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MMORPG.com PAX East Panel – Part II

General Article By William Murphy on March 24, 2011

You can read the first part of our exclusive PAX East panel here, but there was a whole lot more that our panelists covered than could be contained by one article and so let’s dive right into the thick of things with the next question asked of these industry leaders.

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The topic up for debate was whether or not it’s fair for a new MMO to be compared to one that’s been out for years and has seen the benefit of that much added content and polish.  Is it something that all studios have to be prepared to answer for at launch?

Scott Hartsman was the first to chime in saying: “Is it fair?  Absolutely not.  Is it reality?  Yes.  It comes down to what people expect, and so when you’re talking about a new MMO and you’re putting it out in front of players you’re kind of hoping to direct their expectations.  If you’re spending millions and charging fifty bucks for a box, damn right they’re going to expect polish.  But if it’s something you’re releasing as a download on the internet as a prototype that will be iterated upon, that works too.  It’s really about choosing your development path, choosing what you’re aiming for, and then choosing a model that’s going to best serve that.”

Jeremey Gaffney then brought up EVE as an example of a game that started small, started without much fanfare, and grew through the dedication of its developers and fans into the most successful independent game on the market.  He stated that if you’re going to launch a AAA MMO without fleshing out your elder game, without polish, you’re going to tick people off.  Meanwhile if you launch an Indie MMO, he sees it as possible to grow with a small user base and improve over time so long as your budget reflects that.  He brought up Trion and the release of Rift, stating that their game was without a doubt the most polished and complete product from a technical standpoint he’s ever played in the MMO sphere.  But then he said to look at something like Minecraft and what that small team was able to do with a much smaller budget, and much less polish and frills. 

Brian Knox added that he believes developers need to focus on what makes their game good, and what they can conceivably add to their game on their budget and timeline and not spread themselves too thin.  He believes that studios need to focus on the core mechanics and what makes their game fun, and then worry about the ancillary stuff. 

James Ohlen then said that, “If you’re going to go after World of Warcraft, and you want to compete with them in some way then yes you’re absolutely going to have to spend a lot of money to do that.”  But he also said that you don’t have to spend the big bucks if you’re after a different market, or that it’s definitely feasible for companies to try different revenue models and succeed there.  By focusing on different types of games, with different revenue models, studios don’t need to worry about the “does this game have as much as World of Warcraft has” conundrum.  He said that for BioWare, they’re trying to go after that same WoW space, and that’s why they’re putting so much into The Old Republic.

Colin Johanson’s idea is that if you’re looking at a new game that has less content compared to an old game with 6 years of content and polish, as a user he believes it’s really natural for one to choose the game with way more content to dig into.  He thinks it’s absolutely necessary for developers to build games then that have as much or better content than the games that have been out for years.  They can’t just expect users to “understand” that it’s a hard thing to do. 

The next question delved into the age-old PvE or PvP debate by asking how do developers plan to server both communities and balance the two. 

Jeremy Gaffney was first to chime in saying that “The beautiful thing about PvP is that your average MMO needs to launch with around 400-500 hours of content for players.”  And PvP by definition is as simple as creating some maps where players can clash, and all the sudden players are creating that content for you.  He believes that as budgets rise we’ll see better and better PvP games released, because the content can in a way serve itself and developers can maybe rely on it a bit more if they design it well enough.  He also thinks that WoW’s PvP helped broaden the audience for PvP away from the “only hardcore” mentality it had in the days of old. 

Brian Knox then brought up the worry that sometimes developers wind up using PvP as a crutch.  Say for instance they don’t have the time or the budget or the knowhow to create an end-game and thus they throw a few PvP maps together and let that be all there is.  He believe that there’s an obligation in the AAA space to sort of take care of everyone and make sure there’s enough for both the PvE and PvP players to do in your game, and he acknowledged that more and more players delve into both sides and expect both to be fleshed out equally.  He thinks that players can tell when things are sort of “tacked on” and that it just winds up a disaster when it’s done. 

Curt Schilling then stated that while he believes you can do both in one game, he believes that a studio has to be firmly dedicated to each one individually.  He said as a fan he’s played a lot of games where one or the other felt tacked on, and that if you want to have a solid PvP game you need to start from day one designing a well-balanced and very deep system.

Our next question was about how developers guide and change player behavior inside of encounters, and how do you adjust and measure what needs to change when things aren’t working right?

Craig Alexander was first to answer, saying that “It’s an ongoing process.  No matter how much QA you do before something goes live, you’re always going to wind up having to make changes once it gets into the hands of players.”  He said that especially when you factor in LotRO or DDO store items, it becomes an even tougher challenge, and that it’s definitely the hardest part of making these games.

Curt Schilling then said that “Players underestimate how expensive it is, because ultimately when it comes to the ‘bad players’?  We don’t want you in our games.  Seriously.”  After the crowd roared with applause, he continued.  “I always use Disney as an example.  If there’s somebody in the park ruining the experience for other people, those people are removed.”  He added that you just don’t want the millions or hours and dollars spent making the game to be ruined by other people.  When it comes to the malicious folks in online games especially, Curt believes that you’re only going to see more and more resources spent on keeping those bad folks out of the game so that you can enjoy your time spent there. 

Scott Hartsman backed Curt up by saying that Rift’s been live for a few weeks and already they’ve been steadily banning and researching gold-sellers, hackers, and so forth.  He said that if you’re one of those players that tries to ruin the experience for others, then there won’t be a home for you in Trion’s game: “Go somewhere else, because we sure don’t want you here.”

Colin Johanson then brought in an answer from a gameplay perspective, saying that if you want players to behave a certain way in an encounter, like by dodging or rolling around the game needs to teach you how to do these things and then reward you for being successful. 

Curt agreed by saying that one of the challenges in the industry is creating tools that reward social behavior.  He mentioned old EQ days when the bad apples got outed because there weren’t server transfers or name changes.  The loot ninjas became notorious and they never did it twice.  The challenge in MMOs now is to make a game that promotes good social behavior and punishes the bad. 

The next question focused on player retention, and the movement towards shorter leveling curves and how that can affect players staying or moving on to another game. 

Scott Hartsman said that of course the goal is to keep players as long as you can.  It’s how the developers keep their jobs, and get to make more content and more games.  He said, “There’s two parts to that.  There’s shipping with enough game where people are willing to stick around and wait for more content.  If you ship enough that’s good, people will stick around.  If you ship a whole lot of mediocre, nobody’s going to stick around.”  He said you need to ship enough that’s good that people trust you to stick around and wait for more, and then you have to keep up with the promise of delivering over and over.  It’s a very hard thing to do, and probably the toughest part of the industry. 

James Ohlen of BioWare said that it’s a two-part equation as well.  First you need to have enough content to get them up to the max level or whatnot, but then you need to have a compelling enough elder game to keep them around.  Then of course you also have players who like to go back and experiment with other characters and you have to be prepared for them as well, so that another way to keep people around is through replayability.  He also added that he thinks having a strong sense of social and community is essential to having players feel the need to stay around for longer than the time it takes to level up.

Colin Johanson added that “MMOs are a service.  MMO development really begins the day you ship.  That is the day you have to prove to your customers that you are willing to support your game and you are willing to address the concerns that arise and that you’re going to keep making the game better every single day.”  He said that is a huge part of the development process and a huge part of the retention factor. 

Curt Schilling agreed that “No matter what you do there’s always going to be that hardcore player who’s at your level cap and waiting for more within two weeks of launch.”  He said that the timeframe for new and meaningful content can’t be 18 months anymore.  It’s got to much shorter and much more consistent, because players are going to be in that end-game content for a couple months and then they’re going to want more. 

James Ohlen then added to this saying that you have to be careful how much to cater to that small percentage of players, saying that the bulk of your community is not going to burn through content like that.  Yes they definitely see their Star Wars beta players burning through stuff ten times faster than the rest but that it’s an interesting challenge to develop for this player disparity. 

Craig Alexander of Turbine then brought up the way in which things changed for them once they did away with the subscription.  He said there was always this worry that they needed new content on a tight schedule because they were purely getting revenue on a subscription.  Now they find that they can create content with a lot less stress and still deliver it at a decent pace… just without the hair pulling and nail biting.  He said that the competition which arrives from all these AAA games having subscriptions is going away, because there’s room for so many different models now and you don’t necessarily need to convince players to pay two or more subscriptions anymore.  Curt agreed saying that the last hurdle the Western audience needs to get past, and is well on its way to happening, is that AAA games can be Free to Play products.  Look at LotRO, DDO, and soon Guild Wars 2 as examples of breaking down that mental barrier.

Finally one fan asked the question we’d all been waiting for.  Directed directly at James Ohlen of BioWare he asked, “Why are you wearing a Republic t-shirt and not an Empire one?”  The answer?  James simply stated, “I look better in blue than red.”

Can you believe that we’re just now half-way through the panel’s content?  There’s lots more to go still, and we’ll be bringing you part three later in the week.  So keep your eyes peeled and we hope you’re enjoying the knowledge reaped from this year’s PAX East.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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