PVP)
- Scott Hartsman gets it
- Smaller-scope F2P games are dominating online usage, in particular LoL. These games succeed not just because of the no-cost-barrier to acquisition, but because the developers are able to deliver limited content with high replayability
The new content in LoL is really limited to Champions, not elaborate zones with elaborate storylines with elaborate instances/raids with elaborate boss fight mechanics that then need to be balanced against elaborate classes with elaborate mechanics and elaborate customer expectations, which collectively leads to an elaborately unpolished experience and frustrated players. Ditto goes for the gem of a game, World of Tanks, I’ve been playing recently. The scope of the game is limited to maps, battle scenarios, tanks, and clan wars.
They’re lagging behind broader industry trends
I attended GDC 2012, and one particular panel blew me away, but not for the reason I would have expected. It was the BioWare panel hosted by SWTOR Exec Producer Richard Vogel and Director of Production Dallas Dickenson on the lessons learned from launching SWTOR, a title that by rumor cost $200+MM to launch (and I believe that figure is reasonable, as I explained with simple math of resources x cost x time).
One of their big aha’s was the concept of creating multi-disciplinary strike teams. That’s the idea of assigning a designer, engineer, artist, writer, QA person, etc together to solve problems across disciplines, instead of doing the traditional handoffs or throwing stuff over the wall.
My initial thought was wow, they’ve just learned what the rest of us figured out in the online industry over a decade ago, when we had to sort out how to get creative folks (brand strategists, information architects, visual designers, content strategists/writers, etc), business/strategy folks, and software developers effectively collaborating to deliver user-centered experiences on the web. But it wasn’t just BioWare who recently reached this epiphany. After the panel, I heard developers from other studios, including folks from Microsoft’s XBox360 team, come over and very excitedly share with the BioWare team that they had reached the same conclusion recently.
Granted, I’m close to this sort of thing, as I was the co-creator of a firm’s multidisciplinary methodology back in 1999 when I was at Sapient (at the time a 3000-person e-business consultancy) as a Director of Technology. But what we figured out back then in the online space has been common knowledge for a decade outside the gaming space.
The other signpost that indicates to me that gaming developers are a decade behind is the extent to which every developer seems to over-invest in their own custom stuff, e.g. pipeline management, languages, middleware, data stores, tools, etc. When I was talking to employees at game developers early last year as I was checking out the industry for job opportunities, one common theme was that developers were spending significant effort in building completely custom, proprietary stuff. This was as surprising to me as hearing the SWTOR heads talk about their epiphany about multi-disciplinary strike teams.
To understand this, let’s look outside the gaming industry. Standard libraries and open source have transformed the software development industry. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, everyone wrote their own reusable code, e.g. string objects, collection classes, object caches, data access layers, etc. Looking back, it was stupidly redundant. Eventually programming languages such as Java and Perl provided these things as part of the language out-of-the-box, and that became a standard expectation for newer languages. Beyond that, the Internet was a fundamental enabler for open source development, by allowing talented people all over the world who were motivated to solve the same problems to collaborate on solutions.
These days, if you launch a product or service and aren’t taking a hard look at all of the polished open source software that that you can leverage and integrate so that you can focus on what was truly your value add, you’re a moron. There are open source packages for operating systems, algorithms, databases, middleware, version control, rules engines, graphics rendering, data caching, etc. Granted, many of these things require integration and experimentation to get working the way you want, but that is generally a heck of a lot easier and cheaper than building everything yourself and then having to maintain it forever.
I’m not saying that game developers aren’t using open source, of course they are, and I am most definitely not saying that developers shouldn’t write custom code. They should write custom code for areas that enable a differentiated experience or where there is no suitable open source option. I’m well aware that game developers face very challenging game performance, scaling, and availability requirements – but the software industry has been solving them for years, and viable open source solutions are out there.
There have been some efforts in the gaming industry to create common development platforms and SDKs. Unity has been a wildfire success. On the more Triple-A side of things for larger games, Trion announced in 2011 that they were going to license their development tech, but I haven’t kept up with what’s happened with that.
As a last example, most MMORPGs have not caught up on the importance of making player / guild / server / game statistics and achievements publicly available via APIs, to enable the development of an ecosystem of 3rd party apps and web sites around their game. Providing such APIs has been key to the growth of many social media sites and game developers that get it. Wargaming has done an amazing job at this with WoT: I can literally track and measure my performance progress in that game on a per-battle or daily basis. Players love statistics, it’s a way to measure their performance and progression – in PVP or in PVE – or as my guildee Crescens says, “it’s a way for me to prove I’m better than you.” LOL :)
By contrast, games such as Guild Wars 2 have largely missed an amazing opportunity to use stats and leaderboards as a tool for endgame progression, and instead they chose the route of vertical scaling by introducing Ascended gear, which I believe creates long-term barriers to player retention and acquisition, because you can’t perform as well as others without sinking in the time investment first, and vertical gear progression limits a player’s ability to easily transition between different specs or different classes.
I do think there should be horizontal progression at endgame, such as a wide range of gear and abilities that have differing characteristics, a.k.a. “incomparables.” LoL has implemented incomparables with their Champions. While some Champions may be overpowered, they get balanced over time, and players can spend countless hours researching, testing, and arguing which is the better Champion for a given situation or comp, and that in itself makes a game ludicrously sticky.
Not every game developer currently gets it, but there is some hope based on what some studios and executives are or have been doing. The gaming industry is learning!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, whether you’re a fellow gamer or work in the gaming industry.
- 2013/06/07: for clarity, renamed the 2nd bullet point from “lagging behind software industry” to “lagging behind broader industry trends”