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Hamilton-WDS: Force of Arms Dev Blog

Personal Developer Blog for Force of Arms. Per Vis Nos Planto Nostrum Forensis - Through Force We Make Our Legacy

Author: Hamilton-NEO

Making Your MMO: From Idea to Gold – Finding The Niche Market

Posted by Hamilton-NEO Tuesday September 25 2007 at 12:44PM
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Making Your MMO: From Idea to Gold – Finding The Niche Market
Table of Contents (Source of other entries)

Intro
I have heard and read information that the MMO Market is saturated, that the Golden Age has long gone and now the times are tough for developing a MMO.  This is just not true.  The Golden Age and saturation has yet to occur.  How is this so?  Saturation of a market occurs when there are no more niches available.  For a saturation of the MMO market to occur, all of the possible genres and game play styles will need to already been released.

For example:
Is there a Western MMO available for play?
Or a 3D MMO based entirely on the Holy Bible?
A Sci-Fi MMO without any Combat? *
The age of Pax Britannica?
A MMO based on the Dune series?

Currently the market is heavily sided with Fantasy based MMO’s.  While there is still room to release a Fantasy based MMO, I would recommend against it, at least for your first title.  The goal is to provide a game into a genre that does not exist or is starved for titles.  Then when you are established and have a community, go ahead and develop a fantasy based MMO.  By developing a fantasy based MMO, you are facing competition from Blizzard all of the way to the other numerous Indie projects as well.  You title will have to have something different in terms of innovation to beat out the giants.  Now perhaps your fantasy title is on the realistic side or of the dark ages in Germany; but will that be enough to have a player want to buy your title over the others.  I believe so, but there is going to be an extensive amount of marketing to be done to inform and persuade users to buy your title.

Path of Least Resistance and Competition
So what I am trying to provide is, follow the path of least resistance and competition for your first title.  Do not give up or abandon you fantasy title (if you have one) just yet.  Use what you can from it, for example the game mechanics could be transferred over.  Suppose a sci-fi title was to be developed, well then use the game mechanics from your fantasy game, with some modifications (such as removing spell casting, or reworking it as psionic energy).  If all you have is a fantasy based story, then you may either want to hold off on it, or use elements from the story, such as the races, or change the quests to missions, etc.  Who says that multiple games you own have to be completely different from another?  You are entitled to making clones with different skins of your own games if you so choose.  That is how pencil and dice RPG’s systems work, why notyou’re your own MMO’s?

Find a niche in the market is not a bad thing, contrary as to how some people make their feelings known in postings.  Eve-Online is an example of this, it is not for the mass-market, but it does have a following and there are few other titles that can directly compete with it.  If your title is the first in a niche market and is successful, you will have a market lead on any other who attempts to develop a similar game to yours.  Time will be on your side and is best to add in additional content or innovative ideas to stay ahead of your competition.  Eve-Online has done this, since they were the first successful title of their niche, they have a solid market lead over the others and the income to help stay ahead.

So for your title, you will need to figure out which niche your game can fit into and dominate.  This will require researching on your competition, both of the large publishers and of other Indie teams.  If you find out that a large publisher is creating a game similar to yours, don’t give up hope.  Chances are good that even the large publisher will cancel their product or fail to deliver as it was intended.  If however, the large company looks like it will carry the title through, then plan on making your game different enough so that users will buy yours; for example your title is more detailed and sophisticated, while the large publisher’s game is more simplified or “dumb-down” for the mass-market.

Indie teams though competitors are kind of a different story.  They are in the same boat as you and their chances of success are low.  You may look at forming partnerships or merges, helping each other out, or find a way to compliment one another.  Their title is a twitch-based game and yours is a traditional RPG style of game is one method.  Unfortunately you cannot ignore them and do have to compete with them; even when it comes to recruiting people to your project.

SWOT
A good reference for writing up a SWOT is at the Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swot_analysis  (Opens a new window)

When researching your competitors, write up a SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) of each competitor.  The more information or details you can acquire of each competitor will make your business plan even better.  For formatting, I just use bullets:
- Company Name
- Mission Statement
- Size of Company
- Estimated Budget
- Geographical Location
- Targeted Market
- Game Titles that are related
- Their Objectives
- Historical performance and news

From there a SWOT is created, though I keep it short.  I generally summarize mine after listing those bullets; but you can list bullets for each of the four elements of the SWOT.  Strength is the company’s power and abilities that will help it succeed; for example, prior experience with a few big hit titles.  Weaknesses are the opposite, aspects of the company that make it suffer; poor customer service or reputation.  Opportunities are outside influences that are beneficial to the company, such as domination of a certain market or the ability to compete unfairly with you.  Threats are items which you can take advantage of the company; such as the large company is slow to respond to making changes to a new niche market.

Also do not forget to write up a SWOT about your project.

Analyzing the MMO Market and the Niche
By researching your potential competitors, you should be able to figure out a niche that you can exploit.  You project may need some modifications for it to fit in, but that should not be difficult.  For example, you decided to that your fantasy game would be best done as a Cyberpunk type of game, such as with Shadow Run.  The only competitor you see so far in the large companies is The Matrix Online, while there are some potential Indies out there.  From your analysis of those companies and teams, you conclude that your title has a shot.  Now you need to figure out, will there be people willing to pay to play for your game or can you generate revenue from the users out there.  There is no real simply process for this, other than to conduct informal surveys, postings in forums and getting the general vibes from the user community.  Any existing information from similar IP’s will help out as well.  For example, how many games (computer and books) of Shadow Run were bought?  Are there fan sites of the genre that exist and desperately want to play such a MMO?  If you were to release such a title, how many costumers could you predict would come in?  Is there any possible chance that Microsoft will develop a Shadow Run MMO?

But be warned, do not fall into the trap of assuming that by using a great engine, adding cool models and using some simple game mechanics, that people in the tens to hundred thousands will flood right in.  That was one of the failures of the Dot Com companies early in this decade; ASSUMING that with an available product and an Internet connection, sales would skyrocket. 

If you lack the money or access for consulting services, these two popular sites will help to provide some information for you.  Although you cannot accept the information for face value, there should be enough to give you a ball park figure to work with.  The information here will validate the lopsidedness of the MMO market with fantasy based titles and show trends of the existing games, as well as a growing market.  In those games, I would recommend to study the titles that have had slow, but steady growth in accounts against those with the sharp spikes at launch.  Sharp increases indicate marketing power and reputation, with steep decreases being an indication of poor game design or implementation.  And of course, study the history of those titles that comes closest to yours.
Links:
http://mmogdata.voig.com/ (contains information from MMOG Chart’s below)
http://www.mmogchart.com/ (no longer updated)

The Target Audience
You will need to figure out, if given the choice to describe the average user in specifics, no use of ranges, who would that game be?  For example, what is the specific age in years of the average user (32), not a range of years (from 15 to 38)?  This can be tough because there is going to be exceptions.  We’re not looking for exceptions at this time.  Once the specifics of the user have been decided upon, then you can use ranges; but even then keep the ranges short.
Examples of what to consider as your target audience (the more detail, the better):
- Amount of income
- Gender
- Age
- Career
- Level of Education
- Owns credit cards
- Game play style
- Level of complexity
- Types of preferred games
- Machine Specifications
- Bandwidth

This is the person you are targeting for your title.  There will be of course more people who are different than that of your target, but this is for you to focus on the business planning of things.  By being focus, you do have the potential to make a title with depth for that target audience, rather than trying for the mass-market and attempting to please everyone, thus having width, but no depth. 

With the target audience defined, are there enough such people who will pay or play your title (not including the exceptions of the other people in the range)?  Does there seem to be enough interests with that demographic?  If not, then you will need to either change your target audience, and thus the key points of your game design, reduce the cost or fees, or try another niche market.  For example, how well would a MMO based on dancing bunnies fare with the male adult demographic?  Poor, most likely.  But how about young girls?  Maybe some good potential there…  But you want the game to be played by adults as young people don’t own credit cards; well then maybe changing the dancing bunnies to humans with 5% body fat dancing to the pop 40’s may do the trick… 

Summary
By conducting research of the MMO market you can find the niche for your title to succeed.  You will need to figure out, which genre or sector of the MMO market is being ignored or has little attention; but has the opportunity to be exploited for a great success.  Look at where the big companies are going, and basically go in another direction; don’t follow them.  Yes, there is some aspects worth copying and taking note of, but don’t follow in their footsteps. 

Research the least competitive areas/genres and see how you title can fit in.  Observe and study your competitors in detail.  The more you know about them, the better you can make changes to your designs and keep your niche.  Determine if the niche appears to offer a potential profit and know who your target audience is.  With the data that you compile into information, you will be able to ascertain if your title has the potential to be successful.  And by how much of a market lead you can maintain once live.

Remember, a niche marketed game is a not a bad game.  By being a niche marketed title, you will have less competitors to deal with and thus more potential customers.  And the bonus is, those potential users are likely to be more loyal to your title than with other titles.

Questions or Comments:
Please post them in this entry and I’ll see if I can answer them.


* Referring to SEED, but I think there is still no such similar game in the live

grimfall writes:

I've often wondered why game companies go about the backward strategy of defining a game first, then trying to build public demand for it.  Wouldn't it be better to determine whether or not there is any demand for a Mech Warrior style MMO (I think that's what your company is doing) first, before starting with the capital investment?  I am not saying that there isn't, but just because you identify that there's no Space Pirates MMO, doesn't mean that there is necessarily going to be a demand for it. 

Conversly, if Blizzard had done similar research to your proposal, they probably would have figured the most subscribers they could have is two million, so there is evidence that a well executed and publicized game can expand the market regardless of the amount of existing competition in the genre, whereas the Horizons of the world (no knock against them... OK, maybe it is a knock against them) are just trying to live on the scraps from the proveberial Lord's table.

Wed Sep 26 2007 10:32AM Report
Hamilton-NEO writes:

Grimfall, Thanks for the comment.

I'll see if I can help explain some of the statements you have made.

I'm going based on my experience with my project and from previous ones here, and I do not intend to state that all teams do the same thing.  Why the games get defined first before a market is research, I believe is due to a person or a group of people coming up with an idea of a game or world.  Much like thinking of new invention, which there is nothing wrong with coming up with an idea first.  But before details of the idea are made, there needs to be a business feasibility conducted.  I do agree with your question of, "Wouldn't it be better to determine whether or not there is any demand for a <insert your genre> style MMO first, before starting with the capital investment?" to be correct.  Hence why I have started out going over the business side of things, while minimizing the Good Ol'Game Design process early on. 

A trap that occurs for teams is getting caught up with the game design and ignoring the business implications.  A typical example, and I will admit to making this mistake as well, is to proceed in making a through and detailed game design document and then expecting to either get funding or successfully pitch to a Publisher.  That just does not work out.  Documentation is not a fun process to most people, and will quickly kill off the motivation of a team.  Additionally either due to the market, technology or investors, the design document is going to be changed, significantly. 

When developing Force of Arms, and yes it is a Mech Based MMO, after about one year, we turned to the feasibility to see if we could really pull it off financially.  Again I do admit that this should have been first, before designing the game; but that is how experience is gain, advice is passed on and maybe a book deal is made… one can always hope.  I will go more into detail with our feasibility research, but in brief, we found out we could (at least in theory) potentially pull it off and have an available market.  Now as to why there is no big Mech IP MMO’s out there on the global market…  good question.  One developer told us, “… because it will only be you and 12,000 others.”  I do not think that is true at all, and that Gundam Online is available in Japan (but Japan only?) proves that there is a market.  We did research it, and have concluded there is a potential market to be exploited, or otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten to as far as we have.  If there is no market for the game, then don’t develop it.

Wed Sep 26 2007 12:37PM Report
vajuras writes:

I really enjoyed the read. I have all these different ideas for MMOs none of them are ever traditional fantasy. I share this same insight with you that 'Indy' and 'Independant' game devs will feel compelled to seek the path of least resistance.

The bigger, perhaps more established game devs with deep pockets they can just buy the IP of something huge and watch the cash roll in. They seem to lack the creativity to think up their own ideas. Rather, they just want to buy someone else's and enjoy the 'community' some other company built.

 

excellent blog I am trying read them all, genius

Thu Sep 27 2007 3:19AM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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