Massive Growing Pains Part 2
A Roadmap to the Future of Development
by Rick Luebbers


There is little doubt that the MMO or MMORPG genre is the biggest new genre to hit the gaming industry since the Real-Time Strategy game. It's a genre that, like most new genres, has boomed and is now stabilizing. The unique thing about the MMO genre (if we are to look beyond gameplay) is that their especially long development times have slowed down the evolution of the genre allowing us to analyze its growth across a much larger scope than would typically be possible.

The purpose of this series is to do just that: to take an academic look at the MMO genre as a whole and see what we can learn about this growing genre and gaming as a whole as well. Backed by academia, through the The Guildhall @ SMU, and built on a foundation of in-depth interviews with the developers down in the trenches making these games, this article series is both an intellectual exercise and learning experience for all of us and an attempt to offer something back to the development community that is, unfortunately, in limited supply: a source of discourse on game design.

In the last article we examined the future of the genre in light of the high profile cancellations and failures that have appeared over the last year or two. Was the genre doomed? Was the success of the Ultimas, the Everquests, the Lineages, etc just a fluke? To find the answer I approached founding fathers Richard Garriott and Brad McQuaid. You can see the whole article here:

Our final analysis was, no, not at all. The MMO genre is simply following the same path that all genres do: an initial boom and then a period of stabilization. So with the MMORPG here to stay, what's next?

The world of the MMORPG is perhaps the highest-risk project in the industry. However it is also one of the most rewarding. Because of that, on paper, it would seem that it's a genre best left to the experts.

But that's not going to happen. Developers either entirely unproven or unproven in the genre are going to step up to the plate. And rightfully so. Nearly every huge MMO to date has come from a developer who was new to the genre. Ultima Online and Everquest were pioneers but more recently City of Heroes and World of Warcraft were all by companies that had never produced an MMOG.

So what do developers need to know if they hope to tread the genre's dangerous waters? Where are the Scyllas and Cyclops of their journeys?

In hope of answering this I ventured down to the offices of NCsoft, located in the hills outside Austin, Texas. NCsoft is in the unique position of being exclusive to the MMO genre and being both a developer and a publisher of third party titles.

There we held a roundtable to answer these very issues. The cast included some of the most well known and influential members of the genre:

Peter Freese, Core Technology Director
Jeremy Gaffney, Vice President of Product Development
Starr Long, Producer, Tabula Rasa
Valerie Massey, Online Community Coordinator, Auto Assault/Tabula Rasa
Paul Sage, Lead Designer, Tabula Rasa
Chris Strasz, Designer, Tabula Rasa
Richard Weil, Online Community Relations Manager

With the goal of providing insight into what MMOG developers need to know to survive in the next generation firmly in mind we discussed topics which touched on all aspects of the industry, beginning with publishers, traveling through development, into beta, and onward to release and beyond. The following chapters form an account of that journey and while they do not provide a road map for success - for indeed no such thing exists - they should provide valuable insight to any would be developer of MMORPG titles.

Chapter 1: What Are Generations?

"Generation" is a term that is often thrown around when speaking about the industry as a whole. MMORPGs are no different. Currently MMOs are in a transitional period. Are they in their second generation or third? What is a generation?

A generation of technology is, much like its etymological parent, defined by a period of growth more than a period of time. Unfortunately, in an industry trapped between hard numbers and hard marketing such a nebulous concept often leads more to debate than consensus. Nevertheless it is unavoidable. It is a term widely in use and firmly entrenched. Therefore we should do our best to define it.

We see two primary opinions: Jeremy Gaffney and Starr Long both agree that the term as a whole is poorly suited to the genre. There has been little truly revolutionary throughout the growth of the genre and so, they argue, is it truly worth considering anything a new generation? Is polishing and expanding upon already existing technologies and mechanics worthy of the title "generation". From a pure technical viewpoint it's a point that's hard to argue against.

There are two sides to this coin however. If we return to the root of the term we quickly realize that there are two ways one can look at the concept. If we use the First Person Shooter genre as an example we can see the growth of a genre practically defined by the latest ID and Epic engines. It's easy to define something as Doom, Quake, or Doom III era. From this viewpoint the first thought is entirely correct. Conversely, has the move from Everquest and Lineage to Everquest II and Lineage II done much to redefine the genre? From a purely technical perspective, absolutely not.

The other view is that a generation is more of a "systemic band". A period of time in which the community of developers creates a "generation" of titles followed by a new period of time where developers (either the same developers or others) create new titles which will, inevitably, form a reaction to the successes and failures of the games that came before them.

Richard Weil first brought up the term "systemic band" in this quote, "I think you can see some kind of systemic bands that people are referring to as generations. If you look at the first generation as people who sort of launched themselves off a cliff and my sense is that the second generation is people sort of polishing things they saw go wrong with the first generation. And I hope that with the third generation you'll see more of what we commonly call innovation."

Given that the term is not going away I prefer the second school of thought. It's semi-quantifiable and somewhat useful since we can see cause and effect within the model. That means that the first generation was those who "launched themselves off a cliff." Titles such as Meridian 59, Ultima Online, Everquest, Lineage, Anarchy Online, Asheron's Call and others and it marks a period of time roughly encompassing the late nineties.

The second would be the games who could watch the successes and failures of the first generation. It also features our first sequels. This would include most of the games released after the turn of the century. Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest II, Lineage II, City of Heroes, Shadowbane, World of Warcraft, etc

And this would leave the third generation as our future: Tabula Rasa, Vanguard, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Guild Wars, Imperator and many others. All of these are titles that will need to look carefully upon the successes and failures of both generations to succeed.

Of course this definition reflects only on the mass market titles. Only those titles that are Massively Multiplayer are really included because for years previous to any of these titles the MUD community was quietly refining the experience and laying the foundation that all of these games would be built on. And this is a very important addendum. But within these guidelines we have a workable division. Fluid, perhaps, but workable. And that in itself is an important step in researching the genre as it evolves.

Chapter 2: Gaffney's Four Rules of Success

Publishers are a fact of life with every game. The word "Massively" is a part of the MMOG title for a reason. These defining titles are big, huge games, both in terms of players and content. Developing these massive undertakings takes a commensurate amount of capitol and someone has to foot the bill. While not the cornerstone of a title they are the first step towards having a title see the light of day. They are the gatekeepers.

As the Vice President of Product Development at NCsoft Austin Jeremy Gaffney sees hundreds of game pitches a year. Of those only a very few are chosen to be NCsoft products. But how are those projects chosen? Now while there is no equation, no magic bullet that will tell you what to do, Gaffney outlines NCsoft's simple plan:

"Good games sell and so we have this really complex strategy: We make good games. You know we do whatever it takes to make 'em. It's really complex. It confuses people in suits. So we plan on staying at the forefront of making games that we want to play."

There are some things and some areas in which you can outright fail however. Gaffney broke those areas into four rules. These rules form the foundation that every company must have to successfully develop a MMORPG. Negative reinforcement at its finest: you must have these things or you're almost guaranteed failure:

"The main things we look for are four basic areas of making games. There's management. Do you have a group which can manage themselves to get there? Because you're probably going to have a small group that's going to grow to a very large group. The average size by the time you ship in this era is probably about 40-45 people and it's only going to get bigger. Content bars are being set by every new product that comes out.

So there's management. There's art. Do you have good artists who can execute? Programming, you know it's a very complex technological task to do this. Design, because it's also very hard to quantify.

And also you're really looking for innovation which is really hard to judge when you're in the early stage of pitches. You know, is this going to work or not? Contrary to the popular take on publishers I think most publishers really are looking for innovation. Because most people are bright enough to know that clones just don't sell. I mean name me a successful clone; its pretty tough to think of one.

Really what we're looking for is fun. If you can show us a fun demo you can screw up everything else in your game as long as it's fun. That's a really good stepping point to actually be able to get a pitch. If you have a demo you bring in that the publisher is actually going to be playing in their off hours you win. Because there's no way that game's not being signed up."

Rule 1: Can you manage yourself? This is a stumbling block that many people fail to consider the full ramifications of. Rationally it's obvious that running an office of forty to fifty or more is a difficult endeavor. However, people often overlook the biggest stumbling block: upsizing. It's difficult, but highly manageable to keep a team going, be it a team of eight or eighty. Once things are moving along most bumps along the way are easily correctable.

The difficulty is switching between those extremes. It's a personnel and personality issue. Let's take a fictional lead artist as an example. On a team of five you're probably The Artist. Consistency, quality, and timeliness are all your responsibility and job. But what happens when you're now a team of 50? Maybe you have ten guys working under you now. You've gone, probably over the course of only a few months, from creating 100% of the art to 5% or less. It's still your responsibility but it's no longer your job. Each person copes with this in different ways. Some well and some not so well.

What do you do if you're the producer on that team and you know The Artist, who is probably also your friend, isn't going to adapt well? What do you do about the person who insists on doing it "the way it's always been" when new processes are put in for a reason?

The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this article. Never-the-less they're questions that a developer has to consider. If you can step up and show a publisher a plan for your expansion you can help yourself greatly. Manage expectations. If The Artist knows from early on that he'll be a senior artist and not the lead artist it'll be easier for him when the time comes for someone to step up to that position. It's things like this that publishers are looking for - with good reason, as this is the sort of fundamental business element in projects like this that often gets overlooked and, in turn, causes significant pain to both the project and the personnel.

Rule 2: Do you have the skills? The first half of this is obvious. Video games push the boundaries of technology constantly. You need people who can handle truly advanced technologies quickly. MMO games are no different at the most basic level. However, what is worth considering is the ways they are different. You need network code that rivals financial databases. You need technology that allows you to get the best look and frame rate with fifty characters on screen all wearing different things. You need modular character designs. You need the tightest security possible. The list goes on. You may not have to be on the cutting edge of normal maps and real time lighting but the pitfalls are just as difficult and just as great.

Rule 3: Have you innovated or improved the genre in some way? Innovation is important. As Gaffney said, clones don't sell. This is, perhaps, even more important in the MMORPG genre as these games are inherently "sticky" in design. With offline games you just need to move the box and, hopefully, make the customer happy enough that you'll be able to move the next box as well. But with an online game you must plan to keep people playing for months and months if not years and years. Because this is a necessity you must not only provide a reason to play your game but a reason for people to give up the game they're already playing, all the while, attempting to bring new customers into the fold.

It's a tall order. Pretty graphics and slick features help, but in the end you must bring something new to the table to stand out.

Rule 4: Is it fun? This is the golden rule. Every developer knows it. Every player knows it. But it's also the easiest thing to lose perspective of. It's easy to tout features. These sorts of things are easy to quantify. So people, developers and players alike, will latch onto them. It is always easier for the mind to accept the concrete over the abstract. The developer must always keep in mind the Golden Rule.

There is a simple reason that the bullet points on boxes sell: because even if the consumer does not directly realize it the concepts they promote sound fun. That's it.

A concrete example would be Doom III. Normal mapping and real-time lighting sold copies. Not because players wanted to view the technological achievement, but because it looked good. And why did this matter to those customers? Because the better looking the game is the more fun it is to play.

Time and again Gaffney came back to this point. To re-quote him: "…you can screw up everything else in your game as long as it's fun."

Chapter 3: The Melding of Single Player and Multiplayer

The treatment of the MMORPG as a genre separate from other genres is a delicate balance and one that is becoming both increasingly difficult to justify and increasingly important to consider.

In the end massively multiplayer online games are just that. They are games. And while there are some inherent differences, as with any genre, many of the things that worked in other games will work in MMORPGs. As the genre grows it will diversify and you'll see sub-genres within it that will, by and large, tend to reflect the major genres of smaller scale games.

The crux is that there are only a few differences between the two types of games. However, thus far, those few differences have driven a rather large wedge between game styles. However, as the genre evolves we will see a further integration of what is successful traveling both ways as mechanics and techniques will be lifted from the single player world and transported to multiplayer and vice versa.

Chris Strasz brought up a solid point about developers as a whole:

"I think one of the interesting things is that a lot of the examples we've been using are in single player games…. I've heard a lot of people say 'Oh, I want to bring the single player element into massively-multiplayer games.' When you look at some of the very high production quality single player games where content is shorter it's a little bit more possible to get in things like cutscenes and full-screen cinematics and we're to the point where some of the developers might look at bringing some of these things into the Multiplayer games."

This sentiment has often been stated as a goal of many developers of "Second Generation" titles. Primarily that seems to be a reaction to things such as content barriers, network/latency issues, player retention measures, and the like that are all things which have created a very distinct experience in the First Generation. This is one thing which will tend to resolve the differences between single and multiplayer gaming as the hurdles are conquered. There's a remarkable dichotomy that must be overcome to reach this convergence however.

Jeremy Gaffney explains the dilemma well in this quote:

"Also I think the bar's higher for us too in many ways. I played Max Payne. I bought it for fifty bucks. I literally finished it on one plane fight to Europe. I played through the entire game and I loved it. You know I didn't feel like I'd wasted my fifty bucks. Money well spent. I loved the game.

If we shipped a game that had ten times that much content, say it only had a hundred hours of gameplay in it, we'd be reamed! Like there's no way that people would play. They'd blaze through it in two weeks and say "Why should I give you fifteen more bucks?"

And so the bar is just higher in terms of content between online and off. And it ought to be, it's not an unfair thing, we want their money every month while the single player games only want it once."

So we have a situation where the term "massive" means more than just a massive number of players. It also means a massive amount of content. But as companies bridge that divide and start finding better and better ways of providing large amounts of compelling content we'll see the gap lessen.

This is already happening in many of the games that have released in the last year or two. The cinematic experience is being drawn on by companies like Square-Enix, SOE, and Blizzard. World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 are good examples because they're both big worlds, like previous games, but they're also surrounded by a framework that attempts to aid the player in finding a direction from which to experience the world through the use of lore, storyline, and quests. It remains to be seen how successful they will be but their success, both short-term (which seems high at this point) and long term, will have to be evaluated by games coming into the market further down the road.

The true danger, in fact, is not in believing that single player and massively multiplayer are too similar but rather that they are not similar enough. The Sims Online is a virtual case-study of this sort of failure. Everyone expected it to bring in a flood of new players and revolutionize the genre. Why it didn't is what Paul Sage refers to as "the corruption factor":

"There's a corruption factor. I don't mean to denigrate any of our competition, but take a game like The Sims Online, which I think we can all agree didn't work as well as they'd hoped, and you look at it and you look at why it didn't work and one of the things they did is they did a lot of research into the other games. And they took it too literally.

They took something from these other games, an avatar that's you and you move around and everything else, and they took away what was fun out of the Sims to get to that point because they had this idea of what Massively Multiplayer Online games were and thought that it had to fit that rather than naturally extending The Sims which would have been a lot more fun I think for a lot of people so there's a trap there."

It is this trap that this chapter is here to parable. As the MMOG developers overcome hurdles they are refining gameplay and the two sub-types are drawing closer and closer together. This is a natural occurrence. After all, single player games have been refining the experience as a whole for forty some years. As a developer, it's important to understand the differences, the challenges, and the traps of designing a game intended for the Massively Multiplayer space but not to over think the proposition. To believe that the Massively Multiplayer space is truly separate is to throw out decades of game development that is tried and true.

Chapter 4: The Stratification of Online Gaming

The "triple A" MMORPG titles are currently engaged in a feature war. Budgets are driving ever higher and higher as scopes soar to larger and larger heights. With that we are seeing a diversification of the genre. This move towards bigger and bigger games is leaving a window of opportunity. And within the window whole new types of games are being developed.

Long, Gaffney, and Sage explained the situation in detail:

Long: "I think there's going to be - and we're already seeing it - a large stratification between the big and the small, the generalized and the specialized. Where we're going to see companies like ourselves (and that's not to say we're not going to dabble in some specialist, smaller, niche products, who knows?) and Vivendi, and Sony making big blockbusters; we're going to spend 10-30 million dollars, whatever it takes cause we're in this sort of feature race now and it's kind of what happened to simulation games; if you look at flight sims, they ended up in this sort of escalating feature war. I have 40 kinds of planes and every plane can have 10 different kinds of load outs and then you can modify, blah, blah, blah. And we're kind of getting into that realm now with online games where you have to have pets, and you have to have guilds, and you have to have parties, and you have to have some sort of social system, and you have to have housing, and you have to have multiple races and if you don't have that minimum feature set your perceived as a lower end product even though, if you look at like regular games, there isn't anything like that except in simulation.

And so I think that's already stratified itself into this layer of like you gotta spend three years and 20 million dollars or you're not going to be able to compete in that realm. But then I think there's going to be the smaller games like Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates, and World War II Online where you spend hopefully not very much money because if you spend a lot of money on one of those products you're doomed. But hopefully you spend a very little amount of money and you attract a smaller, much smaller audience, you're going for an audience that's a few thousand versus a few hundred thousand. And you're going to make money off it and it's going to be like cable TV, hopefully, where there's generalized channels but you go get digital cable where there's not only the Discovery channel but there's also the Discovery Health channel so if you only want to see science shows about health topics you can and you know there's this ever increasing specialization for smaller and smaller niches of our populous so I think that's what we're going to see."

Gaffney: "And I think we'll see too those smaller games are going to have smaller budgets and I think there's a chance some of those will hit. I don't think a ton of those have hit in the last generation but I don't think that's endemic. I think we'll actually see more of those hit. And as an example take Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike has thousands and thousands of people logging in every day; they're playing the same damn twelve maps they've played since the game came out, especially now that Counter-Strike Source is out. And so there's a lot of the attributes you'd want out of an MMP right there but people are willing to accept very, very little content as part of that mechanism and that's our major cost. So I think PvP's going to be an example of that, because PvP games you can make cheaper than you can make player verses environment games, but it's only an example. It won't surprise me at all to see one of those small games take off in the next few years and make a lot of the big boys rethink where they're going."

Sage: "I think the first game that succeeds that is not a leveling based, kill the monster based game will bring in a completely new influx of players. And that's what we want to see. I think everybody in the room will get suddenly giddy by that."

There exists an interesting window of opportunity. It's easy, in all genres, to overlook the very small titles and keep focused on the blockbusters. But despite the major hurdles of entry it's possible to create small titles and survive. There are games doing it right now and as the bigger games continue their war and continue to grow this window of opportunity is only going to widen. There are pitfalls however and special considerations. Weil laid out one of the biggest unanswered questions:

"I definitely agree with Starr about the specialization and the proliferation of many smaller games. I mean you certainly have a lot of small target groups. You know you have people who like World War II stuff, you have people who like flying, you have people who like bass fishing, or riding horses and there have been fun games about all that stuff. And my only concern about that is the mindset of, Ok, so you get the game together on a shoestring budget and you launch it and you're making your bills and being able to make a little bit of money on top of that and that's fine. But three or four years down the road, where are you getting the money to do the kind of upgrades, either software or hardware, that your going to need to do? Is it going to be just a constant turn over of those little ones or are they going to find a way to actually be persistent?"

We won't see the answer to this for a few more years, although the most likely result will be a mixture of the two. Of the small games a very few will "hit" and become so successful that upgrades aren't an issue. Others will survive for a few years only to eventually fade away as they are outpaced by the growth of technology and innovation.

But don't make the mistake, with all of this talk about smaller games, of thinking that the big games are going away. Peter Freese explains:

"So several people have mentioned that the problem is the amount of content that's required for these games and that one way of solving that is to create games that don't require as much content. But I think there will still be a demand for games that are huge content beasts and the amount of content that's expected in those is going to increase and therefore the challenge for development teams is to find ways of innovating creating that content faster.

That's particularly true for the US development because the interesting phenomena we're seeing now is that a lot of these games are being developed in Asia and some of those are going to be westernized. And it's much cheaper to develop a huge amount of content in Asia than it is here because, literally, you can hire a small army of artists and designers for what we could pay a small team here. And that's going to be challenging."

And so we will see a war of innovation and diversification over the next few years mostly fought among the small titles. Meanwhile the large titles will continue to grow and grow while facing their largest challenges and making their largest innovations not necessarily in the content itself (although this will happen) but rather behind the scenes in the very ways in which MMO games are created.

Chapter 5: Innovation, evolving the genre

Time and again, we've come back to the term "innovation". It's a challenge that gaming faces over most other forms of entertainment. Few tout how their latest movie or novel innovates their respective industry. When a movie does come along and innovate it's huge; it gives us our Star Wars and our Matrix. It's a very defining moment to their entire industry.

Conversely games are expected to innovate. Even sequels are expected to bring something new to the table. Some of the most successful series of all time, the Ultimas, the Final Fantasys, the Grand Theft Autos, have gone back to the drawing board, sometimes radically, with every installment. Because games offer so many more entertainment hours than other products we need to provide a reason to play a new game. Few would wonder why you'd go see a new movie. You saw the last one. It's done. But games are many, many times longer and are often designed to be very repeatable experiences so they, inherently, are more challenging to get into people's hands. Why, after all, would a consumer pay for the same experience they already have? This is why innovation is one of the cornerstones of the industry.

MMORPGs, by extension, have an even greater challenge in this area. MMOGs are designed to support weeks, months, even years of gameplay. This greatly increases the investment of the player in a particular MMOG and makes innovation even more important as the enticements needed to convince a player to change games face an even higher bar than single player games.

While we've established that innovation is important there is another piece of the puzzle. It's easy to say, "Go forth, and innovate!" but it's also important to understand where innovation is available. Starr Long elaborates:

"It's interesting because, technologically and even game design-wise, you can argue that we lag somewhat behind offline gaming or regular multiplayer gaming in visual technology or physics or whatever it is and so that perceived lack of innovation is also symptomatic of the fact that we're just executing things that have already been done. Like if you look at the movement from Ultima Online to Everquest that was a big jump technologically from 2D to 3D but that had happened like, you know, 10 years before in regular gaming but it was perceived as a huge leap because it had already happened elsewhere."

If the "standard" features of innovation are unavailable where should developers be looking to bring something new to the table? Jeremy Gaffney responds:

"I think you're going to see your innovation be in feature sets beyond 'Hey, I'm an avatar. I'm walking on terrain.' You're not going to see a lot of innovation in those basic things. What you're going to see is better social systems. You know people haven't explored social systems very well right now. Things like the 'side-kicking' in City of Heroes where you can group with people outside of your level range, I think people are going to do more things like that and take that type of thing to the next level. Guilds are a pretty basic grouping mechanic and I don't think anyone's done anything truly innovative with that in a while. You see that infrequently but not that often that people are really tweaking that stuff. I think there's a lot of growth there because that's an area, as mentioned before, that's never been explored in offline games. That's where you can innovate really in the online games because no one has done anything like that before."

This is our target. Gameplay and social systems. Because, as Long said, there will always be technological hurdles and the genre will always lag behind smaller scale games so it's a simple mater of defining what's unique. And what is unique about Massively Multiplayer Online games? Well, the massively multiplayer part. This is the target of innovation. How do people interact? How will gameplay assist, impede, or challenge their interactions. How can we overcome issues which frustrate interaction? These are the type of questions whose answers will lead to the future of online gaming.

But is there anything a developer should be aware of when looking for these innovations? Long and Gaffney offered up a number of things which developers often overlook:

Long: "It's important to be aware of gaming as a whole. And not just computer games but just games period. Because one of the things I'm always excited about is if someone can come to me, whether they're on my team or pitching a product, and say "Hey, you know Parcheesi? Guess what? We have this really cool mechanism that works just like Parcheesi." And I'm like, ok, I understand Parcheesi and I see how you're going to leverage that to make something cool happen in an online game. Or you know the real-time strategy thing where you can control where spawn points are? Well imagine we add that to an MMP game. I'd be like, oh, I totally get that. That's a mechanic in another type of game that hasn't been explored in online gaming and if you're bringing something like that to the table that would be one of those 'Oh! Well that's interesting.' And it's been successful in other types of games. No one's doing it in online-space but if its proven elsewhere then that's a cool thing."

Gaffney: "But there's a trap there because it's kind of a cliché in the movie industry and, to an extent in our industry, when you're pitching a game you take two top sellers, you say 'It's going to be just like Myst plus Grand Theft Auto. Both of these games sold eight million units, we're going to sell sixteen!' So make sure you're innovating as well as stealing."

Long: "It's important that you're not just giving those platitudes. You have to say here's the specific feature of Grand Theft Auto: we're going to let you steal cars. Right. And here's the specific feature of Myst: once you get in the car you're going to have to solve an elaborate puzzle, that'll take twenty minutes to complete, to get it started."

Gaffney: "I don't think there are any magic bullets. Things that will scare me away pretty quick though is that a lot of people try to innovate by bringing up stuff that has been tried a hundred times, it's been tried in MUDs or MUSHes…

Long: "*cough* Perma-death *cough*"

Gaffney: "You stole my next sentence! People say "perma-death". We know what the implications are. There are really good arguments about why that has not succeeded in the market to date and people think that they're innovating by bringing up the stuff that hasn't worked. Now it's possible that there are takes on those things that are new and innovative but I never hear them. I always hear the same old stuff about 'We're going to have aging in the game and perma-death and blah, blah, blah.'

If it's not fun don't do it. It's not fun to spend five months on a character and then lose them due to a net bubble of lag that pops up. It's not fun to watch your cool hero turn into a decrepit old guy who can't even swing a sword anymore. And so why do I want to pay money to have this happen to me? I don't.

There's a whole bunch of, 'If it's been tried before and failed in the MUD-space we're probably going to point to fourteen ways,' 'Hey, Medivia tried that and it didn't work.' or whatever."

Gaffney concluded with this thought, and I will end the chapter on it:

"One thing that's probably worth bringing up now is that all generalities have exceptions, including this one. One of the great things about the MMP-space is that it's a really young genre and it's staying young since its so freaking hard to make 'em that the genre is proceeding very slowly. Everquest II is coming out a long time after Everquest. And there aren't a lot of teams that have done two of these ever. There aren't even a lot of people who have done two MMPs ever, from start to stern. So everybody has ideas on what's going to make the genre work, everybody has ideas about "Oh, this is the way you make MMPs", this is the way it happens, and I haven't heard a single law yet, including the ones I spout out myself, that there aren't at least four exceptions for.

I can tell you forty-eight reasons why Lineage never would have succeeded, or would have been awful game design, and guess what: if I were the guy signing up that game then I would have turned down a hundred and fifty million dollar a year business.

So it's really easy to get cocky and be all "Oh we know all about this." But there's still room in this industry to surprise all of us. There has been in the last ten years and will be in the next ten."

Chapter 6: History, World Building, and Immersion

Creating a MMORPGs is one part game building, one part community building, and one part world building. That final aspect, world building, has gotten a lot of attention over the years and one of the biggest topics of discussion is how much the players should be allowed to affect the world.

Players naturally break things, sometimes maliciously, but often not. There have been raging arguments about what's appropriate in the fiction. This race or faction would never do this or that. Or players shouldn't be allowed to do something because of "The Lore".

The term Lore is a somewhat nebulous concept that is often attached to the entirety of the back story, fiction, and flavor based game design of an MMO. It's a concept that is all inclusive of anything which reflects an MMORPG as a virtual world rather than an online game.

The question, however, is whether this Lore is even important at all. Gaffney and Long had some very interesting things to say about how they view game histories when listening to pitches:

Gaffney: "I've sat through a million pitches go on about the Arch-Duke Zander and his empire five-hundred years ago and how this ties into now. That level of complexity just doesn't mater if you can show me basic fun game mechanics."

Long: "You know things that people usually think are really important, like the real elaborate fiction and storyline, are almost irrelevant to us compared to all the other things Jeremy has mentioned. Like game mechanics and technology, and yeah, it's nice if you have a good story, but for us that's much less important."

Gaffney: "In part because the player's going to write the interesting part of the story. Who cares about ancient history when you have history being made daily?

They make a very compelling point. The real story of a MMOG is made everyday by the people in it. So the question becomes this: Do we need Lore at all? Sage puts things in perspective:

"People hate to read, number one. It's just a true statement. 90% of people also - and that's a made up number of course - are happy that the escape key is there. There is the hardcore group of people who love fiction and love the world environment. And the world environment is important, the setting, the place that people are, that's important to get right. But the stories you try to tell them, again, just what Jeremy said and I'm a full believer in, is that the emergent story of what the player did in the game is far more important than anything the developers try to tell you about what happened between these two things.

If there's too much of it, it's just going to be fiction getting in the way of people having fun and they're just going to want to push the escape key and get away from it. We really want to get to them playing and interacting in the world."

As Sage says, "the world environment is important." There's a reason there hasn't been a successful MMOG with zero, or basically zero, back story. It may work for an FPS but it just doesn't work for an MMOG. You need a compelling world. That's part of the charm of these games: the virtual world people can allow themselves to be absorbed in. This is one of the compelling dynamics that other genres cannot offer and are a major factor in player retention. Lore is important.

But players are more important. The goal, the target, the holy grail perhaps, is to create a world that the player is immersed in but where their stories are the focus. This means you have to strike a delicate balance, made more delicate still because you're catering to the likes of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. This balance must set a stage for the player while leaving them the main characters.

The danger is that if the player is not the focus the Lore gets in the way of the player playing the game and, by extension, having fun. However it is the environment that makes entering the world compelling. It provides consistency and is a mark of value. Without a well crafted world for the player to exist in your MMOG is just another game and you've missed out on one of the major selling points of the product. As in all things, it is the balance which is important. And as the genre grows and generations pass that balance will become more and more polished as it is a key aspect of the genre.

Chapter 7: The Spoken Word: Voice in Online Gaming

Technology is not particularly the focus of this article. However, one evolving technology is likely to become very important through the next generation and is already having a strong impact through third-party applications among the hardcore audiences. This technology: voice communication.

It is, perhaps, the one technology which has not really been addressed by any of the games that have come out in the First or Second Generations but which will have to be approached, one way or another in the Third.

Long: "It's working really well for Xbox live. And I firmly believe that that is the reason why Xbox Live has been more successful than any other online console service to date is because of voice. You talk about people hate to read, well if you rate "hate to read" one to ten and ten they hate it the most I'd put hate to read around five and hate to type around twenty.

Your average consumer, one, doesn't know how to type and, two, they don't want to. So I think what's going to end up happening if we want to appeal to broader audiences is we're going to have to use voice chat. I think you're going to have to have some kind of combination of text and voice chat, at least some sort of complex voice emote system. But it's going to have to be voice."

Gaffney: "An emote system might be a good system. Toontown did some good stuff with that. But my first reaction is: It's going to push our demographic up. Mom does not want her kid, sitting in the living room, chatting on a headset with some strange guy over the internet. It's just that simple.

With text you can at least record it better and filter it or whatever and you have none of that in voice. In fact it's very tough to even figure out how to mute people in voice. I play Counter-Strike all the time. I have to hit ninety-eight keys to figure out how to do it each time. I think these are the things that are going to have to improve, otherwise it's going to push our age demographic higher.

But it's such a key feature in really coordinating a combat and the most fun, I would argue, in MMPs to date is coordinating the combat. There's really no other game style you do that in except some of the shooters, which are the more niche shooters, and it's fun. Working as a team is fun. I love it when a plan comes together."

Long: "The reality is, whether we want to or not, or whether we think its technically feasible, people are doing it anyway. If the game doesn't support it they're doing it with third party tools. So why not include it because it's going to happen anyway?

Gaffney: "I think most games with voice chat don't do it as well as Teamspeak and so Teamspeak isn't going to be run out of the industry any time soon. In PC games Teamspeak has very little competition."

Weil: "Well DAoC and Ultima Online both said 'We're not even going to bother.' Everybody uses Teamspeak anyway so we're not going to bother.

Long: "Yeah, except, the problem is, again, if we're talking about expanding our market then your average consumer has no knowledge or ability to use a third party program. So I agree that for a power user, such as you and myself, Teamspeak is ideal. But for Joe Consumer it's the whole argument, 'Well we don't even need text chat in our games because there's IRC. So we should model it after IRC'. Again, IRC works great for us but for Joe Consumer…"

Weil "Ship them the earphones and tell 'em where to plug 'em in and there you go."

Long: "That's why Xbox Live is so successful."

Given: MMORPGs, at their heart, are about communication. Given: The spoken word is easier than text. The trend is already visible among the hardcore players in MMOGs and even the more casual Xbox Live players. Voice is the future. But it's difficult. Perhaps it will be a middle-ware solution that wins out. Perhaps the solution is in game design. Perhaps the solution is simply evolving the game technology itself.

But whatever it may be a developer should consider this an opportunity. Voice is one of the major open doors for innovation in the next generation and whoever tackles it well will do well in turn.

Chapter 8: Beta Testing, Millions Served

One of the unique features of MMO games, thanks to the Massively Multiplayer aspect, is the large scale beta test. In your average game, beta is a simple, internal, process of bug testing. But MMOGs are so large that you need to hit a certain critical mass of users to have any hope of finding even the majority of your bugs and balance issues.

The catch, of course, is that this critical mass is far too large to employ internally: somewhere on the order of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of testers when the time comes for load testing.

So how does one hope to manage such an endeavor? How do you get your game tested without giving your game away? Long broke it down into three major questions:

Long: "The real trick to your beta test is 'How Long' and 'How Many People' and 'At What Point In Development Do You Start'.

The pros and cons: Because if you do it too long you run the danger of a large segment of your potential consumer base consuming all the content. And you run the risk that when you start charging people go, 'Well, I'm done, you gave it all to me free, so why should I pay you now?' But that's balanced with the fact that you absolutely have to get them in there to test the stuff because there's a critical mass in these kinds of games that are required to work out all the kinks, to find all the problems.

But then there's a whole other layer to it about how do you incentivize people to tell you about those problems? There's an incentive for them to tell you about bugs that involve stability, but there's not necessarily an incentive for your beta testers to tell you about bugs that are exploits or are balancing issues if they can exploit them to their advantage. And so in almost every single game there's a group of people who find exploit bugs and keep them to themselves until we find out on our own or someone rats them out.

I don't think as an industry we have a really good answer yet on any of these questions: 'How long?', 'How many people?', and 'How do you incentivize people to tell you about the problems?' And so I will gladly pay ten million dollars to the first person who has all these answers nailed."

Weil: "And I don't think you'll get any consensus that there's a right way to do it."

Sage: "That's right, because I think the beta test is directly related to the game and there's no good thing about these are the rules for a beta test. It's all about the game itself. And certain games will have things that work for them."

All of Long's points are critical. But it seems that the most critical one a developer must have a good answer for before the test even starts is the last. MMOGs have had little problem finding people to test their games. People line up for it. The latter though is a huge problem because all these people are volunteers. You are not their primary interest, they are. As a tester in a traditional game it's your job to find these bugs and report them. There's a paycheck waiting for you as incentive to do this. But beta testers, in the online sense, lack this incentive and exist on such an enormous scale that you obvious can't just pay for it. So what do you do?

The first decision is positive or negative reinforcement (or both). Will you give your testers some sort of bonus if they report a bug? Typically this would be an in game bonus. The advantage here is that, suddenly, it's in a player's best interest to report a bug. They get something out of it that is, to them, tangible. Of course there are flaws. What if, for example, the bug allows them to duplicate in-game currency? Suddenly they have an infinite source of cash. Now say your reward is in-game currency. Why would the player report the bug? They can report the bug and gain a finite reward or abuse it and receive an infinite reward.

Some of the most successful rewards seem to be things that are exclusively created for reward purposes. Things like giving the player's character's titles or special items, or things of that nature. The danger is that either other people will scream about favoritism or they will become desperate to get the rewards themselves and will bombard you with hundreds if not thousands of irrelevant bug reports, making the whole process much more difficult from a development end.

Negative reinforcement hopes to intimidate the player-base into reporting bugs. The typical response is to ban, or at least suspend, accounts where the developer finds a player that has been aware of a bug and willfully failed to report it (and, typically, abused it themselves). The hope is that players will value their ability to play the game and thus will report bugs they find so that they don't risk losing that privilege.

The problem here, however, is that there will always be those who will take the risk and abuse bugs anyway. Still more will just quietly save bugs and hope that they're still there when you release. If you are too easy on these people then more will follow in their footsteps. They'll rationalize, "Oh, well those people abused a huge exploit and only got a slap on the wrist. They'd never ban me." Conversely, if you are too aggressive then your testing community may begin to feel oppressed and either begin to generate a negative buzz about your game or even, in a worst case scenario, begin to do things that are directly harmful to the testing process.

It is possible that the best method lies somewhere in-between. However, as Paul Sage pointed out, every beta test is different. There's no clearly right answer as it depends entirely on the mechanics of the game, the goals of testing, and the community in question.

As for the other questions, Gaffney, Freese, and Weil addressed Long's question of "How long" in a little more detail:

Freese: "I think I would distinguish between what I would call open beta, which is beta testing, and the time before that alpha testing. I think the way it should be done is a much longer period of closed testing with a smaller group of testers which really is designed to work out the bugs in the game. The open period, where you basically let a large number of people into your game at once, should be fairly short and your intent there is not to find bugs in the game or problems in your game design; hopefully you've solved those problems before now. You're really testing your ability to run the service: Your server load, your ability to respond to customer complaints, etc. You're also generating buzz on the game. If this period is too long, as Starr said, you can have players consume all your content."

Gaffney: "I think it's interesting that WoW's had such a long test period and we'll see. Regardless of whether people who buy WoW will play it for three months or six or twelve it'll be shorter if they got a bunch of those months for free unless it's just going to keep them forever.

The problem with the short open beta is you just need to have, as a company, the balls that if you do find big issues in that short open beta to shut the beta down and go fix them and then have another beta instead of extending beta while you try to fix them."

Weil: "I don't know if my perception matches reality at all but I thought that the way City of Heroes did their late stages of beta was a good one. You know, we're going to turn on the game for forty-eight hours. Everyone slams it and plays for forty-eight hours. Ok, we're turning it off. And they turn it off. And so the emphasis is getting the data, analyzing the data, and fixing the problems rather than 'we gotta keep it up, we gotta keep it up' so we have to keep the servers up the whole time. A lot of man power goes into that."

There seems to be a consensus that testing-wise and retention-wise the shorter the better. Of course, taken to the extreme, this is a zero-sum equation. The best result would be to have no beta at all. This is balanced then, as Long pointed out, by the need to actually test the game under conditions that you cannot arrive at internally.

The point, then, is not that there is one right way but just the opposite. A company has a lot to gain by finding the perfect solution for the game they're making, be it tried and true or totally revolutionary. There's a lot of wiggle room and success breeds not only a better game but also is one of the major pieces of marketing and buzz that will accompany your game into launch and beyond. Sometimes even significantly beyond.

There is a further consideration of what types of players you allow into your test. Beyond the obviously negative elements who simply exist to cause grief either for your other players or for you as a developer there are two types of players who can actually harm the development process through their divergent interests.

The first is the "fanboy" mentality. This is the type of the player who is, for one reason or another, absolutely sold on the game and who is absolutely convinced that this game will be the best game since sliced bread. While they can be good for hype, they can also have a serious negative impact upon the game's testing community. Quite often they feel the need to defend the game, and, by extension, their love for it, and will actively debate or, more likely, attack those testers who are making comments about negative aspects of the game. While some of those comments may be off base the important point is that they can prevent useful information from ever reaching the developer's ears. It's pretty easy for them to create such a cloudy signal to noise ratio that actual useful messages are lost in the clutter.

Gaffney mentioned one of the more interesting types of "fanboys":

"There's a group of players who are always like, 'Oh, they're going to shut the servers down three days before launch and that's when they're going to add in all the stuff I want.' But they're not. The game you saw three days before is going to be the game you see when they launch it. They say that if it's a month, they'll say it if it's three days, and nothing changes in that last period of time, you've got the same damn game."

The other type of potential negative tester is a very interesting development that is only now beginning to become apparent as the concept of beta testing and MMOGs age. The very social structures these games work to foster have grown a… mutant strain of player if you will. Gaffney elaborates:

"A big issue is that there's a large group of players, who go from beta to beta to beta, because they're not paying for games. Because you always stick in your second game less than your first, you always stick in your third less than your second, that's been a pretty continuous trend. You know a lot of the games that ship now are better quality games than Everquest was back in the day but someone who stuck with Everquest for four years might play their next game for six months before they move on because their Everquest experience counts towards their burnout cycle on their next game. Because of that I think we're seeing a lot higher turn over rate.

There's a crowd of gypsies right now moving from game to game to game who have all these hardcore opinions formed from their early things. Bartle did a really interesting article on this, and because they're in the betas and they're vocal they're setting the trends for a lot of these games and they're limiting innovation too."

This player type is very experienced. So experienced in fact that they have totally lost all resemblance to the player you're trying to reach. Simply put the players who have evolved to this point are not really customers anymore. So are these players worth having around at all?

Well, like everything else, that depends. There are dangers in allowing these types of players into your game. You're getting skewed reporting and input that's going to be irrelevant or even counter to the goals of 95+% of your player base. On the other hand the information you can garnish from how these highly experienced and organized groups can attack your game and your content can be invaluable.

The moral is simply to understand who you're letting in the door and monitor them appropriately. The biggest danger is that most developers are hardcore players themselves. It's easy to hear the praise of this ultra-hardcore audience and think you're on the right path because you like it too. It's what you want to hear. But this is the road to hubris because Joe Consumer is not hardcore. He has an entirely different set of needs than the hardcore minority and, ideally, you need to balance your game design to fit both as much as possible.

Chapter 9: Hype and the Release of Information

One of the interesting questions about games is marketing. This is especially true in MMO games for two reasons. One: your beta test. This relatively public and often long test period will generate a massive amount of hype, good or bad, depending on how it goes. The second is the very nature of your audience. By definition every player has internet access. They know how to browse the web, and they know how to look for news. While they may not be advanced enough or interested enough to worry about third party programs and other stumbling blocks they most definitely are better informed than the fan base of any other genre.

What this means is that the flow of information must begin earlier and be more carefully monitored than in other genres. World of Warcraft and Everquest II are very interesting studies here as they have developed virtually in parallel. Gaffney addresses this:

"I think World of Warcraft is kind of winning the buzz war. They've had more and louder buzz for longer because they've let their NDA down. But at the end of the day I think that game quality is going to win out. I think if you have a good game you could announce it as early as possible and let the hype go as long as possible and people will expect you'll have more good stuff so even if they know a lot of your content when it launches I think game quality is far more important in what you do in terms of that particular regard."

"I think if your game goes to beta at poor quality you probably want to keep your vest tight. I think people might figure out that, hey, games that keep their vest tight for a long time are of poorer quality and they'll start assuming that. I don't think you should go to beta when you have that kind of issue. I think that's why you stay in closed beta unless you're forced to by some sort of fiscal year or some other silly thing like that."

There is a pitfall of course, one which many developers, even some of the best, have been caught by before. This pitfall has to do with what kinds of information you release to the community. Long and Strasz discuss it:

Long" "I think there's a larger question that's not related to just the NDA but your overall communication strategy. How soon do you start talking about stuff? The rule of thumb I like to operate on is only talk about stuff you already have working in game. I mean the real danger that a lot of games run into is they talk about their game designs before they actually implement. That's how you get the 'Oh, we're going to have Ents' the 'we're going to have necromancy in Ultima Online'. You talk about stuff while you're designing it not while you're implementing it. But if you wait and you only talk about stuff as you implement it or when it's already implemented than you have much less risk associated with building hype with the players that you can't fulfill."

Strasz: "I think that if we use single player games as an example than Fable's been a really good example of talking about design early on and then later having to deliver different stuff. But kind of thinking of things in terms of single player, and this is kind of unfortunate, but you don't have these kind of open giant beta tests for single player games so for something like Halo 2 there's a lot of secrecy and Half-Life 2 everyone is anticipating it. The buzz is huge. They want to see what the game's going to be like but you don't get that luxury with large open beta tests, so that's also an interesting aspect to the NDA. It's not review day just when it gets into reviewer's hands."

For the reasons outlined above your release of information is extremely important. Play your cards too tight and you can kill your own buzz or, worse yet, give a false impression that you have something to hide. Go a bit too fast and loose and you risk digging yourself a hole you can't climb out of without disappointing a lot of people.

Fable is an excellent example, online or not. Fable was a good game that received harsh criticism, unnecessarily in some ways, because it had build some of the biggest hype in gaming history thanks to all the things that were announced very early in development. These unfulfilled promises hurt an otherwise quality title and cost Fable more than they gained to the point where Peter Molyneux issued a public apology for the hype verses the reality of Fable.

It's hard. Most developers are necessarily fanatical. When you're really excited about something it's natural to want to talk about it. Despite that there is a general guideline here if not an actual rule: Talk about things that are in your game. If you do that simple thing you avoid over inflated hype yet still generate buzz. As long as you don't shoot yourself in the foot, as Gaffney states, game quality will win out.

Chapter 10: Community, Putting the Massive in the Multiplayer

Community is something that a good game naturally develops. However, due to the continuous online existence of MMOGs, the community surrounding a game can literally become a tiny cottage industry all its own.

So how much, as a developer, do you want to interfere? How much manpower should you put on it? Should you take the reins or take a hands-off approach? What are the dangers and benefits of each? These are questions that aren't easy to answer and anticipate. Fortunately there are a few who have experience in this area.

As it turns out the first question is simpler than any of the above. Richard Weil and Valerie Massey explain:

Weil: "Community is such a catch all kind of word, you can talk about your active community, which are the ones on the message boards, you can talk about the general player base… I mean that's your community, everyone who subscribes to your game, that's your community. How do you reach them?

There are various ways of thinking. There are grass roots ways to do it. There are institutional ways to do it. You can pack 'em all into your official site or disperse them out to the small grassroots sites. There are a lot of things not to do, but I don't think that people have really solidly defined the things that are exactly the right thing to do every time.

A lot depends on what kind of player base you're going for. Look at the difference between Lineage II and City of Heroes. CoH is a PvE game and their community reflects that and Lineage II is definitely a PvP, cutthroat kind of game and their community kind of reflects that."

Massey: "Not only that but even the difference between the Asian Lineage II community and the North American Lineage II community. There are very distinct differences in those two."

So you have defined your target community and decided on an overall strategy. Now you have a community. How do you treat them? Gaffney professes:

"Communities are more mature than we give them credit for, in the sense that there are going to be people who scream no mater what you do. There's going to be a certain segment of communities who are very vocal and very unhappy with any change at all. But I think the silent majority and even the posting majority that's not squeaking as loud is really pretty stable.

There are a lot of rules to what you shouldn't do to communities. In City of Heroes we launched that community way before we should have. Cryptic launched their forums trying to attract a publisher by showing how many people had interest in their game. Two years before launch we had a forum going and we had to keep people happy and amused for a long period of time and we told them design stuff that we ended up totally changing. But despite all that I think that we had a vibrant community and a growing community and although people were annoyed the vast majority stayed interested and were rational. As long as you treat them like rational people then the core of your community which you care about the most, which I think is those silent people who aren't nuts and who aren't hyper-vocal and hyperventilating, will stay attached to your game regardless of what the screamers do."

Massey went into more detail:

"I think that that's a common mistake that a lot of development studios make when they want to attract a publisher. They slap up a website and they slap up some message boards and they get people to start talking. And then once they do have a publisher, and they've got money and they can start working on their game, they don't have anybody minding the store. Most of the time it does not work out well for them.

And then you've got to get somebody else to come in and clean that up and that's a hard job to pick up, when they've had this kind of total anarchy and you have to come in and get it back into shape and get them to be nice to one another and that sort of thing.

I have a kind of love/hate thing with message boards. They're very, very important for the community. I'm a big advocate of having your own message boards for your game, because when you have to do any kind of damage control or whatever that's where you want to do it. You don't want people to have to try to find you somewhere else.

At the same time the actual number of people who actively post on those message boards is so much smaller than the number of people who actually read them that it's not always a good representative slice. You know when you open the little flap on the bacon and there's the representative slice? That doesn't necessarily represent the rest of the package. You have to think about their motivations for why they want these changes to the game. You're going to see these groups: these people want PvP, these people don't want PvP, and you have to weigh out what's in it for them. You can't just take those things at face value. You have an extremely vocal minority that is speaking on behalf of the entire population and it's just not always accurate.

So, yeah, we need them and they're a very important part but I also like to see what they're saying on their own sites, on their own message boards. Things that they would never say on our site because they don't necessarily think you're reading somewhere else. That's very important to, to kind of keep an eye on things as a whole.

The thing about community is the game is a backdrop to their relationships and like we were talking about earlier, you have these groups, whether it's one or two guys, whether it's a group of twelve or a group of five hundred, they're going to go together, collectively, from one game to another. You would like for them to stay in your game so you want to give them tools so that they can enjoy each other's company, so that they can communicate easily, and they like the game.

That's the important thing about community and that's why we need to foster it. Because that's our retention. If we can keep those groups happy then that's how we can keep them subscribing to our game instead of moving onto another game that might have the tools and the nurturing that they need to be happy in that environment."

Sage did bring up the significant major problem with message boards however:

"The danger with our message boards is that it's like giving a megaphone to the complaints department at Foleys. Really I think we're all still kind of struggling with, is our site a marketing site? Or is our site a community site? And that's a real problem because anyone who comes in asking "Should I be playing this game?" can then read the boards and think "Clearly I should not."

So the power and importance of your community is clear. Unfortunately the tools are somewhat primitive. There's no real refined way to separate the wheat from the chaff and truly get past the screaming minority and to the actual pulse of your game. For those who do it it's a kind of learned voodoo and a careful social analysis of all the pieces of the community which comes up with very un-scientific answers.

If you treat your community with respect and if your game is good, the fortunate thing is that it's hard to really screw up. But, because the benefits are so great, any tools that can help determine that "true pulse" are extremely valuable. You really can't, reasonably, devote too much time or effort to developing your community as long as you can be sure that you're aiding your true audience.

But what of the out-of-game element: Spoiler sites and worse yet online auctions such as Ebay which have become an ever present concern in online gaming? One assaults your game design while the other assaults your community by taking the in-game out of game and into the real world. Once again Gaffney, Massey, and Weil respond:

Gaffney: "I think the short form on it is, as a pure game designer type, I'd love it if spoiler sites didn't exist period. Why? Because you can make a much cooler game if people didn't know what was around every corner ahead of them. It's a real game design challenge to make a game that's still going to be fun when people, as soon as they hit a roadblock, can go find out what the answer is. Richard [Garriott] was able to make much cooler games with the early Ultimas because those resources didn't exist. You had to think things out for yourself. I think that's a much more pure game design environment.

But that barn door's been opened and I don't think it's shutting in the near future, unless you start getting real clever with random content or really clever with crafted content per player. Because of that I think you have to embrace spoiler sites because they're going to exist and you can do certain things to work around them.

In the best of all worlds you can make a game that's fun enough to play that people don't need to go to them at all. I think City of Heroes is a good example. I played Everquest and the first thing I'd do is go off to all the spoiler sites and find out what quests I had to do, ditto Dark Age, ditto any of the early MMPs. For City of Heroes I'm biased, I've been around it a long time, but I never had to do that. I went from quest to quest to quest and they gave me good stuff and they all advanced me and they were all kind of cool and if I got stuck maybe I'd go to a site but at least I didn't have to do it to find out how to play the game.

I think we'll do that a little bit better in upcoming games. I think people are learning that lesson and we'll see it in the more polished EQ II's and the World of Warcraft's as well."

Massey: "Another trend is that Tabula Rasa certainly and City of Heroes both have casual gamers in mind to where you don't have to just do this grind, grind, grind to level up and to get things. You can hop in and play for thirty minutes to an hour and have a very satisfying game experience where you can feel like you accomplished something and you don't need to go to buy stuff on Ebay. You don't need to buy more gold so you can buy a better sword or whatever. And I think if that trend increases, and it will, than we won't see so many of the online auction sites.

Weil: "The key to that is not how to keep the City of Heroes and such out of the Ebay's it's how to keep the Lineage II's and the extremely competitive games - the person verses person games - out of Ebay because once you ratchet up the competition factor and you're competing against someone else it becomes much more cutthroat."

And then there is the most insidious exterior aspect of community: The third party program. Third party programs are pieces of software designed by independent parties (usually a single person) whose aim is to alter your MMOG. A few are meant to be good and helpful add-ons but most are either designed to give the user and advantage or are outright destructive. Sage sets the stage and everyone jumps in:

Sage: "I don't mind spoiler sites because I think that they're inevitable. Whether you ask your brother or you ask the internet you're going to find the answer. But third party programs…. That's where I draw the line, because they're taking food out of our mouths.

I'll say this for the public record: The UO Assist program was nothing but a big headache for us. It cost us money in the fact that if UO Assist stops working then people think it's the game that's stopped working and they call us. The programs end up costing the gamer money because we have to adjust our support costs appropriately and then anytime you have anything like gray shards then they're just taking food out of our mouths.

You know it's easy to look at us as faceless corporations but you know I don't have a yacht or any of that."

Weil: "I've met plenty of people who make third party programs and they just want to help. They do it out of love for the game. But it's just the first step down a very slippery slope and the next step we start getting into malicious things or things that give unfair advantages and so I am certainly a big proponent of search and destroy."

Long: "With UO we did have an attempt to embrace that. So there were officially sanctioned ones."

Sage: "There were two. UO Map and UO Assist. UO Map was fine and UO Assist was horrible. We had to review every submission and if you think about the amount of subscribers we had and you think that maybe he only got five percent of them well then he made an enormous, an absolutely enormous amount of cash."

Freese: "I think there are times when they can actually help the game out. I use to play Asheron's Call and there was some plug-in so that you could control your MP3 player, and look up creature stats, and sometimes even cheat somewhat…"

Gaffney: "Ah, the truth is starting to come out."

Freese: "You could look up how to create some of your spells. Because they had this absurd taper system that turned out to be not fun at all to do."

Gaffney: "But I consider that to be up to the development team to fix those sorts of things. I mean with Asheron's Call we had a live team of three doing those monthly updates so you know…"

Freese: "I think it actually helped their game because it kept people playing who might have otherwise stopped."

Gaffney: "Yeah, but in this day and age when we have thirty five people managing a live game and not three then I think it's your responsibility to make your game not suck."

Sage: "I understand why people want it and I understand that the need's there but it's far easier to make something better than it is to make something. I get the impetus for it and at the same time it really does hurt on a very significant level."

Massey: "Not only that but where do you draw the line when you have a EULA that very specifically says Do Not Do This and then you say, well, ok, we'll let it slide. What do you say to the next guy that comes along?"

There is a dark side and a light side to MMO communities. On one hand they are the life blood of the genre. The millions of people who make up the online communities are what truly bare these games forward upon their imaginations, their relationships, and their wallets. By and large they're a very positive and intelligent mass of people. Unfortunately you'll rarely ever hear from them.

The dark side is the worst of the online community. Best case they will scream and moan about everything you do. They will try their best to ruin other player's experiences and then call you Nazis when you find them and ban them from your service. Worst case they will actively subvert your game, either externally in auctions, or through programs designed to cause damage or gain unfair advantages.

And, tragically, you will never get rid of the later faction. Your mission, as a developer, is to find your core community, foster it, and insulate it from its own negative elements as much as possible. It's a delicate balance of social engineering and something that's a radical departure from most developers' comfort zones and experience. But with a solid strategy and good staff you can reap very tangible benefits.

In Conclusion

There is little to be said that has not already been said. And so I will allow the professionals who are the core of this article have the last word. In the words of Jeremy Gaffney:

"I think it's about to be a bumper couple of years for developers. Why is that? Right now as we're recording this, World of Warcraft hasn't come out, probably by the time anyone hears this it will have and I will be proven right or not, but I think World of Warcraft is really going to expand the genre and it's going to make a boatload of money for Vivendi and Blizzard. [Ed Note: Gaffney appears to be right. Blizzard has announced World of Warcraft as having the highest first day sales of any PC title ever.]

When that happens we're going to see lots of people go, 'Oh, I can take my IPs, dust them off and make MMPs out of them!' and we're going to see the same kind of mad money that led to the half a billion dollar debacle back in the days. I think we're going to see another influx of not very well invested money.

I actually think it's going to be a lot easier over the next few years to get a pitch done whereas, in the last year or two, it's been very hard because there haven't been very many new, successful MMPs to point to. In this year alone I think we'll be able to point to Everquest 2, point to City of Heroes, you'll be able to point to World of Warcraft and you'll be able to say, look, all these games succeeded! And everyone's going to forget your last article about how it's been a dark era and I think it's going to be a very positive era for that. But we'll see. I could be proven wrong."

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Date this article was posted to 1/11/2005
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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