Conquering the MMO Market

Massively multiplayer online games are bigger than everas are associated risks and investment dollars. Here's how to do them right

We've all heard the hype: Massively multiplayer online games, a.k.a. MMOs—persistent virtual worlds that players can simultaneously mix, mingle and/or adventure within 24/7 alongside literally thousands of fellow users—are the next big thing.

No surprise there... Selling 100,000 copies of a standard full-price title in its initial production run, which can last mere weeks, is still big news to many game publishers. (Although, in fairness, many can expect to garner additional sales and revenue when products are re-released at budget prices, through OEM channels, via online vendors, shipped overseas or relaunched as value-minded compilations.)

On the flip side, massively-multiplayer Internet-only outings can generate just as much retail action through the release of boxed goods, while at the same time enjoying longer virtual (and overall) lifecycles. Plus—more pointedly—they can produce extended, ongoing income in the form of paid subscriptions or microtransactions at little added development and manufacturing cost. And the difference between approaches, naturally, is as vast as it is compelling from a commercial standpoint... and irresistible to explore.

Picture the situation faced by those dealing in standalone retail product.

You ship your latest award-winner for $49.99-$59.99. Following, there's perhaps just a six- to eight-week premium shelf life period in which to capitalize on this expensive, years-in-the-making title, which dozens, more likely hundreds, of peers contributed to. Maybe you succeed, maybe you fail, and the title's quickly reduced in price or pulled from retailers altogether; hopefully, at some point, you see some recurring back-catalogue revenue. Considering you've spent $10-20 million and invested heaven knows how many man-hours up-front, it's hardly a tempting or risk-averse proposition by even the greenest executive's measure.

Now envision you could sell the same title in-store just as long, yet also at full sticker price online for months to come—or give it away free via digital download, thanks to a more flexible business model. And, what's more, you'd get to see around $9.99-$14.99/month, every month, on average from users in recurring revenue in exchange for a little customer support and new content, or $3-4 in regular, bite-sized purchases of virtual items and enhancements. Suddenly, what was once a potentially lucrative, but hit-or-miss income stream becomes not only consistently predictable and profitable... the trickle becomes a raging torrent. And that's before you count the additional onrush of capital created by peripheral income-generating activities, such as the public sale and trade of virtual goods and characters.

To put things in perspective: Market leader World of WarCraft tops 8.5 million subscribers worldwide. Alone, it swells owner Vivendi's coffers to the point that the corporation could literally fund the start-up of an entirely new, fully-functional standalone game publishing subsidiary every single month.

Sounds like an incredible deal, right?

Not necessarily—infinitely more expensive, trickier to maintain, more upkeep-intensive and likelier to implode than single-player-only experiences, these cyberspace realms can cost tens of millions initially and on the back-end to build and support. And that's before you count the grief, public outrage and aggravation associated with inevitable outages and downtime.

Nor, as the failure of countless titles from The Sims Online to The Matrix Online and, most recently, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes to ignite the gaming world illustrates, is success guaranteed, whatever your firm's past track record in the industry.

Note that this maxim holds true even for the most pedigreed and well-funded of intellectual properties: Anyone remember Asheron's Call 2 (the now-defunct sequel to a much older forerunner which is actually still profitably running) or Need for Speed spin-off Motor City Online?

Bearing this in mind, before rushing out and attempting to capitalize on one of the hottest trends since in-game advertising, take a second to stop and consider the following hints, tips and advice. Certainly, the analysts at DFC Intelligence predict big things for the sector, saying it will be worth over $13 billion by 2012. But as we at Embassy Multimedia Consultants counsel clients both new to and familiar with this rapidly-growing market, it always pays to know the rules before getting in the game...

Defy Expectation—"Most MMOs follow the narrow framework defined early in the market's history by Ultima Online and EverQuest," explains Richard "Lord British" Garriott, creator of the Ultima franchise and NCSoft's Tabula Rasa. "There's no feeling of a dynamic world; no real sense of accomplishment beyond leveling up."

Translation: We don't need another World or WarCraft, or similarly-styled, grind-heavy sword and sorcery romp—ditto for sci-fi themed escapades as well. That market's already sewn up thanks to an immense number of current offerings from Dark Age of Camelot to Anarchy Online, The Lord of the Rings: Online, EVE Online, Gods & Heroes, Age of Conan, etc. (Notice a trend here? We call that overstaturation.) What's more, consumers tend to form long-standing bonds with specific games, heightened by these products' sense of familiarity and community. Attempting to convince them to part from their present obsession, after endless months of character-building and relationship-forming, just to try a largely carbon-copy alternative isn't the easiest, or most cost-effective, task.

Instead, when developing your next blockbuster, focus on more uncommonly explored, yet just as interesting topics. Although still in the minority, publishers like Sony Online Entertainment with The Agency (spies); Netamin with Ultimate Baseball Online (sports); and Flying Lab with Pirates of the Burning Sea (we'll give you one guess) are leading the way. Bonus points if you maximize marketability by picking a topic that extends the title's appeal to non-traditional gaming demographics such as women, casual shoppers and seniors. See Nexon's Audition (dancing), Linden Labs' Second Life (human interaction), Sulake's Habbo Hotel (kickin' it with friends) or Kaneva (social networking) for inspiration, with even Sony's PlayStation Home initiative speaking to the popularity of this growing practice. In other words, making niche titles for limited audiences with tired play mechanics based on already well-exploited trends won't do wonders for your bottom line. Dare to boldly go where rivals aren't: In one fell swoop, it'll let you raise your profile, recognize greater financial upsides, improve game quality and face reduced competition.

Handle Your Business—Here's a simple equation even all us non-bean-counting types can understand: Less development cost + smaller overhead + fewer licensing fees + lighter manpower = greater payouts, minimized risk, faster profitability and exponentially increased ROI.

It's the reason why outfits like Worlds Apart Productions (creators of Stargate: Online Trading Card Game and other computerized collectible card game outings)—now known as SOE Denver—have operated for years successfully on skeleton crews, yet still produce top-notch product. And, of course, browser-based offerings from small outfits such as Kingdom of Loathing can quickly become lucrative. What's more, the phenomenon further explains how relatively low-key titles with little-to-no marketing expenditures such as RuneScape can be amongst the most successful (featuring 5.6 million players, 1 million of whom are paying subscribers) MMOs in existence.

The takeaway here is that massive budgets and expansive universes filled with endless surprises aren't everything. To improve chances of success, simply devote as much attention to your business plan as the actual game itself. Before building a title, determine a break-even point and core set of goals, then staff accordingly and stick religiously to assigned budgets and design plans. Don't let feature creep or, worse, hubris—always estimate conservatively when forecasting revenues, subscriber bases, rate of customer retention, etc.—stand in the way of common sense. Ultimately, what you need to focus on is building a polished, high-quality product of manageably limited, but infinitely expandable scope that drives word-of-mouth sales, the single biggest contributor to any given MMO's success. And above all else, you should ensure your product has the flexibility to accept multiple revenue streams and dynamically adapt your strategic approach as needed. When it comes to virtual worlds, anything and everything can, and will, often change on the fly.

If you have to start small, so be it: Build a solid core game than can operate with fewer members and then use a low, but steady stream of subscriber income to expand slowly and organically. If you need to achieve larger payouts and recruit customers faster, focus on promotions (e.g. online campaigns, demo discs, mailers, contests, etc.) that directly put the title, or a means of interacting with its assets (i.e. fan site kits, playable mini-games or teaser trailers) in front of the most possible buyers. Always look for alternate income channels, as companies like K2 Network (whose games are free to play, yet generate a healthy income on small power-up and item purchases) or virtual trading card seller Wizards of the Coast have done. And whatever your size or ambition, as a rule of thumb, anticipate that costs of customer support will far exceed initial expectation—players can and will be demanding.

Either way, do the research and take the managerial steps necessary to ensure your reach doesn't exceed your grasp, and you'll already be ahead of 90% of the competition. "Our goal is to grow organically, profitably and healthy," confirms Funcom product director Jorgen Tharaldsen. "And [of course] deliver the best possible games where people can enjoy themselves and have fun, regardless of their nationality or background."

Put Community First—Remember: Most players play not for actual in-game content itself, but rather to chat, canoodle and interact with others just like themselves.

That said, a top-notch (but not, by definition, necessarily technically cutting-edge or audio-visually astounding) hands-on experience and the associated community it inevitably attracts is the most effective sales tool you've got, and means of driving continued growth. Therefore you'd best treat end-users like royalty. Why? Well, quite frankly, they're the ones paving your simulated streets in gold.

Or, as A Theory of Fun for Game Design author Raph Koster is kind enough to point out on his website, "Glory is the reason why people play online; shame is what keeps them from playing online. Neither is possible without other people being present."

To wit, the fine art of listening, responding to and providing encouragement for your customer base can't be underestimated. Just ask Star Wars: Galaxies' creators, who sparked a storm of controversy with their undesired "enhancements" to the title in 2005. Nor should one fail to recognize end-users' inherent ability, or motivation, to "break the system," whether intentional or not... As makers of pioneering MMOs dating all the way back to 1987's Habitat (which saw a months-in-the-making treasure hunt designed to take the user community weeks to solve cracked in minutes) can attest, expect the unexpected—and be ready to deal with it when it inevitability happens.

With this in mind, it's imperative that you invest heavily in customer support, keep your ear to the street and recruit designers who remain active and willing participants in their own simulated worlds—not to mention continuously arrange a spate of in-game events and activities such as tournaments, political rallies and even celebrity appearances, to keep users coming back. (Real-world gatherings such as fan fairs and conventions too...) Putting consumers' needs first and being able to respond speedily and effectively to any situation that affects their happiness and satisfaction is crucial, as is perpetually enhancing the quality of their ongoing play experience.

Never forget that an MMO is less a game, more an active commitment—everyone, including you and your social life/checkbook, needs to be in it for the long haul.

Promote User-Friendliness—Bad news: If you're an MMO maker, you're already playing to an audience that's a subset of a subset. Think PC gamers with an interest in the subject matter that possess specific minimum hardware/Internet configurations who are willing to try new things, outlay regular amounts of cash and spend multiple hours each week getting up to speed with and enjoying your product. If it helps, imagine each step required to play your title, from its initial purchase to installation, configuration, character generation and active play as another gateway through which gamers must pass. And it's only natural that there will be a steady rate of attrition, or customer loss, along the way at each checkpoint.

Game developers want to know why more people aren't getting hooked on the hobby. The short answer: We're not making it easy for them. So if you want to increase chances for success, it has to start at the earliest phase of development. As in, going all the way back to when you're choosing a topic, determining how to present it to the world and deciding how players will interact with your simulated universe. Want to really see an MMO take off? Create one with a mass-market theme, lower the system requirements, make it possible to play in bite-sized sessions and show people how they can jump right in and begin playing in minutes. It's the difference between enjoying a best-selling novel that's been adapted into an hour-long TV special or actually picking up and thumbing through the original, 600-page book. Most gamers want to get right to the good stuff, not sit around reading every last tome or scroll you've crammed onto a 3D bookcase or pimping out their new superhero or paladin by endlessly tapping their mouse to wail on generic thugs or low-resolution rats. That's why hardcore players—a small subset of your audience—should have the option to delve into games in detail, while the majority of players should, by default, be given the choice to skip the minutiae.

Certainly, customizability is mandatory: The end-user must be made to feel as if they have ownership of their virtual experience by being allowed to customize everything from avatar look/feel to assigned quests/missions and in-game controls. But you also have to truly put that power in their hands, and make it—like actually jumping in and seeing where a title's fun really lies—easy to access and appreciate. Sadly, most who do include such features still hide them behind a dizzying array of menus, toggles and keyboard inputs... Not to mention game designs that instantly infuriate players by immediately forcing them to download 30-minute updates the initial time they're loaded. You know what they say about first impressions, right?

Oh, and just because "massively multiplayer" is the watchword, shouldn't mean it's the only game in town. Counterintuitive as it seems, don't force players to automatically have to interact with other subscribers. Instead, create a large subset of compelling adventures they can accomplish alone. Then let them choose to reach out to the virtual world at large for help, advice or just to recount war stories when ready. Newcomers need a little time to get adjusted, and we all have moments where we want to just cut loose, feel like a one-man army, raid a few wyvern's nests, and not have some foul-mouthed teen named "j00m4Ma69" tagging along to ruin the experience. In plain English, it's their fantasy: Let players individually decide when they're ready to allow someone to rudely intrude on it.

"It's always tricky to communicate to potential users that making a game that's friendly to everyone, even casual players, doesn't need to necessarily preclude depth or challenge," confesses EverQuest II senior producer Scott Hartsman. "Lots of hardcore gamers, even developers, hear 'casual-friendly' and think 'no thanks.' The truth is that it's actually possible, and highly recommendable, to make a game that has interesting things to do for people across the spectrum."

In essence, the more we all stop making MMOs the old-fashioned way, and start simply making sense, the easier it's going to be to expand the medium, and enjoy unfettered success.

Besides, lest you doubt the upsides, recall: Given aforementioned financial forecasts, if, by following these suggestions, you manage to seize even .005% more of the market, well... Per going rates on online auction houses, that still buys one heck of a level 60 dark elf necromancer.

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