Dave Georgeson Writes About 15 Years of Virtual Worlds
A lot of folks are curious about game development and I think that my recent involvement with the amazing community of players around “Landmark” shows just how many folks want to know more. Players are not just passionate about the games that they play. They’re passionate about the entire industry.
And one of the things that prevents a lot of great talents from joining our industry is the seeming instability of it all: the constant layoffs, the company closures, the project cancellations, etc.
Which leads to endless discussion about:
How can the Game Industry become more stable?
Answer: It can’t and it won’t. Toughen up, Buttercup. If you’re a game dev, you signed on for the Class 5 rapids. Start paddling. It’s a project-based industry with lots of risk.
Gamers will always want new challenges and new experiences. Thus, devs are always required to plunge into untried R&D territory to make it happen. First-generation successes are rare. They occur, but they require some miraculous circumstances to come together correctly on the first try. It’s more typically the third- and fourth-generation version of an idea that makes it big. (Go, go, Blizzard!)
But there’s a serious Paradox of Talent within the industry. Great talent (“A”-quality) doesn’t just want a job. They want to be passionate, driven and obsessed about bringing new types of gaming to the players. That drive is what makes them great at their jobs. In other words, they typically want to be working on first-generation games that bring something majorly new to the world.
But no company can afford to only make first-generation games. When you invest $50-100M+ dollars to attempt an AAA-quality game, the risks are truly mighty. It’s a rare company that can afford more than one or two of these risks at a time.
Yet guess what? You can’t attract or even retain solid B-quality talent in your studio if there is no A-quality talent for them to learn from and aspire to become. If you somehow missed the fact that there’s no A-talent at the shop during interviews, you figure it out quickly after you’ve been there a bit and the morale hit is tremendously negative when you realize there will never be a super bowl ring with that team. So it becomes critical for a studio to always have an “attractor” project on their roster, or they suffer through the pains of talent bleed within their ranks and quickly devolve down into C-quality talent…and then they can’t even make a “B” game and become a work-for-hire shop.
So, you try to support your flagship attempts with a small stable of solid revenue-earning games and franchises. And that’s where the real fun begins because “a stable of solid revenue earners” is a serious unicorn to chase in an industry where most games have a lifespan of three months after launch.
This results in a situation where there are many ways to get it wrong. But there are also ways to do it right, and online games provide several major advantages in that respect (security, retention, and extensibility) and that’s why we see so many of them now. This isn’t ground-breaking news to anyone, but it’s what attracted me to online initially (after the coolness factor of “playing with real humans” of course), and it’s what’s kept me as an online developer and virtual world creator since the “Mechwarrior 2” days at Activision.
What is Developing an MMO from Scratch like?
It’s amazing. But that’s a topic big enough for another article, so I’ll cover that topic in the next installment. For now, let’s talk about the critter that’s completely different from all other game dev challenges: Developing for a Live (launched) Game.
What is Ongoing World Development like?
The closest parallel that you can make is supporting a hit TV series with more seasons after the first season was successful. The execution is completely different between games and TV, but the overall theories behind it all are similar.
“Season One” of your hit show is your game’s launch. You spent a huge amount of money ($50M+) and time (3+ years) crafting something that you hope blows players out of the water and leaves them begging for more.
Live development beyond launch is all the seasons after the first one. You’ve gained almost all the audience you’re likely to ever have, you can drill down to figure out what the players love about your “show” and how to deliver more of that, and you have rigid schedules for future product delivery.
These three factors create a pressure-cooker situation that requires very special minds and talents to enjoy and thrive within. Great live developers aren’t always the same talents that can create a great first-gen game. It requires different mind sets, egos and levels of flexibility, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and wisdom is the accumulation of lessons learned by failing, so there are some things that seem obvious to me now that weren’t obvious at all when I started. Here’s a few of those things.