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Scott Jennings: Legendary Failures of Legend, Part Two

Column By Scott Jennings on February 03, 2010

You can check out part one of this article, here.

Last week, we discussed some MMOs that have had varying degrees of disappointment. At the end of that piece, I promised to explain how all of these failures were preventable.

So, then, the explanation - from the very cynical viewpoint of a developer, and an avid MMO player, who's seen too many avoidable failures. And yes, I've helped to make my own. Let's start with the one I've been known to fall prey to!

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"Scope": Knowing When To Say When

The root cause of most MMO failures is something which not only isn't very obvious to people outside of development, but, in the eyes of MMO players, can be a failure in and of itself.

In project development, it's called "scope", which means what you're aiming to accomplish with your project - the design, for lack of a better word - and part of the triad of what is needed to bring a project to completion (scope, time and budget). All three of these are possible points of failure - but two of them, time and budget, are painfully obvious when you run out of either. If you run out of time, you either ship too early (which can be fatal in and of itself) or you cancel your project. If you run out of money, well, that's about the most concrete way to fail possible - if you can't make payroll and rent, you are done.

But scope is not as easy to pinpoint, especially for inexperienced development teams. If you run out of scope - or more to the point, if your scope is wildly out of control - it will eat your time and your money. Yet it's easy especially from the outside, to blame the lack of time, and the lack of money, when the real cause is an unrealistic scope.

Say, for example, if you decide you are creating a standard swords-and-sorcery fantasy MMO, and decide that to be competitive, you have to ship with 500 complete zones, each with a unique experience and story for the players. This is an insane scope. Here's why: Assuming - just for purposes of discussion - each zone takes just one worldbuilder and just one artist a month of time to bring from concept to completion (which is wildly optimistic/unrealistic), and assuming you have 25 worldbuilders and 25 artists, you've just committed yourself to over 3 years of nothing but cranking out zones. And, again, that has, as a core assumption, wildly optimistic productivity goals. This is how projects fail - by, early in the process, making unrealistic goals, assuming inhumanly efficient execution, and leaving no room for error. And, two years later, you discover that you've burned through all your budget, have completed 25 zones instead of 300, and have a publisher wondering why you've missed every milestone for the past six months.

And that is just one possible scope failure. Massively multiplayer games are almost failures of scope by their very definition - being that they require having enough content and systems to keep an average player amused for at least a year, and hopefully longer. And rarely do MMO designers sit down and say, "You know, for this new MMO we're developing? I don't want to take any risks. I want to make the most derivative product we possibly can. I want it to be exactly like what we're familiar with." And if they did, they'd never get funding, because few want to buy a game that brings nothing new to the table.

Players don't want to hear about your scope problems. They want to hear about how your game is different, new, better. In short, players want you to have an unrealistic scope. In fact, players will see a realistic scope as a sign of failure - a game that isn't taking enough risks, but is too akin to the games they already have. (And they may be right!) Too many project leaders and designers are more than happy to tell players that yes, they can have meaningful PvP that shapes the world AND challenging PvE raids AND an incredible beautiful 3D engine AND a unicorn AND crafting AND player housing AND a pony. It's very easy to promise things in interviews and message board postings. No one ever asks you in an interview about scope.


Ignoring scope can be deadly.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and assert that setting a realistic scope is one of the most difficult challenges an MMO producer will face. You will have to convince your stakeholders, your team members, and your prospective players that you can deliver a compelling, new, and fun game while still keeping a scope that is firmly grounded in sanity. And cutting back on scope is not something that will make you any friends. But it will stop your game from being doomed to completely avoidable failure.?

Technology: Making MMOs Is, In Fact, Very Hard

This is a more obvious failure, but one that too many teams make over and over again, even when they have every reason to know better. An MMO has some very key technical challenges, just by virtue of being an MMO:

  • Has to be able to have thousands of players connected to a game server at one time
  • Has to support those thousands of players doing fairly complex things with a minimum of server delay, or "lag"
  • Has to support interesting AI behavior for non-player entities in the same space as those thousands of players
  • Has to have a database to support all the millions of things those thousands of players will packrat away, with zero perceptible lag, and with a varying level of items affecting world persistence.
  • Has to do all of the above with some minimal protection against obvious exploits and hacking, which means in practice that almost no processing can be offloaded to the game client.
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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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