The Measure of Success

Wilhelm‘s provocative My New Scorecard post and comments got me thinking. What does it really mean to be a successful MMO financially? I’m mainly referring to professionally developed games with “real” funding.

In the wake of WoW’s success, many many studios have put projects in development. Nothing breeds interest in success like success, and a success like WoW’s can sure flush out the dumb money looking for a sure thing. So there is probably more opportunity to get a project off the ground then there was in 1997, but with those opportunities probably come more serious expectations that can dramatically affect a project’s development (e.g., Vanguard, Ryzom or Gods & Heroes).

From what I’ve read, it seems most “real” MMOs are taking anywhere from three to five years to develop. PotBS and Age of Conan have been in development for about 5 years, LotRO (with its sordid past) even longer than that (though admittedly not with the same “owners” if you will). Note these were in the works before WoW launched, let alone became the success it is.

Building these games takes time. Post-EQ2/WoW/Vanguard, they will take even more time since the market is expecting a much more polished and complete product on launch.

To make these games, investors must be patient and risk tolerant. Not exactly abundant commodities in the technolog community. At least if you’re making a movie and have shot the film, you can recut it into something at the end of the day, even if its complete crap to get to revenue (can you say straight to video?).

Not exactly the same case with a software product. Mostly it works or it doesn’t and you can’t really ship if it doesn’t. Couple that with the fact that if you can’t keep the servers running, there’s really no point in launching an MMO (e.g., Auto Assault, Ryzom).

So what’s it take to develop a new MMO? A few wild guesses, but as something between a software company and a services company, I’d be surprised if a real MMO could be developed these days for less than $20 million. With the complexity of the project and the polish required, I’d expect new games to have development budgets (eventually) more along the lines of movies– $100 million+.

If you think $20 million is a lot of money, do the math over a project’s development and see what you think. Its not. That’s only an average $4 million burn each year for each pre-revenue year. Much less at the front end, probably much more at the back end as pre-launch activities ramp up. The near-launch hype machine I’m told, can be millions in its own right.

So assume you’re selling the box for $50 and tagging subscribers for $15 per month. If you sold 250k boxes and held those subscribers for a full year, you’d return a little over $16 million, with the hope of about $3.8 million in recurring revenue for each following year that you could hold 250k subscribers. So if you’re lucky, on a $20 million budget with 250k subscribers for two years, your investors may break even after seven years.

Hardly the value proposition that most of the new crop of investors sniffing around the MMO world would sign up for. Why do that when you could throw $2 million at a web 2.0 widget company and get even 2x or 5x on your investment in 3 years?

No, I suspect that WoW may have really changed the game game. I think we’re beginning to see just how far the bar has been raised. 250k or even 500k users probably just doesn’t cut it as a target for a new game.

Yes, there will always be small games, but until there is really a technological change that can replace dozens of developers, coders and artists working thousands of hours to produce a top notch game, I wonder how many smaller or independent games will be able to grab the attention of the community accustomed to blockbuster releases.

Is this the beginning of the Hollywood-ification of the MMO space?

The Myth of Character Customization

With LotRO open beta rolling out and the official release later this month, more and more people are getting a chance to take a more serious look at the game.  The same occurred as Vanguard went open beta and into release.

In reading comments and forums posts, one thing I find interesting is the amount of weight people put on character customization.  Yes, everyone wants to be unique and above average, but let’s be serious, does this really matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things?  It certainly seems to.  When its bad, it really does seem to matter.  But when does “better” become the enemy of “good” by consuming resources better spent elsewhere? 

By “character customization” I do not mean item and clothing textures per se, but I do mean the ability to say, thin or thicken one’s eyebrows, or to select between slightly blue and slighly more blue eyes, or a bold chin or a slightly less bold chin.  Mea culpa, I certainly spend a fair amount of time on the character customization screen (even in WoW if you can believe it), so I’m not immune to this anthropomorphic narcissism.  I assume that game devs are simply responding to increasingly loud player demands.   Go them.

But does any of this really matter?  Consider that if you play in first person view (*shudder*), you never see your character at all.  Consider also that if you play in 3d person over the shoulder view, you will become intimately familiar with your character’s backside.  And that backside (your dorsal surface, not your derriere), from nearly the first moment you enter the game, will be covered by armor, a cloak (if you choose to show it) and a helm (likewise).  Even if you don’t show your cloak and helm, you are treated with the view of the back of your own head, so maybe hairstyle matters.

But doesn’t customization then at least make you appear unique to the rest of the game world?  I’m not so sure that faint scar I put above my left eyebrow is really going to help my guildies or friends pick me out of a crowd, nor the slightly-less-than-[blue][green][purple] eyes, etc.  Or the fact that my handlebar moustache with double braided beard is a particular shade of red.  You get the point.

Since I run in 3d person mode most of the time (and, as a healer, typically zoomed fairly far out for maximum situational awareness), I find I visually identify my friends and guildies mostly by what they are wearing or by the oh so convenience billboard hanging over their head with their name on it which I recognize…

So I ask the humble question, is all the time and effort spent by devs to create highly customizeable avatars really the best spend of limited development resources?  Doesn’t it really just turn into a performance hit at somepoint as the client needs to keep track of a thousand different bits of information for each character rather than say, a hundred or ten?  Would some of that dev time and money be better spend on better mob AI or animations or polishing the combat system?

Yes I recognize this is heresy, but the deeper question is what do we really need in an MMO to create a meaningful and unique character identity?  Is a floating player name enough?  Height and weight/build?  Hair/facial hair style?  Skin tone? Player customizeable clothing items (cloaks, shields, standards, tabards, etc.)?  Or am I completely missing the boat and do we, in fact, need infinite variability in all aspects (even more than mere sliders for variation of a trait)?  Is it an identity thing or a world-diversity thing?

One interesting tidbit for further thought.  I posted in the LotRO beta forum asking for an NPC eyeblink feature, something I thought that is subtle but goes a very long way to adding to the living feeling of a game world (much like the now standard character breathing and fidgeting animations).  The response I got was telling: such a task would be a collossal undertaking (I don’t disagree) and considering how much time and effort the team had recently been putting into further avatar customization efforts, it was unlikely that such a frill would be undertaken prior to launch.  A completely rational response.  Character customization 1, immersive world feeling 0.

Get the Hell Out of My Way

So, in playing 3 MMOs right now (WoW, EQ2, a beta and on rare occasion, Eve) maybe I’ve bitten a bit more off that I can properly chew. Nonetheless, each offer something very different for me and often suit or require a certain mood to really enjoy properly. Even with RL commitments (especially during the week), its still nice to quickly drop in check on auctions, do some tradeskilling or even go for a wee grind or clean out the old quest log.

With the exception of a regularly scheduled midweek group run, midweek game time is generally unstructured and at a premium. The quicker and easier it is for me to get in to the game, the better.

Now most games and other apps seem to generally try to get out of the user’s way and let them get on with whatever they’re doing. For example, my winxp box at home boots fairly quickly and generally gets out of my way in a bearable amount of time. The machine I use at work however takes forever. Go get two cups of coffee and read the paper forever. Correcting for hardware differences, the work box still loses my a mile.

Our IT folks have our network locked down tighter than a drum as is their mandate, but I can’t imagine that the productivity hit we take justifies whatever added security measures they’ve taken. Fifteen minutes of an ordinary workday is 3%. For a service organization that bills its time, that’s 3% right off top line revenues. Or, if you face productivity targets like most folks do, that’s another 15 minutes tacked onto my day. Many colleagues at different companies who have equally or more sensitive information on their networks and also have significant resources devoted to their protection and none of them suffer the kind of log in delays we routinely experience. HOW can our process take so long?

The only explanation I can come up with is that these guys don’t know what the end user experience is like, or don’t appreciate the impact the choices they make have on everyone’s productivity. They don’t understand how important it is to simply get out of the user’s way.

I can only think that something similar must be going on at SOE as well. I’m continually amazed at how klunky and how long it takes to jump into EQ2. First the interminable filescan with its own progress bars, and this is before the actual downloading and updating begins. This process is so frequent and so annoying that literally half the time I just bail out and go play something else. Its just not worth it. HOW can it take this long to simply get into the game? Could the game have possibly changes so much since the last time I logged on a few days ago?

Now, I could understand if it a user hadn’t been on in a while and had a series of updates to download, but everytime? As an experiment, I tried to log into EQ2. I hadn’t been on in a few days, so I let the scan and update run. After a while, I finally saw the “PLAY” button light up. Of course, while waiting, I started this rant, so for Science purposes, I quit, restarted and timed my log in process after being fully updated. I started at 8:40pm. I finally received the “PLAY” button at 8:50pm.

Ten minutes after I pressed go. OR, if I only had an hour or so to play, I just blew 16% of my play time before I even got to choose which character to play.  HOW can this not have improved in over 2 years when SOE’s competitors seem to have it beat?

SOE, get the hell out of my way!