Don’t Make an MMO

Bill Rop­er is known for work on Bliz­zard titles from 1994 to 2003. Since then, he admits that he’s met with less suc­cess, for what­ev­er rea­sons. After his expe­ri­ences on the sort-of MMO Hell­gate, and Cryptic’s two recent releas­es, Rop­er expressed con­cern that the fund­ing mod­el of MMO devel­op­ment is bro­ken, espe­cial­ly when it comes to the stan­dard devel­op­er-pub­lish­er rela­tion­ship.

It’s like we’re stuck in these boxed prod­uct busi­ness mod­els and fund­ing struc­tures, but they want you to build some­thing that you nev­er leave. It just doesn’t work.

I can sym­pa­thize with Rop­er. Atari was no great friend to DDO before, dur­ing, or after the game launched. Though I can’t whol­ly blame them, writ­ten promis­es notwith­stand­ing. They didn’t have faith that such a inex­pen­sive (pro­duc­tion-wise) game could com­pete in the online game space. As it turns out, they were right–at least until the change in busi­ness mod­el.

I think it’s more than just the pub­lis­ing fund­ing mod­el that’s bro­ken for MMOs. The eas­i­est analy­sis of why Rop­er has met with less suc­cess is sim­ple: it’s the MMO mar­ket itself. Sure, inde­pen­dent mea­sures of mediocre game qual­i­ty point to part of the prob­lem in Roper’s case (sor­ry). At the end of the day, though, devel­op­ing an MMO is a very high moun­tain to climb. Cue Richard Kiley.

Suc­cess­es in the biz did it ear­ly (SOE, Tur­bine, Myth­ic, CCP) and had a chance to build an infra­struc­ture and learn from mis­takes before costs explod­ed. Oth­er win­ners in the space had mon­ey and time (Bliz­zard, and per­haps Bioware) to escape Roper’s dilem­ma by fund­ing them­selves with suc­cess. Every­one else faces an uphill bat­tle. In addi­tion to the sheer cost and com­plex­i­ty, today a would-be MMO devel­op­er must bat­tle in a com­pet­i­tive land­scape in which all the net­work effects work against them and work for their pub­lished com­peti­tors.

It doesn’t help that online game devel­op­ers seem to be a dis­or­ga­nized mess of myopia, ama­teurism, and poor lead­er­ship. Or so the sto­ries from col­leagues tell me. A lot of investor cap­i­tal came into the MMO space in the last decade in hopes of chas­ing EverQuest and then World of War­craft. Most of that mon­ey was wast­ed. Wit­ness the wreck­age of the last five years.

Real­ly, why would any­one fund or work on an MMO today? Both devel­op­ers and investor cap­i­tal have walked across the street to social game devel­op­ers, where costs are low­er and the poten­tial gains are at least as high. Tal­ent and mon­ey have moved on to the next big thing. MMOs have devel­op­ment expens­es and a con­sumer busi­ness mod­el that’s dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy. In the fast-evolv­ing online space, the MMO isn’t just an impos­si­ble dream. It’s a dinosaur in a tar pit.

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