Massive Growing Pains Part 2
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
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:
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:
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":
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:
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:
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:
Gaffney concluded with this thought, and I will end the chapter on it:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Massey went into more detail:
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:
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:
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.
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: