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Mark Kern: Up to 90% of MMO Real Estate is Wasted

Column By Mark Kern on July 05, 2013

Have you ever wondered how much that monster you killed cost to make? It’s just one of at least a dozen variants in the zone you are playing, and then there’s the quests, points of interest, mountains, valleys, and blades of grass. How long did it take you to play through those zones? Certainly, at today’s MMO speeds and playing low to mid-level zones, you didn’t spend more than a couple of evenings in each one.

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Mature MMO’s (those out for six months or so) only use 10%-20% of the content to serve the plurality of players at any given time. The other 80-90% is wasted once played through by voracious players. This is because of the way these games are designed at a fundamental level. Each zone is geared towards a level range, and once you are past that level range, you almost never need to adventure in those zones again. This is why lower levels zones in an MMO often feel like a ghost town. And as noted in my prior article, we blow by these zones so fast that many times you aren’t in any beginning zones for more than an evening or two.

It’s incredibly arduous to create a zone for an MMO. After all, you are talking about detailing something like 5-10 square miles of land (or more). Everything has to be placed by hand: mountains, roads, caves, dungeons, valleys, trees, rocks, points of interest, themed/unique monsters and even grass! I would argue that zone creation is about 70% or so of an MMO’s total cost to develop including features, programming, art and world design. That means, on a 100M budget (typical for a mid to top end MMO these days), and a 20 zone game, you are spending about 3.5 million dollars a zone. 

Coming back to spending two 4-hour nights in a zone, that’s about $437,500 per HOUR of gameplay. No wonder MMOs are struggling…you simply can’t keep up with that number and deliver enough content to players expecting hundreds of hours of gameplay. This structure separates players, making it harder to play with friends new to the game and making the world feel empty as zones get vacated. You’d think that with the cost being so high, developers would have found ways to reuse these expensive zones, or keep players playing the whole world.

But we don’t, and large portions of content go unnoticed or unplayed as an MMO matures. Instead, we keep trying to create new high level content costing millions to keep players engaged, but because it takes months and months to create a zone, we can never keep up with players at these costs. If you are World of Warcraft, you can afford this strategy. If you’re anyone else…well, good luck with that.

We can’t afford to keep making MMOs this way, and players deserve more out of the entire world before them. We need to play the whole world, not just the highest level zones. We need content that grows with us. What if we could create a game where adding an additional zone truly expanded your entire play-space, instead of just providing a couple more hours of content. In this way, the world would get richer as more content was added, growing in value and entertainment to the player.

To do this, we have to leave level based zones behind. There needs to be something for everyone in all zones. Some games attempt this by down-leveling you into lower level zones. But this is unsatisfying for a number of reasons. Players want to play with all their achievements and gains intact, and want to be challenged at their skill level, and not have to dumb things down for lower level zones. 

Dynamic content and more horizontal, rather than vertical, progression is one way to do this. Imagine a world that knows what players are in a zone, and creates encounters for those players specifically, at their level of challenge. Combine this with more horizontal modes of progression and milder power curves rather than steep vertical climbs, and even newer players can enjoy these encounters with more experienced friends. Imagine a world getting bigger as you play it, giving you more and more options as time goes on, not less. This is a much saner approach than throwing away millions on “play through, play once” zones and content.

It’s going to take a lot of work to accomplish this, but it’s imperative that we do. It’s simply gotten too expensive and too wasteful to keep making virtual worlds in a throwaway zone mentality. The cost of failure is too high. But it’s more than cost savings, its making richer, more believable worlds. Imagine the whole game being a living entity, whose dynamic events change over time, or even whole zones changing. It’s not worth it to do that in current MMO models...but if the whole world had content for ALL players, then we can put the effort into new events and new challenges in all zones, not just the latest and greatest high level zone.

This is the essence of Firefall’s approach to world building. We don’t have static encounters in the world. Instead, we’re driven by perfecting dynamic events and emerging gameplay and living worlds. We’ve only just gotten started, but you will never out-level a zone in Firefall, and we will always be adding more content, more dynamics, and more simulation and emergent gameplay across the world and in the new zones that players unlock and reveal. The goal is to have the whole world get richer and more entertaining over time, building and adding value to the whole system for all players at all levels. If it works, it could open up a whole new type of MMO to players.


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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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