One of the biggest complaints that we've heard recently surrounding the MMO genre is the idea that game companies care more about making money than they do about making a genuinely exceptional gaming product.
While there are certainly a number of different possible responses to this issue, we thought it might be more productive here at MMORPG.com to ask the developers themselves to answer the question of where the balance lies in MMO development. Today, we ask Age of Conan Director, Craig Morrison.
This week's Developer Question is:
How do developers balance the company's need to make a profitable product versus their desire to create an interesting and innovative game?
That is always a challenge for sure. You have to make an assessment of the risks that are inherent in trying something different against the risks in making something that is too generic. If a team 'dials in' a design as it were you will have a reduced chance of having a break out hit, especially as the market gets more crowded and the end user has more choice. I would guess there are exceptions where being a good 'clone' is the aim of the project, but if you are aiming to attract a genuine audience and make a mark at the top end of the market you must have a clear vision of what you want your game to be.
The two needs are not mutually exclusive of each other however. You define the areas where you intend to stand out, defining the key unique selling points of your product. That does not mean that other areas of your design can't be more traditional. You can combine your new ideas with those more traditional elements so that users see both the interesting new twists you are adding to the formula alongside what allows them to feel familiar with the game, and have their experience be intuitive. You do want to make sure that the experience is intuitive and welcoming to the players, and not too obtuse or has too high a learning curve just for the sake of a clever design. Many of the best titles down the years have been both innovative, but within the traditions of their genre so that the players is able to feel comfortable with what they are being presented. Portal would be a great example, really innovative, but also instantly familiar and intuitive to pick up and play. So it is possible to balance those two needs and be interesting and innovative in some areas and still make a game that is making smart design choices in order to represent a good investment to the company.
Defining those unique selling points is the key. What separates your design from the competitors? It can be setting, art style, RPG systems, content or gameplay mechanics, but it doesn't have to be all of them. What is most important is that you keep those unique points as the pillars around which you build the other features and content of your game. If you don't define the vision for your game you risk a real struggle to build up it's identity. So it is important to not just be thinking only in terms of market research, demographics and trying to define every single element of your design as the most 'popular' solution. You have to find the designs that best fit with those core elements that you have decided will define your project.
Many of the elements of that analysis between cost and resources are actually pretty much the same in some cases. I think most projects can afford to have one or two features or areas where it is a good investment to spend extra time and resource on those key design elements you are using to define the title. Making a completely traditional feature is not 'free' either, and while the difference between doing something established to trying something new and innovative is prohibitive to doing so with every feature it is usually fine to do it with a few key features, or maybe just one. At the end of the day nothing really comes along for free, and that little extra work you can put into something new can often be the best return on investment you can make.
Of course you can get it wrong, and those choices will cost you more than if you stuck to the 'safe' options. I would wager though that if you stuck completely to doing everything safely then you might find it harder to attract users, in particular for a mass market game. If you are aiming at more of a niche market that could be perfectly acceptable.
It is definitely one of those things that you constantly consider when working on a design. It is a fine balance, but they can be balanced.