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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