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Independency: Why Not an Indie MMO?

Column By Cassandra Khaw on July 20, 2012

The idea of an indie MMO is, in some ways, one of the most exciting things to ponder in this industry. Free from the constraints set by mainstream expectations, an indie MMO has the potential to be just about anything within reason. A side-scrolling venture into outer space. A browser-based survival horror. A system-less, free-form sandbox filled with enemies that will stalk you like real predators. A resurrection of an old, beloved franchise. However, glorious as the concept of an indie MMO might be, it is one that is seldom explored -- a dream as impossible and as alluring as the age-gold quest to turn lead into gold.

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Hi. Welcome to Independency! We'll be starting this column on a slightly pessimistic note for the sake of perspective. If there is any way to properly appreciate how difficult it is to create something, it's by investigating why people will not get into the band wagon.

Lantana Games' Game Designer Dan Silvers probably put it best, "Of all the freakin' genres of games that can leave you hopelessly bankrupt overnight and with zero possibility of your game ever coming out, MMO's are the only one."

When I raised the question on Twitter sometime back, the response had been overwhelming. For a good day and a half, all I had was an endless stream of responses, of arguments, of thoughtful musings and speculations. Almost everyone had seemed gun-shy about the idea or, in Silvers' case, outright dismissive:

"Whenever I hear an up-and-coming developer say, 'I'm going to make an MMO in my garage!' my first thought is, 'Oh really? Are you also going store 20 massive servers in your garage and keep them online at all times so your players don't call for your head?' The MMO space is controlled by somewhere in the vicinity of six games at any given time: World of Warcraft, Eve Online, anything free-to-play that hasn't been shut down, and what I call the 'MMO of the Month,' i.e. the latest release (Rift, Old Republic, etc.).”

“More and more,” Silver continues, “we are reading stories of failed developers in the MMO-space, or MMO's being shut down after mere months online, even with millions of dollars backing the projects. A Kickstarter is a nice place to start for any project, but if $50 grand is not enough to make a single player experience based on your idea, then it is certainly not enough to make an MMO out of it. Basically, when you set out to make an MMO, you're setting out to try and steal some of WoW's players and time, whether you admit it or not. To that, I say, good luck, here is a prescription for crazy pills. Take one with breakfast then smash the bottle against your face."

He explained that indie game developers have a major advantage when it comes to online play: the ability for the player to host their own dedicated servers or to go peer-to-peer. "In both cases, server maintenance is out of the developer's hand and that saves the developer a lot of money in the end."

"Newbie ambition can get out of hand." Silvers noted regretfully. "Even Children of Liberty had basic multiplayer at the start but that all got cut in favor of a stronger single-player experience. To any indie developers who want to make an MMO, I say only this: there are other forms of multiplayer games to make that won't cost you $100 million and a second mortgage. You're an indie. Be an indie."

Malaysian Dylan Tan is part of the team responsible for upcoming Dimiria: The Agrarian Fall. When they first began the project in 201, they had intended to create an action MMORPG. The idea was abandoned a month into their endeavor.

"There was a lack of affordable infrastructure." Tan explained. "An MMORPG requires a solid server and network connection. With limited funding, we couldn't afford the available solutions. "

He also cited a lack of expertise. "We just don't have enough knowledge in regards to implementing a proper MMORPG. Having said this, we did study and play around with private servers such as Shaiya and 2 Moons to learn what we can about them and how to maintain a server. However, it's a whole different ball game when you're talking about your own stuff. We also lacked the man power. Even if we could overcome the first two problems, there was the issue of man power. We would need several full-time staff to maintain the server and stay actively involve with the community, we would need someone to manage the database, to monitor security, to constantly come up with fresh content."

Nonetheless, the appeal of creating an indie MMO was undeniable. RatDog Games co-founder Andrew DeSilva observed that one of the biggest things impeding the creation of an indie MMO was risk. "You'll need a large budget to have it done right and most indies cannot afford to spend over a year working on one game. The general thought on how to be successful as an indie is to make a large amount of quality games in hopes of having a success then building off that success."

DeSilva noted that it was important to also look at the reasons as to why a developer may want to take on the creation of such an ambitious project. "An indie MMO automatically gets noticed by the media (possibly even to only state that it is a bad idea). The buzz is something that indies work day and night to try and achieve. The other reason? Because the genre needs indies to move forward. MMOs have been stagnant for years. Games keep copying games. It takes independent developers to drive any genre into the next generation due to indies having to take risks in order to stand out amongst the crowd."

Long story short, indie MMOs are not easy. From the imposing amount of art assets demanded to the need for an extensive network of servers, there are a lot of ways such a project can go wrong. With so many issues stacked up against them, how many people are willing to take the plunge? That's what Independency is about and in the coming weeks we'll find out more about the indie MMOs that dared (and possibly failed).

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