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Mark Kern: MMO Development Needs Change

Column By Mark Kern on July 12, 2013

Making an MMO is a “bet your company” proposition, as Colin Johanson, game director of Guild Wars 2, has said. He’s right. With MMO’s taking five years (or more!) to make, and costing up to $200M or more to create (Star Wars The Old Republic), MMOs have become the riskiest and least likely to succeed game genre in existence.

It didn’t used to be this way. Before the advent of next-gen graphics and the rise of the giant feature sets and content expected by players, a single company could make multiple MMOs quickly and (relatively) cheaply. SOE made Everquest, Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies rapidly one after the other, all the while working on EQ2. That would be unimaginable in today’s gaming environment.

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The rise in development costs can be attributed to many things, but next-gen graphics are definitely a large part of the cost. On WoW, we used to be able to create a new monster in a week. These days, with millions of polygons and multiple materials and shaders, a single monster can easily take 4-6 weeks to complete and sometimes 8 weeks or more for a boss creature. Also, the feature set for MMOs is getting larger. Every new MMO finds itself competing with older MMOs with years of development. Catching up to the feature sets of these mature MMOs means more programmers, designers and development time.

But while budgets and complexity and risk have sky-rocketed, we’ve stuck to the same old development methodologies. MMOs are taking about five years to produce, while closed betas are actually shortening in duration, often left to the last moment as more of a marketing push and stress test than a chance to garner any real feedback.

Rising costs and time, and pushing beta into shorter windows, poses several problems. First, it becomes too risky to innovate. You need to stick to “what works” when budgets are that high. Unfortunately, this is a short term strategy. Sticking to what has been successful before may minimize risk, but it is also leading to gamer fatigue in the MMO genre in general as games feel “the same” and keep us entertained for shorter periods before we get bored.

Another issue is that if you *are* trying to innovate, you are taking a big risk and essentially “flying blind” without a lengthy beta. Until you have large numbers of people playing your game, you can’t get enough data on how your new innovative features are panning out. With only a short 3 month closed beta before launch, there is barely any time to make changes to these systems. If you guessed right, everything is great. If you guessed wrong, you are stuck.

We need more innovation and less risk in MMO development. As developers, we need to share our work early and often, before we are so far along that we can’t make changes and adapt to players. As players, we need to be active participants in this new type of development process, contributing ideas and constructive feedback and giving the developer room and time to make the changes that are necessary.

This idea would require a “co-development” where the game is shared early to a large group of players for the last 50% of development time. Developers would also share features before they were completed. Sharing these prototype early would ensure that developers could make changes without incurring great cost. Rapid iteration and fast patching would also be essential.

But most importantly, it would be important for these early testers to understand the process, and to have the patience to work hand in hand with developers over long periods of time, with prototype features and levels. This crowd-sourcing of feedback would allow developers to iterate on their ideas, and to be bolder with new innovations.

The real downside to this process is the way we’ve been trained about betas being “nearly finished products.” Many will see this type of process as frustrating or prematurely judge the product on these early prototypes and rapid changes. If we want to see more MMOs take risks and succeed, we have to put aside these preconceptions and give developers the room to grow and make mistakes. Many non-developers don’t see how many changes a product goes through before it is exposed to the world, and it would take some education and mutual understanding.

But if we can do this and work together, we can develop better products at less risk, foster new ideas and bolder innovation, and also give gamers a real voice in game development. Isn’t that what we all want?


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Mark Kern
Game maker turned two-bit writer, Mark Kern currently works on Firefall, the MMO Shooter. In between running Red 5 Studios and founding groups like LeagueForGamers.org, Mark covers topics on online games, game theory and industry trends. Follow him on twitter @Grummz.
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